Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Amateurs. Alan Cogan.

The Amateurs

Alan Cogan

Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1955

The ultimate show demanded the ultimate in showmanship—now if only Mr. Sims could measure up!

To Mr. Sims, it seemed as though they had walked along a hundred corridors, and as he followed Mr. Hoode, he felt as though he were taking the last walk to the gallows or the electric chair. When the director finally led him outside, Mr. Sims realized with a slight twinge of fear that he hadn’t really expected to see daylight again.

They were in the rich, rolling parkland at the rear of the palace and walking across the immaculate turf where colored fountains frolicked and shimmered in the sun. Lilting music floated out from a dozen hidden sources. The two men sat down on a seat facing the palace with its towering columns and vast marble steps.

“It’s a very nice place,” Mr. Sims commented, remembering that he hadn’t said a word for at least five minutes.

“I suppose it’s all right,” Arthur Hoode agreed, his thin nostrils twitching condescendingly. He was a small, sleek man with a habit of emphasizing his words with airy gestures of his slim hands. “That section of the palace is the part I consider most uninteresting. After all, there’s nothing but row upon row of stuffy little rooms where people come to die. And they take a long time doing it, too!”

Mr. Sims winced noticeably.

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t appear overly sanctimonious about death,” Mr. Hoode said, smiling. “It’s just that the other directors and myself decided we must take a realistic view of the situation. A place like this could become pretty morbid, you know, and there’s actually no reason why a guest’s last hours here shouldn’t be pleasant and satisfying.”


Pleasant and satisfying—the key words when you spoke of Sunnylands Palace, Mr. Sims thought grimly. Everyone used them—when not going there.

The words gave him a hollow, frightened feeling inside, perhaps because they made him remember the first time he had heard them used.

“It’s a pleasant place and quite satisfying,” Dr. Van Stoke had said. “There’s no need to think of it as some kind of torture camp.”

“But why should I go there at all?” Mr. Sims had asked. “I don’t want to die. I’m only fifty-six and I’ve got nine more years left.”

“Try and understand I’m doing you a good turn,” the doctor had said.
“You’ve lived fifty-six good years; in your condition, the last nine won’t be so good. You’ll have pains, attacks, you won’t be able to do anything strenuous. You’ll hate to live under those conditions.”

“I could always give it a try,” Mr. Sims had protested.

Dr. Van Stoke had frowned bleakly over the tops of his glasses. “I know I’m a friend and family doctor,” the frown had said. “But I’m also District Referee under the Euthanasian Legislation and you are becoming a burden to society. So don’t make my job any more difficult.”

He had signed his name at the bottom of the form.

And Mr. Sims had had a hollow, anxious feeling ever since.

“There’s one thing I haven’t found out yet,” he said to Mr. Hoode. “Is it in order for me to ask how and when I can expect to die?”

“Certainly,” Mr. Hoode said. “It’s the reason I brought you here to talk. You see, anyone sent here under the Legislation is given a completely free choice as to the manner of his departure. Most people, although they realize this, show a distressing lack of imagination when the time comes. They seem unable to think beyond the ordinary methods of taking a pill, or a needle, or a poisoned cocktail.”

“I can’t say I’d thought about it, either,” Mr. Sims admitted.

“We have a service to assist you,” said the director. “We of the Sunnylands staff have discovered what you might call a Philosophy of Dying. For instance, if a man lives an active life, there’s no reason why he should be subjected to a sneaking prick of a needle in his sleep just because he reaches the age of sixty-five. We discovered that a few people objected strongly to such methods. There are some people who would prefer to die fighting. We had a couple who chose the firing squad, for instance. Another desired the guillotine and nothing would satisfy him but a ride to his fate in a real tumbril. Because of these—ah—pioneers, our advisory bureau has been set up.”

“You mean you obliged them...with a guillotine and everything?” Mr. Sims asked.

