An excerpt from the 1944 novel by Leight Brackett
Featuring Ed Clive
EDITOR’S NOTE: In September 1999, we were really pleased to present this excerpt from Leigh Brackett‘s classic 1944 novel, featuring private eye Ed Clive, which was republished that year by Dennis McMillan.
The bullet hit the rotten step and kept going. The gun fell out of Beauvais’s hand almost onto the hole. The mist snared the noise of the shot, wrapped it up, and threw it away far out in the empty night. Clive kicked the gun off toward the canal and dropped back down the stairs.
“Hold it, he said. “Just take it easy.”
Beauvais held his wrist in his left hand and cursed in a flat, venomous whisper. His fingers were out of sight under his cuff. The man in the doorway had not moved or spoken.
“Ease that shiv out, Frenchy, and let it drop. Try anything and I’ll blow your hand off.”
Beauvais stood absolutely still. His eyes burned. The big man faded backward, just the shadow of a movement.
Clive said, “All I want from either of you is talk. I can shoot you both in the belly and still have all the time I need.”They stood, the two of them, not stirring not breathing, staring down at Clive. He waited. Beauvais let the knife slide out from under his sleeve.
“Kick it,” said Clive. “Hard.” Beauvais kicked it. “Now, both of you. Raise your hands slowly and clasp them behind your heads. Yeah. That’s right. Now sit down. Keep your hands where they are.”
Beauvais said, “There isn’t room.”
Beauvais sat, bending at the knees like a panther bellying down under the whip. Big Fella got down beside him. He wore loose slippers and dark pants and a heavy sweater. His hair was cropped close to the scalp, curling tightly. His face was heavy, sullen, and without expression, the flesh scarred and lumpy. He was big. He made Beauvais look like a growing boy.
Clive said, “We,ll have some law here any minute now. So just relax.”
“You dirty double-crossing bastard,” whispered Beauvais. “You goddam…”
“Di.” Big Fella turned his head. “Di, listen.”
Clive knew that voice. His guts knotted inside him.
Beauvais snarled, “Shut up.”
“You tried to shoot me, Di. You hadn’t ought to done that, not without lettin’ me tell you…”
“Shut up!” Beauvais’s head jerked back and forth and his feet kicked.
“But I didn’t kill her, Di. Hear me? I didn’t kill her.”
A peculiar stillness settled on the three of them. Beauvais looked around, moving nothing but his head. “You’re lying.”
“No. No, I ain’t.”
“God damn you, you’re lying!”
“Listen, Di. The big man’s manner was as gentle and patient as a woman’s with a sick child. “Back there in the cell I used to watch you sweat, thinkin, about this dame. You used to talk about her when you was asleep, and cry and yell till I’d stuff the blanket in your mouth to keep the screw from hearin’. It got so I didn’t like seein, you sweat over this no-good bitch. I says to myself, he,ll never stop thinkin, about her while she’s alive. He’ll kill himself, thinkin’ about her. So I says to myself, I’ll find her and put her down for good, so he can forget her and maybe sleep nights again.”
“She was mine,” Beauvais said. “Nobody else had a right to touch her.”
“Sure. But they’d of shagged you, Di. You couldn’t never have made it. The johns would of sent you up to the gas-box without even askin, you if you was guilty. But me? Hell, they don’t know I’m alive.”
Beauvais sat still, his dark eyes wide and queer. There was no hint of a siren. Clive heard muffled thunder, and realized that it was the beat of his own blood in his ears.
Beauvais said, “Go on.”
“I bummed around a long time after I got out, but I couldn’t get no line on the dame. Finally I had to come out here to get dough from my cousin, and right away I walk down a street and see a picture of this black-haired broad in front of a joint where she sings. It looks like the picture you carry, Di, but she’s different with her hair black. I got to be sure. So I hang around and find out where she lives, and then I pull a job in the apartment house. I take five or six places, so she won’t worry about it, and I find your picture, Di, and the marriage license.”
Big Fella’s painful whisper was coming faster now. “I fix up the door so I can get in any time. I know I got to hurry because pretty soon you’ll be out and you won’t maybe have a good alibi. I go up there several times, but there’s always some hitch. People hangin’ around, a party across the back porch. Then this guy,” he jerked his head toward Clive, “gets back in town, and it’s walkin’-out time for you, and I know I got to do this job that night if she’s got the whole Marine Corps in her room. So I go up there.”
