The bald American in the next seat began to wake up as our plane circled over the Buena Vista airport.
"What time ya got?" he asked, yawning like a hippo.
"Morning. Don't know what a.m., though. We've crossed some time zones," I said, looking down on the jungle as the airliner dipped its wing. I always like a window seat, myself.
"Hmm, looks like a lotta salad down there." The American leaned his gleaming bald head in front of me and partially blocked my view. The magnificent jungle below was not of interest to him, fortunately, so he sat back and got his head out of my way. For a moment I saw the great river, winding down below like a huge anaconda.
"When we get in?" He belched and pummelled his solar plexus with a pudgy fist.
I saw the white buildings of the capital and tried to distinguish the Presidential Palace through the gaps in the luxuriant cloud formations. It was the kind of view I imagined the Greek gods enjoying from their Olympian heights.
"Gum?" He thrust a cellophane packet in my face.
Magical moments are spoiled by clods like these, I thought, sitting back in my seat as we began the approach to the runway. The perspective was gone in any case.
"You on vacation?" He snapped his gum in a way I've never been able to imitate.
"Yeah, a rest tour."
"Looks like you need it."
"Thanks. I always enjoy a compliment so early in the morning."
"What sort of work ya do?"
"Lucky so-and-so. I gotta work for my living." He chewed noisily, without closing his lips.
"No kidding." I feigned an interest in the airline's travel brochure, but to no avail.
"I'm a visiting lecturer."
"Bet you can't guess my field."
"Naw, you're way off. I give lectures on Ulysses."
"... S. Grant?"
"No, Ulysses, by James Joyce." He looked annoyed.
"Haven't read it."
"You should. There's everything you need to know about life in there."
"No wonder I'm so ignorant." I wiped his saliva from my stubbled cheek.
The 'fasten seat belt' sign came up, and soon we were down among the palms. A runway appeared beneath us. There was the familiar bump and screech of tires, and we were in. The plane shuddered as the jets thrust in reverse. Slowly, we taxied toward the control tower and the waiting customs officials.
"You seen the papers?" He popped in another stick of gum as he spoke.
"Try not to." I leaned away from the mint-flavored spray that accompanied his words.
"Awful, just awful. They're still lookin' for those three guys."
"What three guys?"
"The three who swiped the million dollars in Frisco. They say the coins were in mint condition, real collectors' items, so the haul could come to another ten million on top of the face value."
"You sound like a coin collector, yourself."
"I'd sure like to be. But those guys, wow! They got the collector bug in a big way."
"They haven't caught 'em yet?"
"New, think they skipped the country."
"Smart move." I nodded appreciatively.
"Aw, it won't do 'em any good. They'll catch 'em."
"I wouldn't be too sure, not these days."
"Yeah, I know, but three guys, not a chance."
"You think there were only three?"
"Oh, maybe a few more, but three was all it took to do the job. They sure blew hell out of California. Lucky there weren't four of 'em."
"You mean, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?"
"Those guys were amateurs compared to these three."
"But they always slip up in the end, don't they?"
"Yeah, like in the movies."
The stewardess I'd been eyeing most of the flight looked even more attractive when she showed her nervousness at the microphone.
"Señoras y señores favor de ..." Then she shifted into pleasantly-accented English, repeating our landing instructions.
I'd remember her pretty face as I always did. Over the years I'd stored a good many pretty faces in my head, each one as clear and striking as on first sight. Sometimes I leafed through my mental album, looking at them and remembering the time and place in which I saw them. Not bad for an old man, I guess. Those faces would lead me back through the maze of years, and I would remember how I felt at the time, as a younger man. The human mind is like a time machine. It just takes practice.
"Daniels." The bald American wanted to shake hands.
"Sorry, guess I was dozing. Fred's the name." I shook hands with him, noticing that his palm was sweaty.
The other passengers were standing up and stiffly moving toward the exits, reminding me of invalids who were trying out their artificial legs. We were midway between the fore and aft exits, so we sat smiling inanely at one another until I pretended to take an interest in the tedious customs formalities just visible from my window.
As the last of the passengers seeped past us, I took my valise from under the seat and got my raincoat down from the rack. Meanwhile, Daniels was festooning himself with cameras and all sorts of little leather cases which dangled from a network of straps, adding another foot or so to his girth.
The stewardess offered us sweets on a tray as we left the plane, but I declined, telling her in Spanish that her sweet smile was enough for me. I hand out flattery shamelessly in Spanish, but I'd feel a perfect dolt even approaching such floridness in English or German. I left the American at customs, trying to convince certain officials that he wasn't an illegal importer of camera equipment.
"Taxi, Señor?" The driver looked more like a locomotive fireman who'd survived a train wreck, but I allowed him to take my valise.
"Al Hotel Internacional, por favor." I got into the decrepit old car and slammed the door. Looking back, I saw the American hurrying toward me, laden with his horrendous amount of gear. He waved to attract my attention, but I pretended myopia. As we drove off, I saw him hailing another cab, looking a little frantic about it.
Daniels was a real character. There hadn't been any write-ups about the gold robbery in any of the papers. I'd read them all. There was only one brief announcement on television, and after that, silence. I didn't like the way he played the game. He was too erratic. I've always preferred a certain consistency ...
The taxi ceased its bone-jarring progress over the streetcar tracks and uneven cobbles of the Avenida, and drew up to the crumbling façade of the Hotel Internacional. I got out, paid the driver, and rubbed my back to make sure my spine was still in place. Looking up at the rusted iron balconies and sagging shutters I tried to visualize the hotel in its days of grandeur.
The Hotel lnternacional had done great business before the advent of the airplane, since it was equidistant from the railroad station and the steamer landing, but now it was wholly dependent on the overflow of guests from its more fashionable successors. The only clue to its past reputation could be gleaned by standing in one of the massive porticoes and looking down the broad, palm lined Avenida which ended at the gates of the Presidential Palace. The original intention was that the Ministry of War would face the palace at the opposite end of the Avenida, but there were rumors of certain sums of money being received by the incumbent president in exchange for giving the hotel such a prestigious location. Some said that the wife of the hotel's owner had been the president's mistress, while others maintained that the president had no wish to face the cannons which adorned the entrance to the War Ministry. At any rate, the Ministry came to occupy a ramshackle building on a nondescript sidestreet and the hotel became a place where coups were planned, rather than executed.
The hotel achieved the height of its glamorous reputation in the days of the rubber boom. Army officers and politicians left off intriguing in order to sample the most fashionable ladies of the evening who came to grace the capital and incidentally to earn fortunes for their services. Famous opera stars and entertainers of every description came up the river to stay at the hotel which was conveniently located near the lavishly constructed Opera House. A newly-installed streetcar system was a source of pride in the capital and also, furnished the hotel with electric illumination for late-night festivities.
It was said that La Belle Otero had bathed in champagne in the hotel's fountain, and there would be no point in denying such a story, because it would have shrunk to insignificance beside the many extravaganzas witnessed in the lofty foyers. There was the time, for instance, when Don Alfredo Perez, one of the rubber barons, brought in five richly-caparisoned Indian elephants to complement a daughter's wedding reception.
Orchestras came from the concert halls of Europe to play in the ballroom, and great chefs favored the establishment with excellent cuisine. The dining room, a vast expanse of arches, potted palms and electric fans, was presided over by the best waiters in three continents. Gypsy violinists strolled among the tables while the diners enjoyed the choicest lobster and wines to be found on the planet. It was even said that red caviar, reserved for the Shah of Persia alone, had found its way to the hotel's tables, but this was the Hotel Internacional and anything could be believed, no matter how amazing or scandalous.
An old man favors the familiar over the fashionable, so I returned to the place, even though I'd come by plane. As I strode through the great arcade I remembered other days in the hotel, days when my pace had been quicker and my hopes incredibly high. That for me was youth, living in constant expectation of what might happen. Age was simply having lived to see what, out of all the possibilities, had actually happened. On the balance I lost those optimistic expectations, but I also lost the terrible anxieties of Youth: Would I fail? Would I marry the right girl? Would I catch some disease or be crippled so that I would live in misery? Would I make enough money to retire on? Would I find the right job? Would I find comradeship and recognition? On the whole, I was glad those trying days were over.
I entered the decaying lobby. Seeing no one at the desk, I banged on the elaborately-decorated, but rusty call bell, raising echoes among the shadowy arches and corridors. When no one appeared I put down my suitcase and strolled over to a dust-covered music box.
It had a little orchestra of toy musicians who played for a group of toy couples on a miniature ballroom floor. Everywhere the little scene showed the pitiless work of time. The musicians' painted features were scarred or obliterated, their instruments damaged or missing. The little conductor had lost an arm, and the dancers looked a tattered bunch, indeed. The dance floor was covered with dust and strewn with dead flies and cockroaches.
