Monday, February 29, 2016

Spy Killer - Chapter 1 - A Spy Who Kills, Or A Killer of Spies?

It occurs to me that, in going through these classic Hubbard pulp stories, we’ve really been retreading Mission Earth - or rather, its components, one at a time.  “Space Can” covered space combat, “The Great Secret” inane moralizing, “The Beast” the horrors of degenerate humanoids, “The Slaver” slavery, Under the Black Ensign did the pirate/outlaw angle, there were gangsters in “The Last Drop,” “If I Were You” did... the circus?  Like how all the nonsense in Mission Earth’s backstory got kicked off when young Lombar Hisst saw pictures of Barnum and Bailey’s sideshow freaks?

Anyway, here we have Spy Killer, which you might be able to guess is about espionage.  And, since the story is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, and was written by L. Ron Hubbard, we’ll also be getting our dose of casual racism.  Now all we need to complete the Mission Earth experience are short stories about car racing, sex offenders, and some rambling tale where the protagonist tries and fails to make something of a long weekend because they just can't work up the energy or inspiration.

The water was black and the swim was long, but when a man is faced with death he does not consider odds.

Nor does he when he’s drunk.  Or gambling.

Kurt Reid went over the side of the tanker Rangoon in a clean dive, cleaving the swirling dark water of the Huangpu.  The strong current swept him downriver toward the gaily lighted Bund.  He did not want to go there.  He knew that authorities would be after him like baying hounds before the night was out.

Luckily for our protagonist, a sampan chooses that moment to row between him and the city, and Reid takes the opportunity to climb aboard.  The oarman can only stare in terror, wondering if this is “some devil come to life from the stream’s depths,” because remember the Chinese have probably never seen a white man pull himself out of the water before.  Also luckily, Reid can speak the “Shanghai dialect,” and orders the man to take him to “the native city,” which I guess is Shanghai?  Or it's probably the non-waterfront area.

The oarman, his eyes “two saucers of white porcelain” (because he’s Chinese, geddit?), can only gasp/scream “Ai... ai...”, but he complies when Reid adds a “chop-chop” to the command.  I mean, what’s he gonna do, kick his uninvited passenger off the boat?  That’s a white guy, thank you very much.

So Reid grins and gives a mock salute toward the retreating Rangoon, muttering “Get me if you can, gentleman,” and as he’s rowed to safety we finally get a page or so of exposition explaining what’s going on and what res we’re in medias of.  

Mr. Kurt Reid is a sailor, a “bucko sailor” in fact, with a hot-headed reputation.  This evening the Rangoon’s captain was found dead in his cabin with the ship’s safe open and emptied, and since Mate Reid was the last to see him, obviously he’s the guy whodunnit, right?  And rather than argue for his innocence, apparently Reid decided fleeing was the best way to deal with the situation.  Since he didn’t actually murder the captain or rob the safe, Reid only has a few dollars to survive on; however, he was raised in East Asia and knows the “yellow countries” and their languages.

Plus, he could always disguise himself - “His eyes were the color of midnight and his hair was even blacker, and the pallor of his face could be easily made saffron.”  Surprised the author didn’t mention using tape to make Reid’s eyes all squinty, but maybe he has a narrow gaze as well.

The famous port city of Shanghai is described as follows:

Rickshaws clanged, vendors yowled their wares, jugglers threw tops high into the air and made them scream.  Silk gowns rubbed against cotton gowns, scabby slippers stubbed over jeweled shoes.  The crowds in the curving streets blended into the democracy of China.

That's weird, seeing "democracy" and "China" in the same sentence like that.

Reid, towering "head and shoulders" above the locals (symbolic of the Occidentals' superiority over the Orientals?), dripping after his impromptu swim, and creating such a sight that people are actually stopping to stare at him, nevertheless thinks he'll be able to slip out of trouble if he can just find somewhere to dry off and buy some local clothes.  He stops by a tea house, finds the "round-faced, slit-eyed proprietor," declares that he fell into the river and wants to dry his clothes, and soon enough Reid is given a cubicle in the back and a charcoal brazier.  He declines this Shanghai tea house's Chinese tea in favor of some rice wine, however.

Soon enough, Reid is dry and dressed, and ready to begin his great escape.  But like many plans, his is derailed the minute he steps outside his cubicle and spies that most deadly of creatures, a woman.  She's sitting with her back to the wall, watching the street traffic, and she is not one of the local extras our protagonist has been ignoring.

He still studied the woman.  She was obviously a Russian.  Her face was flat, with high cheekbones, and her nostrils were broad.  There was the slightest hint of a slant to her eyes.  She wore a coat made of expensive fur, and a small fur hat sat rakishly on the side of her blonde head.  It was not usual to find Russian woman alone in the native city, especially Russian women who dressed so well.

Hmm, "slightest hint of a slant to her eyes" - is the big twist at the end gonna be that this is some Chinese spy in a wig?

A dollar bill (a lot of money in those days, right?) into the tea house owner's hand reveals that the dame is one Varinka Savischna.  Evidently her first name is the pet form of Varvara, or "foreign, strange," and I can't find anything about her surname from a five-second Google search, which is as much effort as I'm willing to put into this mystery.  All the owner can say about her is that she's trouble, but he grins when he notices the way Reid is looking at her.  No, excuse me, "He looked at Kurt's lean body and handsome, inquisitive face and then grinned."  Kind of an awkward way to get in a description of your main character Hubbard, especially if you're ragingly homophobic.

As though the thoughts of the two men were projected to her,

I know this turn of phrase is functionally the same as saying "as if she could read their minds," but I just prefer the latter to the former.

Varinka Savischna turned slowly in her chair, placed her arm idly against the table and tapped the toe of a fur-topped boot against the rough floor.  The steam which rose from her cup of tea was not less illusive than the quality of her eyes.  

But it was potentially no more erroneous than the demeanor of her gaze.

Casually, impersonally, she inspected the tall American.  She drew a long cigarette from her pocket and inserted it languidly between her full, scarlet lips.

Sadly, this is subtle innuendo for Hubbard.  Remember Cun and Twa?

Drawn by the "magnetic pull of her personality," Reid walks over to Savischna and lights her coffin nail without a word, and she bids him sit down.  He's got some half-baked thoughts about her being rich and him being able to get some cash by doing her a service, and sure enough she, after exchanging two sentences with him over neither of them belonging there, confesses that she's expecting a messenger but he's running late.  So perhaps this complete stranger might be willing to shuttle a letter to someone for reward.

She's not completely stupidly trusting, though, Savischna interrupts herself to wonder how she knows she can put her faith in Reid, but our hero simply says "Look at me and find out," and that's evidently enough.  But before Reid can be properly given this unexpected sidequest, two Chinese enter the establishment, tall and "bony-faced" and obviously from the north, wearing black clothing that has "the suggestion of a uniform" and holding their hands in their pockets "as though they had hidden guns."  Interesting how our narrator is more certain of these goons' ethnicity than whether they're packing heat.

The mooks are here for the girl, of course, and Savischna tries to convince Reid to just let her be captured, but our hero is having none of that - he's "spoiling for a fight," see.

There was something horrible in the way the pair walked, something which suggested an executioner's keen blade or perhaps a firing squad.

Kurt stopped.  The Chinese came on.  Kurt began to advance.  The Chinese hesitated briefly and started to pull an automatic into view.

With an ear-splitting yell, Kurt dived in toward the gun.  The blunt muzzle swept up.  Kurt's palm jabbed the slide back.  The firing pin clicked a fraction of an inch from the cartridge.

Once more, it's not quite a Hubbard Action Sequence, since there's not any exclamation marks and there's no physically implausible stunts like standing backflips or trained killers getting their asses kicked by housecats.  But it's easy to see where the Hubbard Action Sequence evolved from.  Also, Savischna gets involved, somewhat, when she abruptly forces a man's hand up so he shoots the ceiling instead of Reid.  But that's the sole mention of her in the fight scene, there's no moment where she dives forward into the scrum, she's just suddenly there.  Weird to have a female character participating in a brawl in a Hubbard story, isn't it?