Clive was tensed forward. Sweat mixed with the fog-rime on his face. He wasn’t listening for the siren any more. He was hearing Laurel’s drowsy voice saying, “I’m glad you’re here. Ed. I’m so glad you’re here.”
“It looks like a cinch. The gimp goes to sleep. She goes to sleep. And then this guy,” Big Fella laughed, a strange little sound with no mirth to it, “he goes to sleep, too. Easy, like knockin’ down a butterfly. I start out of the kitchen. Somebody’s tryin’ a key in the front door, but it’s bolted and the girl don’t wake up, and pretty soon they go away. And then this Hammond guy comes out of the bedroom…”
Clive took one step toward him. He said, “You’re lying.”
Big Fella laughed. “Sure, pal. Prove it. Let the johns prove it.”
Dion Beauvais said, “Go on.”
“Hammond looks around. He thinks it’s funny his pal ain’t there. He calls a couple times and even looks into the kitchen, but he don’t see nothin, but darkness. He decides maybe his pal went out for a beer. Anyway, he’s happy, cause now he don’t have to slug him like he was goin’ to. He picks up his
stick off the table and shakes the girl awake. She looks at him and all of a sudden she gets scared and tries to run. And he hits her in the back of the head with the stick. He makes sure she’s dead. Then he wipes off the stick with his handkerchief and lays it down and goes over and opens the front door. Nobody’s around. He wipes off both knobs and the bolt and closes it again, leavin, the bolt off. Then he goes back to bed again, all fixed up.” He gave a brutal chuckle. “We’re all fixed up. Him and the girl and me and my pal here. I wake him up to tell him the good news and put him to sleep again. Easy. He’s a tough guy. He don’t scare. But he handles easy.”
He kicked off his slippers, one after the other like machine gun bullets, into Clive’s face. Clive fired twice by sheer instinctive reflex at the sound of their bodies tumbling off the steps. Beauvais yelled. There was a sort of animal grunt from the big man, and then there was no sound at all, no movement, no sight of anything in the smear of light by the doorway.
Clive faded sideways into the dark. He hadn’t forgotten Beauvais’s armament lying somewhere on the sand. You could find things again, and Beauvais hadn’t sounded like a man ready for the cooling board when he yelled.
He crouched, listening, shaken with anger so cold and overpowering that it caused a physical nausea. There was still no siren. He crawled forward, slowly.
Sand came flying out of the night. It hit him squarely in the eyes, and he was as blind as Samson. Somebody’s feet scruffed, running fast. He snapped a shot at the noise, shaking his head and blinking. The fine grains scoured his eyeballs and set the tears flowing.
Somebody came up behind him. Clive turned to fire, and somebody dived in low and knocked him backward. He twisted and clawed, trying to find something to shove his gun against and pull the trigger. A hand caught his wrist and pushed it up, and Beauvais yelled, “Hit him! Hit him!”
Clive swung a left-handed haymaker at the sound of Beauvais’s voice. It connected. Something broke under his knuckles. The weight shifted on his legs and Beauvais cried out harshly. He didn’t let go of Clive’s wrist. Clive doubled his knees up into his chest and let go.
He got both heels under Beauvais’s jaw. Beauvais rose up and fell backward. The force of the kick turned Clive clear over. His wrist tore loose from Beauvais’s grip, and he was still hanging onto his gun. He was halfway to his feet when the edge of Big Fella’s hand took him across the back of the neck like a poleax.
Clive fell on his face. Big Fella stooped over and took his gun and then kicked him in the side, not especially hard.
“Easy, he said. “Tough, but he handles easy.”
He stood still a moment, listening. Beauvais was on his knees, slobbering blood through his fingers.
Big Fella said suddenly, “I hurt. God damn you, you burned me.”
He leaned over and hit Clive twice under the ears, like a child in a tantrum. Clive’s body jerked. He moaned slightly. Big Fella hooked his hand in Clive’s collar and dragged him over to the steps, throwing him down on them like a sack of wheat. He went back to Beauvais.
“Di. Did he hurt you, Di?”
