The FEMA shelter black market was a study in free market economies. It was pure and unadulterated – almost entirely laissez-faire. No government intervention – other than the U.N. soldiers who had to be bribed to look the other way at times – no subsidies, no anti-trust suits, no regulation. It was a modern-day model of efficiency in commerce.
Products in demand commanded high prices. Those with valuable items to trade could purchase high-demand goods and services. Although many of the typical day-to-day staples were provided to the residents of the shelter, others were in high demand.
In theory, things like toilet paper were provided. However, in practice, toilet paper was regularly stolen from the porta-potties and traded on the black market. Feminine hygiene products were available from the shelter’s dispensary. But, if a woman wanted a particular type of product, she would, in all likelihood, need to resort to the black market.
Medications were also supposed to be available from the dispensary. However, the dispensing of medications was entirely at the judgment of the charge nurse. Rarely, if ever, were “non-essential” medications dispensed without some sort of stipend for the charge nurse. Non-essential medications included aspirin, anti-diarrheal, laxatives, sleeping aids. If it wasn’t absolutely necessary to keep a person alive, it was deemed non-essential. A nice tip to the charge nurse, however, greased the wheels and warranted dispensing of virtually any non-essential medication in stock … and a few that weren’t.
Weapons and ammunition commanded a premium. Technically, firearms and knives with blades in excess of three and a quarter inches were not allowed inside the shelter but, in practice, many of the shelter’s residents had some type of concealable firearm and most had some type of edged weapon. Without these defensive items, residents regularly fell prey to shakedowns and occasionally to violent crimes as well.
Fights were not uncommon. Rape was not unheard of. The shelter was, on the whole, a dirty, risky place. For many of the residents, however, it was the lesser of evils. Most had been unprepared for the effects of the crash. Few had given thought to the concept of self-reliance. Many had nearly died or been killed prior to coming to the shelter. For them, it was a haven … of sorts.
The shelter was also a haven for criminals of all sorts. Savvy lawbreakers quickly realized that the FEMA shelters were filled with society’s sheep – those on whom they preyed before the crash. Now, for the thugs’ convenience, those people had all been rounded up and penned in at so-called shelters in high school gymnasiums, churches, auditoriums and other large buildings.
The sources for the shelters’ black market items varied but many of the items were either stolen from the shelter’s own supplies or scavenged from the outside world. Acquisition and distribution of items scavenged from the outside world had developed into a business unto itself. Teams of looters and marauders competed for scarce resources and then transported them to the shelter to trade for items they needed themselves.
Rick Milton had never intended to become a looter. He was not a criminal before the crash. However, Rick found himself in a tenuous situation as 2014 drew to a close. He lost his job. His wife left him and took their two children to live with her parents in a rural part of the state. Rick found himself with no resources and considerable needs.
The first time Rick scavenged anything, it was shortly after his food supply had dwindled to a few bags of Doritos and a can of tomato juice. He sat in the middle of his living room floor, distractedly spinning the can of tomato juice on the carpet as he watched his neighbor across the street hastily loading his Honda Accord and an unfamiliar Toyota 4Runner with items from the house.
With the hurried loading session, Rick’s neighbor loaded his toddler into the back seat of the Accord while his wife and older son climbed into the 4Runner. Rick continued to spin the can of tomato juice as the scene unfolded.
Shots rang out not too far away. Rick ducked instinctively and then lay down on his living room floor with his hands behind his head. His stomach growled as he licked his dry, cracked lips. A few more shots rang out and Rick heard the tires of the Honda or Toyota squeal as his neighbor peeled away from his home.
Rick sat up again to watch his neighbor disappear down the street. A faint odor wafted up to Rick’s nose as he scratched his head.
“Man, I could really use a shower,” Rick said to no one in particular.
Rick’s home had been without running water for nearly three weeks. His body odor had gotten to the point where it now offended even his own olfactory sense.
As Rick contemplated the bag of Doritos sitting next to him on the floor and listened to the complaints of his empty stomach, an idea struck him. Perhaps his neighbor had been better prepared and had left a few tidbits behind. It would be worth a look … if he didn’t get shot. Looter violence had grown over the last few weeks as evidenced by the shots just a few moments before.
Rick decided he could either starve to death or die of dehydration or get shot trying to stay alive. While being shot was not something Rick relished, he was reluctant to simply give up and die passively on his own living room floor.
