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The Dark Tunnel
By Ross Macdonald
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1949 Kenneth Millar
All rights reserved.
DETROIT IS USUALLY HOT and sticky in the summer, and in the winter the snow in the streets is like a dirty, worn-out blanket. Like most other big cities it is best in the fall, when there is still some summer mellowness in the air and the bleak winds have not yet started blowing down the long, wide streets. The heart of the city was clean and sunlit on the September afternoon that Alec Judd and I drove over from Arbana. The skyscrapers stood together against the powder-blue sky with a certain grotesque dignity, like a herd of frozen dinosaurs waiting for a thaw.
Alec drove his car into a parking-lot off Jefferson and we got out and headed for the Book Tower Building. His legs were not long for his height, a couple of inches less than my six feet, but his long, aggressive stride compensated for the length of his legs and I had to stretch mine to keep up with him. At thirty-nine he was so fit that years of deskwork had failed to bow his shoulders.
"Well, here we go," he said. "Wish me luck."
"Like hell I will. You know what I think of your going in the Navy. Anyway, I'm the one that needs the luck."
"You don't have to worry, they'll take you."
"Maybe," I said. "The Army turned me down last year."
"That was last year. They've given up using Superman as a standard."
"Perhaps the Army has. The Navy's still pretty fussy, I hear. They want only men with hawk eyes who were born with a caul and can't drown."
"Where does that leave me?" Alec said. "You've got ten years on me."
"They'll snap you up in a hurry, and you know it. They've been casting yearning glances at you ever since Pearl Harbor."
Behind his optimistic square face and casual wisecracking manner Alec had a brain that cut through administrative work like a buzz saw and stacked it in neat piles like lumber. He had been head of the War Board at Midwestern University since war broke out and had piloted the university through the transition from a peacetime to a wartime program.
His mind was as broad and humorous as his mouth, but when he got hold of an idea he held on like a bulldog. Now he had the idea that he wasn't doing enough for the war effort and should join the Navy.
We walked the rest of the way to the Book Tower Building in silence and took the elevator to the Naval Procurement offices on the ninth floor.
The brown-faced officer behind the information desk stood up and put out his hand when Judd told him his name. "I've heard about you, Dr. Judd. I'm pleased to meet you, sir. My name's Curtis."
"How do you do, Lieutenant," Judd said as they shook hands.
"Didn't you help set up the V-12 program at Midwestern?" the officer asked.
"That's right. By the way, this is Dr. Branch."
Curtis and I shook hands. "I've heard your name, too, Dr. Branch," he said with an expression that couldn't remember where.
"I'm secretary of the War Board," I offered. "Not forever, I hope."
"What can I do for you gentlemen?" asked Curtis.
"Tell us how to get into the Navy," Judd said. "I've sent hundreds of boys over here in the last couple of years but I don't know what to do now that I'm here myself."
"It's easier to get in than to get out," Curtis said with a white enamel smile, "if you've got the qualifications. Let's see, I'd better take you one at a time."
He picked up a pen and took a slip of paper from a pile in the drawer of the desk. Then he turned to Alec and asked with a smile, "How many years of college?"
"Too many," Alec said. "About eight as a student, I guess, and fifteen as a teacher."
"That should be enough, eh? Dr. Branch?" He picked up another slip.
"Seven years as a student, and I've been teaching five."
"Well," Curtis said, "the first thing you men have to do is have your eyes tested. So many are rejected on account of eyes that we put that test first. Just take these slips down the hall and have a chair." He handed us our slips and pointed to the right. "And Dr. Branch, you'd better take your glasses off to rest your eyes while you're waiting for the doctor."
I took off my glasses. Curtis said, "Good luck," as we went out the door. I followed Alec down the hall to the bare anteroom of the eye-testing department, and we sat down on two folding chairs against the wall.
I returned to the subject that Alec and I had been arguing over for days: "I still don't get it, Alec. You're an irreplaceable man doing an essential job. What the hell do you want to join the Navy for?"
He said with the cheerfulness of an obstinate man who intends to go right on being obstinate: "I told you. I have an urge to know what the wild Waves are saying."
"I'm trying to be serious and all you do is make lousy puns. It's not that I care what you do. I'm wondering what's going to happen to the War Board after you leave."
"It'll muddle along the same as it has for the last two years. I'm not indispensable. Nobody's indispensable, except Harry Hopkins. And anyway, they haven't taken me yet."
"They will," I said. "They'll send you to Fort Schuyler for indoctrination and then give you a job somewhere doing exactly what you're doing now. Your character is your fate, and you're an executive. They'll keep you away from water as if you had hydrophobia, and put you aboard an office building."
"Not if I can help it." His jaw pushed out. "I'm tired of fighting this war with the seat of my pants."