So the mooks are defeated, Reid and Savischna take their automatics and flee the scene, and when they stop to gasp for breath the Russian woman chuckles about someone named Lin Wang being upset that his "Death Squad" got taken down by one man.  Not one man and a woman, just Reid.  Huh.  Maybe Varinka's mention was a typo?

Anyway, she knows a guy nearby, they go to him, and the Chinese informant reveals that someone named Sing was "made to talk" (which Savischna knows to mean he's dead now), so they have to find another safehouse before the Death Squad catches up with them.  But at least Savischna's letter gets passed along.  And with that, the two Westerners continue along Shanghai's back streets.

As the chapter - yes, this story gets actual chapters, it's quite refreshing - comes to a close, Savischna reveals that he knows who Mr. Reid is, and what trouble he's in.  He demands to know how she knows, and is instantly shot down.

"Never mind, American.  Your destiny is written tonight.

Your destiny gets written every night.  It's just that your destiny isn't always interesting, sometimes it's "he stayed home and played video games" or "he went out for dinner but they got his order wrong."

You can do one of two things.  You can drift outward and try to lose yourself - which you cannot - or you can try to be of service to me."

"There's no decision to make.  Whatever I can do-"

"Beware, think not fast, American.  I am a dangerous woman."

Kurt laughed at her and followed her through the gloom.

"Dangerous" she says, but we're still not sure whether she did anything in that fight.  Anyway, that's the first chapter of Spy Killer.  Our protagonist got into trouble and impulsively ran into the life of a fugitive, stumbled upon some spy drama and impulsively got in a brawl on behalf of a stranger, and is now tagging along with that stranger, pledged to her service, because she might be rich and she's hot.

An interesting mix of aimless drifting and hurling himself headlong into uncertain situations - Reid doesn't have much of a plan and is more or less bouncing from encounter to encounter, but when he's presented with something to do he charges in with gusto.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Last Drop - Part 4 - Probably More Than One Drop

Crow the Convenient Cabbie and O’Brien the Diapered Man-Baby drive up to the McGraw-Hill building, and come across quite a sight.  A huge crowd has gathered, complete with police and searchlights and an ambulance crew, around the gigantic form of Henry McLeod, whose fingers are gripping the 21st-floor of the building in an attempt to take some of the weight off his beleaguered legs.  And it just goes to show that television sets were new when this story was written, or else O’Brien and the others could’ve discovered McLeod’s location just by flipping on the bar’s TV instead of mucking about with phone-

Wait, he’s McLeod now.  Even though during his first appearance on the first page or so of the story, he was only ever called “Mac” by the narration.  O’Brien calls him Mac in the dialogue, but the narrator is now being formal.  Huh.

Naturally, McLeod had a wardrobe malfunction as he changed size, but unlike our hero he hasn’t fashioned a “diaper” out of anything, rather Mac looped some rope around his waist and shoved an uprooted tree down its front, sort of like a fig leaf.  Which only solves a part of his problem, of course, meaning that not only is the poor guy’s body trying to collapse under its own weight, but he’s got a audience of people staring at his gargantuan naked ass the whole time-

Wait, why hasn’t McLeod tried to communicate with anyone?  Why hasn’t he been shouting for someone to go get O’Brien so the bartender can fix whatever was in that cocktail?  Why did O’Brien have to go looking for him instead of a police officer showing up at the bar demanding that O’Brien come along?

Bah, we might as well wonder what exactly the emergency respondents’ plan is here.  Crow drives up but is stopped by a cop - not a John Law - who orders him to “Gawan” out of there.  O’Brien tells his driver to meet him at the building’s south side, then hops out to proceed on tiny little feet.  His foot-high size means that O’Brien is able to scurry through the crowd mostly unseen, and the few who spot him don’t do much since they assume that “they had suffered a brief illusion.”  Think Hubbard means delusion.

Nothing about the difficulties posed by O’Brien’s small stature, though, no constant danger of being trampled by oblivious giants, nothing about how much further he has to run and how much effort it takes.  His only real obstacle comes when he makes it inside the building and tries to climb the stairs, which are waist-high to him and hard to climb up while carrying a thermos as large as he is.

Remember when O’Brien could bounce around like a cricket?  Guess the author doesn’t.

So ultimately O’Brien decides on the elevator, even though this poses “all the risks of delay and exposure to Guanella’s friends,” because of course gangsters love to make moves against enemies in buildings surrounded by cops.  This story was written back when elevator operators were a thing, so O’Brien theoretically has someone to push the buttons for him, but while the bartender tries to be polite and reassuring, the operator first recoils “as from an angry rattlesnake,” then bolts from the elevator with the assurance that “I’m off the stuff for life, I swear!”  So O’Brien has to push the button with the thermos bottle.

He reaches the right floor, spends some time scurrying about trying to figure out which side of the building he’s on, and the author belatedly acknowledges that a tiny man running what would be normal distances is going to get tired.  But then O’Brien hears and follows a strange rhythmic roaring.

Euclid O’Brien soon found what was causing the racket.  It was the tornado of breath going in and out of McLeod’s nose, a part of which could be seen directly in front of the window at the end of the corridor.  The nose was a really alarming spectacle.  It was lit up with a crisscross of lights from the street lamps and searchlights outside, and by the corridor lights inside.  The pores were big enough for O’Brien to stick his thumb into.  Sweat ran down it in rippling sheets.

Eww, it’s like watching a movie in IMAX.  Also, try not to think about how McLeod is getting enough oxygen, or avoiding dehydration and all that.  Or what will happen if he has to go to the bathroom in his current condition.

O’Brien yells to Mac but doesn’t get a response, so he has to ponder for a bit before realizing that, since normal-sized voices sound deeper to him, his own hearing has gone up in pitch like his voice has, and therefore McLeod’s hearing has gone down in pitch like his voice has.  It makes a sort of sense, I guess.  So by speaking at a “deep bass” and telling McLeod to talk falsetto, O’Brien is able to communicate with his friend and reassure him that he’s here to fix things.

So our hero smashes the window with the thermos bottle (and has no trouble doing this despite his tiny, tiny muscles) and has McLeod to pinch his finger and thumb around the end without crushing it so he can twist and open the thing, and then...

“Stick your mouth up here!”

O’Brien never realized what a repulsive thing a human mouth can be until MacLeod’s vast red lips came moistly pouting up at him.

There we go, an efficient and effective sentence that conveys how gross things are when they’re blown out of proportion.  Pat yourself on the back, Hubbard.  Also, reader, stop wondering about body weight and proper dosages, or think how unlikely it is that enough shrinko cocktail was left in the thermos to get MacLeod back to the proper size after those gangsters force-fed O’Brien a drink from it.

It’s at this moment that those gangsters show up and shout “There he is!” from behind O’Brien.  Police cordon, lol.  The excitement proves short-lived - the bad guys scatter when MacLeod swipes at them like King Kong, then O’Brien hops on Mac’s shoulder and rides him down as the guy shrinks back to normal size, yelling an explanation into his ear as they go.

He also saw an ambulance on the edge of the crowd.  He figured the ambulance guys must have felt pretty damn silly when they saw the size of their patient.

Also, where’s the Hollywood Scientist rushed in by the military to figure out what’s up with the patient and how to weaponize it?  Or was that mainly an Atomic Era thing, so we're a bit too early for it?

MacLeod explains how he’d love to help little O’Brien fight against Guanella’s crew, except he needs to go to the hospital to see to his ruined arches.  It’s fine, though, O’Brien has a back-up plan - cheese it.  He drives off with Crow's cab, stopping only to buy a set of doll’s clothes from a drug store (and a banana, O’Brien is starving), then they hurry to the harbor to find a boat headed to the Far East.