On weak and wobbly legs, Rick crossed the street to his neighbor’s house. The door had been left unlocked, Rick recalled, almost as a welcome sign. Inside, Rick found a veritable treasure trove. His neighbor had left behind dozens of cans of vegetables and fruit and several cans of tuna.
“They must have been too heavy,” Rick shrugged and rifled through the kitchen drawers for a can opener.
After a few minutes of looking, Rick gave up on the can opener and used a heavy kitchen knife to open a large can of green beans. Rick drank the liquid from the can and then shoveled the beans down his throat with a serving spoon left lying on the counter.
“These are the best beans I’ve had in my life,” Rick spoke the word aloud with his mouth full.
What happened next was, for Rick, perhaps the single most pivotal event in his entire life. In his hurry to find food and water, Rick had left the front door of his neighbor’s house standing open. As he shoveled another mouthful of beans down his throat, Rick heard a floorboard creak. He turned to see a disheveled woman in her early 30’s pointing a gun at his mid-section.
Rick slowly set the can of beans down on the counter and raised his hands. The serving spoon was still in his right hand; bean juice ran down his chin as he started to speak.
The woman pushed her revolver at him with both hands as if trying to shove it into his stomach. Rick winced and twisted away, shielding his face in anticipation of the impact of the bullet. Instead of a bang, Rick heard a click. Somewhere, in some small, reptilian portion of Rick’s brain, an enhanced fight or flight response kicked into overdrive. He leapt at the woman shoving the serving spoon out ahead of him and plunged the handle of the spoon into the woman’s left eye.
Completely unprepared for the misfire of her revolver and the subsequent attack by the spoon-wielding man, the woman put up no defense. The semi-pointed handle of the spoon destroyed her eyeball and plunged into the frontal lobe of her brain directly behind it. She dropped like a sack of potatoes, dead before she hit the floor.
Rick stood over the woman, breathing heavily, aghast at what he had just done. His stomach, complaining only minutes before of its empty state, emptied the green beans onto the woman’s chest. Rick spit and stumbled against the kitchen counter. A spell of dizziness hit him and Rick dropped to the floor on his knees next to the woman’s body.
As he looked beyond the spoon still protruding from the woman’s skull, Rick noticed a large duffel bag just inside the front door down the hall from the kitchen. He was almost positive that it had not been there when he entered the house. He would have tripped over it on his way in.
Rick rose to his feet and walked, unsteadily, down the hall toward the front door. The duffel bag was black and larger than one that Rick might have carried to the gym in better times. The fabric was heavy and rough. The zipper was made of metal. The teeth were nearly as large as the slider on the zipper of Rick’s Dockers.
The zipper moved smoothly as Rick tugged at the slider. The bag flopped open, its sides weighted by its contents.
Rick was pretty sure he felt a light breeze and the sound of angels singing in the distance as he spread the halves of the duffel bag to reveal the contents. Inside was everything a modern-day, post-apocalyptic person could want. Food, bottled water, a water filtration pump, ammunition for the revolver – Rick assumed – soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, dust masks, a compact sleeping bag, baby wipes. Rick could barely contain himself.
Although he hadn’t been a religious man before the crash, Rick found himself on his knees saying “thank you” over and over again. In Rick’s mind it was as if God himself had directed the woman lying in the next room to carry this bag of goods directly to Rick. Of course, Rick reflected, he’d had to kill the woman to inherit the bag but maybe that was part of the plan.
Rick hustled back to the kitchen to retrieve the woman’s – now his – revolver. There were five spent cartridges in the cylinder. The one under the hammer was unfired.
Rick walked to the patio door and slid it open. Taking careful aim at a planter on the deck, Rick pulled the trigger.
Rick inspected the pistol. The un-fired round was now one position past the hammer and barrel. Rick smacked himself in the forehead with his left palm.
“Dummy, you needed to back up a space so the live bullet would be next in line.” Rick couldn’t believe what an idiot he’d been.
After fumbling with the pistol for a few moments, Rick swung the cylinder out and rotated it so that the live round would fall under the hammer with the next trigger pull. Taking careful aim at the planter again, Rick pulled the trigger once more.
The sound was deafening! Rick’s ears were ringing. The planter still stood, intact. The shot had gone wide but it had gone off. Rick was dumb-struck. He couldn’t believe his luck. Or was it providence …?
Rick swung the cylinder out of the pistol’s frame again and removed the miraculous empty casing with his fingernail. He pocketed the shell and dumped out the remaining five.
Rick knew that he was meant to survive.