From Czech: MAN TO MAN by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Oplatkův konec, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

Just before 3 a.m., Community Policeman Krejčík noticed that the shutter of the bakery at 17 Neklanova Street had been forced up a bit. Although Krejčík wasn’t on duty, he rang the janitor’s bell and looked under the shutter. At that moment, a man scrambled out from under it, shot Krejčík in the stomach at point-blank range, and took to his heels.

In the nearby Jeronýmova Street, PC Bartoš, who was on his usual beat, heard a shot and ran in that direction. On the corner of Neklanova Street he was almost knocked off his feet by the running man. Before he could even shout “Halt!”, the man shot him in the stomach too and carried on running.

The din of police whistles awoke the street, as officers came running from the surrounding areas. Three, who’d come straight from the police station, were still buttoning their coats. After a few minutes, a car from headquarters sped up and an inspector jumped out. But PC Bartoš was dead, and Krejčík – still holding his stomach – was dying.


By morning, about twenty arrests had been made – randomly, it should be said, because no one had seen the killer. On the one hand, the police were driven by a compulsion to avenge their dead colleagues. On the other, it wasn’t that unusual: if a few known criminals are randomly arrested, there’s always a chance one of them will know something and spill the beans.

The interviews continued through the whole day and the whole night. Even worse, for the criminals, was the bit when, after the interview, two large, unsympathetic policemen took them to one side. The killer had ruptured the normal familiar relationship between career police officers and career criminals. Shooting, OK, but point-blank in the stomach?! You don’t even do that to animals.


The following morning, all the police in Prague knew it was Oplatka who did it. One of those arrested, Valta, had coughed up: “Yeah, it was Oplatka what done it. An’ ’e’d do some more given ’alf a chance. ’e ain’ bovered. ’e’s got consumption.”

Valta was kept in custody. Oplatka’s girlfriend was arrested, together with three young men from his gang. But none of them could, or would, say where he was.
Dozens of constables and detectives were sent out to find him. And each of them, even when his shift had ended, would only have a quick bite to eat at home, mutter something to his wife, and head off to continue the search on his own account.
Everyone knew Oplatka: the little, pale-faced bloke with the skinny neck.


Just before eleven o’clock that night, PC Vrzal, who returned home from work at 9 p.m., changed into civvies and told his wife he was going to have a nosey around. At Rajská Gardens he noticed a little man who seemed to be loitering in the shadows. Although the constable was no longer on duty and wasn’t armed, he went to take a closer look. But when he’d approached to within a few paces, the little man reached into his pocket, took out a gun, shot Vrzal in the stomach and ran off. Clutching his stomach, PC Vrzal started to chase him but, after about a hundred yards, he collapsed.

It wasn’t long before police whistles could be heard, and several officers were pursuing that shadowy figure. More shots rang out at František Rieger Park and, fifteen minutes later, a number of cars with policemen on the running boards could be seen driving at full speed up Vítkov Hill. Meanwhile, teams of four or five policemen scoured the buildings that had recently been built at the foot of the hill.
At 1 a.m., a further shot could be heard from the direction of Olšanský Lake. It turned out that a running figure had shot at, but missed, a young man who was on his way back from his girlfriend’s place in Vackov.
By 2 a.m., the police had encircled Židovské Pece Park and were closing in step by step. It was cold and damp and had begun to rain.


At dawn it was reported that the tollgate keeper in Malešice, at the city limits, had been shot at. The bullet had missed, and the toll man had started to give chase before deciding – sensibly enough – that it wasn’t worth his while. It was clear that Oplatka had escaped the police cordon.

The nearly seventy men who trudged down from Židovské Pece Park in their helmets or bowler hats were soaked through and – God Almighty! – furious beyond words. That bastard had killed three police officers, Bartoš, Krejčík and Vrzal, and now they’d have to leave him to the rural police. Both the uniformed and the plainclothes police were of one voice that the miserable little wretch should have been theirs. Listen, if ’e shot at us, it’s our business, ain’ it? The country plods shouldn’ ’ave nuffing to do wiv it. They should jus’ push the bastard back into Prague.”


The whole of that day was cold and drizzling. In the evening, rural policeman Mrázek was making his way on foot from Čerčany, where he’d been to buy a battery for his radio, to Pyšely. He was unarmed and was whistling nonchalantly. At one point he saw a small man walking towards him. Nothing unusual about that, except that the man stopped, as if uncertain. Mrázek had scarcely had time to think Who can it be? when there was a flash, and he fell to the ground, clutching his side.

It wasn’t long before all of the rural police had been alerted.


“Listen, Mrázek,” said Captain Honzátko to his dying colleague. “Don’ worry. I give you my word of honour: we’ll catch the bastard. It’s that Oplatka, an’ I’d bet my las’ crown ’e’s trying to get to Soběslav, coz that’s where ’e was born. God knows why them villains always ’ead for ’ome when they got a price on their ’ead. So don’ worry, Václav, ’ere’s me ’hand. I promise yer by all that’s ’oly we’ll nail the bastard, no matter what it cost us.”

