Despite the fact that it wasn’t included in The Best of Leigh Brackett, “The Halfling” is one of her most reprinted stories and provided the title to one of her collections.
This is one of Brackett’s most hard-boiled stories. I read it for the first time as a teenager, and it blew me away. When I reread it for this post, I was still moved even though it had been years since the last time I’d read it.
It’s also one of her most tragic tales. The story is set entirely on Earth, but the themes of colonialism and cultures in conflict that show up in her best work appear here as well.
John Damien “Jade” Greene is the owner of a somewhat seedy carnival specializing in interplanetary exhibits. Currently the carnival is set up on the beach near Venice, California, where Jade grew up. We know from the opening scene that his life hasn’t been as fulfilling as he would like. We also know that when a gorgeous woman calling herself Laura Darrow approaches him and asks for a job as a dancer, she’s going to be trouble, especially when she tells him a story about needing to get to Venus (the carnival’s nest stop) and has lost her passport.
Jade hires Laura after her audition. His current dancer, Sindi, a Martian, isn’t happy. Neither is Laska, a cat-man from Callisto. The cat-men are pretty isolationist, but they form strong and permanent addictions to coffee. Laska is traveling with the carnival because it allows him a steady supply of coffee.
Things initially go well the first week. Laura’s dancing draws in the customers, especially after a celebrity is seen there with someone else’s spouse and the ensuing scandal gives the carnival some free publicity. You can tell Brackett was drawing on her time in Hollywood. Laura dances like no one Jade as ever seen.
She was sunlight, quicksilver, a leaf riding the wind – but nothing human, nothing tied down to muscles and gravity and flesh. She was – oh hell, there aren’t any words. She was the music.
By the end of the week, he’s helplessly in love.
I’m going to discuss the rest of the story after the READ MORE break. If you’ve come to this page directly from a link rather than the main page of this site, I’m going to include a few remarks before I give away too many of the surprises.
“The Halfling” is currently available in ebook form from Baen in the collection Beyond Mars.
Brackett includes what appears to be a throwaway comment about Jade hiring a kid to work with what appears to be the equivalent of the menagerie. It turns out there’s more to him than there appears.
But then there’s more to Laura than there appears. First, Sindi is found mauled and almost dead. She dies before she can tell Jade more than he’s a fool and try to tell him something about the stage she and Laura dance on. Following immediately on this, before Sindi’s body can even be moved, Laska attacks Jade while he’s talking to Laura. Jade kills him in self-defense. It turns out that Laska managed to get his hands on some strong coffee, strong enough that the rush from it will kill him.
Jade tells Laura that Saturday night, the night after Sindi died, is their last night and Monday they’ll head to Venus. He hopes she’ll stay with them. The crowds Saturday night are good, and the carnival is packed. The news of Sindi and Laska’s deaths make the news. Everyone comes to gawk at where Sindi died.
Sindi isn’t the last one to die. The kid Jade hired is found dead, and a Martian sand cat is loose. Jade notices that the kid’s eyes are closed. He doesn’t like what he sees when he opens one eyelid. His eyes are a different color.
Jade goes through the kid’s pockets, then heads over to the stage, but not before telling the head wrangler to bring men with guns. The guns aren’t just for the sand cat. Here’s how Brackett puts it:
I closed his eyes again and went through his pockets. I didn’t find what I was looking for. I got up very slowly, like an old man. I felt like an old man. I felt dead, deader than the white-faced kid.
I said, “His eyes were brown.”
Tiny stared at me. He started to speak, but I stopped him. “Call Homicide, Tiny. Put a guard on the body. And send men with guns…”
I told him where to send them. Then I went back across the midway.
Jade then goes and inspects the boards on the dance stage. Then he sends for Laura.
Laura came down the aisle. Her gold brown hair was caught in a wave of brilliants…She moved with the music, part of it, wild with it, a way I’d never seen a woman move before.
She was beautiful. There aren’t any words for it. She was – beauty.
She stopped. She looked at my face and I could see the quivering tightness flow up across her white skin, up her throat and over her mouth, and catch her breath and hold it. The music throbbed and wailed in the still, warm air.
I said, “Take off your shoes, Laura. Take off your shoes and dance.”
She moved then, still with the savage beat of the drums, but not thinking about it. She drew in upon herself, a shrinking and tightening of muscles, a preparation.
She said, “You know.”
It turns out the kid was an immigration agent hunting for Laura. He’d stolen a pair of her contact lenses that she used to conceal her cat eyes and was wearing them so he wouldn’t lose them. Laura is a hunter, sent by the cat-men of Callisto to track down and kill those who have left Callisto and live among humans. Laska was her target, and he wasn’t her first. When Laska attacked Jade, he wasn’t trying to kill Jade. He was trying to get to Laura. Jade just happened to be in the way.
What follows from this point in the story is a pursuit through a carnival packed with people and a woman who has nothing to lose. Laura loves Jade as much as he loves her, but she won’t be taken alive. The ending is as tragic as you would expect it to be.
It’s a classic noir scenario. Brackett tightly plotted the story, and little details turn out to be significant. Her experience as a mystery writer is on full display here. This is one of Leigh Brackett’s best stories. It’s a little different in that there are no decaying swamps or desolate Martian cities, no remnants of dying civilizations, but you can see the shadows of such things stretching over the events of the story if you know where to look. We get a glimpse of a number races that don’t show up in other Brackett stories.
Jade Greene is probably one of the most hard-boiled of Brackett’s characters. He’s rough around the edges, but like all good noir protagonists, he’s got a heart.
Read this one if you haven’t. You’ll be glad you did.