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The First Day
In the beginning it was without form, a darkness that kept shifting like dancers. There was music beyond, tiny, cheerful, baffling, and then it would be vast, rushing on you and, as it rushed, losing its music in sounds so big you flowed through the spaces like a gnat in an air stream, and then it was past and dwindling and tiny music again and there was the darkness shifting again.
Everything swayed. He felt seasick.
That might be a sea sky up there over the Atlantic night with a shadow like a wash cloud and trembly places where stars were. And the music could be singing in the fo'c'sle or the shift of black water. He knew it was real, because when he closed his eyes the cloud and the stars blinked out, although the sway remained and so did the music. There was also the smell of fish and something with a complicated taste, like sour honey.
It was interesting because everything was a problem and having sights and sounds and smells and tastes to worry over gave him a feeling of new importance, as if before he had been nothing. It was like being born. It was like being born in a ship. You lay in the ship and the ship rocked and you rocked with it in the rocking night, looking up at the ceiling of the sky.
You could rock here forever in this pleasant timelessness if only things remained the same, but they did not. The sky was closing in and the stars were coming down and this was another puzzle, because instead of growing as they neared they shrank. Even the quality of the rocking changed: it had muscles in it now and suddenly he thought, Maybe it's not the ship that's rocking, but me.
He opened his eyes.
He was seated on something hard that gave. His knees were pressing against his chin. His hands were locked around his shins and he was rocking back and forth.
Somebody said, "It isn't a ship at all," and he was surprised because the voice was familiar and for the life of him he couldn't remember whose it was.
He looked around rather sharply.
Nobody was in the room.
It was a room.
The discovery was like a splash of seawater.
He unclasped his hands and put them down flat against something warm and grainy yet slithery to the touch. He did not like it and he raised his hands to his face. This time his palms were offended as if by mohair and he thought, I'm in a room and I need a shave but what's a shave? Then he remembered what a shave was, and he laughed. How could he possibly have had to think what a shave was?
He lowered his hands again and they felt the slithery stuff and he saw that it was a sort of blanket. At the same instant he realized that during his reflections the darkness had gone away.
He frowned. Had it ever been there at all?
Immediately he knew it had not. Immediately he knew the sky had never been, either. It's a ceiling, he thought, scowling, and a damned scabby ceiling at that. And those stars were phonies, too. Just fugitives of sunstreaks sneaking in through the tears in an exhausted window shade. Somewhere a voice was bellowing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." There was also sloshing water. And that smell was fish all right, fish frying in lard. He swallowed the sour-sweet taste and he realized that the taste was also an odor and that both were in chemical combination in the air he was breathing. No wonder he felt like heaving. The air was aged, like cheese.
Like cheese with socks on, he thought, grinning. Where am I?
He was sitting up on a bed of fancy iron which had once been painted white but now was suffering from a sort of eczema, facing a slash of undecided glass. The room was comically small, with banana-colored walls. And, he thought, grinning again, the banana's peeling.
That's three times I've laughed, he thought; I must have a sense of humor. But where the hell am I?
There was a grand oval-backed chair with carving and a mumpy green horsehair seat, an X of wire holding its elegant legs together; a man with long hair who looked as if he were dying stared at him from a tilted calendar on the wall; and the back of the door poked a chipped china clotheshook at him, like a finger. A finger in a mystery, but what was the answer? Nothing was on the hook, nothing was on the chair, and the man in the picture looked as familiar as the voice which had said it wasn't a ship, only both remained just out of reach.
The man on the bed with his big knees sticking up was a dirty bum, that's what he was, a dirty bum with a beat-up face who hadn't even bothered to take his dirty clothes off, the dirty bum; he sat there wrapped in his own dirt as if he liked it. And this was a pain.
Because I'm the man on the bed and how can I be the man on the bed when I never saw the dirty bum before?
It was a sticker.
It was a sticker when you not only didn't know where you were but who you were, either.
He laughed again.
I'll flop back on this alleged mattress and go to sleep, he thought, that's what I'll do; and the next thing Howard knew he was a ship again under a covering of stars.
When Howard awoke for the second time it was all different, no gradual being born again, no ship fantasy or any of that nonsense; but an opening of the eyes, a recognition of the foul room, of the Christ on the calendar, of the broken mirror, and he was out of the functional bed in a bound and glaring at his remembered image. Nearly everything flashed back in place in his head: who he was, where he came from, even why he had come to New York. He remembered catching the Atlantic Stater at Slocum. He remembered trudging up the ramp from the smelter of Track 24 into the oven of Grand Central Station. He remembered phoning the Terrazzi Galleries and asking what time the doors opened for the Djerens exhibition, and the annoyed European voice saying in his ear, "The exhibition of Mynheer Djerens expired as of yesterday." And he remembered opening his eyes in this garbage can. But between the voice and the room hung a black mist.