Idly, I dropped the required coin in the slot and turned the hand crank to wind up the mechanism. The music box came to life grudgingly, with much whirring and clicking of cogwheels and escapements. The dancers began to twirl and the orchestra went into spasmodic motion. Above the noise of the weary mechanism I heard the first notes of a charming little tune.
"Señor, do you wish a room? Ah, welcome, Don Federico!"
I turned around to see the desk clerk, manager, bellboy, head porter and doorman standing behind me. His moustache was going a little gray. "Good morning, Armando. Yes, the usual room thirteen next to the boiler."
"Don Federico always wants hot water."
"You know me. I can do without a roof over my head if I can just start the day with a hot bath."
We turned toward the music box, startled by a loud crack from the mechanism. The lively, yet plaintive tune which I had been trying to follow became a jumble of discordant notes interspersed by loud whirrings and clashings of cogwheels.
"I think the governor has failed. Can't we switch it off, Armando?"
"No, Señor. It must run down of its own accord. I think the machine is destroying itself. See, it bleeds."
Cogwheels were falling upon the tiles of the lobby where they bounced and spun like dervishes. A cloud of dust arose, obscuring the frenzied motions of the dancers and orchestra. A final crack and the whole works came to a stop. The devastation was complete.
"What was that tune, Armando?"
"I do not know, Señor. I don't believe the machine has been played since the good times."
"What a shame. Do you mind if I take a small souvenir?"
"Of course not. We will give the debris away as trinkets for the begging urchins."
I reached through the broken glass cover and retrieved the remaining arm of the little conductor. I felt a strange affection for him having seen that he carried out his duty to the last.
"About my room ..." I put the arm in my coat pocket.
"Unfortunately, Señor, it is already occupied by a foreign gentleman, like yourself, who has this exotic craving for hot water."
"And room eleven?"
"The same. Our only vacant rooms are on the top floor."
"Amazing. You mean the place is nearly booked up?"
"Sí, Señor. It is like the good times, but the elevator was working then."
"Mostly foreigners, you say."
"Yes, and they keep to themselves, too. No banquets, no girls. Maybe they are all queer."
"An unlikely coincidence, I should think, an army of homosexual tightwads descending on Buena Vista. Well, if my room's on the top floor, we'd better get going. I want my bath before nightfall."
A buxom but very homely chambermaid came toward us, her sandals slapping on the tiles.
"Maria! Tell Diego to get the boiler steaming. This gentleman must be boiled before evening."
Maria nodded, crossed herself and went off muttering about evil vapors.
We arrived, somewhat out of breath, at my room. Armando threw open the door with as much ceremony as possible, allowing for the rusted hinges which protested like a pig being slaughtered. I wrinkled my nose at the musty air of the room.
"Maria will dust the room and bring bedding. Do you wish it fumigated?"
"No, I'll see to that."
Armando opened the warped shutters with my help and the darkened room suddenly became cheerful in the bright noon sun. I stood on the balcony and looked down the Avenida to the sentries lounging at the gates of the Presidential Palace. Twin streaks of rust and sagging wires marked the abandoned streetcar line. There was no sign of life on the Avenida and no shade either, at this hour. A knife-sharpener's pan pipes called in the distance.
Armando indicated the room telephone, saying it had not been working since the 'good times,' but that I could order anything I wanted by shouting down the stairwell. The raucous shouting of the chambermaid showed the system to be effective.
"Diablos, another guest! What is going on today?" Armando vanished into the darkened corridor.
Soon, Maria appeared with bedding and a dustmop. She was well-practiced. ln no time she had the dust off the floor and into the air, where it circulated freely, lending a subtle grayness to my white linen suit. Coughing, I retreated to the dining room for an early lunch.
The stucco was coming off the arches in large chunks, the paint having been the first to go. That was not to say that certain additions had not been made to the dining room decor. Splotches of mildew were spreading around the bases of the pillars. Eventually there would be moss, then frogs would come to chase the cockroaches. The jungle was reasserting itself. I imagined Armando serving lunch in a vine-draped clearing on the ballroom floor. Gazing up past the blades of the electric fans which had stopped turning long ago, beyond the recollection of the hotel's present occupants, I thought I saw small, dark shapes clinging from the vaulted ceiling, but the sunlight never penetrated into those recesses. The room was so dimly-lit that I barely recognized Daniels, let alone the species of bat sharing our quarters.
"Dr. Daniels, I presume?" I managed a grim smile.
"Hey! Pull up a chair and sit down, man. What are you doin' in this dump?"
"I could ask the same of you."
"Well, you know ... These fellowship grants aren't what they used to be."
"Neither is this place." I was growing accustomed to the darkness, and saw that most of the dining room was being used as some sort of warehouse.
"Every hotel is packed, even this Dracula dormitory."
"Yes, I imagine the place has hot and cold running bats."
Bats are warm-blooded, aren't they?"
"Not dead ones." I kicked one across the floor. The dead bat came to rest beside a pair of human legs protruding from under a shroud like tablecloth.
"Who's under the table over there?" I asked.
"One of Armando's cousins. Armando says he works nights." He looked at the dead bat lying on the dusty tiles. "Hell, that was a bat! Jesus, I hate those muthas, can't stand 'em."
"Better get used to them. They won't go away. Besides, they don't eat much." I could see that Daniels was not cheered by this information.
The figure under the table began to snore, just as slippered footsteps padded toward us. Into the circle of kerosene light stepped Armando.
"Have the señores decided what they will have to eat?"
"Yeah, I'll take whatever you've got as long as it's an inch-thick, rare T-bone," said Daniels.
"The señor is surely joking." Armando looked at me for an explanation.
"Like hell, I'm joking!" Daniels bleated.
I intervened, taking a fatherly tone. "Daniels, if you'll simmer down, I can explain the problem."
"Yeah. There isn't a T-bone steak in the whole country. They don't make 'em."
"Well, give me something like it, and make it thick and rare."
"I wouldn't advise that, either. There's no refrigeration to speak of."
"So the meat you get has to be slaughtered the same day it's eaten."
"And tough. Also, they have lots of tapeworm and beef trichinosis out here."
"Well, what am I supposed to do, go on a meatless diet?"
"No. Just have what I'm ordering. Armando, two of your Creole Beefsteaks, please, very well-done, and four Pacificos."
"Sí, Señor, as always, I have already begun the preparation." He turned toward the kitchen.
"Hey, Armando, before you disappear, you can switch on the lights?"
"The lights, Señor Daniels?" He was perplexed all over again. "How can one foreigner, sitting at a table, cause so much trouble?"
"Yeah, dum-dum, the electric lights. This kerosene stinks. Besides, I like to see what I'm eating."
"But, Señor, there is no electricity."
"When did the power go off?"
"Oh, I think when my grandfather ran the hotel."
"He means, around the nineteen-twenties," I said, blandly.
"Jeezus Christ!" Daniels looked as if we were playing a joke on him.
Armando padded off to the kitchen, leaving Daniels staring out into murky space, shaking his head in utter disbelief.
"Don't feel so bad." I tried to cheer him up. "After all, we put a rocket on the moon, didn't we?"
"Yeah, and left the rest of the world a thousand years behind. Hey, where is everybody, all the other clowns who'er usin' up the hot water?"
"Maybe they're eating out, or maybe they're crash-dieting."
"Smells fishy to me."
"l hope not. It's supposed to be beefsteak, you know."
"No, I mean ..."
"I know what you meant, but here comes Armando."
He set two steaming plates before us, deploying the bottles of beer like sentries alongside.
"Don't stand on ceremony," I said. "Dig in."
"What is it?" Daniels prodded his steak gingerly, as if it might leap up and wrest his fork away at any moment.
"Bistec criollo, Creole Beefsteak. It's just fresh, lean, thinly-sliced steak, well-grilled and fried with lots of chopped tomatoes and onions. Oh yes, a little chili pepper for flavor."
"Looks like a dog's breakfast."
"You're supposed to eat it, not look at it. Well, how is it?"
"Um, not bad. Just tough."
"That's par for the course."
"What's the idea of all the tomatoes and onions?"
"It's all very scientific." I paused to swallow a chunk which had so far resisted the most determined chewing, and would probably endure its immersion in stomach acid. "The cooking kills the bugs in the beef and the bugs on the tomatoes and onions. The chili pepper kills the taste of the bugs and the beef, and the onions and tomatoes kill the taste of the chili peppers. Theoretically, the whole mess should go prompt critical and vaporize the kitchen, but all the ingredients just neutralize one another."
Daniels began to choke on a mouthful, and I thumped him on the back.
"It's not so bad," he said, tears in his eyes.
"Shut up and drink your beer."
