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The furnishings of the small waiting room were shiny with age, mementos of another generation; stiff hand-tooled leather over heavy jacarandá, thick hand-carved legs on solid tables. The embossed metal ceiling was of a type Chaney had not seen since his Chicago boyhood, and then only in barbershops. The only decoration on the plastered walls were large land plats, with scribbled markings in red crayon covering the various sections; Chaney had tried to entertain himself by looking at them, but the contoured maps were unintelligible. Despite the lateness of the hour and the assurance, or at least hope, of a cooling breeze outside, the small room was sweltering -- the windows having been painted shut many years before -- and the small fan that struggled listlessly but noisily in one corner did little to bring relief. A single bulb tried but failed to hide the inadequacies of the room in shadow. A fly droned angrily, trying to beat itself past the streaked glass of the sealed window to the night outside, although any but the most myopic of insects should have known better than to hope for escape through that great unwashed barrier.
In a sturdy chair that could have graced a fazendeiro's ranch or an auctioneer's showroom, beside an even sturdier table covered with old newspapers and volumes filled with land titles in Portuguese -- and therefore as unintelligible to him as the land subdivisions on the walls -- George Chaney yawned and wondered what the devil was taking the old man so long. It had to be a pretty screwed-up country where a man had to go damn near a thousand miles just to get a simple paper signed. Well, in all honesty, he had toadmit it wasn't all that simple a paper, but you'd surely think that in a city the size of Rio de Janeiro he could have gotten the same service without having to make a trip halfway across the blasted country! Still, he paid good money to Dorn for advice, so it would be stupid not to follow it. In Vegas he knew his way around, but he was smart enough to know that here in Brazil he still had a lot to learn.
He yawned again and looked around. How anyone who couldn't afford a better office than this could possibly have the drag Dorn said this old man had, was hard to see. Although he had to admit he hadn't seen anything in the whole crummy town that was much better. Brand-new factories, the size of Stateside plants, and one hell of a large hospital, all noted on his way from the Airport Hotel, plus what had to be a modern school -- all set in the middle of what looked like a Hollywood back-lot imitation of Virginia City around 1888. Crazy!
He glanced at his watch for the tenth time. On top of everything else, if the old man dragged his feet much longer, he wouldn't have time to stop at the hotel for his bags and still get over to the airport terminal in time for the last flight back to Rio, and he certainly didn't feel like sleeping in that lumpy bed another night. He scowled and started to drum his thick fingers on the table, wondering if he should disregard instructions and bust into the old man's inner office; he was saved the decision, for the door he had been silently willing to open finally did, and a middle-aged woman emerged. She closed the door behind her and came toward him. Chaney came to his feet, a wide-shouldered, middle-aged man in a three-hundred-dollar suit. He looked at the woman half-angrily.
"Well! About damn time!"
The woman was not at all bothered either by the look on his face or by his language. "The judge has other affairs besides yours," she said calmly. Her English was quite good.
"And why at night?"
"Because the judge is a busy man. In the mornings he conducts his business, and he holds court most afternoons. Evenings are the only time he's free for clients such as yourself."
"All right, all right!" Chaney realized he was the one who was now wasting time. "You got the papers?"
"Here." The woman handed him several sheets of legal-looking documents. "You're to sign where the X is marked." She saw the instant suspicion that flashed across Chaney's hard face and smiled faintly, a bit derisively. "They're in English."
Chaney was far from intimidated. "Better safe than sorry," he said harshly, and took the papers, studying them carefully, his big hands half-crumpling each page as he read it, word for word. At last he nodded, satisfied, and reached into his pocket for a pen. He signed the papers, leaning over the table, and then straightened up, handing the papers back. "You sure this will stick?"
"I beg your pardon? I'm afraid I didn't -- "
"I said, are you sure this will do the trick?"
"These papers are quite legal," the woman said stiffly, "if that is what you mean."
"That's what I mean," Chaney said. Now that the papers were all properly prepared he was feeling a lot better. "You got to admit the character has himself a good cover, though," he went on, looking about the room. "Normally I don't come into a joint looks like this to go to the john." He looked at his watch. "Okay. What's next?"
"The judge will notarize them and send them to the capitol for filing. A copy will be sent to you. You can leave now."
"And what's the tab?"
"The slug. The payola. The charge. What do I owe?"
"Oh. That will also be mailed to you after filing." She turned toward the inner office and then paused, her hand on the knob, looking at him in a cool superior manner. "And this office is no cover, as you put it. This has been the judge's office for almost fifty years. When he was the only lawyer in this part of the interior."