Howard got the shakes.
He knew he was going to get them before he got them. But he didn't know they were going to be so bad. He tried to control himself. But muscle-tightening only made them worse. He went to the door with the chipped-china hook.
I can't have slept very long this last time, he thought. They're still sloshing water around out there.
He opened the door.
The hall was an odorous memorial to departed feet.
The old man pushing the mop looked up.
"Hey, you," said Howard. "Where am I?"
The old man leaned against the mop and Howard saw that he had only one eye. "I was out West one time," the old man said. "I traveled in my day, cully. There was this Red Injun sitting outside a wide place in the road. Nothing for miles around, see, just this one little old shack, and a mountain back there. Kansas, I think it was—"
"More likely Oklahoma or New Mexico," said Howard, finding himself holding up the wall. That fish had been eaten, no doubt, but its corpse haunted the place tantalizingly. He'd have to eat, and soon; that's the way it always was. "What's the point? I've got to get out of here."
"This Injun, he was sitting on the dirt with his back against this shack, see—"
Suddenly the old man's eye shifted to the center of his forehead and Howard said, "Polyphemus."
"No," said the old fellow, "I didn't know his name. The thing is, right over this Red Injun's head, nailed to the wall, was a sign on it with great big red sort of lettering. And what do you think it says?"
"What?" said Howard.
"Hotel Waldorf," said the old fellow triumphantly.
"Thanks a lot," said Howard. "That really sets me up, old-timer. Now where the hell am I?"
"Where the hell would you be?" snarled the old man. "You're in a flophouse, my friend, a flophouse on the Bowery, which was good enough for Steve Brody and Tim Sullivan but it's too good for the likes of you, you dirty bum."
The slop pail flew. It took off like a bird. Then it landed on its side with a musical splash.
The old man quivered as if Howard had kicked, not the pail, but him. Standing there in the gray suds, he looked about to cry.
"Give me that mop," said Howard. "I'll clean it up."
"You dirty bum!"
Howard went back into the room.
He sat down on the bed and cupped his palms over his mouth and nose, exhaling hard, because he was hoping hard.
But he hadn't been drinking, after all.
His hands dropped.
His hands dropped and there was blood all over them.
Blood all over his hands.
Howard tore at his clothes. His fawn gabardine was ripped and wrinkled, grease-smeared, stiff with filth. He reeked like the pens on Jorking's farm beyond Twin Hill. As a boy he had taken the long way round to Slocum Township just to avoid Jorking's pigs. But now it didn't matter; it was even pleasant, because it wasn't what you were looking for.
He searched himself like a louse-ridden monkey.
And suddenly he found it. A big, brown-black clot. Part of the clot was on his lapel. The other part was on his shirt. The clot was making the shirt stick to the suit. He tore them apart.
The raw edge of the clot was fibrous.
He jumped off the bed and ran over to the slice of mirror. His right eye resembled an old avocado pit. There was a scarlet trench across the bridge of his nose. The left side of his lower lip was blown up like a piece of bubble gum. And his left ear was a caricature in purple.
He had picked a fight!
Or had he?
And he had lost.
Or had he won?
Or had he won and lost, too?
He held his shaky hands up to his functioning eye and peered at them. The knuckles of both were gashed, scraped, oversize. The blood had run into the blond hairs, making them stand up stiff, like mascaraed eyelashes.
But that's my own blood.
He turned his hands palms up and relief washed over him in a wave.
There was no blood on the palms.
Maybe I didn't kill anybody after all, he thought gleefully.
But his glee dribbled away. There was that other blood. On his suit and shirt. Maybe it wasn't his. Maybe it was someone else's. Maybe this time it had happened.
This is going to push me over, he thought. If I keep thinking about it, by God I'll go right over.
The pain in his hands.
He went through his pockets slowly. He had left home with over two hundred dollars. The inventory was perfunctory; he had no real hope of finding anything and he was not disappointed. His money was gone. So was his watch, with the miniature gold sculptor's mallet his father had given him to wear as a fob the year he went to France. So was the gold fountain pen Sally had given him last year for his birthday. Rolled. Maybe after he'd checked into this opium den. It sounded plausible; they'd never have given him a room without payment in advance.
Howard tried to conjure up "desk clerk," "lobby," "Bowery"—how it had all looked the night before.
