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Last Laugh, Mr. Moto
By John P. Marquand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 John P. Marquand, Jr., Christina M. Welch, Mrs. Donald A. Young, Elon H. H. Marquand, and Timothy Marquand
All rights reserved.
When Robert Bolles tried to put all the events in order, his mind would keep going back to Mercator Island, although he knew that Mercator Island was nearer the end than the beginning. Sometimes when he awoke at night he would think of the warm air, and the spray, and the black water, and the way the mainsail of the Thistlewood drew. Somehow the important things, the terrible things — such as fear and sudden death — never seemed as important as all sorts of extraneous details — such as a joke that someone had made, or the way Tom had of never wiping the galley table clean. He would recall the strange slatting sound of the coconut palms near the beach. He would see the phosphorescence in the water around the roots of the mangrove bushes. He would even find himself thinking that Mr. Malcolm Kingman, which was the only name he ever knew him by, was a good companion according to his lights.
"Call me Mac," Mr. Kingman had told him, "and I'll call you Bob. It's easier, what?"
Then Bob Bolles would stare into the dark, and he would think of the pale blue of Mac Kingman's eyes. They had the steady, watchful look of a sailor's eyes, though of course he was not a sailor. And when he thought of Mrs. Kingman, for that was the name she was using, he would find himself still surprised at her capacity for enjoyment. It had impressed him long before he came to know her well. She had really loved it — all the lights at the sunrise, all the strange shimmering green of the hillsides, and the candlewood trees, and even the delicate little shells on the beach. She had loved it at Westerly Hall, when she had stood on the gray coral stone terrace, where all the weeds were growing and where the umbrella ants were walking in an endless, weaving column. She had said that she would like to live there always, and she had really meant it.
Even when he had heard the footsteps that night — and he had not heard them until they were just behind him — he remembered most clearly what a pleasant night it had been and how well he had played his hand of four spades, doubled and redoubled. Of course they had meant to kill him as soon as he had left the table, but it was those small aspects which remained more vivid than the rest.
"Bob," Mac had said, "your sense of cards is excellent."
"Such a nice hand," Mr. Moto said, "and to make the three of diamonds good! So very nice."
She was the only one who had not said anything.
"Hélène," Mr. Kingman had said, "you must be tired. Perhaps a little walk in the air —"
That was the first time that he had not called her "Helen" — just one of those slips which you could not help. It was all made up of little things like that, hundreds of little things.
There was no rancor, because it was all strictly business, and they had done it very nicely, because they were professionals. He could not get it out of his head that they really liked him as a person and as a human being, but it had not begun at Mercator Island. That was only the middle and the end.
It had begun in Kingston Harbor, when the Thistlewood lay anchored in the still blue water, on a November morning in 1940. He always hated the mornings. In the morning everything that was disagreeable came back to him, for he could never get himself into the way of drinking before twelve o'clock. All he could do was to sit and wait until noon came and assure himself that after twelve he would feel better and that by evening he would forget nearly everything that troubled him.
"Mr. Bolles, sar," Tom had called from the cockpit, "it's after eleven o'clock, sar."
"What the hell do I care?" Bob Bolles called back.
"You expressly ordered," Tom said, "when we came aboard last night, for you to be awakened at ten o'clock, sar."
"Don't talk with that damned British accent," Bob said.
Tom came down into the cabin and stood grinning at him. He was a lanky, Jamaican colored boy, copper-colored, with a small head, flat nose and heavy hands. He did not look like much, but he was good at sea.
"Where was I when you took me aboard last night?"
"Up to Henry's, sar," Tom told him.
"Henry's?" Bob said. He passed his hand over his chin and found there were no contusions or bruises on his face. "I wasn't fighting again, was I?"
"No, sar," Tom said. "You haven't fought, sar, since they threw you out of the Myrtle Bank bar. You were at the tables like a gentleman, and Mr. Henry came down to tell me you were cleaned out and that you had best be took on board. You came with me like a gentleman."
"Cleaned out?" Bob said. "Have you looked through my pockets?"
"Yes, sar," Tom told him. "Ten shillings and six is left, sar."
"All right," Bob said. "Haven't I told you to watch me at Henry's?"
"I endeavored, sar," Tom said. "You are most difficult when you are in liquor, sar, actually. You began talking about the Board, sar, and what you thought of that Old Man. You are always most difficult when you think of the Board."
"Well," Bob said, "all right." He had grown used to being on the strangest terms with Tom. Sometimes he thought that Tom knew more about him than anyone had ever known. "We're going to be short of money."
"They're loading bananas, sar," Tom said. "I could get work today and tomorrow."
"No," Bob told him and he felt half ashamed of himself. "I'm going ashore and you go too and find yourself another berth."
