"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Complete Continental Op 2. The Early Years 2: It and Other Stories

Complete Continental Op 2.  The Early Years 2: It and Other Stories

"It" (1923)

Detective stories - in place of unreliable narrators - have unreliable clients. The Op. quickly discovers his new client is a swindler of swindlers, a bond merchant clipping coupons not his own.

The most dynamic element in it however is a closely narrated fight at night in a pitch black basement.

....Zumwalt's house was a two-story, semi-detached one; and the lock on the front door held me up about four minutes. A burglar would have gone through it without checking his stride. This breaking into the house wasn't exactly according to the rules, but on the other hand, I was legally Zumwalt's agent until I discontinued work that night—so this crashing in couldn't be considered illegal.

     I started at the top floor and worked down. Bureaus, dressers, tables, desks, chairs, walls, woodwork, pictures, carpets, plumbing—I looked at everything that was thick enough to hold paper. I didn't take things apart, but it's surprising how speedily and how thoroughly you can go through a house when you're in training.

     I found nothing in the house itself, so I went down into the cellar.

     It was a large cellar and divided in two. The front part was paved with cement, and held a full coal-bin, some furniture, some canned goods, and a lot of odds and ends of housekeeping accessories. The rear division, behind a plaster partition where the steps ran down from the kitchen, was without windows, and illuminated only by one swinging electric light, which I turned on.

     A pile of lumber filled half the space; on the other side barrels and boxes were piled up to the ceiling; two sacks of cement lay beside them, and in another corner was a tangle of broken furniture. The floor was of hard dirt.

     I turned to the lumber pile first. I wasn't in love with the job ahead of me—moving the pile away and then back again. But I needn't have worried.

     A board rattled behind me, and I wheeled to see Zumwalt rising from behind a barrel and scowling at me over a black automatic pistol.

     "Put your hands up," he said.

     I put them up. I didn't have a pistol with me, not being in the habit of carrying one except when I thought I was going to need it; but it would have been all the same if I had had a pocket full of them. I don't mind taking chances, but there's no chance when you're looking into the muzzle of a gun that a determined man is holding on you.

     So I put my hands up. And one of them brushed against the swinging light globe. I drove my knuckles into it. As the cellar went black I threw myself backward and to one side. Zumwalt's gun streaked fire.

     Nothing happened for a while. I found that I had fallen across the doorway that gave to the stairs and the front cellar. I figured that I couldn't move without making a noise that would draw lead, so I lay still.

     Then began a game that made up in tenseness what it lacked in action.

     The part of the cellar where we were was about twenty by twenty feet and blacker than a new shoe. There were two doors. One, on the opposite side, opened into the yard and was, I supposed, locked. I was lying on my back across the other, waiting for a pair of legs to grab. Zumwalt, with a gun out of which only one bullet had been spent, was somewhere in the blackness, and aware, from his silence, that I was still alive.

     I figured I had the edge on him. I was closest to the only practicable exit; he didn't know that I was unarmed; he didn't know whether I had help close by or not; time was valuable to him, but not necessarily so to me. So I waited.

     Time passed. How much I don't know. Maybe half an hour.

     The floor was damp and hard and thoroughly uncomfortable. The electric light had cut my hand when I broke it, and I couldn't determine how badly I was bleeding. I thought of Tad's "blind man in a dark room hunting for a black hat that wasn't there," and knew how he felt.

     A box or barrel fell over with a crash—knocked over by Zumwalt, no doubt, moving out from the hiding-place wherein he had awaited my arrival.

     Silence for a while. And then I could hear him moving cautiously off to one side.

     Without warning two streaks from his pistol sent bullets into the partition somewhere above my feet. I wasn't the only one who was feeling the strain.

     Silence again, and I found that I was wet and dripping with perspiration.

     Then I could hear his breathing, but couldn't determine whether he was nearer or was breathing more heavily.

     A soft, sliding, dragging across the dirt floor! I pictured him crawling awkwardly on his knees and one hand, the other hand holding the pistol out ahead of him—the pistol that would spit fire as soon as its muzzle touched something soft. And I became uneasily aware of my bulk. I am thick through the waist; and there in the dark it seemed to me that my paunch must extend almost to the ceiling—a target that no bullet could miss.

     I stretched my hands out toward him and held them there. If they touched him first I'd have a chance.

     He was panting harshly now; and I was breathing through a mouth that was stretched as wide as it would go, so that there would be no rasping of the large quantities of air I was taking in and letting out.

     Abruptly he came.

     Hair brushed the fingers of my left hand. I closed them about it, pulling the head I couldn't see viciously toward me, driving my right fist beneath it. You may know that I put everything I had in that smack when I tell you that not until later, when I found that one of my cheeks was scorched, did I know that his gun had gone off.

     He wiggled, and I hit him again.

