Brian MacMillan

02 The Cell

BM The Cell

The Cell

This is the bleakest story I have ever written, but I hope one of the most powerful. It is a reflection on libertarianism versus freedom.


This establishment is governed by Private Law.

Caitlin looked at the grimy notice. It was the last thing she saw before she entered the foyer from the stairs, and the first thing that guests saw when they entered the co-op from outside. She turned to face the cell. Its right part was defined by the slope of the stairwell. This was where the prisoner, a lean, ragged man, was now sitting. Although he was barely 40 years of age he had grey, thin hair. His skin was taut and sallow; his parched lips were white around the edges. The wall facing him was pocked by metal studs that had once been used to hang bicycles. In the far corner there was a rusty, galvanized bucket of water. The bucket was used for both drinking and washing, first one then the other. The cell had two light sources: a skylight, six floors above at the top of the spiraling stair-well, and the stained-glass windows that ringed the co-op’s entrance, towards which the cell faced. It was twilight; the setting sun was shining through the stained glass, casting cheerful red and blue shadows onto the cell’s peeling, yellow walls.

Caitlin addressed the prisoner with a quiet voice, “Here’s some left-overs. I’m sorry I couldn’t bring more, but you know how my uncle gets upset when I feed you.” She was tall for her age, and lank. Her simple, grey woolen clothes hung loosely on her stretched frame. Her thick, dark hair had been recently washed, and was carefully braided. She moved tentatively, as if she had not yet mastered either her body or the uncertain world through which it moved.

The prisoner arranged his chains so that he could turn to face his visitor. He was not used to speaking, so his voice was broken and gruff when he said, “What did you bring me?” He spoke with eager desperation. The young woman tilted the bowl she held in her hand so that he could see its contents: several pieces of beef gristle, a small scoop of potatoes and some greyish-green beans.

The prisoner carefully cleared some rotten scraps from the wooden tray he used as both a table and plate. He pushed the wooden tray through the small space between the barred gate and the floor. The young woman transferred the food onto the tray, and then pushed the tray toward the prisoner. The laden tray passed easily into the cell except for a tiny piece of potato, which stuck to the bottom bar of the gate. The prisoner received the food gratefully; he finished eating it in a moment, and then ate the small piece of potato that had stuck to the gate.

When the prisoner finished eating, he replaced the rotten scraps he’d earlier put aside, and carefully placed the food tray by the head of the woven mat he used for a bed. He wiped his utensils, a wooden spoon and a small, sharp knife.

“Who gave you that knife?” Caitlin asked.

“Mrs. Ellison.”

“Do you think she’s changed her mind about you?” the young woman asked hopefully.

“No, Caitlin.”

The prisoner looked at the pouch that held the knife, and then up at the young woman. His eyes were yellow and foggy, so foggy that Caitlin wondered if he could even see her.

“How did your trip go?”, the prisoner asked.

The young woman took a deep breath before replying. The inhalation straightened her slightly stooped shoulders. “The first time they turned me away. I’m too young to launch an appeal. The second time Mrs. Simpson came with me.”

“God bless that woman.”

“Didn’t she vote against you?” Caitlin asked.

“She abstained. If it had made a difference, she’d have voted for me. I know that. But … tell me what happened, child.”

Caitlin handed the prisoner the form letter she had received from the Office of the Procurator General. He pushed it back to her, and said gruffly, “Read it.” She did so,

The co-operative at 14 Cyclades Ave., Juneau, Alaska is entitled to imprison hoarders under the terms of the War Measures Act. Penal facilities must conform to the incarceration standards outlined in the Constitution and they are subject to periodic audits. No sentence can exceed 5 years without a review by the Third Circuit Court of Greater Alaska.

Cruel and unusual punishment is forbidden.

When she was finished reading the letter Caitlin added in a less formal voice, “The man we met said the Procurator has very little authority over Private Law.”

“What about an audit?”