Guanella’s goons follow, and there’s that always-exciting moment where a bullet shatters a window... though it's not really clear whether it's the cab's rear window, the window of a store along the street, or what.  Since it's a miss, O’Brien is able to reach the docks and scurry aboard a departing freighter.  Guanella, screaming “in excess of homicidal rage,” completely flips his lid when O’Brien sings a taunting song (“On the road to Mandalay-ay, there the flying fishes play-ay-ay!”) as he sails off, and so... wow.  The bad guy, literally foaming at the mouth, jumps off the pier and starts swimming after the departing boat.

Then a triangular fin - not over a couple of inches high, but still revealing its kinship to its relatives, the sharks - cut the water.  The dogfish swirled past Frankie, and there was no more midget swimmer.  There was only the moonlight, and the black hull of the freighter swinging around to start on her way to Hong Kong and Singapore.

I mean, that would've been stupid if Guanella had been normal-sized - even if there wasn't a handy shark, it's a good way to drown or catch hypothermia and so forth.  Guess this is yet another of Hubbard's self-disposing, too-stupid-to-live bad guys.

And that's the story.  We didn't learn any lessons or anything, and there wasn't any character development.  But there were one or two paragraphs dwelling on the challenges life would pose to someone who found themselves much smaller or larger than expected, so... it's not your average tale about an Irish bartender in trouble with a gang.  Seventy or eighty years ago, this could have been a real interesting, exciting piece of fiction or something.  If you couldn't get a hold of Gulliver's Travels or didn't like satire, anyway.

I can't help but wonder: how long does that shrinko stuff stay active?  Like is the dogfish that ate Guanella with it in his system going to shrink, causing it to get snapped up by an I dunno, catfish, and onward down the food chain until a bacteria is getting eaten by a virus or something?  A dizzying prospect.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Last Drop - Part 3 - One Helluva Gimmick Match

So, O'Brien has been cornered by the now-tiny Guanella's not-tiny mooks, who want him to drink a shrinking potion and "dool" their boss.  I have to wonder, is this Guanella's idea?  Or is he a helpless victim being carried around by his former underlings and forced to battle other shrunken people in a bizarre variant of cock fighting?

At any rate, O'Brien tries to claim that he's out of shrinking potion, which disappoints the mook, who raises his gun to get Frankie's revenge that way.  But then Guanella squeaks up to ask what O'Brien is lugging around in that thermos bottle.  Once he realizes that it smells like that fateful cocktail, a struggle ensues in which the glass container of magical Borneo swello syrup gets broken, which is "music in O'Brien's ears," but the thermos of shrinko cocktail survives unscathed, which is not as good.  In the end, O'Brien is pinned down and force-fed some shrinking potion, and with the syrup dripping down a sink's drain, he'll have no way to reverse the effects.

The moral of this story is to not play God when it comes to mixing... don't import strange cocktail ingredients that haven't been approved by the... if you drink something that makes you shrink, you should see if the bartender who served you can reverse the effects instead of challenging him to... uh, stay out of bars, kids.  Weird stuff can happen to you.

O'Brien soon feels his clothes becoming looser, and vainly tries to hold onto his belt to keep his pants up as he's led into the bar's back room.

"Come on in the office, all of you," said the gangster lieutenant.  He prodded the three customers and O'Brien ahead of him.  O'Brien tripped over his drooping pants.  As he reached the office door he fell sprawling.  A gangster booted him and he slid across the floor, leaving most of his clothes behind him.  The remaining garments fell of when he struggled to his feet.  The walls and ceiling were receding.  The men and furniture were both receding and growing to terrifying size.

He was shivering with cold, though the late-May air was warm.  And he felt marvelously light.  He jumped up, feeling as active as a terrier despite his paunch.  He was sure he could jump to twice his own height.

Conveniently, the amount of shrinko juice Frankie imbibed from that cocktail is the same amount as what got forced down O'Brien's throat by those thugs, so they're now the same size.  Sure'd be embarrassing if Guanella still ended up shorter than his opponent.  So while one gangster guards the door, another sets down Guanella, who has created a weapon by sticking a razorblade into a split pencil, the "smott" guy.  O'Brien doesn't get anything, because gangsters have no honor.

And here's our big fight for this story, a tiny man in a hanky-diaper wielding a battleaxe put together out of stuff you might find in your bathroom, versus the world's littlest nudist.  On the bright side, I bet you've never read anything with such a match-up, so Hubbard at least gets some points for originality.

Guanella leaped forward and swung.  The razor-axe went swish, but O'Brien had jumped back just before it arrived.  His agility surprised both himself and Guanella, who had never fought under these grasshoppery conditions.  Guanella rushed again with an overhead swing.  O'Brien jumped to one side like a large pink cricket.  Guanella swung across.  O'Brien, with a mighty leap, sailed clear over Guanella's head.  He fell when he landed, but bounced to his feet without appreciable effort.

I'm going to call this an honorary Hubbard Action Sequence, since even though it's not a barrage of short, exclaimed sentences, it still contains the ridiculous stunts we've come to expect from the guy.  Also, isn't it strange that O'Brien gets the hang of tiny-fighting faster than Guanella, who had to go all the way from the bar to wherever his henchmen were hanging out, and has been smaller for longer than O'Brien?  You'd think the little gangster would learn some things about maneuvering at his new size by now, but I guess not.

The normal-sized people in the room are all laughing, because this is again a pair of doll-sized, under-dressed men bouncing around like maniacs... wait, since the narration didn't specify that only the gangsters were laughing, and everyone else in the bar got herded into the room ahead of O'Brien, does that mean Guckenheimer and those other bit characters are also laughing at him?  Nice.

Despite being betrayed by friends who evidently find humor in his potential demise, O'Brien isn't doing too badly - all the jumping isn't very tiring, even with his paunch.  His main concern is that the normal-sized gangsters will get bored at some point and weigh him down so Guanella can finish the "dool."  Then O'Brien spies a pin on the floor that he picks up to use as a dagger, and successfully stabs at Guanella during another attack, but the tiny gangster's skin "seemed much tougher than ordinary human skin had a right to be."  I guess because when you shrink, uh... your molecules are jammed closer together?  So O'Brien and Guanella are super-dense little people?  And still able to bounce around like crickets?  Hmm.

Eh, it's probably just a side-effect of that magical swello juice.  At any rate, O'Brien and Guanella go down in a grapple, and O'Brien is able to take his improvised weapon with both hands an literally pin Guanella to the floor by stabbing him through the arm.  The little gangster "shouted," and O'Brien steals his axe and proceeds to make a run for it.  The giant gangsters don't react in time, and O'Brien is able to slash the lookout's ankle as he scurries out the door.

Once back in the bar proper, O'Brien leaps to the counter in a single bound, grabs and stuffs the thermos that's as big as he is under his arm - hey, if the hero "had no time to ponder on the wonders of size," you shouldn't sweat the details either - and then he's on the move once more.  There's a "thunderous explosion" behind him as one of the gangster takes a shot at O'Brien, but he dodges the hail of splinters just like that scene in Ant-Man to run out the bar's door.  Man, that was a great movie, wasn't it?  If only Hubbard had known that someone would take this concept and execute it in a more thoughtful and entertaining manner, maybe he wouldn't have bothered with this story. 

Anyway, O'Brien escapes, and luckily Orson Crow his "favorite hackman" (cab driver), happens to be waiting outside.  Because O'Brien needs a driver and keeps one parked outside his bar?  Did O'Brien know Crow was there?  Why wasn't he contacted during the search for Mac, and why did Crow give no warning about Guanella and his goons?  Or did Crow just happen to pick that moment to stop by O'Brien's bar? 

Huh.  Crow is a bit slow to respond when "Obie" starts yelling for help, other than to mumble to himself about seeing things and start up the car to leave, but when a gun-toting gangster appears at the bar's entrance to chase down O'Brien, the driver stops doubting his senses and throws open the cab's door for our hero before speeding off.

And so under O'Brien's direction, Crow races towards the McGraw-Hill building so O'Brien can save Mac.  And since O'Brien is still naked, he asks Crow for a hanky.  And since Hubbard just has a knack for choosing the worst words to describe certain situations, this dirty handkerchief is then wrapped "diaperwise" around O'Brien's waist.