Clive got his eyes open. There was sand in them, and more of it in his mouth. He got his hands under him with great effort and pushed up, and then twisted his hips so that he was sitting on the stairs instead of lying on them. Presently he could see, not very clearly, a couple of dim shapes in the dirty yellow fan of light.
Big Fella had one hand pressed to his side. The other one held Clive’s revolver. Beauvais got up off his knees, unsteadily, holding his jaw together with his hands.
He said thickly, “I’m okay. You get him?”
“What took you so long?”
“He burned me. He had me down for a minute.”
Beauvais took his hands away slowly from his face. His lips were mashed. He had bled over his chin and down his shirt.
He said hoarsely, “Were you lying about not killing her?”
“I didn’t, Di. I swear to God I didn’t.”
“Give me that gun.”
Big Fella held it out. Beauvais took it. He stepped in close and shoved the muzzle into the big man’s stomach.
Big Fella’s hands stayed limp at his sides. “I’m tellin’ you, Di,” he said simply. “I didn’t kill her. I was there, but I didn’t kill her.”
Beauvais stared up into his eyes. Clive tried twice to get up and bruised himself falling back again. He thought, Mom wn here. She always said I’d get hurt.
Beauvais shuddered and let the gun drop. “And I almost killed you. You got a long record in this state. You might have got the book for the apartment job alone, but you did it anyhow.”
“Sure.” Big Fella coughed, rubbing his throat. “Sure, Di.”
Beauvais made a sound that was almost a sob. He whirled toward Clive.
“We’ll go, Big Fella. We’ll take his car. But I got something to do first.”
He raised the gun.
Big Fella knocked it aside. “There ain’t no rush, Di. He was kiddin’ about cops. The bull house ain’t more’n a mile away. They’d of been here a long time ago if they was comin’ at all.”
He moved forward, stumbled, and looked stupidly at his feet. There was nothing under them. He shook his head and went on. His eyes were little curved gashes in his face, glittering and colorless as window glass seen through slits in a curtain.
“Plenty time,” he whispered. His face screwed up. “I hurt, Di. He burned me, and I hurt.”
Beauvais raised the gun again. “We’ll hurry and get a doctor.”
l up without one. I done it before. Only I’m takin’ this guy first.”
Beauvais ran his tongue over the crusted blood on his lips and laughed. He took his finger off the trigger and laid it along the barrel.
Clive’s face tightened. He pushed his shoulders forward, clawing at the bottom tread. His skin was greasy with sweat.
Big Fella walked slowly, ahead of Beauvais. Clive got up off the steps. Big Fella put his hands out, in a clumsy sort of way. He was smiling. Clive tried to go past him to get at Beauvais. Big Fella’s fists moved so fast they blurred. Clive went back and cracked his head on the doorsill.
The pain jarred some of the numbness out of the nerve centers along his spine, and it made him mad. He rolled over, making his feet come in under him. Big Fella laughed.
“Get him, Di. He’s tough. He don’t stay down.” Clive turned and threw himself into the big man’s knees.
Big Fella’s hands slid along his back, just too late. The two of them overbalanced and fell. Clive let go. Big Fella’s knee hit him in the chest.
Clive coughed his breath out and twisted sideways, aiming in a low kick. It never landed. Beauvais came in and laid the flat of the gun along Clive’s temple. Clive dropped heavily. Beauvais kicked him. He held his broken jaw in his left hand and tried to boot Clive’s face in. Clive covered up, but it hurt. He tried to stand, and Big Fella hit him across the buttocks, knocking him flat.
Clive rolled over on his hip and swung his legs in a circle. They took Beauvais below the knee and staggered him, and before Big Fella could do anything about it Clive had grabbed Beauvais’s ankle and brought him down.
Beauvais screamed, protecting his jaw. Clive kneed him in the stomach. They rolled. Clive tried to get Beauvais’s face, but all he hit was a couple of muscular forearms. He got hold of Beauvais’s right hand and tried to pry the gun out of it.
Big Fella caught Clive around the neck from behind. Clive let go of Beauvais. He reared backward and pushed himself up, trying to get his heel in the big man’s crotch. Big Fella turned his hip. He hit Clive in the kidneys, tightened his elbow lock not quite hard enough to snap Clive’s neck, and then loosed him, stepping back.
Clive staggered and turned around and took both of Big Fella’s fists under the jaw. He fell down. After a while he tried to get up again.