“That’s what the man told us to do. He said that Mrs. Simpson has to set up a meeting with the Procurator. Even though he doesn’t have authority he appoints auditors, who do. It only costs $5.”


“Is $5 too much? Should it cost less?”

The prisoner looked at the Caitlin for several breaths before he spoke. “The meeting shouldn’t cost anything, child. It’s his job to see you.”

“Should I refuse to pay him?”

“No!” The prisoner spoke too loudly. “You have no choice, Caitlin. You have to pay. Whatever he asks.” He continued with a quiet, weary voice. “Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. If I ever get the money Mrs. Ellison stole from me, I’ll pay you back. I’ll do anything you want. I promise.”

Caitlin tugged at the loose thread which threatened to unravel the lace which trimmed the otherwise rough fabric of her home-made skirt,  nervously shuffled her feet but said nothing; she did not know how to reply.

The prisoner continued, “Make sure the audit happens as soon as possible. Can you? You will?”

Caitlin hesitated before responding. “I’ll do my best.” She inhaled deeply before she replied, “Dan …”

“Don’t use my name! If someone heard you, you could be punished too!”

The intensity of his voice caused her to take a step back. When she recovered her balance Caitlin said, “If Mrs. Simpson hears something from the Procurator I’ll let you know.

“She can tell me herself.”

“She won’t talk to you. She’s too afraid.”

The front door began to open with a loud, wooden creak. Caitlin rushed up the stairs to her apartment on the second floor before anyone saw her.




Caitlin knocked twice on Mrs. Simpson’s door.

“Please come in.”

Caitlin poked her head half-way through the door. She said, “I only wanted to ask …”

Mrs. Simpson gently, but firmly, pulled Caitlin into her apartment. She said, “Caitlin, we have to be very careful.”

Caitlin was unfazed. She said, “I just wanted to know how your meeting with the Procurator went. If you’re busy …”

“He approved the audit.”

“That’s wonderful news!”

Mrs. Simpson shook her head mournfully. “No. He wants $100.”

That was as much as Caitlin’s father paid his man for an entire year’s service.

Mrs. Simpson continued, “I want to help poor Daniel, but I don’t have that kind of money. Your father is influential. Maybe …” She didn’t conclude the sentence because she didn’t know what Caitlin’s absent father could do.

“Mrs. Simpson, my father is in California. You know that.” Caitlin spoke respectfully.

“I also know that he is a very careful person, who loves you dearly. I’m certain he made provisions for an emergency.”

“Is this an emergency?”

“For Daniel it is. Have you seen the knife Mrs. Ellison gave him?”

Caitlin recalled how Daniel looked at that knife. She wondered what she could do to stop him from killing himself.

The day before Caitlin’s father left for California, she met him at his ship. He had been living there for several days already. The moment she arrived, her father turned his back on he was doing and clasped her hands in an uncharacteristically gentle manner. Caitlin reluctantly let him. She was angry that her father was leaving her, but now, just hours before his departure, that emotion was overwhelmed by sadness and fear. They walked hand-in-hand along the wharf, saying nothing as they gazed out into the Gulf of Alaska, Caitlin clung more and more tightly to her father’s hand.

They sat down side by side on an old green bench that looked out over Gulf. Caitlin’s father said,“This is the wrong time for me to go away. You’re too young and the world is … Never mind that. I want you to know that I don’t want to leave you. I’m going because I have no choice. My Patron …” Caitlin hugged his arm; her tears moistened his shirt.

After a few moments Caitlin’s father gently extracted himself and put a key around his daughter’s neck. He interrupted the embrace not because he was unsentimental, but rather because he was consoled by doing his duty, and wanted to get started doing it. He placed his hands firmly, but lightly, onto his daughter’s shoulders, and said, “Look at me dear heart. Do you know where I keep my money?

She nodded.


“The Second Bank of Alaska.”

“Where is it located?”