“Certainly, though most choose the sneaking, cowardly way out. As far as I am concerned, they died as they lived—ignominiously! It’s depressing. We have the best accommodation, food, entertainment, everything the guest requires during his three days here; then they go ahead and die their miserable deaths. Somehow it makes all the luxury seem like pink sugar frosting around a rotten cake. That’s why we’re always happy to find a guest with the proper spirit.” Mr. Hoode said.


Mr. Sims listened in silence to the sales talk, wondering absent-mindedly what the director’s personal interest was in other people’s death.

“I took the liberty of looking up your record,” Mr. Hoode continued. “I picked you out for a personal talk because I see you led an interesting life.” He paused in recollection with a theatrically thoughtful finger pressed to his chin, his eyes gazing skyward. “You made a small fortune in oil in Central America before you were twenty. That was followed by more success in hemelium mining in Northern Canada. An excellent Third World War record, too. Founder of Transcontinental Rocket Lines. Co-builder of the Venus rocket. Oh, and a dozen other things. Quite a career!”

Mr. Sims brightened a little. He smiled modestly.

“Too bad you had to come here at fifty-six,” Mr. Hoode remarked. “Heaven knows what you might have done with those last nine years. Heart trouble, wasn’t it?”

“So I’ve been told,” Mr. Sims said, slipping back into his former glum mood. He still did not believe he was a sick man, but perhaps this was because things had moved too fast and he had not been given enough time to get used to the idea.

“It’s a serious cardiac condition,” Dr. Van Stoke had told him at the annual examination, “due to an over-active life. I’ll have to recommend you for Sunnylands.”

And that had been the first mention of the subject.

“But I never had heart trouble in my life!”

“The graphs show the condition clearly. There’s nothing anyone can do to remedy it. I’ll have to submit your name.”

He had protested—threatened—pleaded.

“Overpopulation! Elimination of needless suffering! Burden to society! Duty to humanity!” The cliches had tripped glibly off the doctor’s tongue as he signed the form. “Will you please send in a member of the family? I’ll give him the final instructions. Save you the trouble of worrying over little details during the final weeks.”

Since then, things had moved more swiftly behind the scenes and he had had to do nothing except prepare himself—or adopt a realistic attitude, as Mr. Hoode would have described it. But he had lived too much to allow him to get used to the idea of dying in two short weeks. He hadn’t even started to get realistic about it, which was probably why he could sit talking so calmly about death at that moment.


“We could give your life a climax,” the director was saying. “A man like you shouldn’t just fade away in one of those little cubicles.” He waved a hand in the direction of the shaded windows at the rear of the palace. “You should die magnificently!”

“Magnificently?” Mr. Sims repeated. “What did you have in mind?”

“It’s what you have in mind that counts. I can offer you a lot of advice, but the final choice is yours. For instance, a large number of men like to die in some sort of combat, with guns or swords, or even with animals. We had one man who fought a tiger. Another fulfilled a life-long ambition to play the role of bullfighter. Perhaps I should explain that the government allows each guest a generous sum of money to pay for his departure. As most people do not use one hundredth of this sum, we have a rather large fund at the disposal of those who want to use it. The bullfighter was a good example,” he went on. “We had a large ring built for him. He was given horses, uniforms, picadores, and a bull specially imported from Spain. It was a wonderful afternoon.”

He paused in contemplation of the memory, while Mr. Sims looked on, tactfully refraining from asking the outcome.

“Another time, we had a group of old soldiers who wanted to die in battle,” Mr. Hoode added. “We built them an old-fashioned concrete blockhouse, then gave them authentic uniforms, machine-guns, grenades and rifles, and had one group attacking and the other defending.”

“Did they actually volunteer for that?” Mr. Sims asked.

“Of course, and I’ll swear they enjoyed every minute of it. Right down to the last man. As a matter of fact, we’re planning the same thing on a larger scale with a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand to be held in 2013. One of the men in Research is working full time on that project. So far, we have a tentative list of 138 names. It’ll be held in the park over there.” He waved gaily in the direction of the quiet meadow which would one day become another Little Big Horn.