"Well, hooray for him," Chaney said sardonically, but the woman had already disappeared into the other office, closing the door decisively behind her. Chaney looked at the closed panel a moment, frowning. And you could bet your shirt the bill the old man would send him would probably curl his hair, but what the hell. Paying off was a part of life, like breathing, he thought, and headed for the outer door.
The noise of the busy downtown street flowed about him as he pushed his way to the crowded sidewalk. The rough-looking men about him elbowed their way past, many wearing guns in holsters or tucked into the waistbands of their loose trousers. Chaney's lip curled. These characters had to be seeing too many TV Westerns. Shades of Tombstone and the O.K. Corral, a hundred years later! Chances are anyone shot off one of those guns, everyone would be under the nearest table. A bunch of clowns! Well, he thought, at least the town had come up with the answer to his problem, and that was all that mattered.
Now, to see if there was any chance of grabbing off a cab; there had to be at least one taxi in the dump, he thought, with an inward grin, because he had caught one from the Airport Hotel to the judge's office. He looked around and then hurriedly started to cross the cobbled street. It seemed this was turning out to be his lucky day all around, because a taxi was there, just opposite, discharging a passenger. He jostled his way past a group of men standing by the curb, chancing a reprimand and not worrying about it very much, and then had to step back quickly, out of the way of a jeep careening along without lights. He wished now he had taken more trouble to learn the language of the country, or at least enough to call out and restrain the cab, but then he saw it was not necessary. The exiting passenger had apparently noticed his approach and was politely holding the cab door open for him, as if to prevent the driver from escaping.
At his arrival the passenger stepped back, gesturing toward the open door, smiling pleasantly, inviting Chaney to enter. One gentleman in the crowd anyway, Chaney thought, and nodded his head. And decently dressed for a change, which seemed to be rare in this dump. He muttered his usual approximation of "Thank you" in Portuguese and climbed in, at the same time saying, "Airport Hotel" in that raised voice usually reserved for the hard of hearing or those too stupid to speak English. He turned to close the door and found that his well-dressed Samaritan had climbed in after him and was closing the door with one hand while the other hand was pressing something durable and quite familiar into Chaney's ribs through the cloth of his neatly tailored jacket pocket. The cab took off at once.
For a moment Chaney was too startled to speak; then he growled deep in his throat. Who did these two-bit punks think they were dealing with? Back home in Vegas he'd have their ears for penwipers for a dumb stunt like this! Well, it wasn't Vegas, that was true, but even so it was a dumb stunt. Trying a stick-up on him! Dumb bastards to begin with -- how much cash did they think he carried in these days of credit cards? And on a trip of just a couple days to a different town? Still, by their crummy standards he supposed the amount in his wallet would look like a young fortune to them. A pity he didn't have any muscle in this cruddy place or he'd have some of the boys look them up and pound some sense into their thick skulls. It was a pretty sad day when anyone in a decent suit of clothes and with a shirt that didn't have ring-around-the-collar couldn't climb into a cab without getting mugged. Christ, this was as bad as New York!
"All right, you bright bastards," he said harshly. "Take the dough and go out and buy the Mets! And thank your stars you don't play in my ball park or you'd talk through bandages a month for this. Okay, the billfold's in my left butt pocket. Leave the credit cards if you know the difference from lottery tickets; they ain't no use to you. That's if either one of you clowns knows enough English to even know what the hell I'm talking about!"
To his surprise the man with the gun pressed into his side made no motion for the wallet, and it was evident it was not from any fear that Chaney might make a move if he did so. The man also spoke English, accented but completely understandable, at least sufficiently to respond. "Keep quiet," he said, and punctuated his brief sentence with a sharp prod of the gun. He spoke to the driver, switching to Portuguese. "Emil -- the fazenda; the driveway. You know where."
The driver nodded in lieu of speaking and speeded up the taxi.
Chaney frowned and tried to concentrate. It was not the first time he had faced a gun, and while he didn't particularly like it, that part of the deal didn't worry him, or at least not for the time being. It could still be a stick-up, of course, and they could be waiting until they could get him in a place where they could search him for any goodies he might not keep in his wallet, but it didn't seem to smell like a heist. But if it wasn't a stick-up, what was it? Probably, he concluded, a case of mistaken identity. Certainly nobody down here had any reason to put out a contract on him, or not at least that he could see, and back home he was clean as a whistle. Well, maybe not clean with Washington and the garbage brains in the IRS, but clean clean with the boys in Vegas. And anyway, Washington didn't come after a guy with a rod; or at least not yet. Or at least not the tax department; what the CIA or the FBI did was maybe something else again, but they certainly had no reason to push him. Not, he admitted to himself, that they always needed a reason, but if these two clowns were part of any U. S. Government apparatus, then the hiring practices in Washington were even lousier than usual.