“At Main and Palin. It opens at 10 am …”

“Very good.” He hugged her tightly and then squatted so that his eyes were parallel with hers. “Caitlin, do you see the number on this key?” He placed her hands around the key he’d just given her. “It is the number of the box this key will open. If you ever need money, but are afraid to ask your Aunt, or anyone, go to the Second Bank of Alaska. Say that you are my daughter. Ask for box 256. But only in an emergency.”

“What kind of emergency?”

“Not something small, like a leaky faucet. Something big, like a threat against your life or property. If you get confused, act like me.”

“Dad, why are you giving this to me and not to Aunt Katherine?”

“I’ve made other arrangements with your Aunt.” He looked out over the Gulf and rubbed his hand through his black, oiled hair. “Of course I have. But …” He rubbed his forehead, which left an  almost translucent black smear “… I don’t trust her husband.”

“You mean Uncle Jim?”

He couldn’t bear to speak further; he just nodded his head.

Caitlin’s attention returned to the present. She looked up at Mrs. Simpson. “My father left me some money. Maybe its enough.”


Caitlin had never been inside the Second Bank of Alaska, so did not know what to expect. The bank was located in a featureless, squat building made of new, red brick. On the inside it appeared much bigger than it did from the street, because its top floors were taken up by a dome instead of offices. There was a huge painting on the dome of two men touching fingers, one had beard, the other was clean shaven.

The moment Caitlin identified herself to the guard at the bank’s entrance, the Manager was alerted. The Manager, a fat old man in a black suit, escorted her to the safety deposit box. The security guard, who had a waxed mustache and was armed with a long, slender sword, walked several steps behind them. Caitlin wondered if the man was guarding her or the Manager.

The Manager claimed to be a good friend of Caitlin’s father, and inquired several times after his health. Caitlin told the Manager that she had not heard a word from her father since he left to explore California 11 months earlier, but that didn’t stop the Manager from asking the same question again.

They reached a thick metal door that had a metal wheel for a handle. The security guard stepped forward and with some effort turned the wheel. The door rolled open. Caitlin entered the vault, unescorted; it was full of metal drawers. The Manager said farewell. The guard stayed behind, but turned his back to her and guarded the door.

Caitlin quickly found Box 256. It was empty except for a small block of gold and a stack of five dollar bills. She knew that the money was enough for the Procurator, but hesitated before taking it. Although this was an emergency for Daniel it was not an emergency for her. She wondered what would happen if she used up all of the money and she had an emergency herself. She didn’t know what to do, so she attempted to emulate her father. She removed $50 but left the gold and the rest of the bills.




“Did you get the money?” Mrs. Simpson asked, the moment Caitlin had safely entered the apartment.

Caitlin silently placed the small stack of bills on the table.

Mrs. Simpson counted the money and then said, “Is this all?”

Caitlin froze. Mrs. Simpson understood. “Let’s hope $50 is enough.”

Mrs. Simpson began to put the money away; Caitlin scooped it up before she could. Caitlin said, “I’ll pay the Procurator myself.”

Mrs. Simpson looked away; her tired eyes were ringed with dark circles. She said, “I guess you will.”

They went to the Procurator’s office the next day. They had intended to walk along West Sixth, but it had rained during the night, so that way was too muddy. Caitlin insisted on hiring a cab. Like tourists, they took a scenic route to City Hall that followed the harbour. They were dressed like they were going to Church, in bonnets and flowered dresses: Caitlin’s was white with red roses and a small cherry red handbag; Mrs. Simpson’s dress was her Sunday best, dark blue velvet decorated with small white nicotiana flowers that that looked like polka-dots.

The Procurator’s office was in the back of an old mansion, which shared a garden with City Hall. Although Caitlin and Mrs. Simpson had no appointment they were expected.