     Then I was sitting astride him, my flashlight hunting for his pistol. I found it, and yanked him to his feet.

     As soon as his head cleared I herded him into the front cellar and got a globe to replace the one I had smashed.

     "Now dig it up," I ordered....

The only fight in total darkness I find superior to this is in David Morrell's outstanding thriller The Fraternity of the Stone (1985).

*   *   *

"Bodies Piled Up" (1923)

Three blameless men are found standing in a hotel room closet, stone dead. 

....The fingerprints Phels had secured had all turned out to belong to Stacey, the maid, the police detectives, or myself. In short, we had found nothing!

     So much for our attempts to learn the motive behind the three murders.

     We now dropped that angle and settled down to the detail-studying, patience-taxing grind of picking up the murderer's trail. From any crime to its author there is a trail. It may be—as in this case—obscure; but, since matter cannot move without disturbing other matter along its path, there always is—there must be—a trail of some sort. And finding and following such trails is what a detective is paid to do.

     In the case of a murder it is possible sometimes to take a short-cut to the end of the trail, by first finding the motive. A knowledge of the motive often reduces the field of possibilities; sometimes points directly to the guilty one. It is on this account that murderers are, as a rule, more easily apprehended than any other class of criminals.

*   *   *

"The 10th Clew" (1924)

True love thwarts the architects of a badger game, and jealousy and murder do the rest.

Exceptionally, a section of the story relates how one villain drops the Op. into San Francisco Bay to get rid of him. It's a splendid stream of consciousness passage that equals the beginning of Jack London's The Seawolf.

....I found myself mechanically keeping afloat somehow and trying to get out of my overcoat. The back of my head throbbed devilishly. My eyes burned. I felt heavy and logged, as if I had swallowed gallons of water.

     The fog hung low and thick on the water—there was nothing else to be seen anywhere. By the time I had freed myself of the encumbering overcoat my head had cleared somewhat, but with returning consciousness came increased pain.

     A light glimmered mistily off to my left, and then vanished. From out of the misty blanket, from every direction, in a dozen different keys, from near and far, fog-horns sounded. I stopped swimming and floated on my back, trying to determine my whereabouts.

     After a while I picked out the moaning, evenly spaced blasts of the Alcatraz siren. But they told me nothing. They came to me out of the fog without direction—seemed to beat down upon me from straight above.

     I was somewhere in San Francisco Bay, and that was all I knew, though I suspected the current was sweeping me out toward the Golden Gate.

     A little while passed, and I knew that I had left the path of the Oakland ferries—no boat had passed close to me for some time. I was glad to be out of that track. In this fog a boat was a lot more likely to run me down than to pick me up.

     The water was chilling me, so I turned over and began swimming, just vigorously enough to keep my blood circulating while I saved my strength until I had a definite goal to try for.

     A horn began to repeat its roaring note nearer and nearer, and presently the lights of the boat upon which it was fixed came into sight. One of the Sausalito ferries, I thought.

     It came quite close to me, and I halloed until I was breathless and my throat was raw. But the boat's siren, crying its warning, drowned my shouts.

     The boat went on and the fog closed in behind it.

     The current was stronger now, and my attempts to attract the attention of the Sausalito ferry had left me weaker. I floated, letting the water sweep me where it would, resting.

     Another light appeared ahead of me suddenly—hung there for an instant—disappeared.

     I began to yell, and worked my arms and legs madly, trying to drive myself through the water to where it had been.

     I never saw it again.

     Weariness settled upon me, and a sense of futility. The water was no longer cold. I was warm with a comfortable, soothing numbness. My head stopped throbbing; there was no feeling at all in it now. No lights, now, but the sound of fog-horns … fog-horns … fog-horns ahead of me, behind me, to either side; annoying me, irritating me.

     But for the moaning horns I would have ceased all effort. They had become the only disagreeable detail of my situation—the water was pleasant, fatigue was pleasant. But the horns tormented me. I cursed them petulantly and decided to swim until I could no longer hear them, and then, in the quiet of the friendly fog, go to sleep. …

     Now and then I would doze, to be goaded into wakefulness by the wailing voice of a siren.

     "Those damned horns! Those damned horns!" I complained aloud, again and again.

     One of them, I found presently, was bearing down upon me from behind, growing louder and stronger. I turned and waited. Lights, dim and steaming, came into view.

     With exaggerated caution to avoid making the least splash, I swam off to one side. When this nuisance was past I could go to sleep. I sniggered softly to myself as the lights drew abreast, feeling a foolish triumph in my cleverness in eluding the boat. Those damned horns. …

     Life—the hunger for life—all at once surged back into my being.

     I screamed at the passing boat, and with every iota of my being struggled toward it. Between strokes I tilted up my head and screamed. …

*   *   *


3 November 2020

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