Big Fella said pleasantly, “You hadn’t ought to work so hard, pal. You’ll wear yourself out.”
Clive snarled. He could see nothing but lights where there were no lights.
Big Fella waited until he was on his hands and knees and then kicked him in the stomach. He watched patiently while Clive threw up his dinner and then kicked him three or four times more, not hurrying, choosing his spots.
Clive retched and sobbed and pushed himself away from the sand, two or three inches.
“Hard boy,” said Big Fella. “Very tough. But you handle, brother.”
Beauvais said, “Turn him over.”
Big Fella lifted Clive like a cat lifting a kitten and rolled him on his back. Clive hit him twice in the face. Big Fella laughed. “Get the pansy,” he said. “Pattin’ my cheek.”
He laid Clive across his knee, holding his head back by the hair, and took both wrists in his right hand.
Beauvais said, “Clive.”
Clive looked up, not as though he saw anything clearly. His lips pulled back from his teeth. Beauvais called him three names in a voice as soft as a lover’s touch and hit him left and right across the mouth with the barrel of the .38.
“That’s for the two you gave me.”
Blood ran down Clive’s throat. He started to strangle. Big Fella let him drop in the sand.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I hurt. I wanta go somewheres and lay down.”
“Sure.” said Beauvais. “Sure. We’ll just haul him over to the canal and throw him in. He’ll like that. He used to swim there when he was a kid.”
Big Fella chuckled. He nudged Clive’s jaw with his boot. “Hear that, pally? We’re goin’ for a swim.”
Clive let his breath out harshly and jerked as though he might still be trying to get up. Big Fella laughed, grabbing a handful of his coat collar. He dragged him away toward the black water sliding in under the fog.
A horn began to scream frantically, up on the highway. Big Fella stopped.
His mouth twisted. He let go of Clive and put both hands to his side. “For Chrissake, what’s that?”
Clive’s face touched something hard, lying on the sand.
Beauvais stood listening. The horn blew and blew. Clive heard it dimly. It didn’t mean anything. The hard object under his cheek was cold. There was something familiar about it.
“The goddam fools!” said Beauvais. “They’ll have somebody down here. Kick him in and let’s go.”
Big Fella lifted him by the collar again, and Clive saw the shape of the hard thing, black against the paler sand.
The horn stopped blowing.
Big Fella stumbled, and Beauvais said, “Hurry up.”
Using both hands, Clive raised the gun and fired it into the gray thickness of Beauvais’s body. Beauvais did nothing for a moment, except to tip sideways a little with the force of the bullet. Then he folded up at the joints and pitched down.
Big Fella stopped. He let Clive fall and stood staring at Beauvais.
“Di. Di, what happened?”
Beauvais moaned. Big Fella bent over him. Clive tried to pull his gun hand out from under him. He wanted to shoot Big Fella. He wanted it so badly that he cried.
Big Fella said, “Oh, Christ” very softly. He staggered, pressing his side.
Beauvais coughed, a slow deep spasm. Blood poured out of his mouth. Big Fella put an arm around his shoulders.
“We’ll find a croaker. Take it easy, Di. Just take it easy. . . . “
It took him a long time to get Beauvais up into his arms. Clive watched him lurch off into the fog and cried because he couldn’t pull the gun free.
Clive moaned, and the blood ran sandy in his throat.
Somewhere, far off on another planet, someone screamed.
The dark shut down.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leigh Brackett‘s very first novel, the powerful No Good From a Corpse (1944), from which this excerpt was taken, was “so Chandleresque in style and approach it might have been written by Chandler himself,” according to Bill Pronzini, in Hardboiled. The book impressed film director Howard Hawks enough that he hired Leigh Brackett, the author, to co-write the screenplay with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman for The Big Sleep, his adaptation of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novel. Brackett went on to work on several more projects for Hawks, as well as for other directors, including the adaptation of another Marlowe novel, for Robert Altman 1973’s The Long Goodbye, and the first draft of the screenplay for the second (and best, IMHO) Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back.
As well as her her film work, Brackett enjoyed success in several genres: westerns (including a 1963 Spur Award for Best Western novel), science fiction (numerous novels and short stories) and, of course, the crime genre. Pronzini considers Brackett “one of the top hard-boiled writers of all time.” High praise, indeed.