The Procurator wore a vaguely military uniform. He had a small, neatly trimmed grey beard and fastidious manner. He acknowledged Mrs. Simpson without rising; he gave Caitlin a dismissive glance. Speaking to Mrs. Simpson, he said, “Do you have the money?” He did not offer them a seat, which struck Caitlin as surprisingly rude behaviour from someone who dressed like a gentleman.

The Procurator arched an eyebrow when Caitlin stepped forward and handed him an envelope. Although she was barely a teenager, and Procurator’s desk was raised, Caitlin looked down at him. He counted the nine bills with a sad expression on his face. He said, “Only $45. I’ll take this as a deposit. Let me know when you have raised the other $55.” He carefully placed the small pile of currency into his billfold.

Because the payment represented a fee that the Procurator was collecting in addition to his regular salary, Caitlin assumed it would be negotiable, like a tip. When he took her money and gave her nothing in return, she realized that this payment was another type of transaction entirely: she was not paying him, he was taking from her. Caitlin’s face hardened when she realized what this implied: the Procurator was not noble at all, he was a thief.

Caitlin said, “Sir, I understand that you should charge nothing for an audit. It is a service my father gets free of charge from the City because he pays more than $50 a year in property tax, and is therefore a gentleman. The $45 you have just taken from me is a gratuity given in expectation of good service.” Her voice quivered with fury.

The Procurator ignored Caitlin. Her turned to a cowering Mrs. Simpson and asked, “Who is this child?”

Caitlin answered before Mrs. Simpson could, “My name is Caitlin Hofstaedter. My father, Doctor Hofstaedter …”

The Procurator smoothly interrupted her, “I know your father. He’s one of the Anderson’s men. He’s in California, isn’t he?”

“Yesterday we received word that he will return this spring”, Mrs. Simpson added helpfully.

The Procurator frowned. He made a point of shuffling some papers on his desk. After a moment he looked up, and said, “Very well, Miss Hofstaedter, here is your money back.” He handed $40 in worn bills to Caitlin. “My office will perform an audit of your co-op’s private prison. I assume this is about your father’s residence on Cyclades Avenue, and not your summer home. My people will contact you.”

“Please don’t contact us, Sir.” Mrs. Simpson piped in with an agitated voice. “Just let our Board know. There is no need to mention us at all.”

The Procurator nodded. He dismissed them with a wave.




The knocker clanged three times firmly and loudly. Caitlin leapt from her chair by the door to let the Inspector in. Behind her clustered a greeting party which included her distraught Aunt and grim-faced Uncle. Three other Board members, Mrs. Simpson, Mrs. Ellison and Mr. Constantinus, huddled in the foyer, underneath the co-op’s license. The prisoner watched intently from his cell.

The Inspector was a gaunt man with darting eyes. He wore a deerskin jacket that he had recently been greased to make it water-resistant. His long, stringy hair had been greased too, probably with the same animal fat that had been used on the jacket. He had a slightly rancid smell. He removed his jacket and handed it to Caitlin, who gingerly hung it up. on one of the hooks which lined the wood-paneled wall. Without his jacket the Inspector looked far more like a bureaucrat than a trapper. Although he wore a cheap wool suit, his shirt was made of fine cotton; and the precious stone on his belt must have been worth over $100. What surprised Caitlin most was his tie, which was from the noble school Artemis.

After a cursory inspection of the co-op’s license to practice private law, the Inspector turned his attention to the cell. As the Inspector approached the cell, the prisoner rose as much as his chains and the sloped roof would let him. He attempted to introduce himself. The Inspector ignored the prisoner. Instead, he brusquely said to Mrs. Simpson, “Remove the prisoner’s shackles immediately.”

At these words the prisoner’s face lit up. Caitlin glanced at Mrs. Ellison, who was whispering something to Mr. Constantinus. The Inspector spoke again. His voice was loud enough to be heard by all, but he directed his words to Caitlin. “I’m not releasing him, Miss. At least not yet. The chains are an infraction. You are not allowed to shackle someone who’s already behind bars.”