"Johnny wants a gun," I said bitterly. "Where would we be if everybody felt like that? It takes a lot of guts sometimes to go on holding down a civilian job when you want to get into the fun and games."
Alec didn't like that. He flushed and snapped, "I suppose Guadal and Salerno were fireworks displays."
"Not to the men who were there. That's not what I mean and you know it. I mean simply that you're more useful where you are than you would be anywhere else."
"What about you?" Alec said. "Have you a hidden talent for naval warfare? What's the War Board going to do without a secretary?"
"You're confusing the issue. If the Navy doesn't get me, the Army will. They turned me down last year but they won't this year. And I just happen to prefer the Navy, if I can get in. I like water better than land."
"My position exactly."
"Like hell it is. You're too old for the draft, and you'll never see sea duty anyway, unless you go to sea in a filing cabinet."
"That's right," Alec said with a grin that did not change the stubbornness of the jaw. "Make mock of my grey hairs." He hadn't any: the close-cut nap of hair on his head was as black as mine.
The examining yeoman came in, a narrow-faced young man in a white tunic.
"Which of you men is first?" he said. He went into the adjoining room and switched on the light over an eye-testing chart on the far wall.
"Go ahead, Alec." He got up and followed the yeoman, who shut the door behind him. In no more than a minute, he opened the door and came out smiling.
"Favorable verdict?" I asked.
"20/20. It sounds like something by H. G. Wells."
"Next," the examiner said through the doorway. I stepped in and closed the door.
"Stay where you are." He handed me a piece of cardboard with a round hole in it. "Now look through this hole with the right eye and walk forward until you can read the letters at the top."
I moved forward a couple of steps and read the jumbled alphabet aloud. Another two steps and I could read everything on the card.
"O.K." the yeoman said. "Now go back and try it with the left eye. Read them backwards this time."
I had to trek nearly the whole length of the room before I could read the smallest letters at the bottom of the card.
"Not so good," the yeoman said. "How do you account for the comparative weakness of your left eye? Did anything ever happen to it?"
"Yes," I said. An old anger woke up and moved in my stomach. "A Nazi officer hit me across the face with his swagger stick in Munich six years ago. That eye's never been the same since."
"No wonder you want to get into this war," he said. "But I'm afraid the Navy won't take you. Maybe the Army will, I don't know."
"What's my score?"
"Not good enough, I'm sorry to say. Your right eye just about makes the grade but your left is way down. Too bad."
I said, "Thanks," and walked out to the front office. I didn't realize I could still be angry after six years, but my legs were stiff with rage. I put my slip on Curtis's desk and sat down to wait for Alec.
Curtis saw the figures on my slip and the look on my face and said, "That's too bad, Dr. Branch."
"Thanks. Where's Judd?"
He jerked his thumb towards an open door. "He's being interviewed. It takes half an hour or so." He went back to work on a pile of papers in front of him.
I remembered the glasses in my hand and put them on and looked out of the window. What I saw was a street in Munich on a night six years before: brown stone walls like carved cliffs in the lamplight and four men in black uniform coming out of a doorway like an arched cave, walking in step. I saw again like a repeated nightmare the stick raised above the white hostile face, and the girl getting up from the road with bloody knees. I felt the hot pain of the swishing stick across my face and the pleasure of bruising my knuckles on the white snarl and hearing the head strike the pavement.
A sharp pain in my right hand reminded me that the place was Detroit and the time was six years later. I looked at my hand and saw that I was clenching my fist so tightly that the nails were digging into the palm. I lit a cigarette and tried to relax.
I had been waiting for about half an hour when Alec came into the outer office. His back was straighter than ever, if possible.
He handed Curtis a sheaf of papers and said, "Can I take the physical now?"
"Not this afternoon," Curtis said. "Any morning, though. To-morrow morning if you can make it. We open at 8:30 and the earlier you come the shorter time you'll have to wait."
"I'll be here at 8:30 to-morrow," Alec said, and turned to me. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
"As much as I can do to-day." His voice lowered sympathetically as we went out the door: "You didn't come in for your interview. Didn't you make it?"
"My left eye is not the eye of an American eagle," I said. "I'd still like to meet Carl von Esch, to talk over old times."
"Don't let it ride you." He squeezed my arm. "The Army's sure to take you when your number comes up again. They're reclassifying, you know."
"Don't worry, I won't brood," I said, and manufactured a grin. "It looks as if you'll make it, doesn't it?"
"If I can pass the physical. The officer who interviewed me was pretty encouraging."
We took the elevator down and went out into the street. The sky was still blue and bright but the memory of the night in Munich hung across it like a shadow. There was a first faint chill of winter in the air, and I felt older.
On the way back to the parking-lot neither of us said anything. We were good enough friends not to have to talk, and I had nothing to say. Alec seemed to be thinking about something. The lines that slanted down from his blunt nose were deep and harsh, and he didn't walk as fast as he had before.