Mr. Sims moved along the seat slightly, as though his companion had started to smell. It was as if, for the first time, he had noticed the glazed, visionary look in Mr. Hoode’s eye. The director, he realized, would be capable of re-enacting Hiroshima if given the required number of volunteers.

“I’ll have to leave you, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Hoode, standing up. “But if you’d like to think the matter over some more, I can offer you a fine selection of books to read about famous deaths, duels, acts of heroism and such throughout history.”

“It’s an interesting notion,” Mr. Sims said. “I’ll think about it.”


Mr. Sims tried to avoid the director all that day and all the following morning. He tried hard to convince himself that this was because he disliked the other’s bloodthirsty tendencies, although he knew the truth was that his choice of departure was a cowardly one. Nevertheless, he argued with himself, it was his choice, his death, and his mind was made up. Besides, he felt lonely and this might be an opportunity to see the family again, even though they probably wouldn’t like it.

It was the director who finally located Mr. Sims. “Are you enjoying your stay here?” he asked heartily. Mr. Sims winced as though the cold hand of death itself had slapped him on the back.

“Have you come to any decision yet?”

Mr. Sims nodded. “Yes, I looked at the book last night and decided on Socrates. Just a simple cup of hemlock.”

A slight frown shadowed the director’s features. Was it contempt, Mr. Sims wondered, or disappointment because he had failed in his attempts to make poisoning seem a socially inferior way of dying? Nothing glamorous about such a departure, he realized. No disdainful refusal of the blindfold when gazing bravely into the leveled muzzles of the firing squad. No bullfight, armed combat, duel or ferocious carnivores.

The director shrugged. “Well, it’s tranquil and dignified, I suppose,” he conceded finally. Then the practical streak in his nature came to the forefront and his mind ran quickly over the possibilities. “If I remember correctly, Socrates died in the company of a number of good friends. They discussed philosophy.”

“I’ll have my family instead. I’ve no idea what we’ll talk about. Their names are on this list.”

“It’s irregular—”

“Nevertheless, I want them here.”

“All right,” said Mr. Hoode, disappointed. “I’ll send for them today. I’ll also see the lab about some hemlock and something authentic to hold it in—an amphora or whatever the Greeks used. By the way, I’m not too well acquainted with Socrates. Are there any unusual details?”

“If there are, forget them,” Mr. Sims said. “The family and the hemlock will be sufficient.”

Mr. Hoode sniffed peevishly. “As you wish. Be ready tomorrow.”


The rough woven garment was a concession to Mr. Hoode, who said it was Grecian, and Mr. Sims wore it to make up for any annoyance he may have caused the director. It was rather itchy and much too warm, he thought, as he waited by the fountain at the far end of the park. The hemlock was in a bronze goblet on the parapet beside him. The family would be here soon. He wondered how they would feel about being dragged way out here.

They arrived a half hour later: Cousin Nat, his two nephews, George and Alec, their wives, and George’s five-year-old, Mike. Mr. Hoode was also with them, but he left the party as soon as he had shown them where Mr. Sims was waiting.

The meeting was restrained. Clearly they were not happy about making the trip. There were no smiles of greeting; only young Mike showed any distinct interest. He sat down at Mr. Sims’ feet, playing havoc with the lawn with a toy dagger.

“Where’s the poison, Grandpa?” he asked eagerly.

Mr. Sims lifted the boy up on to his knee and rumpled his hair playfully in a feeble attempt to ease the tension. The others stood around silently watching. No one made any move to sit down. It was their way of telling him they hoped they wouldn’t have to wait too long. Mr. Sims suddenly wished he were in one of the quiet rooms of the palace, alone.

Cousin Nat was the first one to break the awkward silence. “Who in hell was that madman who brought us over here?”

