Read an Excerpt
An Alan Grofield Novel
By Richard Stark
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1969 Richard Stark
All rights reserved.
Grofield, not knowing what it was all about, got off the plane and walked through the sun into the main terminal building. He was at Isla Verde International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with sunshine and sea breezes sweeping through the open walls.
He got his suitcase and went down a flight of steps to the circular counter of the car-rental agency. "I'm supposed to pick up a car here," he told a clerk with a ferocious mustache. "The name's Wilcox." That was the name the letter had told him to use.
The clerk pointed a triumphant finger at Grofield's forehead. "Yes, sir! You been expected." He was beside himself with joy. He bustled away, bustled back again, and plunked a set of keys on the counter. "Everything's taken care of, sir. You'll find all the paperwork in the glove compartment."
"And I'm supposed to give you this."
Another envelope. Grofield took it, thanked him again, and went out to the parking lot to look for the car with the same license number as this set of keys.
It turned out to be a pale-blue Ford, two-door. The odometer registered a little over thirty-two hundred miles, and there was rust already on the bumpers. That would be the sea air at work.
Grofield dropped the new envelope on the seat beside him and checked out the glove compartment first, but the only things in there were a Texaco map of the island and the form he should show if required to demonstrate he had this car legally.
The envelope, when he opened it, contained nothing but a sheet of white paper folded once. Inside were typewritten instructions:
26 and 3 to Loiza
185 past Toma de Agua
first left after 954
.4 mile, turn right
Well, that was terse enough. Grofield opened the map, saw that Loiza was eighteen kilometers west of where he was now, and did some figuring in his head to turn eighteen kilometers into just over eleven miles. Toma de Agua was three kilometers south of Loiza, which was just under two miles, but how far was "past"? And how far to that first left after 954, which itself was past Toma de Agua?
Maybe another mile at the most. Figure a top of fourteen miles. To what? Home base, or just another letter?
There was only one way to find out. Grofield started the car, backed it out of the slot, and headed it up-ramp.
The airport roads were neat and broad, surrounded by green lawn. There was a lot of traffic, most of it ramshackle cars with here and there a ramshackle truck. Grofield had supposed he'd lose them all once he turned left away from the main San Juan highway, but a lot of them took the turn-off with him, and when the road narrowed from four lanes to two he found himself in the middle of an apparently endless line of slow-moving traffic. The road made sweeping curves back and forth, as though it had been designed by a water skier, and while at times it was straight enough to give the occasional Mercedes a shot at moving forward one place in line, Grofield and his Ford had no choice but to suffer in silence.
After a mile or two the exotic jungle greenery flanking the road became repetitious and dull, and the occasional poverty-row hut he passed looked the same as marginal living anywhere else in the tropics. There was no radio in the Ford, so Grofield had nothing to do but keep telling himself all this couldn't possibly be a practical joke. Nobody pays your air fare from Brownsville, Texas, to Houston, Texas, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, as part of a practical joke. Somewhere, somehow, behind it all somebody had to be wanting something, and they damn well had to be serious about it.
Two days ago Grofield had been in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. He had been in a green and shady hotel room, saying protracted farewells to a lovely young damsel named Elly, when a knock at the door had introduced a chinless, nervous, brown-skinned little man with an envelope containing a message from General Pozos. General Pozos was a banana-republic dictator whose life Grofield had inadvertently saved not long before, and now the General wanted a favor. The note had been ink-smeared and terse:
"You can perhaps help an acquaintance of mine. There will be profit in it."
With the note had come the airline tickets and instructions to present himself as Wilcox to the car-rental desk in San Juan.
He had not taken to the proposal at once. In the first place he was on his way home to see his wife, a patient girl from whom he had been separated too long. In the second place he had a suitcase full of money to transport, the result of a previous profitable expedition. In the third place he already had two occupations, actor and thief, neither of which seemed to be called for in this note, and he was not anxious to moonlight.
But what did they want? Who was the "acquaintance" of General Pozos? Where was the profit to come from? What was to be expected from him? The chinless messenger knew nothing, and said so.
"If it's the money that's bothering you," Elly had finally said while he paced the floor torn between inertia and curiosity, "I'll bring it to your wife myself."
"Ho ho," Grofield had said. "I'm afraid my wife wouldn't understand."
"You mean you're afraid she would."
"Whatever you like."
"I'll wear support stockings," Elly had volunteered.
Grofield had stopped his pacing to look at her. "You'll do what? Why?" "Then she'll feel sorry for me."
You couldn't argue with logic like that. So Grofield's money was on its way to Grofield's wife in Pennsylvania via Elly, and Grofield himself was on his way to someplace "past" Toma de Agua via Ford.
