Read an Excerpt
War of the Raven
By Andrew Kaplan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Andrew Kaplan
All rights reserved.
September 28, 1939 Buenos Aires
September midnight in the La Boca district; cobbled streets and a cold fog rising from the river. The man in the gray overcoat waited in a doorway, looking back down the street behind him. Looking for shadows, hidden in the night.
The street was dark and empty, except near the corner of Avenida Pedro de Mendoza, where light from a confitería spilled into the darkness. All the man in the overcoat had to do was go in there and give a cigarette to a stranger. A yanqui. And leave without anyone noticing. Nothing to it, really. Except that he was afraid of the dark. And someone was trying to kill him.
It had rained earlier that day and the electric signs were reflected in puddles on the sidewalks and the shiny tram tracks. Someone had left their laundry on a line across an alley and the clothes hung wet and limp, like flags of a defeated army. Apartment windows were shuttered and behind one of them a radio was playing, something in Italian. There were a lot of Italian immigrants in this neighborhood, and during the day the streets were alive with workmen and gossiping housewives and the smells of cooking oil and garlic. But at night, La Boca remembered that it belonged to the waterfront, to the bars, tango palaces and narrow alleys where cries for help went unanswered and the police never came till morning.
A lone car approached, the cobblestones wet and glistening in the headlights. The man shrank back in the doorway as the car went by, the headlights sweeping across a vacant wall where an ancient election poster still proclaimed: "Viva Yrigoyen y la UCR." Except that the Radicalistas had joined the ruling coalition back in '35 and Yrigoyen was long since dead. Across the bottom of the poster a more recent addition: a scrawled swastika and "Death to the Jews." The man waited until the car made the turn, and when it was gone he began to walk toward the corner, his footsteps echoing wetly on the pavement, listening for sounds behind him.
He moved quickly, not running, but faster than ordinary walking, his hands balled in his pockets, like a soldier trying to catch up with the parade. The night was cold. It smelled of the waterfront and more rain. Sodden leaves stripped by the wind from the jacaranda trees along the avenida lay on the ground like dead birds. At a panadería closed for the night, the bread bins empty and dusty with flour, the man paused to check the reflection of the street behind him in the darkened window. Everything was quiet. There was only the glow of a streetlight in the mist and then he saw it. The red tip of a cigarette in a doorway across the street.
He tried to swallow and couldn't. They were still after him. What was he to do? Amadeo hadn't warned him about anything like this when he had first gotten involved.
"It's a simple thing, truly. A little favor between friends," Amadeo had said in his office above the casino, the desk light gleaming on his brilliantined hair. "Once every few weeks or so, you make a phone call, then a delivery. You leave it in a public place: a loose brick in a wall, under a seat in a cinema. You never have to see anyone."
"What is it? Drugs? Money?"
Amadeo shook his head.
"Something easier to carry, but more valuable. Information," lighting an American cigarette. He smoked it in the French way, inhaling the smoke from his mouth to his nostrils.
"I don't like this," Raoul said.
"No," Amadeo agreed. "But you'll do it."
Raoul got up and went to the mirrored bar Amadeo kept in his office. He poured himself a gin over ice. The ice cubes rattled in the glass and he held it up to show how his hand trembled.
"You see," he said. "I'm no good for this. It's politics, isn't it? This war in Europe." He bit his lip. "Maybe there's something else I could do."
Amadeo looked at him. His eyes were hooded like a reptile's. He had addict's eyes, sleepy and crazy dangerous.
"You owe us money, Raoul. Your fancy friends, the Vargases, the Herrera-Blancas and all these stupid estancieros, that's a very expensive crowd you run with," he said, shaking his finger admonishingly. "Muy costoso," his eyes black and glittering like a snake's. Julia said he was spending all his profits on heroin, that he couldn't get enough.
Raoul nervously licked his lips.
"Which side?" he managed to whisper. "At least tell me that. Castillo? Ortiz? The British? The Nazis?"
"What difference does it make?" he said.
But that was before tonight, when Amadeo said he was to meet personally with the American. Before the man with the scar on his cheek and the German accent had sat next to Raoul in the streetcar and asked him for a cigarette. That's when he knew he had got in over his head. Because the exchange was supposed to take place in the confitería on Pedro de Mendoza, not on a streetcar, and the man he was to give it to, a yanqui, not a German, was supposed to first ask him the time and wait till he offered the cigarette.