I mean, it could be worse, the magic cocktails could have literally turned the drinkers into infants...

Back to Part 2 

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Last Drop - Part 2 - Never Drink Unlabeled Booze

For the last three pages, our main character Euclid O'Brian has been referred to as Euclid in the narration, but once the gangster Frankie Guanella calls him "O'Brian," O'Brian he becomes for the rest of the story.  Weird.  Did the author use the more formal name as a way to suggest an emotional distance between the barkeep and the guy extorting him, and just forget to switch back?  Did he suddenly decide that having a character named Euclid was kind of distracting, and hoped the reader wouldn't notice?  Is there any indication anyone looked over this story from the golden age of pulp fiction before sending it off to the printer?

Anyway, Guanella asks for his monthly tribute, and O'Brian, distracted as he is by the possibility of Mac becoming a Big Mac, claims not to have any money.  Guanella is surprised by this statement, and points out that his organization has been quite reasonable, and "The las' guy who wouldn't pay out of a policy got awful boint when his jernt boined down."  And I guess this is another episode of L. Ron Hubbard Presents: What the Hell is That Accent?  Guanella even keeps calling O'Brian O'Brien for whatever rea-

Wait, what?  The narration is using that spelling too, so it is O'Brien?  Huh.  Guess so, that's how it's spelled back at the story's start.  Huh. 

Well, Guanella wants to intimidate a bartender into paying his gang for some "insurance," and what better way to do that than to prove how nonchalant you are about the situation by downing a cocktail off the bar?  Naturally, Guanella drinks one of the potions the others had been using on flies.  The rest of the cast can only watch in "paralyzed horror" as Guanella's voice rises in pitch, he double-checks his too-large hat to make sure someone isn't playing a prank on him, and promptly falls.

With a squeal of alarm he tumbled off the stool. Whatever he intended to do, he was floundering around the floor in clothes twice too big for him. Shrill, mouselike squeaks issued from the pile of clothing. Chivvis and Larkin and Guckenheimer looked around bug-eyed. Presently the Panama detached itself from the pile of clothes and began to run around the room on a pair of small bare legs.

And then the bar door opens, another customer steps in, sees a hat scampering about on tiny feet, stares for a moment, then slowly tiptoes out.  It is very droll.  Also, mini-Guanella runs out the door too, while the protagonist et al. continue to stand around and stare.  Missed a good opportunity to stamp down on crime, fellas.

It's only when the newcomers are gone that O'Brien moans that Guanella "won't like that.  No, sir!  He's sensitive about his size anyway."  So not only do they have Mac to fret over, but now there's the possibility that Guanella's gang will come after them too.  Assuming they still take orders from a doll-sized thug and don't reflexively scream and step on him when he bursts back into their hideout.

While O'Brien puts together some more magic cocktails, Guckenheimer gets off the phone with some good news: Mac has been spotted hanging onto the side of the McGraw-Hill building so he doesn't break his legs under his own weight, which as the learned Chivvis explains as the result of the square-cube law.  Why Mac doesn't just lie down or whatever is beyond me, but I haven't had a formal education in making giants comfortable, so maybe that's impossible.

Hey, do you think Mac's name is a pun?  Like "macro?"  Or would that be giving the author too much credit?  'snot like Guanella's first name is Michael.

Alas, just before O'Brien can step out the door to save the day, it opens to admit three thugs, one of whom is carrying a foot-tall Frankie Guanella underarm.  Of course, Frankie is now much too small to wear his normal clothes, but he's made do with a handkerchief tied up around him "diaperwise."  Now me, I'd have compared such improvised clothing to a loincloth or something, not clothing babies wear because they can't control their bodily functions.  But then again, I'm not a legendary author from the golden age of pulp fiction.

The gangsters have pistols, tell everyone in the bar to take a seat, and demand that O'Brien fix whatever he did to their boss so - oh, excuse me, that would make sense.  No, they're here for a fight, a proper "dool."  Poor little Frankie is all torn up about being even smaller than he was before, so they demand that O'Brien fix up another shrinking potion and take it himself so he and Frankie can fight on equal terms.  Then Frankie can have his revenge, kill the only guy who might be able to restore him to his original size, and get rid of a potential source of riches by offing the inventor of this wondrous new potion.

Look, Hubbard didn't get any midget-on-midget (battle) action in the last story, but dammit he's going to scratch that itch here, okay?

Back to Part 1

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Last Drop - Part 1 - The First Drop

With all the mafia crap in Mission Earth, I guess it was inevitable that we'd dig up an old Hubbard pulp about a bunch of gangsters.  But it's not just a story about gangsters, of course, our good buddy Hubbard was a legendary sci-fi pioneer and all that nonsense.  So much like how "If I Were You" was a groundbreaking fusion of circus midgets and black magic, "The Last Drop" is a long-overdue merger between crime drama and weird science.

Euclid O'Brian's assistant, Harry McLeod, looked at the bottle on the bar with the air of a man who has just received a dare.

Gotta wonder what the thought process is behind a name like "Euclid O'Brian."  Guess the kid's parents had high expectations and didn't mind having him stand out thanks to a Greek-Irish moniker.  We might think that the author chose the name to signify that O'Brian is a pioneer and inventor, except 

Mac was no ordinary bartender - at least in his own eyes if not in those of the saloon's customers - and it had been his private dream for years to invent a cocktail which would burn itself upon the pages of history.  So far his concoctions only burned gastronomically. 

Yeah, MacLeod, not O'Brian, is the experimental brewer, so there's no meaning behind our main character's odd name choice.  Not that an Irish character would really need to be named after a Greek mathematician in order to impress upon the reader his inventiveness, particularly when it comes to experimental brews.

Anyway, Euclid has a brother named Aristotle... Hubbard, why?  Anyway, Aristotle's down in Borneo, where Euclid would like to be, but sent him a mysterious "syrup."  As Euclid watches, McLeod takes this syrup, throws in random ingredients - whiskey, egg yolks, some lemon - shakes the concoction, and downs it.  Then Euclid asks "Whatcha doin'?", as if it wasn't blatantly obvious.

Mac declares his latest creation "a real cocktail" and offers it to the bar's customers, but they politely decline.  Euclid warns that the syrup his brother sent him "did funny things," and "the native name, translated, means swello."  Mac agrees that "it's swell all right," but the bar's patrons are less enthusiastic, and watch Mac for a bit in case he explodes or something.

After a moment in which the barkeep fails to spontaneously combust, Mac declares that even if his latest drink does kill him, "I ain't giving you the satisfaction of a free show," and leaves.  And since the bartender just walked out of a bar filled with customers, it must be a shift change, right?  Otherwise Euclid may want to look for a new "assistant."

Euclid's not mad as his employee for walking out on him, but worried that he might get sick.  But then a patron named Guckenheimer gasps and cries out for everyone to look at something.

A fly had lighted upon the rim of the glass and had imbibed.  And now, before their eyes, the fly expanded, doubled in size, trebled, quadrupled...

Euclid stared in horror at this monster, now the size of a small dog, which feebly fluttered and flopped about on shaking legs.  It was getting bigger!

Gross.  The horrified people in the bar have the only appropriate reaction in such a situation - they rush the monstrosity, beat it with chairs, and dump the corpse in the garbage.  No details are given, so the reader is left to imagine the cracking carapace and spurting bug-goo for him- or herself.

But in the process of disposing of the body, which hopefully the garbage guy won't ask any questions about, Euclid remembers that "M-Mac drank some of that stuff!"  Guckenheimer more or less shrugs and concludes "Probably dead by now then."  Guess he thinks a bunch of people ran up and beat Mac to death with chairs when they noticed him growing.

