PC Mejzlík’s Dilemma, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Případ Dr. Mejzlíka, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

A pub in Prague. Mr Mejzlík, a young police constable, is having a drink with his elderly friend Mr Dastych.

M: (Frowning) It’s like this, Mr Dastych. I need your advice. I’ve had a case I can’t make head or tale of.

D: Tell me about it. Who was the villain?

M: (Sighing) Me… The more I think about it, the less sense it makes. It’s driving me up the wall!

D: (Soothingly) Did someone play a trick on you?

M: No, no-one… That’s the worst of it. Or rather… I played a trick on myself. And I can’t for the life of me understand how I did it.

D: I’m sure it can’t be that bad… But what is it you did, young fellow?

M: (Despodently) I caught a burglar.

D: Is that all?

M: That’s all.

D: So was it the wrong burglar?

M: No, it was the right one. He owned up. He’d burgled the strong box at the Jewish Benevolent Society. His name is Rozanowski or Rosenbaum or something. From Lvov. They found pipe wrenches on him, and all that stuff.

D: So what’s the problem?

M: (Perplexed) The problem is… I’d like to know… how I managed to catch him. Or, let me put it another way. A month ago – it was the third of March – I was on duty till midnight. You probably won’t remember, but it had been raining for three days. So I popped into a cafe for a bit before going home to Vinohrady. But instead of doing that I went in the opposite direction, towards Dlážděná Street. So there you have it. Why did I go that way?

D: Maybe just by chance.

M: No, no! In weather like that you don’t just wander aimlessly round the streets. I’d like to know what the hell I was doing there. Do you think it could have been some sort of sixth sense? Something like telepathy?

D: Well, that’s by no means impossible.

M: So you see, there you have it. But it could equally have been some subconcious impulse that made me go and check what was happening at The Three Maids.

D: You mean that dive in Dlážděná Street?

M: Exactly. That’s where the burglers and pickpockets from Pešť and Halič hang out when they come to ply their trade in Prague. We keep a close watch on that place. So what do you think? Was it just habit that made me go and take a look?

D: Could be. People can do things like that almost mechanically, especially if they’ve got a strong sense of duty. There’s nothing so special about it.

M: So I went to Dlážděná Street, had a quick look at the list of people staying at The Three Maids and carried on. At the end of the street I stopped and headed back. So why did I do that? Why did I go back?

D: Habit. A habit when you’re on patrol.

M: That’s possible. But I wasn’t on duty. I just wanted to go home. Maybe it was a premonition.

D: There are cases like that. But premonitions of that sort aren’t anything special. It’s well-known, isn’t it, that people can have what you might call higher abilities…

M: Damn it! So was it habit, or was it higher abilities? That’s the point… But, anyway… I’m walking along and there’s this man walking towards me. And why, for heaven’s sake, shouldn’t someone walk through Dlážděná Street at 1 a.m. if he wants to? There’s nothing suspicious about it. It didn’t even occur to me there would be. But I happened to stop under a street lamp to light a cigarette. Which is what we do, at night, if we want to have a good look at someone… So what do you think? Was it chance, or habit, or… or some kind of subconscious alarm?

D: I don’t know.

M: Me neither. To hell with it! So I light a cigarette under that street lamp, and the man passes me by. I don’t even look at his face, I’m just staring at the ground. And when he’s gone past I think ‘Something’s not right…’ But what exactly? How could I have thought that when I’d hardly noticed the fellow? So I’m standing in the rain under that street lamp and suddenly it hits me: his shoes! He’s got something strange on his shoes. And all at once I blurt out, ‘Ash!’

D: How come?

M: Just that – ash. At that moment I remembered he had ash round the edges of his shoes.

D: And what’s wrong with that?

M: Nothing. Except that, at that moment, I could see… yes, I could see… a strong box broken open and the ash spilling on to the floor. You know – the ash they use to fill the gaps between the steel plates. And I could see those shoes treading on that ash.

D: Well, that was intuition. Brilliant in its own way, yes… but just a chance nonetheless.

M: Nonsense! If it hadn’t have been raining, I wouldn’t even have noticed the ash. But when it’s raining, people don’t usually have ash on their shoes. You see?

D: Yes, that’s an empirical conclusion, an excellent deduction based on experience. But what happened then?

M: Well, then I went after him and, of course, he went to The Three Maids. So I telephoned for a couple of plain clothes officers and we did a raid. And we found Mr Rosenbaum, with the ash round his shoes, with the wrenches, and with twelve thousand from the strong box at the Jewish Benevolent Society. But it had all been so simple! Of course the papers praised the police for apprehending the burglar so soon. Which was nonsense, because if I hadn’t happened to have gone to Dlážděná Street, and if I hadn’t happened to have looked at that gangster’s shoes… In other words, it was nothing more than luck.

D: But that doesn’t matter, young man. It was still a success, and you ought to be proud of it!

M: What success? Mr Dastych, how can I be proud of something for no reason? On account of my Sherlock Holmes sixth sense? Or my mechanical habits? Or pure and simple coincidence? Or some sort of intuition or telepathy? You know, that was the biggest case I’ve had so far. And you’ve got to have some sort of confidence, haven’t you? What if they put me on to a murder case tomorrow? What would I do, Mr Dastych? Do I go running round the streets looking at people’s shoes? Or do I just follow my nose until some sort of premonition or some voice in my head takes me straight to the murderer? So, that’s it. And everyone at the police station is saying, “That Mejzlík, he’s going to be quite a detective!..” I tell you, it’s a desperate situation, Mr Dastych. A man needs to have some method or other. Up until now I’ve believed in all the textbook stuff. You know, observation, experience, thorough investigation and all that. But when I think about this case I can see that… that it was all just a happy coincidence.

D: That’s certainly how it looks. But it also needed a bit of observation and a bit of logic…

M: (Dejectedly) And mechanical routine.

D: And a bit of intuition! And the gift of premonition! And instinct!

M: Take your pick! Dear God! What should I do, Mr Dastych?

Waiter: Phone call for Mr Mejzlík!

(Mejzlík goes to the phone and returns shortly, pale and nervous.)

M: Waiter, the bill!.. It’s already happened, Mr Dastych. They’ve found the body of some poor foreigner in a hotel. God help me!

(Mejzlík gets up and leaves the pub, looking like an actor with a bad case of stage fright.)

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