"Oh, no, sar," Tom said. "I like it here."
"And why the hell do you like it?" Bob asked him.
"It's the way you treat me, sar. White men don't often treat colored people like you treat me."
"Get me some coffee," Bob said, "and hot water and a razor. Bring them up topside so I can be in the air."
When he climbed up in the cockpit the white sunlight from the water made him blink. In the morning he sometimes felt ashamed of himself and he did not like the feeling. He had a pretty clear idea of what they thought of him along the waterfront in the morning. He stood in the center of the cockpit, in his last clean shirt and in his soiled white trousers. He had not shaved for two days and now he decided that he might as well wait another day before he tried it.
"Stow the razor," he said. "Just the coffee."
He noticed that his hand was shaking when Tom handed him the tin cup of coffee, but he felt better when he drank it. All the waterfront and the harbor came together more clearly in focus.
"Coat," he said, "shoes — hat — and bring the dinghy alongside."
They were loading a banana boat at the pier. He could hear the shouts, and he could see the line of black men and women with the bunches of bananas on their heads. Then he looked toward the entrance of the harbor. A United States destroyer was coming in, gray and cloudlike.
"Tom," he said, "go down and fetch the glasses."
"You pawned them yesterday, sar," Tom said.
"Yesterday?" Bob repeated. "It must have been quite a day — yesterday.
What's the number on her?"
"S–156, sar," Tom said.
"Just as I saw it," Bob answered. "That will be the Smedley. I wonder who's commanding. Get out the dinghy."
He stepped in and Tom took the oars.
"Where will you go, sar?" Tom said.
"Over to Henry's," Bob answered.
"Yes, sar," Tom said. "Henry's it is, sar."
It had always seemed to Bob Bolles that the waterfront of any port in the world was about the same as that of any other. Take St. John's in Newfoundland, for instance, or Cherbourg, or Haifa, or Singapore. The language and the complexion of the citizens might vary, but when you were near the docks you might as well be in Lima or Yokohama or Shanghai. There were the same tanks, the same smells and shipping, the same sounds of the donkey engines. The grog shops were the same and the pawnshops and the houses of doubtful reputation. Kingston was just like that to his eyes — no better and no worse. If he had been blind, he could have found his way by sound.
He lounged along the main street slowly in order to kill time, only because of his prejudice against drinking before noon. Above him the sky was pitilessly blue and clear, except for a few clouds which made deep green shadows over the mountains inland. The street was trig and neat, like all the principal streets in a British colony. The houses and shops were painted in pleasant stucco tints, like most buildings in the tropics, and the shops were behind arcades to protect the passer-by from the sun. A dusky traffic policeman in a faded khaki uniform stood at an intersection, but the traffic was slow and scattered. The tourist trade had dwindled with war times, but the shops waited hopefully. All the life in Kingston was moving dreamily and peacefully toward high noon. Tom, he knew, was following him because Tom always looked after him when he went ashore.
He paused to examine the British tweeds and pipes and Burberries in the window of one of the large clothing emporiums, and as he stood there he saw his own reflection in the window. The reflection suddenly seemed like the figure of a stranger — a heavy, shambling seedy figure in a soiled white suit. His face beneath his battered Panama hat was drawn and unattractive. Even the vague reflection showed the sandy stubble of his beard. It did not bother him that people looked at him curiously and disapprovingly. He knew that he was almost on the beach — not quite, but almost.
Beyond the clothing store was a newsstand and then a tobacconist, and then the bank and a square with tired-looking hack horses and sleepy drivers and women selling shells and baskets — but no one tried to sell him anything. Then there came a store displaying oriental goods, a store which you might see in any Caribbean port. In the window there were silk pajamas and bathrobes with dragons embroidered on the pockets, a few kimonos, some bad pieces of teak-wood, tea sets and cheap soapstone and ivory ornaments — all the things they made by the boatload in China or Japan. A small Japanese wearing heavy glasses stood in the doorway and nodded to Bob Bolles.
There was nothing in the world quite like the manners of Japan. They were the manners which never varied in any life or setting. That brisk nod of the head was something which no European could imitate. It was vibrant with nervousness and with a set desire to please which completely concealed the personality behind it. Manners over there were a façade which covered everything. Bob Bolles had sometimes heard it said that all Japanese were alike, but he had traveled enough to know that this was a ridiculous statement. You could put Japanese in certain categories as easily as you could put Europeans. There was something about the little man standing there which was not of the shopkeeping type, something that was a little too neat and too nervous, the cheekbones and the mold of his chin too delicate, his hands, as he clasped them and bowed, were too fluttering and too graceful. For an idle moment Bob wondered how he had come there. There was so little you could tell about the Japanese. He might have been a student. Like all his people, he would have had military or naval service. He might have been a connoisseur of the arts. They could change from one thing to another. And there he was, standing in front of a shop.