Euclid's more proactive, though, and has a good panic while trying to figure out what to do.  He gets Guckenheimer to start calling people, and the police, to see if anyone's seen MacLeod.  While waiting for a response, and after a suggestion from a "learned" customer named Chivvis, Euclid mixes up another experimental drink.  See, if using lemon, an acid, in a "swello" drink makes things grow, perhaps substituting limewater, which is basic, would produce an alkalinic reaction with the opposite effect.  Sure enough, a lemon swello cocktail is used to grow another fly, which is then shrunk back to size with a limewater swello drink "Like a plane fading into the distance."

And maybe from this you've learned a little bit about chemistry from an L. Ron Hubbard story.  See, he's an educator and an entertainer.

So Euclid has figured out the solution to Mac's presumed problem, except Guckenheimer reports that nobody's seen the guy.  Seriously.  We've got two options here: either the lemon swello's effect hasn't kicked in yet, even though the fly started growing the instant it had some, or else nobody's noticed a rapidly-growing fellow stumbling along the streets of New York.

Euclid's concerned that the police will for whatever reason pin Mac's death on him as an act of murder, but suddenly a hush falls over the bar's patrons as someone steps inside, an evil-faced fellow in a Panama hat and a fashionable suit.  It's Frankie Guanella, "absolute monarch of the local corner gang," who reminds O'Brian that it's the first of the month and time to pay up.

So in case you were wondering where the gangsters came into the story, here you go.  Tune in next time as we introduce this local hoodlum to magical size-altering beer.

Monday, February 8, 2016

If I Were You - Part 7 - Out of the Sideshow and Into the Big Top

So Tom, after a busy day of using black magic to swap bodies with people against their will so he could be circus ringmaster for a day, has managed to frame himself for stealing the payroll and is now watching the lion tamer get mauled by a forty wild animals because Tom wanted to weasel out of his punishment.  In the big cage in front of a horrified audience, Jerry Gordon has lost his whip, his chair has been reduced to kindling, and his pistol's blanks are having no effect. 

Circus attendants are trying to use tear gas to calm the beasts, except it's been so long since they've used such precautions that... wow.  The one guy they have to throw the bombs forgot to pull the catch, so they just roll around on the floor.  Better recruit that one for the Apparatus.  And as horrified as everyone is, nobody is willing to actually enter the cage to try to save this guy.

All this to say, it's a strange situation.  Certainly not a good situation.  You could even say it's a... what's the word for when you make such a big mistake that someone dies?

Safe outside, Little Tom Little watched.  There was something all wrong about this, something horrible.

"Horrible," that's it!

He was the cause of Jerry Gordon's coming death.  He had done this to the man - and then he had slipped out of there, to remain safe and sound outside those bars.  Coward!  This was certain proof of it.  Craven coward, that's what he was, to cause another man's death and then let him die!

Coward, thief, murderer-by-inaction, warlock - there's a lot of charges to be applied.

Fortunately for Gordon, Tom growing a conscience also propels the little man into action, and he grabs a torch from a watching carny, slips through the bars of the cage, and rushes forward to help.  And it turns out a three-foot fella carrying a burning stick can succeed where a trained, hulking lion tamer with all of his accessories can fail.  In a berserk frenzy, Tom nearly shoves his torch down one tiger's throat, and when a lion pounces at him, a blow to its chest somehow causes the 400-pound killing machine to cancel its forward momentum and retreat instead of flattening the midget.  He is bowled "over and over" by one passing tiger, but Tom quickly recovers and continues flailing around his torch, until all forty beasts have retreated from the arena and a groaning Gordon is safe.

And there you have it - Little Tom Little has at last found his courage.  All he had to do was realize what a horrible person he was, and this self-loathing allowed him to do the right thing and save a man's life.  Which he put into danger in the first place, because again, Tom is a horrible person.

Tom comes out of his frenzy, drops the torch, and wonders if he's going to be sick.  Betty rushes in to sob over Gordon and confess that he was right about her and Schmidt, but she swears she'll make up for cheating on him.  A "doc" enters the cage to check on Gordon, but the lion tamer, having gone through the trauma of discovering his lover's infidelity, having his body stolen, and then getting mauled by his animals, shoves the doctor back and claims that "You think these cuts are anything, Doc?  Hell, man, I've been sick for weeks and weeks, but this is all I needed!" and limps off with Betty.  So he's... fine?  He's been sick but getting mangled set him straight?

Mrs. Johnson shows up and admits she doesn't know what to say, which is fair.  I don't think any of us are really prepared to see a three-foot-berserker accused of theft escape captivity to fight off forty big cats with a burning stick, even when black magic isn't involved.  Tom replies "Why say anything?" and starts patting his pockets, because like any good hobbit he's concerned about his handkerchief.

And then, well, remember when Tom and Schmidt swapped bodies, and Schmidt-in-Tom took the opportunity to raid his safe for all those incriminating documents and run off?  And then got caught, only for Tom to undo the body swap?  And then Schmidt took advantage of the situation to frame Tom for his own thefts?  Well, Schmidt made one teensie, catastrophic mistake - all those documents are still in Tom's pockets.

So instead of a hanky, Tom pulls out Schmidt's checkbook showing how he was making tens of thousands of dollars in three months despite a salary of just a few thousand dollars... and this is 1930's money?  Damn, I need to get in the circus biz.  Anyway, there's that, and Betty's letters to her "darling Hermann," and with this evidence in hand "a great light sizzled through" Tom.  Little feller's gone from black magic to blood rages to righteous fury all in one afternoon.  Pick a class and stick to it, munchkin.

At this point Schmidt-in-Schmidt makes his reappearance, accompanied by "two John Laws, men without imagination or a sense of the fitness of things."  We might say that the author is letting his biases towards law enforcement show here, but he could be writing for a specific audience, that anti-authority 1930's counterculture that liked stories with circus freak protagonists and evil wizards.  As such, the word "cop" or "police" will not appear in this story, instead any such officers are only referred to as "John Laws."

Schmidt sees what Tom's holding and quickly snatches it away and demands that those John Laws arrest him despite his recent heroism.  Tom demands that Schmidt give the goods back and threatens to tear his heart out.  Schmidt laughs.  And Tom attacks.  A boot to the shin brings Schmidt down, then Tom climbs up and stabs Schmidt's eyes with his thumbs, eeesh.  The Prussian giant knocks him back, but Tom instantly recovers, yelling for the checkbook.

Perhaps he had learned something from the tigers, or perhaps Schmidt looked small compared to a lion.  Anyway, small fists, correctly placed, and small boots stabbing sharp, and a small target which moves faster than the eye can follow will always be superior to slow and heavy brawn.  The John Laws gaped in amazement and got in each other's way.

So yeah, this is happening - immediately after getting kicked around in the process of fending off forty freakin' tigers, Tom is now going to town on big bad Schmidt.  The ringmaster ironically trips on the same dropped hoop that screwed over Tom-in-Gordon, Tom takes the opportunity to stomp Schmidt's solar plexus a few times, and out he goes.  Guess he... cut off blood flow to the brain or something?  I mean, I've never seen anyone knocked unconscious from blows to the belly or torso, but I don't get in many brawls.  The important thing is that Tom recovers the incriminating checkbook, gives it to Mrs. Johnson, and tells those useless John Laws who to arrest.

Oh, and Maizie's here too - she intervened when one of the John Laws tried to grab Tom, biting his hand and swatting his rear with a torch, an act of assaulting an officer that will go unremarked upon, let alone punished.  She gazes at Tom "hungrily" and gushes how she could tell when he was in the right body, but before she can praise his bravery Tom mercifully cuts her off.

"Forget it," said Tommy with a grin. "You were right and I was wrong. But I was right, too, you see,

That's not how you apologize, Tommy.

because... because... well, if the ghost of the Professor is around, I'll bet he's plenty disappointed.  He did me a favor, Maizie.  He showed me that I was a selfish fool, a coward.  I'm ashamed of myself.

And you should be!  You were stealing other people's lives to fulfill your own ambit-

I didn't think of you at all when I started this.

No, no, the bad thing you did wasn't failing to think of your girlfriend when you stole people's bodies, it was stealing people's bodies.  Well, I mean, ignoring your girlfriend isn't good either, but-

I won't ever do it again, Maizie.  Never... I promise!"