Daniels insisted on accompanying me for an afternoon stroll around town. He was sticking to me like a limpet, so I made the best of things. As it was, I thought I could do my business effectively, even with his prying into it. We stepped out into the blazing sun, blinking at the drastic change from the cavern-like dining room.
"Don't think it'll rain before evening." I looked at the clouds.
"Where are we going?"
"Let's see where those streetcar tracks go."
"Do we have to?"
"If you're coming on Fred's Guided Tour, you do."
"Hell, it's hot." Daniels mopped his brow with a dirty handkerchief.
"Yeah." I shooed off a swarm of beggars, and we began to walk over the uneven pavement that bordered the Paseo de las Victorias, or Victory Promenade, as the narrow, dusty street was called. I wore a disreputable-looking Panama hat with a wide, battered brim, and Daniels courted heatstroke in one of those absurd New York efforts which looked like a damaged fez to which a tiny snap-brim had been added. I marveled at the fashion designer who was able to get away with it, getting people to pay money to be uncomfortable and at the same time look ridiculous. The perspiration was running down Daniels' face as we crossed over to the shady side of the street.
The rusty tracks led us past the National University, a dilapidated structure that served as an ornate perch for vultures which croaked and flapped their wings as they watched us from above. Weathered planks over doors and windows showed streaks of rust from the spikes which held them in place, driven carelessly into the fluted stone pilasters.
I pointed to the crumbling, pock-marked façade where the name 'Universidad Nacional' was barely visible. "l don't think you'll be lecturing in there. The place was closed during the student riots a few years ago, and nobody's in any hurry to reopen it."
Daniels gave a worried chuckle. "Oh, yeah I knew about that. Actually, I'm giving my lectures at the Faculty of Medicine, in case you'd like to come."
"Thanks for the invitation. I'll make a point of it. It's never too late to learn something, you know."
The way Daniels bit his lip, I knew he'd have to make a few hasty arrangements. His cover was getting so thin it was becoming transparent. It was obvious that he'd been sent down to keep tabs on me, but his unsatisfactory preparation indicated a certain desperation or befuddlement on the part of his employers. I wondered why he'd been sent on such short notice.
We came to the abandoned streetcar terminal which teemed with wretched families who had come away from the boredom of country life to breed in the pestilence of the city. They crowded the disused streetcars which they shared with the rats that flourished on their filth. The only sound one could hear above the squawking of vultures and carrion crows was the constant screaming of babies.
Bypassing this infernal place, we turned a corner and arrived at the high iron fence surrounding the Botanical Garden. After paying the guard a nominal fee, we entered a different world. Here was peace, fragrance, beauty, and the tranquility of water dripping from the leaves of giant ferns, each drop catching the sun with dazzling brilliance. Parakeets darted overhead, protected in this verdant sanctuary from the hordes of street urchins and their catapults.
Daniels wished that he were someplace else. He wrinkled his nose. "You really are a swinger. Is this what you do for kicks?"
I paid no attention, savoring the clean-smelling air of the garden. From the angle of the sun I guessed that it was nearly four o'clock. We had come in plenty of time.
Then I saw her standing between two royal palms that flanked the path ahead of us. She was more grown up now, her honey-colored hair no longer in pigtails, but drawn back into a bun of pure gold. Her skin was almost as white as the blouse she wore, in contrast to the black riding boots and breeches which revealed her lithe figure. She took a step toward me, about to say something, the innocent smile of recent childhood lighting her face. Seeing Daniels, she tossed her head back and surveyed him with a glare of pure ice that accentuated her fine profile. The ice thawed as her blue eyes met mine, and I saw the sparkle of mischief in them before she turned and vanished into a thicket of rhododendrons which encroached upon the path.
Daniels was rooted to the spot, oblivious that he was standing in a mud puddle. "Wow! Now there's a piece of stuff I'd like to get into. You know her, Pop?"
"Von Mannerheim's granddaughter," I thought. "What did she want to tell me? Damn this leering goon!"
"No, never saw her before," I said. "She was nice, wasn't she?"
I half expected him to drop down on all fours and sniff the bushes where she'd been, yelping and whining appropriately. Marlene had gone, and that was that. Then I realized what she wanted to tell me, thanks to Daniels.
I tapped him on the arm. "Let's get back to the hotel. I just remembered something."
"Hell, just when things were getting interesting." He nodded his head uneasily. "Okay, I know, 'Fred's Guided Tour.'"
We left the garden and turned down the street
Daniels took my arm and stopped. "Hey, the hotel's back that way!"
"I thought we might make a circle. Besides, the way we came was dangerous."
"Look, Pop, I'm beat. You trying to scare me, or are you getting paranoid?"
"Okay, we'll go back the way we came, just to show you I'm neither a sadist nor a psycho."
The sun was low in the sky as we passed the streetcar terminal. Two of them were waiting in the shadows, and jumped us as we walked by. The first thing I knew was that two hands tried to thrust their way into my front trouser pockets, then withdrew. Daniels yelled, and I spun around to see our assailants as they stepped back for room to draw their switchblades. Like a dancer in a budget production of Billy the Kid's Ballet. I stepped back, regained my balance, and drew the .38 Colt I had stuck in my trouser belt at the small of my back. Taking dead aim at the nearest, I told them to be off. They stood for a moment, gripped by fear and surprise, but turned in time to save themselves, and sprinted down the squalid Paseo.
"Did they get anything off you?" asked Daniels, breathlessly.
"No. Let's get out of here, fast." I began to run.
The puffing Daniels was so near collapse after two blocks that we had to stop. We strolled, that is, he staggered and I strolled another two blocks before he recovered his breath.
"What, he panted, "was that all about?"
"Amateurs, but they'll know better next time. Then they'll cut our throats first, and go through our pockets later."
"But, you pointed a gun at 'em. You gotta expect hostility if you carry guns around."
"You mean, they wouldn't have pulled those knives if I'd been unarmed? LSD and lollipops! I'd hate to have you as witness on my behalf."
"You wouldn't have shot 'em, would you?"
"Look, I don't pull guns on people unless I intend to shoot 'em, and then I may give 'em two seconds to give me one good reason why they shouldn't stop one. That's what they had, two seconds, and they took advantage of it."
"Don't you have any feeling for human life?"
"In quality, not quantity."
"You're a savage!"
"And that's why we're both alive to argue about it. You're a regular bleeding heart this evening, Daniels. Coming down with dysentery, or something?"
"Aw, lay off!"
That was better. I much preferred Daniels the slob to Daniels the humanitarian.
As we entered the deserted and dimly-lit lobby of the hotel, I heard boisterous singing coming from the dining room, of all places. Since it was almost dinnertime, I decided to see what was going on, followed closely by a very disconcerted Daniels. We went in, to find the immense room in brilliant transformation. Dozens of kerosene lamps bathed the scene in a warm, yellow glow, revealing two hundred men, all about the same age, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and denim trousers. They sat at two long trestle tables in a room now bare of the mysterious crates and boxes I'd seen that afternoon.
The men were being served by Maria and Diego, their numerous children, Armando, and a fellow I imagined was Armando's cousin, the one who worked nights. They rushed back and forth from table to kitchen, eyes rolling with desperation, as they carried large loaves of bread and steaming plates of very enticing stew. The hotel staff were so busy that they didn't know we'd come in.
Now and then, some of the men would leave off their animated conversations and sing, joined by others. They made periodic journeys to a row of large tubs of ice from which protruded the necks of many bottles of beer, and made other journeys out into the patio where the once-dry fountain served as a pissoir.
It wasn't long before we were noticed. A hard-looking man older than the others, rose from the head of the nearest table and raised his hand for silence.
"Welcome, gentlemen," he said, with a strong German accent. "Your places have been reserved. Please join us."
Sure enough, there were two empty chairs at his end of the table. All eyes were turned toward us, and the whole group waited expectantly.
"Jeez!" Daniels looked worried.
I pulled him along with me. "Come on, we mustn't miss a free meal. It looks good, too."
Before we sat down, our host introduced himself.
"I am a director of the Vienna Men's Choir. We have come to sing at the Opera House.''
"We'll enjoy hearing your performance." I managed to stifle a burst of laughter. This fellow was worse than Daniels. The Opera House roof had collapsed years ago.
"Uh, I've gotta go," said Daniels, half getting up from his chair. "A date with a señorita, you know."
The 'choir director' placed a heavy hand on his arm, drawing him back into his chair. "No, please, not until you've had your dinner and some beer. I must insist."
Seeing that the others were watching him, Daniels reluctantly agreed. Plates of stew appeared, and one of our table mates was kind enough to bring us beer. The conversations resumed, interrupted by outbursts of singing, and we were made to feel like part of the group, although Daniels seemed dubious about something as he picked at his stew. I found it excellent. Amazing what could be done with the local beef if you cooked it long enough. The cold Pacifico was delicious.