Mrs. Simpson, afraid that the co-op could be fined because of this, began to speak to the Inspector about how the prisoner wasn’t always shackled, but only at times like these when there were important visitors.

While Mrs. Simpson was speaking, Mr. Constantinus sullenly opened the cell and removed the prisoner’s chains. The Inspector turned his back on Mrs. Simpson before she had finished speaking, and entered the cell. He started his inspection with the back corner. He peered into the water bucket, and looked closely at the drain beside it. Once satisfied with the plumbing, he began to shuffle through the prisoner’s few personal belongings. He paused only once, to look at the knife.

When Mr. Constantinus finished unshackling the prisoner he backed up, so that his large frame blocked the prisoner’s access to the still open gate.

The Inspector, finished with examining the cell’s infrastructure, proceeded to example its content. He placed the prisoner’s head in his hands and silently examined him like a piece of fish at the market. When he suddenly let go of the prisoner’s head, it fell forward and then jerked up.

The Inspector brusquely exited the cell. Mr. Constantinus closed and locked the gate behind him. The Inspector turned to Mrs. Ellison. He knew from Caitlin’s affidavit that they were beneficiaries of the prisoner’s internment, and therefore the people most likely to cause trouble. He said, “Before I give my verdict, I’d like to have a brief word with the young lady.” He nodded toward Caitlin.

Caitlin and the Inspector retired to the mud room. Caitlin’s Aunt and Uncle followed, even though they were not invited. The moment the were all in the room, and had closed the door, Caitlin said to the Inspector, “I assume you’re going to release Daniel. His punishment is clearly cruel.”

The Inspector took a seat on one of the benches that lined the mud room walls. As he did so, Caitlin’s aunt and uncle respectfully backed out of his way. They stood facing the Inspector, half buried in winter coats. The Inspector shrugged as his spoke, “The cell has water and light. And hoarding is a serious crime.”

“He’s not allowed to go outside.” Caitlin said pointedly.

The Inspector put his hands on his thighs as he addressed her. “You must be realistic, Miss. Where would the prisoner go if he went outside? Your co-op doesn’t have a courtyard or backyard. If you took him to a public park he’d be out of your co-op’s jurisdiction. He could escape. Or be freed by a mob.” Caitlin nodded her head slowly, in acknowledgement not agreement. A prisoner had been freed on the Esplanade just last week.

She saw where this was going so could not keep silent, “You have to let him go!”

Uncle Jimmy interrupted with a slightly too loud voice, “Shut up Caitlin.” He said to the Inspector, “Sir, what’s the verdict?”

“I can free him for $20.”

Uncle Jimmy was aghast, “Whose $20?”

The Inspector nodded toward Caitlin, “Hers. The Procurator said she offered him twice that to fix the case but he didn’t want to take it on account of her father. I’m giving you a deal.”

Uncle Jimmy was enraged, “Caitlin, where did you get that money? Have you been stealing from me?”

Caitlin was terrified but stood her ground, “My father gave it too me.”

“If he gave it to you its mine. Give me that $50.”

“I don’t have it.”

“Caitlin. I’m your guardian. I can do whatever I …”

“Jimmy, shut up!” Aunt Katherine shouted. She turned to Caitlin, pressed her hands down on her shoulders and said “Empty your pockets. Now!”

Caitlin emptied her pockets onto the bench. She had one five dollar bill, some change and a pair of earrings. Uncle Jimmy scooped it all up shouted, “I forbid you from bribing this man so that hoarder can go free!”, and stormed out of the room. He left the door ajar.

The Inspector put on a crestfallen face. “So you don’t have $20? Anyone? No one?” Aunt Katherine scowled. Caitlin said nothing. Mrs. Ellison poked her head into the room.

The Inspector shrugged. “Can’t do it for free. Sorry.” Caitlin was paralyzed. She wanted to give him the money but didn’t want to say it in front of Aunt Katherine. The Inspector let himself out.