Unless, you know, someone yells at you loudly while you're startled and distracted, and whoosh you're suddenly a clown or something.  Damn trigger-happy soul-transfer magic.

Maizie's eyes were very bright.

"And you'll come back and be satisfied to be - a freak?"

"No!" cried Tommy.  "Who said anything about going back?  Look up there, Maizie!"

See, they're right next to the microphone platform in the big ring, and Tom promptly runs up, adjusts the mic, and gives the whole "Ladies an' gennulmen!" speech introducing the next act, because after all the show must go on.  Just because someone nearly died in the ring doesn't mean that they're canceling the night's fun, and of course the audience has stuck around instead of fleeing or anything.

It was Tommy the Showman, Tommy at his best, doing what he had longed to do, realizing the ambition that had burned all these years in his frail but valiant little body.

Tommy was glowing, vivid, terrifically alive - and happier than he had ever been in his life.

Maizie is briefly worried that having attained ultimate happiness, something might happen to snatch it all away, but Mrs. Johnson is watching approvingly, and the audience seems impressed with the crazed little midget who charged a bunch of wild animals and gave a man a savage beating a few moments ago.  She meets the smaller woman's eye and slowly nods "her much wiser old head," ellipses, end of story.

And that's that.  Tom uses dark magic left to him by a transparently evil wizard, steals peoples' bodies to fulfill his own ambitions and to avoid the consequences of his actions, accidentally thwarts an embezzlement scheme and manages to rescue someone he endangered in the first place, and so gets everything he ever wanted - to graduate from a sideshow freak to a novelty act in the big top, as a midget ringmaster.

Of course, the real moral of this story is that it's the soul that's important, not the body, but that said the body is pretty smart and can get you through a tough situation if you don't misjudge a step and fall on your ass because you're not used to that particular body.  And you might be able to find the courage to stand up for yourself and achieve your dreams if you nearly get someone killed and desperately act to save their life, so the next time someone tells you that some stunt is a terrible idea, that's a sure sign that it's an opportunity to better yourself, even if it leaves someone else hospitalized and scarred for life.

Also, ladies, if your boyfriend turns drunk and abusive when life takes a turn for the worst, don't trust any new love interests, they're only trying to exploit you.  Just tough it out, and beg your boyfriend's forgiveness if your heart wanders.

Or maybe a better moral is to not trust evil wizards.  Wait, or maybe you should trust them, because if Tom had never messed with black magic he'd never have (accidentally) thwarted Schmidt, put Gordon's life in danger, and thus found his courage.  It's not like Gordon seemed upset after being stuck in a three-foot body in a cell for a little bit. 

Or maybe that's the real lesson - the soul is what's important, not the body, so if someone steals your body, no biggie.

Back to Part 6

Friday, February 5, 2016

If I Were You - Part 6 - Lions and Tigers

To recap: using black magic learned from a dead wizard's collection of evil tomes, Tom the midget forcefully swapped bodies with circus ringmaster Schmidt, and was having a pretty good time until all of Schmidt's scheming and betrayals blew up in his face.  Then he swapped back with Schmidt, allowing the ringmaster to talk his way out of getting beat up and/or fired, but this put Tom back in danger because while Schmidt was in his body he tried to run out with stolen funds and got caught.  Tom tried to swap bodies with Schmidt again, but accidentally crossed souls with Gordon the lion-tamer instead, so that poor schmuck is now getting hauled away in Tom's little body for a crime committed by Schmidt.

Not a great situation to be in, right?

Having gotten out of the scrape so neatly, Tommy himself, now bronzed and strong, tall and handsome, felt quite elated about the matter.  Plainly he now had his chance.  He had the goods on Schmidt.  He merely had to turn the tables and wrest the proof, and all was well once more.

Tom's about as smart as he is moral.  His plan to deal with Schmidt is to pose dramatically and accuse Schmidt of "all the crimes he knew the ringmaster guilty of," such as... actually, what does Tom know Schmidt has done?  He knows Schmidt has blamed Tom for stealing circus funds, there's something about Betty and letters, and Mrs. Johnson is mad for some reason about the possibility of Schmidt being involved with someone.  There's obviously a few pieces missing in whatever scheme Schmidt is up to, and Tom doesn't have any concrete evidence to back up any half-baked accusations he makes.  More to the point, has he considered the potential reaction to Gordon suddenly making such half-baked accusations?  Immediately after nearly starting a fight over (what Schmidt claims is) a misunderstanding about his wife?

It's all moot, though - just before Tom-in-Gordon can confront Schmidt-in-Schmidt, there's a "long, stirring chord" from the main tent, and Betty says "That's your cue!"  And that's the downside of stealing the body of a lion tamer: people expect you to tame lions.  Or in this case, twenty lions, along with twenty tigers.  And poor Tom has been terrified of big cats ever since that time in St. Louis where one got lose and nearly ate him.

As such, Tom-in-Gordon is paralyzed with fear as Schmidt yells at him for holding up the show and Betty and Mrs. Johnson hustle him along.  On the bright side, his imminent grisly death has allowed Tom to Learn a Valuable Lesson.

How he had failed! Tommy thought.  Bodies did not seem to make any difference at all.  It was the soul of the man that counted.  What he was deep inside him, what courage and daring he might possess.  And if he were the biggest man in the world and possessed no strength of soul, he would still be a bumbling fool.

If only someone could come along and invent something for people like Tom, some way for them to strengthen their soul, to winnow out all the flaws and imperfections and allow them to reach their full potential.  Alas, it's too late for him.  He's already been dragged into the big tent in front of five thousand people, and because of his fear of kitties, Tom never watched Gordon work, so he can't even feign the man's routine.

There is a chance at escape, though - as Tom-in-Gordon is let to his doom, he spies Maizie sitting in the front row.  And once again a Hubbard character "somehow" knows something, as Tom is able to realize that Maizie was close enough to the commotion in Schmidt's wagon to figure out what's going on.  She yells to him "Look at me!  Save yourself!", offering Tom a chance to swap bodies and send another innocent person to be punished for his mistakes.  Except Schmidt intercepts her and shoves her back, allowing Tom to "discover another truth," that Schmidt has also figured out whose soul is in whose body and is trying to get Tom-in-Gordon killed.

Tom doesn't do anything with this knowledge, though, even as he asks himself why he's not fighting back.  To answer his own question, the narration explains "But Schmidt's grip on his arm was painful," so there you go.  One strong grip on one limb is all it takes to disable our hero, even when he's inhabiting the muscular body of a lion tamer.

The spotlight hits Tom-in-Gordon, Schmidt gives the bombastic introduction - and remember that this guy is supposedly pretty Prussian?  He doesn't have much of a German accent.  "Ladies and gennulmun, I give you the most fearless man who ever trod our earth's fair face, Jerry Gordon, Emperor of the Jungle Monarchs, Master of the Wurld's most dangerous animals!"  Not even a little und.

Anyway, once the show starts, Gordon's legs propel Tom forward almost on instinct, and that gives the little guy-inside-a-bigger guy hope that maybe muscle memory will get him through this hellish experience.  So he rallies, resolving to prove to himself that maybe he can do this.  Tom-in-Gordon "mechanically" cracks his whip and fires the blanks from his revolver, and the snarling, stinking lions and tigers all get on their perches.  All except one unruly lion, that is, but once again Gordon's body knows what to do, naturally using a chair to drive the animal back and into place.

And this is a bit confusing, Hubbard.  Earlier the lesson was "it's the soul that's important, not the body," except here Gordon's muscle memory is saving Tom's dubiously-heroic ass.  If the real moral is supposed to be that Tom just needed confidence, it falls a bit flat since Tom was totally terrified and was expecting to be torn apart by wild animals until said muscle memory kicked in.  In fact, Tom's misplaced soul and misguided confidence is what dooms him.