Something local? But why, for Christ's sake? He hadn't stepped on any toes. Christ, he didn't know more than half-a-dozen characters in the whole country. Since he got here he'd kept his nose spotless; he had enough grief without trying to stir up any local headaches. He hadn't even laid a finger on any broad who wasn't a professional, so these characters couldn't be working for no steamed-up husband. Weird!
Unless, of course, it wasn't a rub-out after all. Suddenly the answer came to him -- a kidnaping! He thought it had been some six or seven years since there had been a kidnaping of a foreigner in Brazil; he knew it was fairly common in Argentina, and it was even catching on at home, but he had been under the impression it had been pretty much wiped out in Brazil. In Argentina, in fact, some oil company put up fourteen million bucks, they said, for some character, but he couldn't remember what had happened in that case. He knew some tire company sprung for three or four million for some clown who ran their office, although Chaney always figured both figures had to be strictly from the public relations department. Who paid out dough like that just to save a guy from getting scragged?
But he, Chaney, didn't work for any big company -- and the people who he used to work with, not for, wouldn't put up a nickel to save their mothers from white slavery, let alone a guy who was retired from the organization. So what did these monkeys think they were going to get out of him? Sure, if they kept their demands within reason, he had dough of his own and he might spring for a little, but if these clowns were thinking in those paint-card numbers, they were dealing from a short deck. Ten grand maybe he'd offer, and maybe even go as far as twenty if he really had to; it wouldn't hurt the bankroll, and it was still undoubtedly more scratch than these clowns saw in their whole lifetimes. But that was it, if they laid on the floor and screamed with disappointment.
Chaney stared through the window of the cab, watching the lights of the town dwindle as they approached the outskirts. Factories could be seen set far back from the road, huge spotlights illuminating the perimeters of their property; ahead of the speeding taxi the strings of vertical lights outlining the refinery cracking towers were now visible, topped by the gas flame issuing from the tallest stack like an eternal beacon. Chaney made no attempt to protest the steady pressure of the gun in his side. These characters had to be amateurs and it never paid to excite amateurs, especially when they had guns. Amateurs usually had nervous fingers; although he had to admit that the man beside him seemed about as nervous as four cubic feet of set concrete. Still, look at him calling the other guy by name -- Emil. That was the kind of dumb thing amateurs were always doing. Sure, he didn't speak their language, but hell! Emil was Emil in sixteen languages, including the Italian.
Chaney looked out at the passing landscape, surprised that he could recognize some of it. This was the same road he had taken from the Airport Hotel, not that it made any difference. He put aside consideration of the outside world and instead tried to recall all he had heard of past kidnapings in this part of the world. Usually, as he recalled, the guys putting on the snatch did so to raise dough for some local mob, but that was their affair. Chaney had no interest in politics. What he did remember, though, was that all the victims -- or almost all of them -- once they were freed, claimed they had been treated pretty good, considering. Even guys who had been held a long time. Of course, some of them had been blindfolded, but not all of them, even those who had gotten a good gander at their kidnapers, like he had. But most of them were so happy to get loose they hadn't even tried to prosecute. Well, these two-bit punks would discover George Chaney was a lot different. Maybe he would have let them put the bite on his billfold and let it go at that, but if they stuck him for any real dough with this kidnaping bit, he'd find some boys in Rio, one way or another, look these monkeys up, and when he found them he'd turn them upside down, shake them a little, and count the scratch that fell out of their pistol pockets. And finding them shouldn't be all that much sweat. Emil, eh? Dumb, dumb!
The refinery was passed, shadowed hulks of tank trucks lined up before the illuminated pumps like a litter feeding at a sow's belly, guzzling only to disgorge a few hours later in the early morning at some pôsto de gasolina, or some factory storage tank. Beyond, he could see the lights of the airport and the neon sign on top of the hotel. The tower was a lighted tiara hanging in the darkness, and the runways stretched between rows of flashers to disappear into the night. The roar of a jet could be heard rising to a crescendo, and even as they neared they could see the plane free itself from the ground and hurl itself over them into the sky.
