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.


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  2. "bony-faced." Are these the first psychlos to visit Earth? The plot twist must be that this is the story of their invasion in the backstory before Battlefield Earth. Hey.. didn't one of the plot twists in Mission Earth involve one of the love interests turning out to be a gay transvestite Russian spy? Umm.