I soon finished my beer, and the director told a fellow named Horst to get me another. I noticed Daniels hadn't touched his, which was unusual, as he enjoyed beer, especially cold beer, and this was chilled to perfection. Seeing that I was on my second beer, and nearly finished with my first helping of stew, he sipped his beer tentatively, and made a more determined effort on his stew. Finding that everything tasted all right, he soon had it put away and received his second helping.
The director was in a jovial mood. "As our honored guests this evening, you have only to tell us what you want. We shall do the rest to the best of our ability."
I recognized the music of a song, but couldn't make out the i words. Then it came to me, 'Zwölfland, Zwölfland über Alles ..."
"Oh, no," I thought, "does Daniels ...?"
But Daniels' head had found a mushy landing in his stew, and he was fast asleep.
"He won't like that," I thought. "Stew stains all over his Mandarin Orange van Heusen shirt and purple, hand-painted tie, not to mention the damage done to his Nieman Marcus clover-green slacks."
The director stood up, and the room was hushed. "Gentlemen," he said in German, "we finish this last beer of the evening as a toast: Tomorrow's success. Prosit!"
"Prosit!" thundered the group, and we drained our glasses.
The director gave me a pat on the back. "Now we must go, my friend, but you and your companion are welcome to stay and finish the beer. There are probably another hundred bottles in the tubs."
"Thank you, but I may not finish all hundred tonight."
"Possibly not, but your friend can help you when he wakes up.
"With a friend like that, I don't need any enemies."
"He will sleep quite well, but he will have a bad headache in the morning."
"Yes, I gathered that."
"Gute Nacht, Herr Dirigent, und viel Glück. I shook his hand.
The men filed out swiftly. One by one, the lamps were extinguished, and Armando and I were left in the vast, darkened room, sipping our beers in thoughtful silence.
"Armando, what about my bath?"
"I am very sorry, Señor. The others used up all the hot water, and the boiler is shut down.
"Tomorrow, then, but no more funny business. You've just run out of excuses."
"Oh sí, Señor. Tomorrow there will be hot water, without fail."
I left the dregs of beer in my glass. "Well, I've had my quota. Let's clear up this mess."
"But, Señor Federico, you are a guest."
"This mess, I mean." I pointed to Daniels. "Help me get him up to his room and bring him lots of beer in the morning. Best thing for a headache."
I woke up late the next morning and saw the sun peeping through the louvered shutters, making zebra patterns in the spacious bedroom. My mouth was dry, and I was glad I'd thought to bring up a beer from the dining room the night before. I took the bottle from the nightstand, uncapped it with the opener on my pocketknife and drank the beer before it foamed over. It was cool and very pleasant.
I slipped on my trousers and boots and opened the shutters, letting in the warm sunlight. "Surely, that water must he hot by now, I thought, and went into taps. They were well-rusted. I got one open by kicking it with the heel of my boot. The other one proved equally co-operative under repeated blows, but no water came. I bent down and listened, hearing a faint gurgle, then a feeble hiss of air. After kicking the taps once more to make sure they were wide open, I was almost inundated by twin gushes of filthy black liquid that smelled of the River Styx. Time passed, and I observed that the liquid was beginning to lighten to a coffee brown. It was then that I noticed I was standing in several inches of this foul substance. The bathtub spewed its contents directly onto the floor, the black deluge crossing the tiles to gurgle away into some corner drain or rathole. If it were the latter, I would have no trouble making the acquaintance of anyone quartered below me.
Someone knocked on the door and I opened it, expecting to see the sodden form of an irate gringo, but it was Maria with a towel. She laid her burden on one of the dusty chairs and viewed me with suspicion.
"Why don't you take your boots off?" Maria looked as if Il were up to no good.
"I always wear them when I take a bath." I could see that sarcasm was utterly wasted. "You must be very busy."
"Yes, so many gringos. They do not tip Maria, despite all the work I do for them."
I took the hint, giving her a peso which she accepted as her due.
"The water has been heating all morning, Señor. Surely, you have had enough." She had a horror of people who bathed in hot water, thinking it unbalanced the humors of the body, and filled the world with contagion. Not only were there numerous physical dangers involved in contact with hot water, but Maria's religious background depicted moral dangers as well. Knowing what she was thinking, I showed her to the door.
"But none of your hot water has come up here, so I am still quite innocent of a bath. Tell Diego to keep stoking, or I'll go down there and make things very warm for him."
Maria departed, shaking her head and crossing herself compulsively, as she always did when she felt the influence of Satan, and I rummaged through my suitcase for something to use as a stopper for the bathtub, finding that the did of a large tin of Tiger Balm would serve the purpose.
The water which the taps spat out was an acceptable weak coffee color. I discovered the hot water tap by its tepid feel, since both of the taps were marked 'hot,' and let the tub fill. Soon I felt like a Roman senator.
Outside, in the heat waves of afternoon, I heard the crackle of squibs accompanying some Christo-pagan fiesta and the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm. Traffic had increased on the Avenida, and people shouted in the street be]ow. "It's a good day for celebrating," I thought, making a small tidal wave and letting the soapy water break over my shoulders, splashing some on the floor. "This is the life!"
There was a loud knock on the door of my room.
"Nobody home!" I shouted. "Don't want any, whatever it is."
The knocking grew louder and more insistent.
I got out of the tub, grabbed the threadbare towel, and stood in front of the door. "Now listen, I am getting angry! You are interrupting my bath. If the hotel is on fire, I don't want to know. I'll read about it in next week's newspaper. Now, get the hell away and leave me alone!"
The heavy door burst off its hinges, nearly falling on top of me. I jumped back, dropping my towel, as two dishevelled soldiers sprawled into the room. I advanced and retrieved the miserable towel, accompanied by the lewd chuckles of the soldiers.
"What a thing?" commented one. "The old gringo has a nice present for the señoritas."
"Yes, and it's sired gentlemen, not cojonudos like you. I wrapped the towed around myself.
"Silence, fools!" yelled an officer. "What are you doing, taking a siesta? Get up, and bring in the machine-gun, this instant!"
The soldiers picked themselves up off the floor and trundled in a heavy, water-cooled Browning which they set up on my balcony.
The officer saluted me. "I regret the inconvenience, Señor but there is a slight disturbance."
"If you gentlemen will pardon me, I shall return to my bath."
"By all means, Señor. Just behave as if we were not here."
The officer was encouraging and the bath was tempting, but I lingered in fascination, watching groups of people swarm across the Avenida, shouting and waving their arms. Small knots of cavalry darted along the pavement. I could not tell whether they were pursued or in pursuit. All sorts of thunder was booming, but there were few clouds in the sky. Suddenly, artillery shells began to whistle overhead. Several burst upon the Avenida, toppling palm trees and raising dust. Then the barrage shifted to another sector of the city, and just as suddenly, the Avenida was still, except for some fruit rolling into the gutter from an overturned cart near the Cantina Perez. A few bodies lay sprawled upon the pavement.
Again, the street came to life, this time peopled by skirmishers in light khaki. Grudgingly, they backed across the Avenida, firing slowly and steadily at unseen targets. A machine-gun opened up pocking the façade of the Cantina Perez and filling the air with screaming ricochets. About a dozen of the skirmishers fell, spun around by the force of the bullets, and the remainder ran off.
For a time the Avenida was deserted, the only signs of activity being splashes of dust as bullets glanced off the cobblestones and stuccoed walls. A stray cannon shell shook the building as it exploded nearby, followed by human outcries and the crunch of falling masonry. I began to hope that some nitwit of an artillery spotter had not mistaken the hotel for the president's palace. Clutching my towel with ludicrous determination, I listened as hand grenades crashed among the side streets. There was nothing else to do.
Then I saw them. They wore gray-green uniforms and moved like wisps of wind-driven fog as they rushed from cover to cover in extended formation.
The officer gnashed his teeth in frustration. "Caramba! At least fifty have already crossed the Avenida."
"But, Señor Teniente, they do not provide us with a worthwhile target."
The Browning was deafening in the room, but otherwise, not very effective. I could have told the lieutenant that a good observation point was not necessarily a good firing point, but these oafs were going to learn the hard way.
The officer saw part of the error. "Move the gun forward, fools! You are firing over their heads."
I moved forward for a better view, then decided to step back smartly and take refuge in the bathroom. The machine-gun resumed firing until one wall of the room caved in. The shell-burst was stunning. I thought the ceiling was coming down, but it was just myself, rising to meet it. Regaining my feet, I was grateful for the thick walls of the hotel. At least it was built to take punishment. I had lost my hearing, but I could see a figure moving erratically in the dust and smoke. It was one of the soldiers.
"The bastards have tanks, our tanks." He staggered out of the room and tottered down the stairs, leaving smears of blood on the tiles.