Václav Mrázek tried to smile. He was thinking of his three children. But then he imagined how his colleagues would be drawing in from all sides… Maybe Toman from Černý Kostelec… Závada from Votice, he’d definitely be there… Kousek from Sázava as well. My comrades! My comrades! … ’ow beautiful! All of ’em togeva. Then pain extinguished his smile.


That night, Sergeant Závada from Votice decided to check the night train to Benešov. Who knows? Perhaps he’d find that Oplatka sitting in one of the carriages, although it would take a bit of gall for the murderous bastard to get on a train. The lights were flickering in the carriages, and the passengers were dozing in their seats like weary cattle. The constable walked slowly down the aisle of each carriage. As he did so, he was thinking, Gawd! ’ow am I gonna reconise someone I ain’ never seen?

Suddenly a young man with a hat pulled down over his eyes jumped out in front of him, there was a bang, and before the constable could pull the gun from his shoulder strap, the man – waving his gun wildly about him – hurried out of the carriage. The constable just had time to shout, “Stop ’im!” before falling flat on his face.
The young man was already running in the direction of the goods waggons. The railwayman Hrůša, lantern in hand, happened to be walking towards them at the same time. Once 26 ’as gone, he was thinking to himself, I’ll go an’ ’ave a lie-down in the lamp room.
Before he knew it, a man came running towards him. Without blinking, old Hrůša blocked his path – he used to be a police constable and wasn’t one to take fright easily. The last thing he saw was a flash of light.
Old Hrůša got to lie in the lamp room even before No. 26 had departed, but he was lying on his back on a trestle table, and his colleagues were removing their caps as they entered.
Several men had run, panting, after the culprit, but it was too late: he’d probably crossed the tracks and got into the fields. But what did happen was that a wave of panic spread from the station, with its flickering lights, and from that huddle of horrified people, out into the comfortable autumnal slumber of the surrounding area. People who weren’t already at home hurried back and didn’t even think about going out again. It was said that a wild-looking man had been seen here and there. He was sort of tall and thin, or he was sort of little and wearing a fur coat. The postman had seen someone hiding behind a tree. Someone in the road had waved at Lebeda, the coachman, to stop, but Lebeda had whipped the horses into a gallop.


The next morning, a boy had been walking to school when an exhausted man stopped him and, growling “Give it ’ere,” stole the little bag containing his slice of bread, before disappearing. From that moment, everyone in all the villages round about bolted their doors and hardly dared breathe, for the sheer horror of it. The most courage they could summon was to press their noses occasionally against the window panes and scan the grey, deserted landscape.

But something else was happening at the same time. In ones and twos, and from all directions, policemen were arriving. God knows where they all came from!
“Chris’ Almighty!” roared Captain Honzátko at a rural constable from Čáslav. “What the ’ell dya fink yer up to?! ’oo sent yer? Dya fink I need policemen from the ’ole country to catch one single miserable sodding little bastard?! Eh?!”
The policeman from Čáslav took off his helmet and scratched the back of his neck nervously. “Well, yer know, Cap’n. Závada was me friend… I couldn’ not be ’ere, could I?”
“Sod it!” the captain thundered. “That’s what they all says! I’ve already got fifty of ’em ’ere, without no one ordring or inviting ’em. What’s I suppose’ to do wiv ’em all?!”
The captain started chewing his moustache.
“Well… you can patrol the lane from that crossroads to the wood. An’ tell Voldřich from Benešov you’ve come to replace ’im.”
“That ain’ gonna work, Cap’n. ’e’ll jus’ tell me ’e ain’ going nowhere. What about if I take the lane from the edge of the wood. ’oo’s there?”
“Semerád from Veselka. But listen – What’s yer name, by the way – Listen ’ere, Jenda, you shoot firs’ if yer sees someone, right? No messing. On my ’ead be it. I ain’ ’aving no more of my people shot. Right! Off yer goes!”
Then the station sergeant turned up. “Another firty of ’em ’ave arrived, Cap’n.”
“Firty of ’oo.”
“Railwaymen. You know, coz of ’růša. ’e used to be one of ours, so they’ve all come to offer…”
“Send ’em back! I don’ need no civilians!”
The sergeant shifted his weight awkwardly from foot to foot. “Look, Cap’n. They’s come all the way from Prague an’ Mezimostí. It’s good they’re all ’olding togeva. They ain’ gonna let it go jus’ like that, when that Oplatka killed one of ’em, is they?! … Do ’em a favour an’ let ’em stay, Cap’n.”
Captain Honzátko grumbled his consent.