Even after we reached the car and headed out of the city, the silence remained unbroken. He'd have unfinished business to worry about, I thought, and let him worry. He drove smoothly and automatically by instinct, and his brain went on working on something else.
When we were approaching Dearborn, I got tired of reading billboards to myself and said, "Are passengers allowed to talk to the driver of this bus?"
"Eh?" He smiled a little sheepishly.
"What's eating you? You tell me not to brood and immediately pull a Hamlet yourself."
"Sorry. Matter of fact, I want to talk to you about this. Let's go in there and have a beer." He nodded his head at a tavern that we were passing.
"I could do with a beer."
He turned down the next side-street and parked, and we got out and walked back to the tavern. It was a long, dim room lit by red neon, with a black bar running the length of it punctuated by red leather stools. The juke box at the back of the room looked like a small French chateau that had swallowed a rainbow. As we entered somebody put in a nickel and it began to cough rhythmically.
The place was nearly empty and we had one end of the bar to ourselves. We slid onto stools and Alec ordered two beers from a waitress who wore powder like a clay mask.
When we got our beer, I said, "What's on your mind?"
He wasn't ready to talk. "Look about you," he said. "The twentieth-century inferno, and we pay to sit in it. Red light like hell-fire. Ear-busting noise, and we pay the juke to lambaste our ears. Bitter beer."
"And horrible hags to serve it," I said. At the other end of the bar the two waitresses were giggling together over the exploits of their grandchildren.
"Walk down the streets of Detroit and what do you see," Alec went on. "Grey streets bounded by grey walls. Men caught in the machines. The carnivores creep between the walls on rubber tires. The parrots squawk from the radio in every home. The men run round in the buildings like apes in iron trees. A new kind of jungle." He drained his glass and ordered more.
"Baloney," I said. "Look at the other side of the medal. Hot lunches for children and advanced medical facilities. Cars for everybody—after the war. Education for everybody now. It's a fairly Utopian jungle to my mind."
"I won't argue. I'm a country bumpkin and Detroit always gets me." He was born in Detroit. "But education isn't everything. A car in every garage isn't everything, nor a helicopter on every roof."
"You sound like Thoreau," I said. "What good is a telegraph line from Maine to Texas, if Maine has nothing to say to Texas?"
"Exactly." He was talking now, and he let me have it: "Education isn't everything. There's a certain Doctor of Philosophy, for example, that I suspect of doing a pretty barbarous thing."
"This is serious. You can keep it under your hat." I nodded.
"I'm telling you because I may need your help. I've got to clean this thing up before I go into the Navy."
"I'll help of course," I said. "But what do you want me to help do?"
He answered my question in his own way:
"I'm not in a position to go to the F.B.I. I'm not certain I'm right, and if I'm wrong I can't ruin a man's career for nothing. But there's been a leakage of information from the War Board to Nazi agents. You know we handle some pretty confidential stuff, and I've got to plug that leak. If I can uncover enough evidence to turn the case over to the Federal boys with a clear conscience—"
"Christ, do you suspect a member of the board?"
The five other members of the board flashed through my mind like actors in a disconnected movie short. Hunter, Leverett, Jackson, Vallon, Schneider. The President of the University, an ex officio member, attended some of the meetings, but he was above suspicion. Jackson was too: a former braintruster, head of the economics department, and a grassroots American liberal.
Hunter, a small brown man who looked like an efficiency expert and knew fifteen languages, hated the Nazis so much that when he was in Washington on a government assignment, the Dies Committee almost investigated him. Colonel Leverett commanded the troops on the campus and had taught at West Point. Vallon, of Romance Languages, was the descendant of a Rochellois Protestant who had come to America at the beginning of the eighteenth century. He was a slim, elegant man who wore a ruby on his left hand and looked like a prosperous actor. Vallon was said to have a Puritan conscience but I had never met his conscience.
Schneider was a German, Doctor of Philosophy of Heidelberg and head of the Department of German at Midwestern since 1935. He had left his chair at the University of Munich in protest against Nazi philosophies of education soon after Hitler rose to power. His classic letter of resignation to the Chancellor of the University of Munich had been published in translation in the United States, and made several hundred dollars in royalties for the International Red Cross.
"Do you suspect Schneider?" I asked.
"Why? On what grounds?" His judgments were impulsive at times and I wondered if this was a time.
"That's what I was thinking. What about me, then? I need the money more than Schneider with his ten thousand a year."
"Sure. Do you suspect yourself? Do you love Germany?" His irony was as subtle as a blowtorch.
"Not passionately," I said.
Excerpted from The Dark Tunnel by Ross Macdonald. Copyright © 1949 Kenneth Millar. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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