I tried to think of something to do: Run out into the street? Too many bullets flying around. Take refuge in the cellar? Troops on mop-up toss in grenades before asking questions. I got back into the tub, coughing from the dust and wishing that I had another cold beer.
At the sound of small arms fire on the lower floor, I broke into loud and boisterous song. Heavy boots paused at the doorway and entered the room with a rush.
"Down by the old mill stream ...!"
"Two dead ones over there, Sergeant."
A finger tapped me on the head. I turned and looked into the face of a European clad in gray green, the cut of his uniform fresh out of the Third Reich.
"Do you understand me, old man?" The sergeant spoke in heavily-accented Spanish.
"Yes, but I've become a little hard of hearing, so you'll have to shout."
He obliged me by yelling in my ear. "You are to remain in the hotel until further notice."
"Very good, but what if someone tries to leave?"
"He will be shot. That would be unfortunate."
"Yes, it would be."
"Good day. Sorry to have disturbed you." He saluted and turned on his heel.
"Good day." I dabbled my toes in the dust-covered water.
My ears were still ringing as I dressed, after shaking the plaster off my clothes. I was afraid I'd gone permanently deaf from the shell-burst, but was happy to discover that I could hear the thunder which accompanied the afternoon downpour.
The storm howled and buffeted the hotel with lusty vengeance, threatening to flood my room in short order. As there was no way of stopping the gap left by the shell, I broke camp and moved into the next room, which I helped Maria clean up, insisting that she use a wet mop on the dust.
When she had finished, I unpacked my belongings and sprawled on the freshly-made bed, thinking that a little nap would be just right before dinner. Even the roar and clatter of passing armored vehicles could not keep me from dozing off, and it was early the next morning when I finally woke up. The fatigue of the plane trip had caught up with me.
Rising with the sun, I threw open the shutters and stepped onto the balcony for a look at the Avenida. There were no bodies in sight, and gangs of normally unemployed were busy tidying up the damage, overseen by soldiers in gray-green. Shell holes were filled, fallen palms cut up and hauled away, and the Avenida brought back to its day-before-yesterday appearance, but it looked as if the khaki era had come to an end
I had a shave and went down for breakfast, meeting Armando in the dining room.
"Good morning, Don Federico, I trust you slept well."
"Thank you, I certainly did. What do you recommend for breakfast, Armando?"
"The huevos rancheros are good this morning, as you like chili peppers, and anyway, that is the only thing Maria has on the stove."
"I'll take them, with black coffee and a big glass of orange juice." I sat down at one of the cleaner tables.
"As always, Señor." Armando smiled.
"Armando, how many coups have you seen while you've been here?"
He pursed his lips in thought for a moment. "Oh, seven, maybe eight in thirty years."
"Hmm, not bad. I've managed to avoid seeing most of them."
"They are very boring, Señor. You always see the same faces but in a different order. The football matches are more interesting."
"Yes, but more dangerous to watch, I think."
"Ah, I do not worry. If it is your time to die, there is nothing you can do about it."
"You may be right. I've deserved it on many occasions. Perhaps Death does not like me." I flicked a large cockroach off the table.
"As they say in the magazines, you are probably using the wrong toothpaste." He grinned mischievously.
"Very good. I like that," I chuckled.
"Oh, before I forget. The soldiers say the guests may watch the victory parade, but they are still confined to the hotel."
"Guests'? You mean, Daniels, and I."
"And one other."
"That's interesting. Who is he?"
"Doesn't he eat?"
"He takes meals in his room, and listens to classical music on his tape recorder. He hasn't gone out since he arrived."
"A very sociable fellow. You know, Armando, I'm beginning to suspect that you engineered this coup so you could hang on to the few customers you have left."
"Oh, not me, Señor but I am fortunate to have guests who pay in foreign currency."
"Stop grinning like that. You'll injure your face. By the way, have you seen Daniels?"
"Yes, he came down for supper last night."
"How did he look?"
"Terrible. He was white and trembled all over, like this." Armando gave me his impression of a spastic with a fit of epilepsy.
"Very expressive, but you're exaggerating, surely."
"Oh, no, Don Federico. He spilled his soup into his lap as soon as I served it, and went back to his room, steadying himself by holding onto the bannister."
"Where is he now?"
"In his room."
After breakfast, I paid my respects. The sound of the typewriter ceased as I knocked on Daniels' door.
"Yeah, who is it?"
"It's Fred. Are you busy?"
"Uh, no. Just a minute."
I heard papers being shuffled and objects being put away. A heavy piece of furniture scraped upon the tiles. A few moments later, the door opened and I saw the perspiring face of the bald American.
"Yeah, what can I do for you?" Daniels looked as if he'd been washed in a strong bleach and put through a wringer.
"I hate to bother you, but I was wondering if I could see the parade from your balcony. The second floor is always good for these things."
"Uh, the parade?" He stood back from the door and motioned for me to come in. The room smelled of someone being sick.
"Yeah, Armando tells me we can see the victory parade when it comes up the Avenida. You sure you're all right, Daniels?"
"Me? Sure, I'm all right."
"Sometimes the beer goes off in this hot climate. You'll get used to it."
"Not if I can help it."
"You know what you need?"
"A hair of the dog. I'll order up some cold beers and you can drink your medicine while we watch the parade."
"Well ..." He looked dubious. "I'll think about it, but first I'll just load my little old Nikon, here, and catch some color photos ..."
"I wouldn't do that, but I would advise the beer. Be back in a second." I went over to the stairwell and shouted to Armando.
It was a perfect morning for a parade. I've always liked them. I saw Barnum and Bailey come into town when I was a kid, and watched Hitler come into Austria in '38. Some parades were exceptional, others just so-so, but they always make me feel a lot younger. I saw the Japs march into Singapore, and the French march out of Indochina, but I guess I'm giving away my age.
This was the damnedest parade I've ever seen, I must admit. The crowds had already assembled along the Avenida and they had been waiting over three hours in the hot sun. I was beginning to think that the show was off, when a bugle sounded and a small group of cavalry came around the corner by the Presidential Palace, and started up the Avenida. Baldy lent me his binoculars, and I looked over the horsemen. They were a grubby bunch, but their weapons gleamed with fresh oil. The horses seemed fit and rested, though they had obviously been ridden for quite some time and needed curry-combing. I heard music and raised the binoculars to see three trucks following the beleaguered-looking cavalry. In the trucks rode all the members of the capital's municipal orchestra, who applied themselves vigorously, if not successfully, to some tango version of Mozart, or a Mozart version of a tango. I still haven't decided which.
After gaping at this musical menagerie, I raised the binoculars and looked past the trucks, seeing nothing but bare cobblestones. Either part of the parade had got lost, or that was all of it. I began to gather that there wasn't anything more, and looked down upon the crowd.
At first, the rabble were incredulous. They thought there was more to come. So had I. Then they began to laugh. Laughter turned to derision. The mob began to whistle and shout insults. Suddenly, the leader of the cavalry signaled a halt. The orchestra stopped playing. The officer blew his whistle, and the roof tops along the Avenida came to life. There was gray-green everywhere and not a red tile in sight. Rifles gleamed in the sun.
There were murmurs of fear from the crowd. Some thought of running, but decided against it. For a moment there was an oppressive silence. I could even hear the clip-crop of a restless cavalry horse's hooves. It was a tableau. Then someone began to cheer. This was picked up by the rest. Now all was enthusiasm. The orchestra struck up a national tune, and the cavalry took up the trot.
I handed the binoculars back to Daniels at his insistence and he stayed glued to them until the head of the column turned to pass in front of us.
"Hey, Charles!" I shouted.
Charles raised his arm and the parade stopped beneath our balcony. "Fred, old man, I'll see you later!"
I waved. "Okay, hope you've been having a good time!"
Charles laughed as he waved back and caused his stallion to turn about on its hind legs.
"You know that guy?" Daniels crouched like a pointer, beside me.
"He's an acquaintance, you might say."
"Yeah? Well, he's the guy we want."
"I'm sure you'll get a chance to meet him."
We'd finished the beer and ordered another round by shouting down the stairwell. Soon there was a knock on the door.
"Come in, Maria." I watched the door handle turn.
In came Charles with three bottles of beer on a tray. His uniform was caked with salt from perspiration and looked as if he had slept in it. I'd no doubt that he had.
"Compliments of the management," he said, placing the tray on the coffee table. He took a copy of La Gazeta from the tray and handed it to me. "Next week's newspaper."
"You're Charlie, ain't cha?" Daniels stood up.
"Yes, but my friends call me 'Captain Hendricks.'"
I'd forgotten that he was so tall, but when he stood up from the coffee table, I saw that he was an imposing officer. He patted the holster from which protruded the butt of an automatic pistol and the bald American stammered an apology.