The co-operators disbursed: Caitlin was hustled away to her room by her Aunt; Mrs. Ellison and Mr. Constantinus went to Daniel’s apartment to celebrate with a bottle of Daniel’s vintage wine; and Mrs. Simpson hid the safety deposit key she’d palmed from Caitlin. Uncle Jimmy threatened to beat her if she didn’t tell him who had it, but that made Aunt Katherine so angry she shouted, “If you steal her father’s money he’ll kill you.”

Everyone shut their doors tightly so they would not be disturbed by the prisoner, whose wailing continued until the small hours of the morning.




“How is the appeal shaping up?”

Caitlin took a moment to answer the prisoner. She had to be careful about what she said to him these days. He had become quite moody after the audit. She replied, “ I know that Harriet is with you; I think Mr. Sanders is. But …” She paused.

“But what?” the prisoner prodded, with a sharp note in his voice.

“I don’t think Mr. Sander’s wife is keen to release you.”

“How do you know?” He pressed his face against the bars as he spoke.

“I was talking with her about the vote. I said that I’d give her five dollars if she would support you. I was very polite and respectful, but when I offered her the money she suddenly changed. She said, ‘Who did you learn this wickedness from? This is what happens when you’re raised in a pagan church.’ I tried to explain that I am not a pagan. I said that even though my father is a scientist, I know sin when I see it.”

“What happened next?”

“She told me to stay away from her grandchildren.”

“Caitlin, if we don’t get Mr. Sander’s vote we’re going to loose. We don’t have much time. The vote is tomorrow. Can you talk to him one last time? Maybe he’ll take your money if you give it to him in secret.”

Out of compassion for the prisoner’s plight, Caitlin agreed to try her best. It was a hollow promise. She had no way of speaking to Mr. Sanders in private. His wife was always around. As she retreated up the stairs she said, “Goodnight. I’ll let you know the moment you win the vote.” The prisoner nodded somberly. He knew how to count. Caitlin ascended the stairs to her apartment with a heavy heart.




The prisoner knew from the expression on Caitlin’s face that he had lost his appeal. He said, “Sanders voted against me, didn’t he?”

Caitlin nodded, “It was Mrs. Sanders fault. She made Mr. Sanders vote against you. I overheard him talking about it afterward. He said, ”I was going to vote to release the prisoner. He’s not a bad sort, although his imprisonment has made him a little crazy. The reason I didn’t was something my wife said to me. She said that cells once you make them are never empty.  Safer to leave it full.”

“What about Mrs. Stanton?”

“When she voted no she said that your cell is here to send a message. She didn’t say what kind.”

Caitlin looked at the prisoner’s forlorn face and felt compelled to try to cheer him up. “This isn’t the end, Daniel. Don’t you worry. My father will be back soon. He’ll fix this. This would never have happened if he hadn’t gone to California.”

If Caitlin’s words were consoling, the prisoner didn’t show it. He asked glumly, “How did Mrs. Simpson vote?”

“You know she voted last, because she’s the Co-op President.”

“How did she vote?” he asked again.

“She abstained because a yes vote didn’t matter.”

“Just like before. At least she tried to help me with the Procurator. What about Mr. Thompson?”

“He voted against you”, Caitlin reported, sadly. “When he did, he said, ‘I have no choice. I voted against him last time. When he gets out he’ll be looking for revenge.’”

“What about Harriet?”

“Daniel! Of course Harriet voted for you.  But when she voted it was too late, you’d already lost.”

All affect had drained from Daniel’s face. He held the bars limply as he stared vacantly into the filtered light that was illuminating his face.

“Do you want to know what Harriet said when she voted for you?” Caitlin asked with a bleak, quiet voice. She did not wait for the prisoner to answer, “Harriet said, ‘I can imagine a world without crime more easily than I can imagine a world without prisons.’”


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