A sudden thought came to Chaney and he frowned darkly. If this was a kidnaping, who had fingered him? Dorn? Not a chance -- Dorn was one guy who knew his spot with the boys back at Vegas and knew he wasn't worth anything as a hostage; or at least nothing worth while. The judge? He put the thought away. More important than who had fingered him was the bigger question -- why? Anyone who knew him knew the mob wouldn't put up a plugged dime for him, so why? Why?
It just had to be a case of mistaken identity; nothing else made sense. Unless they just took a chance that any guy wearing a three-hundred-dollar suit had to be loaded, but that didn't make any sense, either. Brazil had to be as full of fourflushers as Vegas, and who pulled a snatch on the basis of any meatheaded reasoning like that? No. They had to have him confused with somebody else -- another American, of course. Maybe one of the VIPs from one of the factories they had passed. Coca-Cola, maybe; or General Electric. Well, he thought, relaxing a bit on the uncomfortable cab seat, he'd find out soon enough. He just hoped they had something decent to drink where they were taking him. He could use it after a day like this one!
Beyond the airport they came to a large arch to one side of the road, covering the entrance to another road, this one unpaved, leading apparently to some estate or other. The driver slowed enough to take the turn into the smaller road without undue strain on the cab, cutting beneath the arch, speeding up as soon as they were past. The road wound through darkness, bumpy and badly banked, with tall stands of trees on either side cutting off visibility; and then they were through the small woods and onto a type of plain, with faint lights in the distance, indicating a settlement of sorts. The lights grew brighter as they neared, outlining a large ranch, its independent buildings more evident the closer they got. The main building was now clearly discernible. Well, Chaney thought with some satisfaction, not bad! It didn't look like he was going to suffer overly during his incarceration. Anyway, it had to be better than some of the slop joints he'd stayed in on his way up from Chicago's slums; and also, he thought, you don't run a spread like this without plenty of help, a lot of it female, and at least one of the girls ought to look halfway decent and be open to a simple business proposition. He smiled at the thought, and congratulated himself on his cool, his ability to make the best of the situation -- until, of course, he was free to dig these clowns up and teach them not to horse around with George Chaney. He leaned back, savoring the pleasant thought of his eventual revenge, and then was suddenly thrown forward.
The driver had inexplicably braked. He leaned forward and cut the ignition. Chaney straightened up, suddenly wary, frowning. In the silence, the sounds of the night and the country came clearly, blending with music he could now hear coming faintly from the main house; there were the soft cries of invisible birds, the whisper of water tumbling over rocks in a nearby creek, the sudden scurry of some small animal, startled by their invasion. It was all very idyllic and suddenly very chillingly frightening.
The man beside Chaney sat still while the driver reached beneath the dashboard of the taxi and extracted a gun. He checked it under the dash lights and climbed out, coming to open the rear door on Chaney's side. He stood behind it and, with a small wave of the muzzle, invited Chaney to get out. The gun in Chaney's ribs repeated the invitation with a sharp prod.
"Outside," said the man beside him.
Chaney swung around, scowling. "What the hell is this?"
"Outside." This time it was more a jab than a prod and came close to being painful. There was a definite finality about it.
Chaney stumbled through the open door and straightened up. In the near distance the lights from the fazenda beckoned welcomingly; the music, gay and lilting, promised far more pleasant distractions than the two men facing him. Beyond the lights from the house, the reflection of the refinery against the low hanging clouds could be seen. For a moment Chaney considered making a break for it, but he knew this would be suicidal. He didn't know the terrain, and the lights from the car were blinding him. Anyway, you didn't get amateurs excited or present them with a situation which didn't leave them an out. You talked to them. In a language, of course, that they could understand.
The man who had been sitting next to Chaney had stepped from the car and was standing a safe distance from him, watching him with an expressionless face, as if trying to read his mind. Chaney swung around to face him, suddenly sure this was all a mistake, and equally sure of the proper approach to resolve it.
"Look," he said calmly, reasonably, "you guys pulled a bull, that's all. I don't know who you think you grabbed, but you grabbed the wrong guy, is all. It's happened before; it'll happen again. My name is Chaney; I don't work for any big company and nobody would give a dime for me. But what the hell, I'm not broke. Make a decent price and we'll deal. I want to get out of here."
"There's no mistake," the man said quietly.
"Look," Chaney said, getting a bit irritated with this thickheadedness. "You're telling me somebody gave you guys a contract on me? I don't believe it. There's no reason."