“That’s Mr. Hoode, the director,” Mr. Sims explained. “He’s quite an artist in his way.”

“He’s insane!” Nat said flatly. “All the way over, he talked about nothing but dying. Told us we could come here and die any way we wanted. If any of us wanted to go out like Early Christians, he would be only too happy to set up an arena for us. He even asked me if I wanted to put my name down for a rehash of Custer’s Last Stand for 2013. With real bullets!” He passed his hand nervously through his thinning hair. “For God’s sake, he must think I want to get scalped!”

“Didn’t Dr. Van Stoke come with you?” Mr. Sims asked. “I wanted him to
see the place he sends everyone.”

“He went on an ocean cruise,” young Mike said.

“Dr. Van Stoke? You mean he left his practice?”

“Yeah,” the little boy answered. “Another doctor took his place.”

Mr. Sims turned to the others for corroboration. “Is that right? I didn’t think Van Stoke was a rich man. He was only around forty.”

“He went with the money Uncle Nat gave him,” the boy said.

“That’ll be enough, Michael,” Nat ordered sternly.


Mr. Sims laughed. “You’re mistaken, Mike. Uncle Nat wouldn’t give the doctor any money. He hasn’t even got enough for himself.”

“But he quit his job yesterday,” said the boy.

Nat’s voice cut in sharply. “That’s enough from you. You know what they say about little boys.”

Mr. Sims looked steadily at Nat as though seeing him for the first time. His cousin gazed back, half-sullen, half-defiant.

“It certainly didn’t take you long to get your hands on the money,” Mr. Sims said. “It looks as if I can’t die soon enough. But I still don’t see where Dr. Van Stoke comes into—”

Then suddenly there was no need to ask. The answer was clear on Nat’s tight, sullen face.

Mr. Sims turned to the others for help and froze as identical expressions stared back coldly from each of them, piercing him with their long-hidden envy of his success, their pent-up hatred of their dependence on him.

A choking, frightened sound came from deep in Mr. Sims’ throat. “For God’s sake! How much did you pay him to put me away?”

He jumped quickly off the parapet, knocking the little boy to the ground, and hurled the hemlock into the fountain. He pushed his way past them and started to run. Then the woven garment twisted about his legs. He tried to lift it clear, but his foot caught in the hem and he stumbled.

Nat was the first to move. He picked up the little toy dagger and fell on the struggling man. Without hesitating, he plunged the knife between Mr. Sims’ shoulder blades and held it till the older man was still. Then he stabbed again, without malice, without any emotion...again and again...

The blade made an odd ripping sound each time it pierced the woven robe.

All of them looked away. One of the women leaned over the parapet, sick.


When he was finally done, Nat stood up and cleaned the knife on the grass and then motioned them all back toward the palace.

Mr. Hoode met them as they walked through the foyer. “Ah, Socrates’ friends!” he said to Nat, who was dabbing at the front of his coat with a piece of tissue. “Was everything in order?”

“There was a slight change of plan,” Nat said. “He decided at the last moment to make it Julius Caesar.” He held the knife up in explanation.

“Julius Caesar! But—”

But they were gone, filing out through the front door, the women sobbing in their handkerchiefs. No one looked back.

The door hissed quietly shut. Mr. Hoode started at the sound and then walked slowly into his office, seized by a cold, limp rage. From his window, he could see them going down the driveway.

“Amateurs,” he spat after them with deep disgust. “Damned, lousy, unimaginative amateurs!”


So, how do you guys picture your own death scene, anyway?

Not much is known about Alan Cogan, author of this piece. Let’s hope that changes over time.

It's nice to squeeze in some classic art for a change...

The top image is from Wikipedia.

Louis Shalako books and stories are available from Kobo. Some are always free for your reading enjoyment. I’m not too sure which ones, you’ll have to have a click around in there.

Thank you for reading.

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