During the rest of the morning, the policemen and railway workers stood guard, patrolled and searched. In the afternoon, the commander from the nearest barracks telephoned to ask if they needed military backup. “No fank you,” replied the captain. “We got it under control.”

In the meantime, some plainclothes detectives had arrived from Prague and were arguing with the sergeant at the station, who’d told them they weren’t needed.
“What?!” said Detective Inspector Holub. “What do you mean, ‘Not needed’? He killed three of ours and only two of you bumpkins! We’ve got more right to be here than you blockheads!”
Hardly had this dispute been more or less patched up, than another one broke out on one of the lanes, between the rural police and some gamekeepers from thereabouts.
“Clear off!” shouted one of the policemen. “This ain’ abou’ chasing ’ares.”
“We ain’ going nowhere,” said one of the gamekeepers. “These are our woods, an’ we can go where we likes in ’em.”
Kousek from Sázava tried to calm things down: “All we’re saying is this is our business, an’ we don’ wan’ no one else getting in the way. If yer don’ mind.”
“Well, we does mind. That kid, what that bloke stole ’is bread, ’e’s the son of me colleague ’ere from ’ůrka. So it is our business an’ that’s that!”


Come the evening, the whole area was encircled, by police, detectives, railwaymen and gamekeepers. When it got dark, each one of them could hear the husky breathing of the man on his left and the man on his right, and the glutinous sound of boots treading mud. Every now and then a whispered “Keep quiet!” could be heard.

A heavy, oppressive silence descended, interrupted only by the rustling of leaves, the murmur of occasional drizzle, the shuffling of feet, or a clicking sound that could have come from a strap or the butt of a rifle.


At midnight, someone shouted, “Halt!” and fired, which was followed by about thirty gunshots. Everyone ran towards the sound, but suddenly someone cried “Stop! Not a step furva!”

Somehow things calmed down, and the circle re-established itself. But now they were fully aware that, hiding somewhere in the dark in front of them, was a desperate man, awaiting his chance to attack. Something like an electric current made each of them shiver, and at times they seemed to hear silent steps. God, if only they could see in front of them! If only there was light!


Slowly it began to dawn. They could make out the outlines of the men standing nearest to them – much closer than they’d realised in the dark. Inside the chain of men, there could be seen the outline of thick scrubland or a wood – it was where the hares were hunted. But it was so quiet there! So quiet!

Captain Honzátko pulled at his moustache as he shivered in the cold. “Chris’! Do we stay ’ere or do we…?”
“I’ll go and look,” said Inspector Holub.
The captain turned to the nearest policeman. “You go wiv ’im.”
In the end, five of them went over and entered the scrubland. The cracking of broken branches could be heard. Followed by silence.
“Stay ’ere,” Captain Honzátko shouted at his men as he cautiously approached the bushes and then disappeared.


After a few minutes, the broad back of one of the rural policemen emerged. He was dragging a floppy body, the feet of which were being held by a walrus-moustached gamekeeper. Then a bedraggled Captain Honzátko scrambled out from the bushes.

“Lay ’im ’ere,” he croaked. Rubbing his forehead, he stared at the circle of men before shouting, “Why’re yer standing there gawping?!”
Rather hesitantly, the men approached the crumpled body. It was Oplatka. A thin hand poking out from a sleeve. His little, sickly, rain-beaten face. His skinny neck. God, how little there was of that wretched Oplatka! Here’s a bullet hole in his back, and here’s one behind his sticky-out ear, and here… Four, five, seven bullets got him.
Captain Honzátko, who’d been kneeling by the body, got to his feet and cleared his throat. Then he looked, almost dreamily, around him. At the policemen with their rifles on their shoulders, the bayonets gleaming at the top of them. Gawd! Fellows like tanks, standing dead-quiet, like on a parade groun’. At the plain-clothes detectives, also stout chaps, revolvers bulging in their pockets. At the railwaymen in their blue overalls, most of them small and wiry. At the gamekeepers in their green uniforms – tall, red-faced, bearded and muscular.
Like some glorious bloody funeral, thought the captain. All it need is them to fire a salute over ’im.
He chewed his lower lip. For a few moments he felt overwhelmed, nonsensically, by sadness. That scrap of a human being, mangled and rigid, shot like a sick crow, and surrounded by so many hunters.
“Sod it!” he said between clenched teeth. “Fin’ a sack or somefing! Cover ’is body!”


It was about two hundred men who set off in all directions. They hardly exchanged a word, apart from the odd “That’s ’im done then. Won’ be getting no more trouble from ’im.”

The rural policeman who’d been left to guard the body took short shrift with any of the locals who came to stare. “What’yer wan’ ’ere?! Ain’ nuffing to see. Min’ yer own business!”


On his way back to Sázava, rural PC Rousek spat at the ground before saying to his colleagues, “Load of yeller-bellies! Jesus Chris’! They should’ve lef’ that Oplatka to me. Man to man.”


"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925


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