"Ain't you an American?"
"Drop the hick talk, Daniels, and get dressed. We're keeping the transport waiting."
Daniels looked at me, then at Charles, and made a quick inventory of his luggage.
"Oh, your belongings will be safe," said Charles. "They're coming with us. Would you mind bringing the beer, Fred?"
"Not at all. It's going to be a long trip."
We got ourselves and our luggage into the jeep which awaited us, and drove through the deserted streets, skirting shell craters and occasional falls of rubble. Fortunately, we were between showers and so avoided a thorough soaking, arriving at Buena Vista Station in good time.
How many times I'd been at that station, and put through some sort of Byzantine formality. This occasion stood out in my mind as the great exception, which almost made up for all the other difficult arrivals and departures I'd experienced. Soldiers carried our luggage to a special train which consisted of a sleek passenger locomotive and one first class coach.
The officer in charge of the train showed us into a plush compartment that would have accommodated six of us quite comfortably. As we were only three, it was even better. The officer wasn't interested in tickets, but insisted that we keep the shades drawn until we reached the outskirts of the city. Charles, Daniels and I made ourselves comfortable, sipping our beer and listening to the panting of the engine.
"What are we waiting for?" Daniels looked as if he felt trapped. He was.
"Clearance for takeoff," said Charles.
I heard a jeep pull up with a screech of brakes, and then heard heavy footsteps in the corridor. More luggage, probably. The footsteps entered the adjoining compartment. I recognized the officer's voice and made out the words 'Hotel Internacional' and 'Devil's Island' in another voice that seemed to have a Slavic accent. Both voices laughed, and the compartment door clicked shut. I heard the folding table being put down and something laid upon it, possibly an overnight case. It turned out to be a tape recorder. Soon we were treated to a muffled version of a violin concerto. I sat back in my seat, and began to put a few things together.
"Gawd!" moaned Daniels. "Am I gonna hear that junk the whole trip?"
"Shut up, Daniels. That's Bela Bartok." Charles leaned forward and cupped both hands behind his ears. If a wheeltapper had been able to look into our compartment, he would have thought we were playing some sort of charade.
Thunder boomed outside, and the locomotive whistled. The train started with a jerk, and soon we were speeding off into a rainy afternoon. A short time later, the officer came in to inform us that we could now raise the shades and open the windows. We did so immediately, eager to have some fresh air. Outside, the frogs chirped, and the glistening foliage swept by at tremendous speed. Inside, we felt the coolness and smelled the verdant freshness of the rain.
We hurtled on through the night, our coach rocking like a wave-tossed dinghy. None of us said much, though Daniels seemed in need of conversation. Realizing that Charles was in no mood for prattle and that I was either unwilling or unable to satisfy his curiosity, he sank into a morose silence. I stretched out and fell asleep, listening to Mozart.
We were having breakfast in our compartment next morning when I heard the engine beginning to labor. Looking out the window, I saw that we had begun to climb above the savanna and were on the first leg of a switchback. It was almost lunchtime when I heard the whistle for a station, and felt the train slow down as it switched onto a siding. The place was familiar. First came the palm trees and the water tank, then the red tile roof of Las Aguas Station.
The place was surrounded by soldiers of the new regime, smart-looking in their Afrika Korps caps. They were standing in that casual but alert manner of troops who have been told to hurry up and wait. They were waiting for us.
We were hustled aboard a jeep and barely had time to sort ourselves out before an officer blew his whistle. Motorcycles revved and took up positions ahead of us, and our jeep lurched into gear, followed by a second jeep in which rode the civilian who had accompanied us on the train. I saw that he held a tape recorder in his lap.
Hours passed as we bounced over the rough dirt road which was seamed by the running waters of the many springs in the area. It was virtually the same road we had cleared for the Frenchman's artillery, but someone had run a bulldozer over it, so there was less danger of our slipping into the arroyos.
I saw a clump of bamboo near the spot where Juan and the sniper had been killed, and supposed that I would have found their bones nearby. Again, I saw the dying Juan reaching out to me, not wishing to be left behind, but I took a deep breath and forced my attention to other things.
The sunset was magnificent, as always in this part of the world, the last defiant burst of radiance that turns the clouds to flame, followed by the apologetic leave-taking in cool pink.
Just after dark, we entered a citrus grove whose blossoms perfumed the air. Our headlights disclosed the flittings and scurryings of the many night creatures, whose eyes gleamed back at us in the sudden glare. A startled owl gave a powerful shriek, and I felt Daniels shiver in the seat next to me.
"Vampires, Daniels. That's why you haven't seen any livestock in the area. Don't worry, they only attack humans when they're rabid."
"Look, old man, just don't bug me."
Charles leaned forward. "Save your breath, Daniels, you'll need it."
The dirt road wound up a hill and brought us to the white walls of a fortified hacienda. We were waved in by sentries at the main gate and parked in the spacious patio. The white tower loomed before us, its loopholes brightly lit, like the eyes of a jack-o-lantern The crickets and the splash of the fountain were just discernible amid the throbbing whine of a diesel generator and the strident tones of Morse transmissions which echoed among the arcades. Clerical types in uniform strode purposefully over the Moorish tiles of the courtyard, going back and forth between the great rooms which now served as offices.
"You will please accompany me to the general," said a slightly built man who wore thick glasses and carried a sheaf of papers.
Leaving our armed escort in the patio, Charles, Daniels and I followed him into the tower and through the maze of passageways leading into the chartroom. Seated at the table was a very old gentleman, flanked by two sentries with submachine-guns. He was poring over an old map whose place names were designated only by cryptic number and letter combinations.
Seeing me, he rose and took my hand in his still-firm grip. The saber scars were livid on his pale face and reminded me of our first meeting at the Buena Vista Station. He still wore a monocle which he polished from time to time with a handkerchief that he kept inside the left sleeve of his tunic.
"You have worked quickly, Frederick." He cast a critical glance at Daniels.
"I always deliver the goods, as you know, General." I noticed that Daniels was perspiring, even though the chart room was cool.
"Captain Hendricks, is this the prisoner called Daniels?"
"Yes, Sir." Charles came to attention.
General von Mannerheim let his monocle drop, to hang suspended by the black cord that was tied to a button of his tunic. The eyeglass seemed to fascinate Daniels.
He tore his eyes away from it. "Now, let's just cut this 'prisoner' jazz. I'm a representative of the U.S. Government."
"Yes, we are aware of that." The general regarded him with an expression of pity and disgust.
Daniels looked surprised. "Listen, the Central Intelligence Agency takes grave exception to this business. We're willing to drop the whole matter if you return the gold and back out of this comic opera scheme. We'll even let off Charles, here, although the F.B.I. would like to get hold of him, and that goes for you too, Frederick, or whatever your name is." He pointed a trembling finger in my direction. For a plump person, he had a very nervous disposition. "And you can stop looking so innocent, you son-of-a-bitch! You worked for the Nazis in the Second World War, and you're still working for them."
"A man stands by his friends and his principles." I looked him in the eye. "That's more than you can say for yourself."
"Enough!" said the general. "I find such emotional outbursts most unbecoming, Mr. Daniels. A man in your profession should exercise some restraint."
Anger brought color to the general's cheeks, but he maintained his outward composure. "Pay attention, Mr. Daniels, and take a seat. I fear I must give you a lecture."
"Sit down, you bastard!" Charles kicked a chair in his direction.
"Mr. Daniels, you are in no position to bargain. You are bluffing. Your organization and the government it pretends to represent are now powerless, precisely because you have sacrificed everything in pursuit of power. You replaced loyalty with professionalism, as you were unworthy of loyalty, and now your organization is strictly professional. It has no people to whom it owes loyalty, no country, no set of principles, and no longer any objective. Your pursuit of power has been so unprincipled, so diffuse, that you have destroyed the very basis of the power you sought. Now what remains? The squalid ruins of the country which raised you, a far-flung network of mercenary agents and a group of Jewish Mandarins in your Langley headquarters who think their computers can reverse this disaster.
Your 'tough-minded' liberals have programmed death and destruction from their air-conditioned offices, yet none of them have the courage to soil their hands with the blood of another human being. You eat steak and condemn butchers. I find you utterly despicable. And now, I think it would be well for you to resign before you are checkmated." The general turned his head. "Colonel Petrov!"
In came our civilian fellow-traveller from the adjoining room. "Yes, General von Mannerheim. Good evening to you. I am happy to see you looking so well. Campaigning makes you look much younger."
"You flatter an old man, Colonel. Please take a seat. You already know Mr. Daniels, I believe."
"Yes, we have his dossier." Petrov smiled.
"Well, here is Captain Hendricks and an old comrade of mine, Frederick."
"How do you do," I said.