Everything's going swimmingly, Tom-in-Gordon is cracking the whip and firing his pistol to put the lions and tigers through their paces, and the act gets to the part where one tiger rushes him but is driven back when Gordon advances on her behind a chair, glaring at the beast until his gaze hypnotizes the tiger into submission.  Except because it's Tom-in-Gordon, and he's used to being much smaller than he is now, he takes three steps where he should have taken one, proceeds to trip on a dropped hoop, and falls onto his back.  The lions and tigers react like any good predators would in this situation, and turn upon their handler.

Immediate death was not scheduled by fate in that instant,

Ouch, that might be the worst string of words in the story thus far.

for a great lion jostled a tiger as they both leaped in the van.  Blood enemies, personal enemies, they whirled and met with a thud which shook the bars like straws.

So it all goes to hell.  The big cats are having a snarling tussle, circus workers are trying to intervene with sharp sticks and burning brands poked through the big cage's bars, the audience has "gone crazy" which is to say that everyone's gone silent... huh.  Crazy silent.  Anyway, Tom seems to be thoroughly boned, until...

"You fools!" screamed a shrill voice.  "You fools, get away from that door!"

Tommy, through the haze of battle, saw a sight which came into his consciousness more acutely than even the shock of immediate death.

Or maybe that's the worst string of words.

Yes, "Somehow" Gordon-in-Tom has gotten free of his captors, come to the ring, and upon seeing his body about to get torn apart by dozens of lions and tigers, is doing his damnedest to save Tom-in-Gordon.  "He belonged in that cage, and he was fighting his way to it."  He yells at Tom-in-Gordon to use his pistol, and... oh good grief.

And in that instant the thing was again effected.

Okay, that sentence is less inherently cringeworthy than the others, but it's still pretty bad.

Tommy could not have helped it had he tried. He had been called, the words were hot in his brain, and a moment later all the strain was done. For there he stood, safe outside the cage, staring in at Jerry Gordon, all buried underneath the savage cats!

So the body swap mechanic has gone from requiring sustained eye contact and a muttered incantation, to misfiring and sending a concentrating Tom into the wrong body based on someone speaking to him without eye contact, to just going off unintentionally because someone off a ways was yelling at him.  This is some twitchy-ass magic.  It's a wonder the Magician didn't swap bodies five times a day whenever someone looked at him or talked to him bumped into him on the way to the can.

But there we go, Tom's back in his original three-foot body.  Things are looking pretty good!

Here he was safe.  He had turned the tables again.  There was Gordon in his rightful self.  Here was he, Tommy-

Jerry Gordon, beneath the howling hell, blazed away hysterically with his revolver, straight up into the bodies of the brutes.  But the bit of powder had only one effect.  They had forgotten Gordon.  They had been intent upon killing each other.  But the sting in the bellies of the lion and the tiger made them leap back away from one another and see their original goal.

Well, at least he'll be torn apart in the right body.  And again, I guess the important thing is that Tom is once again safe and has escaped the consequences of his actions.

Back to Chapter 5

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If I Were You - Part 5 - The Gathering of the Conned

So Tom is getting the hang of being Hermann now.  But what has the former Hermann been doing since he "soul-shattering experience" of having his body stolen from him?

Not a whole lot, actually.  The narration explains that he had just about taken off after Tom-in-Hermann while screaming for help, until Schmidt's "coldly logical brain" told him that probably wouldn't be a good idea.  I mean, just think how ridiculous that would look, a midget stumbling after someone ranting about body theft?  No, in this sort of situation, the thing to do is to step back, stay calm, and puzzle out the solution.

In the dusty emptiness of the sideshow tent, he had brought himself into a full realization of his strange and very disturbing predicament.  In the Black Forest of his native land, he had heard such things had happened

Really.  This sort of thing is common in Germany.

and, so far as he could tell, no kind fate had come along immediately to undo them.  And the longer he measured his slightness up against his surroundings, the more he became convinced of the awfulness of his situation and the need to do something about it.

No scheisse, Schmidt.

Now, Schmidt's towering Prussian intellect can't figure out a way to reverse the soul transfer, but he has an almost-as-good solution - accelerate his existing plans.  Grab the stolen cash from his safe, destroy the evidence and incriminating documents, and get out of town.  It's not quite Just As Planned, since he'll be enjoying his ill-gotten gains from three feet off the ground, but it's better than nothing.  Problem is, Tom-in-Schmidt still has the safe's keys.  So Schmidt-in-Tom waits patiently until Tom-in-Schmidt goes to the ringmaster's wagon, then follows him inside.

Schmidt-in-Tom slams the door shut, and a confrontation ensues.

"You," said Schmidt, in his now piping midget voice, "are going to do something about this!"

Tommy momentarily forgot his stature.  Not unlike a midget, he had never been very long on courage when it came to physical conflict, but so engrossed was he with his determination to direct the show, if only once, that he made a stern show of it.

"Why should I?" he said, flicking his great black boots with his riding crop and staring down at the midget Schmidt.

Good question.  Schmidt grabs a gun out of a drawer and points it as Tom-in-Schmidt, but when he's reminded that "This is your body - if you want to mess it up that's okay with me," Schmidt slowly lowers the weapon.  And then we get that awkward moment where you threaten to kill someone, but you've swapped bodies with them so if you killed them they'd be really killing yourself, and then there's that long uncomfortable silence.  I hate it when that happens.

Thus defeated, all Schmidt-in-Tom can think to do is - well, first there's a sudden knock on the door.  Then while Tom-in-Schmidt gets up to deal with it, Schmidt-in-Tom raids the safe and flees to the wagon's bathroom.  And presumably he gets all this done quickly, because he's hidden himself by the time Tom-in-Schmidt opens the door.  The body thief certainly doesn't ignore the knocking to deal with his victim/enemy, or demand to know what he's doing, he just watches him scurry about and then does as politeness dictates and admits his visitor.

In comes Betty, so agitated that her features "alternatively burned and went cold with the intensity of her emotion."  She wails that her husband Gordon saw her leave Schmidt's room this morning, and now he's on his way, so "Schmidt" better return all those letters of hers or else "He'll find them!"  Tom-in-Schmidt has no idea what's going on.  Then Mrs. Johnson bursts in "Like a thundercloud which blankets the land in darkness," snidely apologizing for interrupting Schmidt and Betty's "tryst."  She promptly fires "Schmidt" and vows he'll never work in a circus again, and when Betty wails that her husband is going to kill her, Mrs. Johnson says she definitely wants to see that.  Tom-in-Schmidt can only stammer and ask "What's happened?  What have I done?"  And then Gordon bursts in, booting aside Betty when she flings herself towards him, and glares hatefully at "Schmidt."

So hey, you know how the Professor - who may as well not have been in the story, given how much these other characters are talking about him - was dying and all?  And he knew the dark art of body-swapping?  And he didn't use it to get out of a failing meatbag?  Maybe this is why.  You never know what kind of baggage someone's carrying, and then when you swap bodies with them, bam!  You're up to your neck in a mess like this.  So that's the real lesson of this story: always investigate your victims thoroughly, make sure they aren't involved in any love triangles or embezzlement schemes, before you steal their bodies.

While Tom-in-Schmidt boggles at these bewildering confrontations, people outside the wagon start yelling for Mrs. Johnson, and walk up escorting a little prisoner - it's Schmidt-in-Tom, with his pockets full of money and documents from the ringmaster's safe.  See, Mrs. Johnson was smart enough to have some loyal circus henchmen surround Schmidt's wagon before confronting him, and in a way, they've caught him.

Before Tom-in-Schmidt can properly react to any of this, Gordon takes another vengeful step forward, and even though he's wrapped in Teutonic muscle, Tom reflexively flees to a more familiar body that's not about to get punched by a lion tamer.  And oddly enough he's relieved when he's back in his old self, mentally crowing "Let Schmidt get out of his own messes as best he could!" and not sparing a thought for how Tom is now in similar trouble for theft.