Night before. Or two nights before. Or two weeks before. The last time it had taken six days. Once it had been for a mere couple of hours. He never knew until afterwards because the thing was like a streak of dry rot in Time, unmeasurable except by what surrounded it.
Howard went drearily to the door again.
"What's the date?"
The old man was on his knees in the slop, soaking it up with his mop.
"I said what's the date."
The old man was still offended. He wrung the mop out over the pail stubbornly.
Howard heard his own teeth grinding. "What is the date?"
The old man spat. "You get tough, brother, I'll call Bagley. He'll fix your wagon. He'll fix it." Then he must have seen something in Howard's good eye, because he whined, "It's the day after Labor Day," and he picked up the pail and fled.
Tuesday after the first Monday in September.
Howard hurried back into the room and over to the calendar.
The year on it was 1937.
Howard scratched his head and laughed. Cast away, that's what I am. They'll find my bones on the bottom of the sea.
Howard began to look for it, frantically.
He had started The Log immediately after his first baffling cruise through time-space. Making a nightly report to himself enabled him to fix the conscious part of his existence, it provided a substantial deck for his feet from which to look back over those black voyages. But it was a curious log. It recorded only the events, as it were, on shore. For the intervals he passed on the timeless sea the pages stood smooth and blank.
His diary was a collection of fat black pocket notebooks. As he filled one he put it away in his writing desk at home. But he always carried the current one.
If they'd lifted that, too—!
But he found it in the outside breast pocket of his jacket, under the Irish linen handkerchief.
The final entry told him that this latest voyage had lasted nineteen days.
He found himself staring through the dirty window.
Three stories above the street.
But suppose I just break my leg?
He plunged out into the hall.
Ellery Queen said he wouldn't listen to a word until later because a story told under stress of pain and hunger and exhaustion, while it might interest poets and priests, could only prove a waste of time to a man of facts. So pure selfishness demanded that he strip Howard, toss him into a hot tub, scrape off his beard, doctor his wounds, provide him with clean clothing, and push a breakfast into him consisting of a large glass to tomato juice mixed with Worcestershire and tabasco, a small steak, seven pieces of hot buttered toast, and three cups of black coffee.
"Now," said Ellery cheerfully, pouring the third cup, "I recognize you. And now you can probably think with at least a primitive efficiency. Well, Howard, when I last saw you, you were bashing marble. What have you done—graduated to flesh?"
"You examined my clothes."
Ellery grinned. "You were a long time in that tub."
"I was a long time walking up here from the Bowery."
"You know I am. You looked through my pockets."
"Naturally. How's your father, Howard?"
"All right." Then Howard looked startled and pushed away from the table. "Ellery, may I use your phone?"
Ellery watched him go into the study. The door didn't quite close after him and Ellery was reluctant to make a point of closing it. Apparently Howard was putting through a long-distance call, because for some time there was no sound from beyond the door.
Ellery reached for his after-breakfast pipe and reviewed what he knew of Howard Van Horn.
It wasn't much and what there was of it lay darkly behind a war, an ocean, and a decade. They had met on the terrasse of the café at the corner where the Rue de la Huchette meets the Boulevard St. Michel. This was prewar Paris: Paris of the Cagoulards and the populaires; of the incredible Exposition, when Nazis with elaborate cameras and guidebooks infested the Right Bank, shouldering their way Uebermensch-wise through pale refugees from Vienna and Prague, going to view Picasso's mural, Guernica, with every appearance of tourist passion; Paris of the raging Spanish argument, while across the Pyrenees Madrid lay dying of nonintervention. A decaying Paris, and Ellery was there looking for a man known as Hansel, which is another and dated story and therefore will probably never be told. But since Hansel was a Nazi, and few Nazis were believed to come to the Rue de la Huchette, that was where Ellery looked for him.
And that was where he found Howard.
Howard had been living on the Left Bank for some time, and Howard was unhappy. The Rue de la Huchette did not share the confidence of other Parisian quarters in the impregnability of the Maginot Line; there were disturbing political atmospheres; it was all upsetting to a young American who had come abroad to study sculpture and whose head was full of Rodin, Bourdelle, neoclassicism, and the purity of Greek line. Ellery recalled that he had felt rather sorry for Howard; and because a man who is watching the world go by is less conspicuous if he is two, he permitted Howard to share his terrasse table. For three weeks they saw a great deal of each other; until one day Hansel came strolling out of fourteenth century France, which is the Rue St. Séverin, into Ellery's arms, and that was the end of Howard.
Excerpted from Ten Days' Wonder by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1948 Little, Brown and Company. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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Posted July 1, 2014