Route 185 was unmarked. When he saw the road leading off to the left for San Isidro, Grofield understood he'd overshot. Cursing in English, he made a U turn that caused brakes to squeal in both directions, drove back to the road he wanted, made a left through the endless belt of eastbound traffic, and found himself on a narrow, deserted road flanked by grimy small shacks, many with crumbled automobiles decaying in their front yards.
Toma de Agua was merely a place where you could buy beer. Grofield curved around a drunk or two, drove on out of town, found his left and entered a road that almost immediately gave up its gritty blacktop in favor of dirt, reduced itself from two lanes to one, and began to climb. The foliage was more and more junglelike, dense, damp, dark green.
There were no more shacks after the blacktop gave out, no more signs of man at all, with the single exception of the road, which twisted and curved like a snake and kept pushing at violent angles uphill.
Four-tenths of a mile, the instructions had read. As a part of the ambivalence native to Puerto Rico the roads were marked in kilometers but the automobile odometers registered in miles. Grofield kept an eye on the odometer in the Ford, and after the fourth tenth had clicked over he started looking for somewhere to turn right.
He almost missed it. Broad-leafed tree branches hung down on both sides, shadow from the overhanging foliage filled the empty spaces, and instead of a fully cleared dirt road there were only two dirt lines leading in. He hit the brakes, looked at it, decided there was nothing else that could be his right turn, and backed up slightly to get a better approach.
There was no sun in here; the snarled tree branches were too thick above to let in anything but a vague gray-green light. It was cool, with a dampness like fresh-turned earth. Flat thick leaves flapped at the Ford's windshield as Grofield followed the faint indications of a passage through the jungle.
At first this path—it couldn't really be counted a road—dipped downhill, but then it curved to the left and began to climb, even more steeply than the other road. Grofield drove in low gear, his left foot constantly twitching over the brake pedal.
He caught glimpses of white, then nothing, then more glimpses of white, then abruptly the house.
It was such a surprise that he took his foot off the gas and began at once to roll backward. He accelerated again, back into the clearing, and came to a stop in front of the house.
Villa. Not house—villa. Two stories high, broad across the front, with railed terraces fronting the set-back second floor. The whole thing was stucco, painted a blinding white in the sun.
And there was sun here, pouring down out of a royal-blue sky. The house had been built on cleared land on a knob of hill. Jungle was a restless green mass all around, but the house itself was graced by neat tropical gardens and a driveway of raked stones. There was a complex high stone fountain in the center of the gardens in front of the house, a confusing array of fishes and cherubim, but the water was off now, leaving them all in postures that had no reason, and the chubby naked bodies in black stone looked like a bad joke in the middle of this riot of jungle growth, the gardens ablaze with flowers of red and orange, purple and yellow and white.
Grofield started across the driveway of stones toward the main entrance, but when the door opened down there he stopped. Two men came out and headed in his direction, both natives, both dressed in dirty white, both wearing straw hats. One carried a shotgun at port arms. The other was barely controlling a huge German shepherd on a taut leash.
Grofield kicked the gear lever into reverse, but there was no point in it. There was no room to turn the car around, and it would be impossible to back it all the way down that trail. The only way out was straight ahead, around the curve past the house and back to the trail from the other side, and that would mean driving through the welcoming committee with its shotgun and dog. If he was sure it was trouble, that's what he'd do, but right now he wasn't sure of anything.
Feeling strongly the absence of a gun of his own, Grofield put the Ford in neutral, left the motor running, and got out of the car to see what would happen next.CHAPTER 2
"Hello, Fido," Grofield said.
The dog looked at his throat.
The man with the shotgun said, "What you want here?"
"I was sent for."
"What your name?"
"Depends. Sometimes it's Wilcox. Does that ring a bell?"
It didn't. They looked blankly at one another. The dog kept looking at Grofield's throat.
Grofield said, "On the other hand, sometimes my name is Grofield. That any better?"
It was. The shotgun man nodded. "Hands on car," he said.
"Hands on car!" He seemed excitable.
"Oh," Grofield said. "Hands on car." He turned and faced the car, put his palms on its hot blue top. "Like so?"
The shotgun man came around behind him and frisked him, thoroughly and at length, until Grofield finally asked him, "What are you looking for—fleas?"
The shotgun man grunted, stopped patting Grofield's body, and said something in Spanish to the dog man. Puerto Rican Spanish was different from Mex, faster and harsher, with more of a rattle in it. Not that it made any difference to Grofield; there wasn't any breed of Spanish he understood.