But there's a problem with Tom's "watch Schmidt get punished" plan - Schmidt is no Soltan Gris, he's an effective bad guy.  When Gordon swings his whip as if "it would take the ringmaster's head from his shoulders" ...Hubbard, I don't think whips can do that.  Maybe leave a nasty cut, but not decapitate.

Anyway, Schmidt avoids the attack and sends Gordon reeling with one punch, and when the lion-tamer accuses Schmidt of stealing his wife, the Prussian counters that she's merely in his office to conduct business, and claims that Betty knows Gordon's failing and was begging Schmidt not to fire him.  Then he graciously and preemptively accepts Mrs. Johnson's apologies for her wild accusations and "condescends to" stay with her circus until she finds a replacement ringmaster, if she still feels a need to seek one.

Or in other words, Schmidt has nearly everyone he's scamming come after him at once, on top of having his body temporarily stolen by a magical midget, and then manages to talk his way out of it.  They apologize to him for making such outrageous accusations.  Schmidt even has a scapegoat to blame for why they've been losing money - after all, he always kept his wagon's window open at night, open just wide enough that a little fellow could just about crawl through it.  As his eyes flash in dark amusement, Schmidt tells the other circus folk to take Tom to a holding area until "John Law" can come pick him up. 

So props, ladies and gentleman, for Herr Hermann Schmidt, a Hubbard villain with the qualities to actually succeed in his schemes.  But... well, he has made a fatal mistake.  See if you can spot it.

Tom can only tear up in impotent rage as he's about to be escorted out of the wagon and into a cell, but he knows that one quick body swap will reverse his fortunes.  He concentrates, waits for Schmidt to focus on him, and...

So hey, remember the first time he swapped bodies with Schmidt, and he had to get the other man's attention, and then stare at him while muttering to himself until the magic happened?  Well, the rules seem to have changed.  Now you don't have to murmur the magic words to make the spell work, or hold eye contact.  Because now Tom's waiting for Schmidt to speak to him.  Except instead of Schmidt it's Gordon who voices his surprise that Tom could be a thief, and then

It happened so fast that Tommy could not prevent it.  There was a swish and a shudder, and then Tommy was standing, whip in hand, looking at a helpless midget held fast between two brawny stakers!

So not only has the body swap spell changed from one with a prolonged casting time and vocal component based upon eye contract to an instantaneous effect involving voices, now it's developed side effects, and Gordon-in-Tommy is so dazed that he can't even focus his eyes, much less cry out that he's not supposed to be this short.  And whoopsie-daisy, Tom just stole the wrong body.

And though Tommy did wait for that protest to be made so as to take full advantage of it and swap back, it struck him suddenly that he was far better off as Jerry Gordon than as either Schmidt or Little Tom Little.

So let it be.

Yeah.  Our "hero" has gone from preying upon a villain completely by accident in his attempts to live his lifelong fantasy of directing the circus, to condemning a man to prison for a crime he didn't commit in a body he wasn't born in.  Good to see that Hubbard's in fine form when it comes to writing his heroes, even if this story's villain is a bit of an outlier due to being competent at his job.

Back to Part 4

Monday, February 1, 2016

If I Were You - Part 4 - A Cold Welcome

So hey, turns out stealing someone's body involves more difficulties than the actual theft itself.

After the first shock of the transition was over, Little Tom Little felt very much like a bean in a bass drum.  When he took a step, he went about four times as far as he thought he should have gone, a fact which occasioned his stumbling over a guy rope and almost losing his dignity in the lap of Matilda, the World's Fattest Woman.  He bowed with great difficulty and again misjudged his distance, almost knocking out his brains against a wagon side, so much further had he gone than he had expected.

Tom should have been more methodological in his soul transfers.  Start with a dwarf, get used to that sort of stature, then work your way up to an average human, then go for a towering German fellow.

Our... hero?  Has a moment of doubt when he sees the cool and distant look Matilda gives him, since as Little Tom Little he was doted upon by the woman and given lots of cookies, as if she were taking him for a boy.  Which means that once again a Hubbard hero is being coddled with sweets and motherly affection by a woman noteworthy for an exaggerated physical attribute.  Hmm.  If we had more cases I'd call it a trend.

But whatever, right?  Tom's big now!  So what if he almost loses his hat on low-hanging obstacles?  So what if people are scowling at him, almost as though they don't like or respect the ringmaster?  And so what if the real Schmidt is still out there in a little person's body?  With a bit of patience and the power of stature, Tom will now be able to fulfill his destiny as a lead performer in the circus.  Because when you have the power to swap bodies with anyone you come across, why settle for the sideshow, eh?

Despite his mental bluster that everything is going to work out, Tom grows more and more paranoid, particularly when Betty shoots him a strange look and Gordon the lion-tamer gives him a suspicious and hateful glare.  Perhaps Maizie talked to people about the magic books, warned them of Tom's plans?  Maybe they all know that inside the towering figure of Hermann Schmidt is the puny soul of Little Tom Little, and any minute now the whole circus is going to "fall upon him en masse and eat him up."  Suck that midget soul right out of his host body and nom nom nom all over it.

And then he bumps into Mrs. Johnson.  Or rather, she calls out "Hermann!" and it takes awhile for Tom to remember to answer to that name.  Tom is worried at her approach because of how differently she's treating 'Hermann' from Tom, and he doesn't really want to talk to her because he fears his "somewhat midgetish voice would betray him."  Huh.  We can't take this to mean that Tom-in-Schmidt sounds just like Little Tom Little, otherwise everyone would know instantly that something was up.  So how exactly does one speak in a "midgetish" manner?  Is Tom not making the most of his borrowed lungs?

While trying to talk like a big person, Tom makes idle conversation about how today's crowds look good, so "we'll all be rich in no time."  This gets an unusually interested reaction from her, and Mrs. Johnson presses Tom-in-Schmidt for "some good news of some sort," to which he can only stammer that "you can never tell" before bidding her good day and retreating to the main tent.

Sheesh, this guy didn't think his whole body-snatching plan through, did he?  It's like Tom expected everything to just work out for him, like magic... wait.

He takes a moment to collect himself, running a hand through "the unaccustomed bushiness of his physiognomy," and decides that if he can just make it to showtime, his natural talent will shine through, everything will turn out fine.  But until then, there's work to do.

Although he had the routine of sawdust land at his fingertips,

I have no idea.

it made him very uncomfortable to be called upon for so many decisions at once.  Joe Middler was taking too much "strawberry shortcake."

Is that Depression-era slang for cocaine or something?

His shill wasn't getting a long enough string of coconuts.

I'm just going to assume that the author carefully researched circus jargon and all of this makes sense.

The pup opera was minus its canine star, who had wandered too near a gravedigger's cage, and it was either a new mutt or a dead hyena.

Why would you keep a cemetery worker behind bars?

The payoff was too high on a juice joint, and if John Law objected to the kife, what else could a guy do but howl?

"Kife" at least seems to be slang for 'steal,' and not a racial slur.

A kinker had a twisted wrist, and he figured Bill had had it in for 'im anyway since that dame in St. Looie had shown good sense, and he wasn't goin' to get a broken neck over any fool dame!

Look, what you fellows do with your kinks is your business, just try not to do it so hard you miss work with a hand injury, alright?

Despite these baffling sentences, Tom rises to the challenge, dispensing a big man's justice and, to the surprise of several, refusing to be bribed in the process.  So he's in high spirits when the circus ground fills with the sound of customers and barkers and music and petty conmen.  Soon it'll be showtime, and Tom's big break.

Tommy felt better.  This was his element, and of this element he was now king.  So delighted was he at the thought of at last snapping the lash in the hoople to the admiration of all, that he quite forgot to think at all of what was happening to himself, erstwhile Little Tommy Little, now Hermann Schmidt - in the flesh, at least.

Yeah, there is a little flaw in his plan: somewhere in this circus is six feet of angry Prussian gentleman compressed into a three-foot frame.  That's a lot of Prussian-per-pound to deal with, especially when he's within biting distance of your crotch.

Back to Part 4