"Hello, there, Admiral Togo," Bob said.
The little man drew in his breath with a gentle hiss.
"Or maybe you aren't Admiral Togo," Bob said. "Maybe you're Japan's Lawrence of Manchuria."
The Japanese smiled, displaying an uneven set of teeth shining with gold work.
"Good morning," he said. "Lawrence of Manchuria. Americans are always so very funny."
"So are Japanese," Bob said. "How's business, Admiral?"
"Business is very poor," the little man said. "Please, would you like to buy a new silk suit? To your measure by four this afternoon. So nice on that schooner of yours for yachting, please."
"Clever, aren't you?" Bob said. "So you know me, do you?"
"Please," said the little man, "of course. Mr. Robert Bolles, please. So nice to have watched you in Mr. Henry's last night."
"I never saw you hang around there," Bob said.
The shopkeeper laughed politely. Japanese always laughed politely. And he took a card case from his inside pocket.
"Please," he said, "my card. Pajamas and shirts and suits on six hours' order. No hurry to pay, please, Mr. Bolles."
Bob Bolles took the card with elaborate courtesy and held it gingerly in both hands and bowed. The card read "I. A. Moto — Things Japanese."
"Thanks," he said. "What time is it?"
"Please," Mr. Moto said, "it is a quarter before twelve."
"Well, that's swell," Bob answered. "I'm sorry. I'm in a hurry now. Good-by, Mr. Moto," and he walked more hastily down the street.
Henry's was down near the water, a pumpkin yellow café, with a bar and tables in the front room and with propeller-like fans moving languidly on the ceiling and with a shabby courtyard and other rooms out in back. The front room was deserted except for Henry who stood behind the bar. Henry was slender and very neat in a freshly laundered white suit. His features were aquiline and regular, made up from a variety of race strains. Bob sat down at a table and took off his hat and gazed upward at the slowly revolving fans.
"Bring me a bottle over here," Bob said. He was just in time — the clock on the cathedral was striking the hour of twelve — and he looked up at Henry and grinned. "I understand I was in here last night."
Henry nodded. Bob poured half a tumbler of rum and drank it straight.
"And now I'm not welcome here," he asked, "is that it?"
"Oh, no," said Henry, "I wouldn't say that, Mr. Bolles, but there has been a complaint."
"What complaint?" Bob asked.
Henry clasped his hands behind him.
"The police," he said. Bob Bolles scowled.
"What about the police?" he asked.
"Supervision is getting strict now," Henry said. "They've been inquiring about you, Mr. Bolles."
Bob Bolles looked at his empty glass and felt his face flush. It was the first time that anything like that had happened to him, but he could understand it.
"You mean, you're going to throw me out of here?" he asked.
Henry unclasped his hands from behind his back and spoke quickly, almost eloquently.
"You must think of the difficulties I have here, Mr. Bolles," he said. "The type of guests whom I entertain in back each evening require quiet surroundings. When gentlemen like you come, Mr. Bolles, who have allowed themselves to get out of control, the authorities —"
Henry stopped and Bob saw that he was looking toward the doorway. He remembered a long while later that there was something worried and wary in Henry's look. A youngish man had entered from the street and his passage from the sunlight into the shadow of Henry's bar made him blink with eyes which obviously were not accustomed to the glare of the Caribbean. His gray flannel suit and his light gray felt hat showed that he was a tourist and not an islander, a tourist too recently arrived to equip himself with tropical clothes. There was nothing impressive about his appearance, for he was the sort of person who would not have been conspicuous anywhere, but it seemed to Bob Bolles that Henry was surprised. There was something that Henry did not like.
"Good morning," the stranger said, and his greeting included Bob Bolles at the table and Henry standing beside him. "Is this a place that is called Henry's?"
"Yes," Henry said, "this is Henry's. I am the proprietor, sir."
The stranger smiled an engaging, easy smile. His hair and eyes were dark, but his complexion was light, almost pale, and it seemed to Bob that he looked a little tired and a little hungry. He glanced around the barroom, not casually the way a tourist might, but carefully, as though he wished to remember the location of all the chairs and tables.
"So you are Henry, are you?" he said, and his voice was foreign, rather more French than Spanish. "My firm has recommended you. I believe you have had some past connections with my firm."
"What firm, please?" Henry asked.
The dark young man took a wallet from his pocket and pulled a card from it.
Excerpted from Last Laugh, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand. Copyright © 1970 John P. Marquand, Jr., Christina M. Welch, Mrs. Donald A. Young, Elon H. H. Marquand, and Timothy Marquand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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