"What if I can't make the delivery? What if something happens?" he had asked Amadeo, who had looked at him with those hooded eyes the way Raoul imagined a snake looks at a mouse.
"Then don't come back, Raoul. Let them kill you. You'll be better off," Amadeo had murmured.
Hand trembling, he offered the German an ordinary cigarette, not the marked one, from the pack he had picked up from the drop, a street vendor on Avenida Ninth of July, near the Obelisk. The German noticed his hand shaking and almost smiled.
"Nein, danke. I prefer the whole packet, bitte."
Raoul smiled back weakly, his mind racing. The German was a fake. He had to get away from the German, but he had no idea how. The German started to reach for the pack, his other hand holding something in his coat pocket. Raoul began to panic, feeling himself lurching as the streetcar pulled into a stop. It was all happening too fast for him and yet there was a feeling of slow motion. He saw everything as though from outside himself: the lights inside the streetcar and his own reflection in the windows against the darkness of the street outside, the young woman with the bag of groceries and the little girl getting up for her stop and the German smiling, his hand still in his pocket. And then Raoul was up and shouldering the woman aside, the groceries spilling all over, and just as he swung the door open, the sound of shots in quick succession, impossibly loud. He heard people screaming behind him and as he leaped to the ground, managed to turn for a second and see the woman hanging head-down, jammed halfway in the streetcar's door, her long hair dragging on the tram tracks. The little girl was staring saucer-eyed, screaming in a thin high-pitched voice until the German smashed her out of his way as he ripped the door open. He leaped over the woman's body, her dress bunched around her waist, her sprawled legs shockingly white and naked in the glare of the streetcar lights, and into the street. Raoul couldn't see any more because he was running so hard, his breath coming in great heaving gasps. There was another shot just as he turned the corner and down a warren of dark streets and garbage-strewn alleyways, zigzagging around corners and never stopping or looking back for a second until he found the darkness of the doorway near the rendezvous where he could hide and catch his breath.
Oh God, oh God, oh God, he thought. Germans! What had he got himself into? And then he remembered something Arturo had said once: "With the Nazis, killing is a kind of religion. It's their way of dealing with things they don't understand." From Arturo, of course, that was said in admiration, if not envy.
Across the street, he saw a glowing arc as the watcher dropped the cigarette to be crushed out. He couldn't stay by the panadería any longer. He began to run.
The sound of his blood pounded so loudly in his ears he couldn't hear if he was being followed. Near the corner he slowed. He walked by the confitería, trying to make it look as if he was glancing casually at the misted up windows, the way any passer-by might. At first, he didn't see the yanqui. The confitería was empty except for a young couple lingering over mates and a waiter leaning against the counter, his face buried in the sports section of the Crítica. And then he spotted him at a corner table, in a tweed jacket, looking bored. He didn't look particularly simpático. And once inside, he'd be trapped, Raoul thought, trying to decide what to do. The confitería was too exposed. He needed lights, people. The more the better. And a back way out.
On Avenida Pedro de Mendoza the last streetcar went by, clanging noisily, the windows lit up like a passenger ship in the night. It stopped at the corner and a woman got off. She was an older woman, short and bulky in a heavy coat, carrying a shopping basket. She scurried toward him as the tram started up again, wheels squealing against the tracks as it made the turn. Raoul watched her carefully. No one was to be trusted. What did she have in the basket? He held his hand in his coat pocket as though he were holding a gun, but she never even looked at him as she passed by. He watched her as she walked away, her shoulders slumped as though she had been carrying a heavy burden since birth. Life, they call it, the old priest had said, the night Raoul learned about the woman Lucia's journal. The priest! Was he in on it too?
Madre de Dios, what was happening to him? To suspect everyone like that. He turned away, listening to her footsteps receding, lonely in the night. Then he heard another set of footsteps, more hurried, passing hers and coming toward him. He had to go. Maybe if he just kept moving ... and above all, he needed a gun. He began walking quickly down the avenida in the same direction the streetcar had taken.