Alongside the miserable Daniels the Colonel looked dapper and fresh, even though his suit was slightly wrinkled from the long trip. He sat down heavily in a creaking wooden chair, offered us some of his top-grade Cuban cigars, and lit one for himself.
The cigar's rich aroma combined with the scent of the orange blossoms on the night air, and I inhaled deeply, enjoying every breath. The rain clouds had lifted, and the air was cool. Peacocks called in the garden below, and drowsy vultures croaked upon the tile roof of the arcade. Through the loophole I saw a full moon and the headlights of another motor column coming up the road. The Night of the Long Knives had begun with disarming pleasantness.
Colonel Petrov leaned forward in his chair. "So, your coup has been successful. My congratulations. Now I believe we can do business."
"For your information, Mr. Daniels, I shall elaborate. The general indicated a map of the world in the corner. "Until now the world has been divided among four great powers. The surprising collapse of the United States has put the world situation into a state of flux. The other three powers, China, Japan and the Soviet Union are vying with one another to fill the power vacuum, that is, to set up their own spheres of influence in what was once the American Empire."
"But we have nuclear capabilities." Daniels mopped his brow with a soiled handkerchief.
"And you dare not use them. The United States is now a hollow shell, a nest of anarchists surrounded by a palisade of missiles. There is nothing to be gained by using your nuclear capabilities, as you describe them. Will a missile on Moscow stop the riots in New York City? I fear not, nor will it stop the mutinies in your armed forces.
To continue: We Europeans have contrived to pick up some of the pieces in order to build our own empire. We shall become the fourth world power, with certain assistance from the Soviets, who fear Chinese penetration of this hemisphere. Is this not so, Colonel?"
"I think your assessment is basically correct, Herr General. The Vanguard of the Working Class has always sought to free oppressed peoples of the world from the yoke of yellow imperialism." Colonel Petrov's smile broadened, and he began to laugh.
We all laughed heartily, amused at this monstrous contortion of communist casuistry, except for Daniels, whose eyes were riveted on the colonel in horror, like a man caught in a nightmare from which there was no waking.
The general observed his reaction and smiled, shaking his head incredulously. "I believe you have led a very sheltered life, Mr. Daniels. Come now, the weight of the world is no longer on your shoulders. Colonel, please accompany him into the garden. The fresh air will do him good, and I imagine you will find much to discuss with one another."
The telephone on the map table began to jangle insistently. The scene was suddenly familiar. All I lacked were my pencil and notebooks.
The general picked up the receiver. "Yes? Very well, send him in."
A few moments later, in came the President of the Republic.
"What is the meaning of ...?"
"Shut up and sit down, Your Excellency." Charles escorted President Miranda as a bouncer would a drunk in a bar.
The general remained seated, his forehead cradled in the palm of his hand. It was obvious that he was controlling himself with great effort. "You wretch!" he exploded.
I could see that tears were gleaming in his eyes.
"You, the son of the great General Miranda! How dare you defile his memory! He fought for this country. It took him decades to undo the damage done by his predecessors, and you betrayed him in your first year of office."
The president, a man in his late forties, gazed at the general in terror. His lower lip began to tremble, and his hands were frozen to the arms of the chair.
The general rose from his chair and turned his back to us. It was as if he could no longer stand so distasteful a sight as the craven figure before him.
"But General," stammered Miranda "I have tried to serve ..."
"... The predatory interests of outsiders," concluded the general. "You are shameless. Even now you are not without your self-serving guile."
The president choked off something he was going to say and silence enveloped the room. I could hear a telegraph key clicking in the corridor outside, so faintly that it seemed to be at the other end of the world. From the patio came sounds of motorcycles revving and trucks being started. A police dog barked and harsh voices shouted commands.
The general turned to face us. His cold blue eyes fixed President Miranda like twin skewers.
"You will serve." His voice was husky with phlegm. "You shall remain president of the republic, at your own expense, once you have divulged the numbers of your Swiss bank accounts and liquidated your family's foreign holdings. Until then, you and your family will be held prisoners in the most uncomfortable quarters of this fortress. If you value your possessions more than your life and the lives of your family, including your mistresses and their families, so be it, but I can guarantee that you will beg for death unless you return what you have stolen.
If you are co-operative, you will be allowed to continue your presidency, a prisoner for life in your palace. You will make speeches, which will be prepared for you, and in all of your public appearances you will be accompanied by an honor guard of your own executioners, should you show reluctance at performing your duties. Do you understand me?"
The president had slumped in his chair and just managed to nod in assent.
"Captain, take the prisoner away. I've nothing more to say to him, except that he was like a son to me."
Charles led the president out of the room, their footsteps echoing down the corridor.
"Are you all right, General?" I saw him prop his head upon his arm.
"Yes, thank you. It has been a trying day, and it is not yet over."
"You should rest."
"I shall. Have no fear." He brightened. "That young man, Charles. What a remarkable discovery, Frederick, almost as remarkable as you."
"He has the necessary qualifications: determination, a taste for action and mastery of political theory. Hard combination to find. I believe your successor was well-chosen."
"Yes, and not too soon. Our time is running out, my friend. Our knowledge has served us well and will serve others, but we are almost used up. If only my son had not been killed in the war. Ach, a waste of time to think about such things."
"Sadness is a luxury these days. I'm afraid we're running gravely short of able men like Charles."
The general fingered his monocle. "Surely, more can be taken from the breeding rabble."
"I doubt it. The rabble is breeding, but its level of intelligence is declining. In another century, people will need to go to university just to learn how to tie their shoes properly."
"Not if we are successful in our eugenics program."
"That will leave most of the world tripping over their shoelaces."
"Exactly, and when they have strangled themselves with them, we shall be prepared to rule. This planet is too beautiful to leave in the hands of shopkeepers and savages."
"I think we can take it, this time. The opposition is giving it to us on a platter."
"The best minds are coming to our way of thinking. Amazing, to think that it has taken so much hammering on history's anvil for this to come about. Like our young colleague, Charles, they are beginning to realize that there isn't room for everyone on this planet."
"Yes, if you want children today, you must be prepared to kill so they may live. The human race has not covered the earth, but it sure has crowded it." I heard footsteps coming this way.
Jesus entered the room, gave me a curt nod, and saluted. "May I bring them in, General?"
"By all means, Major. I am rather tired, so I trust you will be able to address the gentlemen in my stead."
"With great pleasure, General." He ushered in two clergymen, replete with the finery of their office. "By way of introduction, I shall simply recite the reasons for which my section has detained these gentlemen, as you call them. They are the scum of the country, vampires who batten on human failings, and even encourage them for their own selfish aggrandizement. They think that they may profit from chaos and disaster, so they encourage the poor to have large families. By preaching that man is weak, they encourage him to cultivate his weaknesses. By telling man to store up goodness in the life to come, they enrich themselves and store up good things in this life. These men condemn all the pleasures of sex and own the biggest whorehouse in Buena Vista."
The general smiled grimly. "Ah yes, the Bishop and Archbishop of Buena Vista. 'By their fruits shall you know them.' What have you to say for yourselves?"
The gilded clerics looked down at the cracks in the stone floor, as if they might divine an answer from the irregular pattern of the flagging. I followed their gaze and saw a large cricket scurry under a wastebasket.
"They say nothing, General, not out of their usual arrogance, but because they know the denunciation is true." Jesus glared at them, his eyes conveying a hatred all the more fearsome for the iron control needed to keep it in check.
"You will not get away with this," said Archbishop Gomez.
"It seems that our major's introduction has loosened one clerical tongue." The general laced his fingers in a judicial fashion.
"The people will never permit this abduction."
"I am astonished that you know so little about your flock, Señor Archbishop." Jesus smiled. He usually smiled when he was getting dangerous. "They do not need you. All that we must insure is that the churches remain open so that they can pray to their idols. If they must have an archbishop, then they shall have one."
The cricket began to chirp in its dark hiding place under the wastebasket. It provided a cheerful diversion.
"And how do you propose to take my place, apostate?"
"I give you the privilege of looking at the future. May I have next week's newspaper, Frederick?"
"Yes, I have it right here." I handed it to him. "There is an interesting item on the fifth page, next to the lottery results."
Jesus turned to the page, indicated the story, and passed the paper to the archbishop, whose eyes widened. The bishop turned pale as he read over the other's shoulder.
"But this is preposterous," said the archbishop. "Who will believe such a thing?"
"Everyone," I said, "because the story will be true when this paper comes out."
"Frederick only writes what is true, I can guarantee that," said Jesus. "Your beheaded bodies will be discovered beside your abandoned Mercedes, both of you having been castrated, as is customary here when one interferes with another man's woman. Even bishops and archbishops are not exempt from such punishment at the hands of our gentle peasants, as you know. Before your deaths, however, you will sign over your personal wealth."
