The Big Combo 1955

Narrated by John Reilly

EXCERPTS FROM SHAMUS DUST

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Trouble was in the air. Right now there were Soviets in Berlin, Communists in Manchuria, Zionists in Palestine. And the Americans on Bikini Atoll weren’t there for the beaches or the coconuts. But in the end, those were just headlines in the foreign pages. The City of London had troubles of its own. It had an empire waving goodbye, a currency stepping off a cliff, and some high-toned citizens with singular tastes and private arrangements they couldn’t buy off anymore. Berlin and Bikini passed over their heads. What walked them through my door were the tastes and the private arrangements. A chrome-plated address on Snow Hill made no difference. They would have found me anywhere.

  The Big Combo 1955

  D.O.A. 1949

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The City of London was different. A single square mile, financial heart of the metropolis, where banks and insurance offices, trading houses and exchange floors mined the motherlode and squeezed out every other way of living. It had a resident population that could fit in the back of a limousine, and when its offices emptied and headed home at nights, they left behind a ghost town. Meaning that the possibilities for lawbreaking were rarefied, best appreciated by men who wore club ties and returned home late to wives with headaches and hearts of diamond. Meaning also that its police were left to concentrate on those things closest to the City’s heart. It had twelve hundred officers paid to keep the traffic moving, eject undesirables not the City’s own, and otherwise maintain an atmosphere congenial to the making of loud money. Ordinarily the setup worked like a Swiss timepiece. In the City a killing was strictly a figure of speech. Most days of the year you stood a better chance of getting shot at in a lighthouse.

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An office anyplace in the City was overpriced and hard to find. Harder still when the address had a ring to it and liked to guarantee a better class of customer. Maybe it did at that, if what you had for sale was fancy accounting or imported fashions or a quarter-mile of chalk stream running off the downs. But nobody had walked in my office yet in a better class of trouble, and all the Thornburgh was bringing me were better fed accents living past their means, wearing the high-hat manner in half sizes.

The Big Combo 1955

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The Garden’s greenroom was a chain of baize islands set in a shallow pit the size of a paddling pool in the park. It drowsed on a handful of players, and on the distillation of a cordial promise that in the cloistered hours, when the late crowd is gone and the fast money stirs, any game of chance you cared to play could be accommodated, for as long as the night lasted and your nerve held. It was a promise for keeping later. For now, the tables were cleaning out their scatter of patrons from nothing but force of habit, and the two hardshells in spangles had the fast money all to themselves.

Blood on the Sun 1945

The Big Combo 1955

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The dead man was meshed in a cat’s cradle of steel hawser anchored in the river bed, like a soldier caught in the wire, so swollen that the topcoat he wore might have been bought for somebody else. Forty-eight hours in the water, maybe more, had bloated his features almost past recognizing. The dragging tides had left his limbs dislocated and awry. One of the police squatted down to prize open a loop of hawser making a noose around the corpse’s neck, did the same to release an arm and heaved the body over to look at what he had. An eel twisted out of a raw-edged gash in the corpse’s chest and fell snapping in the gravel. Four inches below the gash a second hollow pit had a rib threaded through it.

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It might have been daylight. There was no telling. In the bright room time moves undivided and there’s no clock on the wall. A bug-eyed desk sergeant had taken my wallet and necktie and belt with the brass buckle, my wristwatch, shoelaces and pocket change. Then made out a receipt for it all as if it bought me a ticket to get in. It’s the one contract police ever make with you. For the rest, it’s understood that they own your present and intend to lean on your past, and your future is theirs to hand back when and if they decide. Aside from that, you’re at liberty: at liberty to reflect on what they might have on you, and the man-hours they can put into making something of it; at liberty to become reacquainted with your own sweat and theirs while they make up their minds. 

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