"Get over in front of the headlights," the man said.
Chaney moved over without really being aware of it, for now he was angry.
"Okay," he said. "If somebody gave you clowns a contract on me, tell me the tab and I'll double it. With the names thrown in, of course. But if it's a snatch on your own, you're wasting your time. You think sending my monogrammed tie, or even my ear, is going to get any one of the boys in Vegas to shell out one red cent, you've got the wrong gang. They couldn't care less. But me, I've got some dough. Me, personally. And I know when the other guy has the best hand. I'll pay off. How much were you guys going to ask for me?"
The man he was facing suddenly snaked an arm from his sleeve, exposing a wrist watch. He glanced at it in the reflected light from the headlights of the car. "If you know how," he said evenly in his accented English, "you have just one minute to say your prayers."
Chaney stared. A cold hand seemed to squeeze his chest. These crazy clowns were crazy! Insane! It suddenly occurred to him there was a good chance he was going to get killed. Him!
"I tell you, you guys got the wrong man," he said hoarsely. It seemed to him he was a mere spectator at the affair; he seemed to be standing to one side listening to some stranger plead for his life in a voice he didn't recognize. "You've made a mistake. My name is Chaney, George Chaney. I can prove it. Look in my billfold. I'm from the States. I'm a U.S. citizen. I live in Rio, at the Beira Mar Hotel, room 1205. It's the truth. I'm no tourist. They'll tell you at the hotel. I don't work for any big company. My name is Chaney, George Chaney. I've got lots of dough in my safety-deposit box in Rio. I'll pay you guys what you want. But I'm the only one can get into the box. You shoot me and you don't get a dime. Nobody else will give you a dime. And nobody else can get into my box. You've made a mistake. I don't know who you think you've got, but my name is Chaney, George Chaney. Look in my billfold. I'm a U.S. citizen. I'm no tourist. I live here permanently. I only came to this town -- "
The man with the gun had been carefully watching his wrist. Now his eyes came up from his watch. "That's your one minute," he said calmly, and raising his gun, fired it.
The bullet struck Chaney in the chest, sending him stumbling backward. He caught his balance with an effort, unable to believe this was actually happening to him, wondering in some dim recess of his brain why it was happening to him. There was no answer. Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Vegas -- and to die down here in some hole in the northeast of Brazil? It made no sense. The pain was spreading, becoming unbearable. He found himself on his knees without knowing how he got there.
"You clowns -- guys -- are making a mistake. My name is Chaney, George Chaney. I live -- " The pain was growing, flooding his body as it radiated from his chest; it blocked further speech. He had never known anything could hurt so much! The man with the gun walked closer, holding the smooth muzzle against Chaney's temple. Even in the heat of the night it felt cold, cold. Chaney stared through glazing eyes, uncomprehending, unbelieving. The trigger was pulled once; a blinding explosion of pain and colored brilliant lights, intermingled and memory shattering, sent Chaney sprawling onto his back in the path of the car, under the impersonal probing headlights.
The man with the gun sighed and slipped the weapon into a clip holster beneath his jacket. The driver also tucked his gun away and approached the body. He stared at it a moment and then rolled it over with his boot, putting effort into it to move the heavy body; then he crouched beside it, reaching for the exposed bulging hip pocket. A faint smile crossed his thin face.
"He was so anxious to be robbed -- "
"Stop it!" The other man gripped the driver by the shoulder with authority and dragged him erect. "Don't touch a thing."
"Why not?" the other man protested. "Who knows how much he had on him? I'll leave plenty. I'll even leave his watch."
"You'll leave it all," the man said firmly. "You idiot! How would you like to go the same route he did? Do you think he was killed just to buy you a few more beers?"
"But -- "
The driver was silent. His partner in the crime reached into an inner pocket of his jacket. He brought out a sheet of paper, crudely hand-printed, with a loop of string stapled to each side at the top, making it into a sort of flimsy placard. He squatted down and rolled the body back to its original position, sightlessly facing the sky. He brought the arms and legs together and then propped the sagging body enough to slide the string over the thick neck, and then let the heavy body slump back to the road. He stood up. The driver moved closer, looking down with no expression at their work of the past thirty minutes, and the sign the flaccid body now wore around its neck.
Under the white beam of the depressed headlights the sign was clearly visible. A skull and crossbones had been poorly sketched in black against the gray of the cheap paper, and beneath it in blood-red letters was a crudely printed legend. It read:
Copyright © 1975 by Robert L. Fish