"And if we refuse?"
"Then you lose the option of dying before you are castrated."
"No more barbaric than the superstition and fear which you seek to impose on others. Come now, your families will be looked after, even your mistresses and their families, if you comply. I will say a benediction over your graves, in my capacity as Archbishop of Buena Vista, calling upon God and all the saints to cool the fires of purgatory for you."
"I didn't put in that last part," I said. "I think it's good, though. Shall I add it to the week-after-next edition?"
"Yes, I'd like that." Jesus grinned. "Put it in."
He turned to the clergyman. "Now, señores, I'm afraid your time has come. You have until the end of the corridor to make up your minds. No, gentlemen, after you."
Jesus saluted. "With your permission, General, and yours, Frederick."
He followed the bishops out the door. They appeared to have gone lame, and walked very slowly. Their shuffling footsteps receded down the corridor.
"Am I hearing things, General, or is that ...?" I stepped past the guards and craned my head out the loophole.
"Yes," said the general. "One should be arriving tonight. We could not be sure of the hour, but preparations have been made to receive the colonists."
I had seen few things as beautiful as the airship which was approaching, the moonlight bathing it in radiant silver. Its diesel engines throbbed effortlessly in the still night air, and soon it was directly overhead. Mooring lines were cast down, and I heard the engine of a winch that drew the dirigible to the tower's mooring mast.
The general answered the telephone. "Yes, very good. Have Captain Hendricks come in with you."
He had no sooner placed the receiver on the hook, than I heard many footsteps striding this way. The chartroom was soon crowded with men in uniform. I recognized Hans and his friend, Hoess. They smiled at me and sat down. After a good deal of chair-scraping the room was silent. Everyone watched the general expectantly.
"You will forgive me for remaining seated in the presence of such brave men, but the years have had their way with me. and I am very tired. Some of you have served me before ..."
I saw several of the gray-haired ones sit to attention at this, and by their expressions I could see they were devoted to the general.
"... And I cherish the devotion you have shown me as my most valuable possession. As you are aware, the job of consolidation and enlargement of our position will be the real work ahead of us. For this reason I, who am failing, have seen the need to appoint a successor. Charles, will you please come forward?"
It was clear that Charles had not been informed of this eventuality. At first he looked around in disbelief, but realizing that there was nothing else to do, he made up his mind and strode over to the table.
"Now then, my young colleague, would you care to outline the program for those you see assembled."
"Certainly, just as you've explained it, General."
Indicating the wall map behind the general, Charles turned to face the group.
"Each of you has been assigned an area. You will be military governors of the district to which you are posted. This means that you will use the troops assigned to you for the attainment of the objectives specified in your written instructions which I presume you have studied. The colonists arriving at this moment have their program to carry out. Your services are required for the fulfillment of that program.
Your tasks are mainly two: the pacification of the area for which you are responsible, and the supervision of the labor which will be parceled out to you from the cities.
I am informed that we could be in for hard times. Should things become difficult, as I think they will, we will have no one to fall back on but ourselves. Fortunately, we will be provided with three airships, so transport will not be a great problem. The railway is to be converted back to wood, as coal imports will become nonexistent for the foreseeable future. Petroleum will be reserved for military vehicles only.
Unfortunately, this country, though rich in mineral resources, has no industry to speak of. Our only surpluses at this moment are people and land, the former having largely ruined the latter. It is the job of the indigenous population to correct this situation. Our agricultural technicians will advise you how this labor is to be used. Your job is to make sure the work gets done. I need not advise you that you are to undertake any means at your disposal to insure that it is done, even if you have to shoot the first levies and use their bodies as erosion-control barriers.
As you know, the cities are being scoured of their lumpenproletariat. At present they are being retained in camps where they are segregated according to age and sex. The first levies should be reaching you within a week or two. At all times, the males are to be separated from the females. Priests have been sent along with these groups to explain this as being the true sign of Christian virtue, and since this rabble call themselves Christian, they may as well have some of their own dogma crammed down their throats. You have sufficient bayonets to discourage those who would engage in 'heresy,' and at any rate, male work groups will be in different districts from female. This will solve two problems: that of soil erosion and that of population.
Contagious disease may become a problem, particularly with the shortage of vaccines. I see no other recourse than immediate execution and burial of those showing symptoms of typhus or plague. In the event of typhoid or cholera, you may rely on the usual preventive methods so that the diseases do not spread. Losses will be made up from the central labor pool. Malaria will be a problem, as you know, but make sure it is their problem and not yours. Adequate prophylactic medicines are available for the soldiers and settlers.
I now open the meeting to questions."
Hoess stood up. "May we expect foreign intervention?"
"No. The Americans are tied down with their own internal conflicts, and will be indefinitely. The Russians have guaranteed their non-intervention and will co-operate with us in establishing an aerial and naval blockade to prevent incursions from our competitors. The Chinese, despite American technological assistance, are unable to deliver any threat sufficient to dislodge us. Our neighboring countries' military establishments are immobilized by unwieldy technology, faulty logistics, corruption, and unstable populations."
"Are we able to rely upon any segment of the local indigenous population?"
"Apart from certain members of the European colony, no. Whether by genetics or upbringing, the majority of the local population is ungovernable, unproductive, and destined to be phased out, beginning with the lower strata. Our local Chinese trading community is being encouraged to emigrate to neighboring countries in order to raise popular feeling against Asiatic incursions."
"Surely we are not content with this small country," said Hans. "Where do we go from here?"
Charles smiled and drew a pointer from the table. He described a full circle around the continent of South America. "Does that answer your question?"
There were gasps from the assembly. Hans sat down, and some of the group applauded.
"Gentlemen," said the general, his voice very tired, "I think we have had a long and trying day. I move this meeting be adjourned."
"Seconded," said Charles.
Agreement was unanimous and all filed out of the room except for the general, Charles, myself and the soldiers of the guard.
The general stretched his hand across the table. "Young man, I offer you my warmest regards as my successor. Good night."
Charles shook his hand, saluted, and strode out of the room.
The guards were dismissed, leaving the two of us alone in the chartroom. The general motioned me to come closer in order to hear him. His voice was very faint.
"I've had a stroke, Frederick."
"I'll get a doctor."
"No, don't leave me."
"Then you've decided to go."
"Yes, why not? Can you think of a better time?"
"No, but I shall miss you."
"Remember me as I was, not as I am."
His speech was slurred, and I could see that one side of his face was paralyzed. Slowly, he pulled open one of the drawers and took out a scarred tintype of an arrogant-looking Prussian officer.
"You were always a hard man, General," I said, looking at his photograph.
"No, my friend. I have always seen myself as a sentimental, impractical romantic."
"I admit the picture is a bit misleading. What you see is the self I forged out of will and chosen experience. That is the self I created and strove to live up to."
"You did so, faultlessly."
"But in moments when I was very ill, like now, my sentimental nature was eager to break out, filling me with childish feelings of fear and self-pity. This picture has been my talisman against such weakness."
He drew his Mauser pistol from the drawer. "You remember your promise to me, Frederick."
"My true friend." He laid his hand upon mine. "Now I must leave you, while I have the strength. I'll miss you, Frederick."
I turned away and faced the wall map. My tears blurred the familiar outlines of the terrain as I heard the shattering finality of the Mauser. Turning around, I saw the general, his bleeding head upon the map table, the smoking pistol gripped determinedly in his right hand. I struggled to wrest the gun away from him without firing another shot. Finally succeeding, I laid him gently upon the cool stone floor. He wasn't breathing. No coup de grace was necessary. The general had done his work well, as usual, and there was no need for me to fulfill my promise.
Leaving the chartroom, I dazedly blundered my way through the labyrinth of passages and found myself in the sunlit courtyard. The Night of the Long Knives was over. I saw Charles, his arm around Marlene, standing by the fountain. They came toward me.
"I heard a shot," said Charles. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, perfectly all right."
Marlene read my face. "Grandfather ..."
"Yes, my dear, he's gone. He decided the time was right to leave us."
She stood with her chin held high, but there were tears running down her cheeks. Charles gripped her hand tightly.
"Now you must carry out his orders. The corpse is to be buried in the llanos, naked, without a coffin, and horses driven over the grave. No one is to divulge the grave's location. Do you understand, Charles?"
"I'll see that his orders are carried out."
"Now, if transport is available, I'd like a ride to Las Aguas Station. I have some writing to do for the Gazeta."
"Certainly. You don't mind a motorcycle sidecar?"
"Perfect. I need some fresh air."
We left the hacienda in our dust, the young dispatch rider beside me inscrutable in his aviator's goggles. The sidecar was well-sprung and quite comfortable, its machine-gun mount affording a good hand-hold.
I wool-gathered. Essentially, my life was a series of railroad stations.