The dog man rattled something back at the shotgun man. They both seemed irritated, and the irritation came through just as well in English when the shotgun man poked Grofield in the back with his shotgun and said, "Turn around, you."
Grofield turned around, putting his hands at his sides. The Ford engine was still purring away to itself, and the driver's door was still open, a quick step to Grofield's right.
The shotgun man said, "Why you no got a gun?"
It was an amazing question. Grofield said, "I didn't know I was supposed to have one."
The dog man rattled off another comment. The shotgun man shrugged, studied Grofield doubtfully, shrugged again, said something irritable out of the side of his mouth in Spanish, and then told Grofield, "You wait here."
"Whatever you say."
"You damn right."
The shotgun man went away, not quite moving at a swagger. The dog man stayed where he was, watching Grofield with flat mistrust. The German shepherd continued to study Grofield's throat.
Grofield's cigarettes were in his shirt pocket. He took them out now, aware of how much the movement made the dog man tense up, was elaborately casual about lighting one for himself, then extended the pack toward the dog man. The dog man shook his head, fast and brief. He was really very nervous, and Grofield hoped he wasn't nervous enough to drop the leash by mistake.
It was a woman's voice, somewhat brassy, shouting from the direction of the house. Grofield and the dog man both looked in that direction, but Grofield couldn't see anyone there. The house was white and wide and sunlit, with no one visible.
The woman's voice called, "Come on up!" Then something in Spanish, then "It's okay. The dog won't do anything."
Grofield wasn't so sure. But the sentence in Spanish had apparently told the dog man to lay off. Without another look at Grofield he now trudged away, pulling the dog along with him. The dog didn't want to go at first, didn't want to stop his dispassionate consideration of Grofield's throat, but after he'd been tugged a few steps he turned obediently and went padding away at the side of his master.
Grofield reached into the Ford and cut the ignition, then pocketed the keys, shut the door, and walked on up to the house, the stones crunching beneath his feet. Now that he had leisure to notice the weather he became aware that it was hot out here under the sun, a good twenty degrees or more hotter than it had been in the leafy shade of the jungle.
"Hi!" called the woman's voice again. "Up here!"
Grofield looked up, and this time he saw her, indistinct in one of the second-story windows. He could tell nothing about her except that her arm was tanned and slender as she waved at him. He waved back and said, "How are things up there?"
"I'll meet you downstairs," she said, which wasn't an answer.
There was a slate-floored verandah across the front of the house, bare of furniture. Grofield crossed this, opened a screen door, and entered a cool dim world with thick white walls. Green and leafy plants grew all around, in pots on shelves, in planters on the floor. It was almost like being back in the jungle again, combined with an atmosphere reminiscent of a mission in southern California.
Arched doorways led away in three directions, into rooms equally cool and white-walled and dim. Grofield glanced through the doorways but stayed where he was, standing in the square anteroom on a dark Persian rug, admiring the heavy black iron ceiling fixture.
The woman came in from the doorway on the right. "Mr. Grofield," she said. "Thank you for coming."
She was deceptive, particularly here with the light slightly dim. She had a twenty-five-year-old body, appropriately dressed in white canvas slacks and bright-striped cotton top, with white sandals on bare feet. But the voice was somewhat older than that, a little rough, a little too used to late hours and neat whiskey and chain smoking. The hair was blond, but not too blond, cut medium short and done in the kind of casual way that takes a lot of time and attention.
The hair was a match for the body, but the face matched the voice. Over a conventionally pretty oval face time had etched lines and individuality and character. The face said "I am independent but not tough, aware but not cynical, strong but not belligerent, cautious but not frightened."
Grofield, in the first quick seconds of seeing her coming through the arched doorway, estimated her to be a rich forty. You couldn't be forty that well without spending a lot of money on the project, but you couldn't have that face and voice without being forty.
Answering her greeting, he said, "It's curiosity that brought me this far. No promises yet about anything else."
"Of course. My name is Belle Danamato. And you're Alan Grofield."
She had extended a hand, and when Grofield took it he found it firm and slender, the fingers soft. Someone else washed Belle Danamato's dishes. He said, "My pleasure, Miss Danamato."
"Mrs.," she said, and her mouth twisted as she added, "Not that that means anything."
"Domestic trouble?" Grofield asked. "Because if it is—"
The twisted mouth converted to a twisted smile and she shook her head, saying, "Not domestic trouble, Mr. Grofield. Not the way you mean. I wouldn't be coming to a man like you if that's all it was."
Excerpted from The Dame by Richard Stark. Copyright © 1969 Richard Stark. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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