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The Empty Pistol
BY CHARLES CALDWELL DOBIE
He picked up
92 ETER FINDLAY let heroic and sufficient. He had had faith
the morning paper slip in the stirring things to come, and in his
to the floor, and he be- ability to meet life's challenges boldly Regan to stir his cup of and with credit. He had even felt equal
muddy coffee. His to defeat; and now-
the paper again and reON Éhe carried a spoonful of read every word of the precise news the dark-brown liquid to his lips.
item. It was not the first time that he He felt curiously relieved to learn that had read such an item. Indeed, he there had been no hope from the start. knew the formula by heart: The police Death was instantaneous! Had he turned are making a drastic search among the back, the issue would have remained public garages and repair-shops of San unchanged. The boy had been killed Francisco for a gray touring-car with outright—the question of what prompt shattered headlights. Of course they aid would have accomplished was dis- were! But Peter Findlay was not a posed of.
fool, even though he might be a coward. Never for a moment had he doubted And in the absence of a worthy stimulus that the accident was inevitable. He he began to have a sly satisfaction at was running his car at a steady, easy the thought of how quickly he had angoing pace; the victim had materialized ticipated the inevitable program. out of thin air. Findlay had heard a When the first moment of realization cry, felt the sickening impact of col had come, far out upon the lonely road lision with a human body, caught the where he had brought his machine to sound of crashing glass, and the next an abrupt stop, there had flared up a thing he knew he found himself tearing brief Aame of passionate self-reproach past green fields, the paved streets of which urged him to face about and meet the city left far behind.
the issue squarely without further comHe felt, now, that if he were to live promise. The unleashed fear that gave to be a hundred he would never forget an ugly lie to the fiction of his selfthat dreadful moment when he had restraint had spent itself in fight. He brought his machine to an abrupt stop saw then that his action had been not and faced the issue squarely. He, only unworthy—it had been foolish; Peter Findlay, had knocked down a fel the accident was unavoidable; he was low human being and ridden away with- in no wise to blame; there had been out so much as an impulse to turn not the slightest reason for flight. back.
But there had been nothing comfortPeter Findlay always had prided him- ing in his belated reflections; instead, self upon his emotional restraint. He he had felt the chagrin of a thief capliked to put the emphasis on the canny tured by an obvious and bungling ruse, side of his Scotch heritage; he liked to as if Fate suddenly had snared him think of himself as temperate, well- with an empty pistol. And his back poised, undismayed by uncomfortable had stiffened with hollow spiritual · issues. In the quiet security of his very bravado as pride succeeded blind inordinary life, he had gone through re stinct in the fight for his soul's poshearsals for brave performances with a session. preening confidence. His self-satisfied With an empty pistol! The phrase vision had pierced the mists of every- struck him again with all its bitter irony day experience and discerned a future as he scraped the sugar from the bottom
of his cup of coffee and beckoned the Findlay unawares. He was conscious slovenly waiter. The man
of a raw edge of irritability in his tone. ward, a greasy towel slung limply over The waiter's glance of surprise was one arm, his fiat feet clicking noisily on succeeded by an insolent shrug. Peter the floor. Findlay ordered another dish Findlay started the engines and the car of buttered toast. He was determined shot forward. His heart was beating to be leisurely; he had been tricked violently. Could it be possible that he into an emotional indiscretion for the
was getting the habit of emotional first and last time, he told himself. hysteria? he asked himself. He had Henceforth he intended to proceed calm eluded the temptation to indulge in a ly, refusing to be confused by the quick long and unconvincing explanation, only turns of circumstance. He was satis to succumb to an ill-timed exhibition fied that at least he had retrieved some
of bad temper. of his initial mistake by the clear “I'll have to watch my step,” he mindedness of his following actions. warned himself. Most men, he Aattered himself, would And at that moment he began to have continued in a state of panic-run rehearse for the hundredth time the their tale-bearing car into a ditch and story he had prepared for his wife. abandoned it, or done something equally foolish. Or they might even have been It was a clear morning-an unusual thoughtless enough to have returned to thing in San Francisco during midtown and put into a repair-shop in the
As a general rule the early hope of quickly wiping out all evidence hours of August days are shrouded in of a smash-up. But Peter Findlay mists along the coast of California, and knew a thing or two.
He had kept on
it is noon before the sun comes shivering riding all night, slipping into the city out of gloom. But this August mornat an early hour, casually, boldly, with ing was an exception, as if determined the dust of the highway as evidence to stamp itself upon the consciousness that he had come a long way.
of Peter Findlay. The breeze, instead Over the dregs of his coffee-cup he of blowing mostly from the west, was found heart to chuckle at the thought stealing in from the hot, eastward valof thick-witted policemen making the leys; already the city had assumed a rounds of all the public garages and restless, peevish air under this sultry repair-shops while the car they sought inland assault. stood just outside an obscure Third Peter Findlay looked up at the inStreet coffee-house, a challenge to offi tolerant sun
and cursed under his cial stupidity:
breath. “Everybody's bound to be up He paid his bill and departed. The early a morning like this,” he muttered. waiter, surprised at so unusual a thing He glanced at his watch. It had just as a tip, followed him to the door with passed six o'clock. a series of obsequious bows.
Six o'clock in the morning on Peter "I shouldn't have given a tip!" Findlay's middle-class street was norflashed through Findlay's mind. "Imally as dormant an hour as one could shouldn't have done anything to draw wish for. Except for the newsboy Alingattention."
ing skilfully twisted papers up long The man, shielding his eyes from a flights of wooden steps, or a rumbling warm sun, walked toward the curb. bakery wagon bumping along the stone“Ah, you've had a smash-up!” he said. paved thoroughfare, the block was al
Findlay flushed. “Yes," he answered, ways as deserted as a playhouse at as he climbed into the car.
midnight. But, thanks to this unThe waiter began to circle inquisitive- usually bright morning, Findlay told ly about, rubbing his fawning hands to himself that everybody would be stirgether. His little ferret-like eyes darted ring. Already sparrows were rowdily with malicious curiosity—at least so it chirping in long, restless lines along the seemed to Peter Findlay.
telegraph wires, and the barking of “What's wrong-what are you look- yard-pent dogs expanded in the thick, ing at?” The question snapped from heavy air.
"It's just my luck!" Findlay repeated, routed by the expectation of his wife's monotonously. “It's just my luck!" disconcerting retort:
He had the trick of most people who “But, Peter, why didn't you teleeither fancy that they are important phone?" enough for Fate's vindictive persecu Why indeed? tion, or who forget how many times "Let me see,” he mused, intent on they make port on the flood tide of giving his carefully prepared tale the chance. He reflected that in a crisis test of an audible recital, “Mr. Jenkins, circumstances were always perverse. the cashier of the bank, was home sick Not that he had experienced any de at Hillsboro. He 'phoned me to come cidedly critical moments in his career, down for a conference at about four but he had read stories, and gone to o'clock. I expected to be back in time plays, and watched screen dramas un for dinner, but couldn't make it. On fold with relentless inevitability. In the way home my machine skidded and this fictional life with which he was hit a fence. Bang! went the lights. I saturated the courses of both the hero pulled out of this mess only to have and the villain were obstructed by every my machine die on
seven miles conceivable mischance in the calendar. from no-place, and not a machine in Things happened just as they were hap- sight. Finally a fellow came along and pening this morning. Had not his towed me into Colma. Stayed there broken headlights already occasioned re all night at a dinky Italian hotel and mark and given rise to a betrayal of got patched up at a garage early in the self-consciousness that amounted almost morning. And here I am.” to indiscretion? And now, when a dull, “But, Peter, why didn't you teledrab morning would have offered every phone?” opportunity to slink unseen into the “Oh yes, I forgot! I tried to raise drowsy reaches of upper Pine Street, you from Burlingame. The operator the day broke unclouded; not only un said the line was out of order. It clouded, but uncomfortably warm-a isn't? Well, you know what disgusting sure temptation for habitual sluggards liars these telephone girls are." to deviate from their drowsy ways. Peter Findlay rehearsed this last
The depression that followed Peter reply with an air of satisfied triumph. Findlay's analysis of the situation was Then he glanced about. He was on succeeded by a feeling of cunning ela Post Street, crossing Fillmore. In a few tion. On second thought, he was glad moments he would be home. A tongueof these tilts with Fortune. They gave tying dryness crept into his mouth. He him a sense of conflict, which drugged felt a sudden nausea. the sting of yesterday's defeat. He “I'm nervous, that's what is the matcomforted himself that if he had failed ter, ," he muttered. “Naturally, after to be heroic he might at least qualify what happened yesterday—” for shrewdness. After all, his supreme Suddenly it came to him that he was test was to come; he was still to have passing the very point where the accia chance to prove his mettle.
dent had occurred. Again he felt the Of course his wife would be up; this impact of collision, again he heard the was inevitable; not because of the crash of shattered glass, again he woke morning's sultriness so much as because up miles from town. And again he an anxious night uld have made her beheld himself trapped by the sneering restless and uneasy. Peter Findlay was figure of Fate standing in sinister dignot given to sudden disappearances, and nity before him—trapped by the sneerhe tried to picture his wife's growing ing figure of Fate with an empty pistol alarm as the hours wore on without his in its skinny hand. appearance. It occurred to him now that he could have telephoned. Well, Curiously enough, the unusual sunthere was nothing to be done but face shine had not roused the sluggishness of the music, and all the confidence with upper Pine Street. Having gone to all which he had looked forward to put the elaborate mental preparation for ting up a convincing argument was this contingency, Findlay felt a bit