There were restaurants across the street and on this side, two petits hôtels, right next to each other. A woman standing in the doorway of one smiled at him. He hesitated for a moment and her smile grew wider. Standing against the light like that, he could see that she had nothing on under her dress. Maybe, he thought, risking a glance behind him, and his knees almost gave way.
A man in a raincoat was standing by a newspaper kiosk, shuttered for the night, reading the headlines posted on the side of the kiosk. He was a broad-shouldered man, his face hidden under a fedora, and he was holding something under his raincoat. Whatever he was holding was big and Raoul had to force himself not to just start running and never stop. Think, he told himself. Think. Maybe he's not one of them. Just because he has something under his raincoat. But the man didn't look at him. He seemed engrossed in the news. Warsaw had fallen. A second headline read: "ATHENIA SURVIVORS OF U-BOAT ATTACK TELL OF ORDEAL." In Argentina, prices on the Bolsa had fallen in heavy trading. But how long did it take to read a headline? The man didn't move.
What's stopping him? Raoul wondered. He was desperate to walk away, but the thought of being shot in the back the minute he turned to go held him frozen. And then it hit him. The man had seen what he did with his hand in his pocket when the woman walked by. Maybe the man thought Raoul had a gun too! That gave him an idea, and he began to walk down the avenida very quickly now. The footsteps resumed behind him.
The Tango Palacio Del Rio was only a block away. It was ablaze with lights and on the sidewalk in front there were people and vendors selling cigarettes and parrillada roasted over glowing charcoal braziers. The upstairs windows were open and the street echoed to the sounds of the orchestra. A taxi pulled up outside the entrance and a couple in evening clothes got out and went inside. Raoul could hear the footsteps coming closer and all at once, he broke and raced down the street. He pushed his way through the crowd into the tango palace.
Tino the Dwarf was standing by the door. Raoul slipped him a coin, shaking his head to the cloakroom girl that he would keep his coat. He went up the stairs to the ballroom, the stairway dimly lit and loud with the music and sounds of the crowd. It smelled of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume and sweating bodies; the undefinable musk of urgent sex. The red plush was worn from the stair carpet and the wallpaper showed drawings of dancers in profile, impossibly thin and expressionless. At the top he looked back down the stair. No one had come in yet. For a brief moment, he actually thought he had a chance, until he entered the noisy ballroom and Ceci Braga, looking like a small man in her tuxedo, hair slicked back and short as a boy's, came over and told him someone had been looking for him.
"What have you been up to, Raoul?" Ceci asked, offering him a cigarette from a silver case and when he declined, lighting one for herself.
"Just business, Ceci," Raoul said, looking around.
"Fool's business, you mean."
"Why do you say that?"
She shrugged, looking very much like a woman at that moment, despite her get-up. Because a tango palace was considered no better than a brothel and because of her sexual orientation, her family had ostracized her. Not one of them would so much as talk to her, even though she supported all of them.
"How do you stand it, Ceci?" Raoul had asked her one night after everyone had left, both of them long gone on gin and cocaine and Ceci, her rasping whiskey voice down to a whisper, unable to talk about Julia any more.
"Stand what, guapo? Injustice? Bah, women are too wise to believe in heaven on earth," she had said, her eyes so heavily mascara'd they made her face pale as death by comparison.
"The loneliness, Ceci. How do you stand the loneliness?"
"Ah, guapo," she had said, putting her hand to his cheek. "I'm in the loneliness business. Didn't you know?"
She put her other hand to his cheek in the same way.
"Because the man who was looking for you spoke in the worst, most thickly German-accented Spanish I've ever heard. You be careful, guapo. For the Germans, this war is real, not just business."
Raoul grabbed her arm in a way that made her pull back.
"Listen, Ceci. This man. Did he say what he wanted?"
Ceci shrugged and said something, but just then the orchestra struck up the next tango and her answer was lost in the music. The floor became crowded as the couples got up, faces set like statues, already moving to the strains of the violins. The lights dimmed and the mirrored ball revolved over the floor, spinning shining moths of light across the dancers' faces. Raoul watched the dancers, glancing out of the corner of his eye at the entrance. The man from the kiosk still hadn't come in. But he couldn't be sure in all this crowd.
They were mostly locals from La Boca and San Telmo, but there were all types there. Young workmen from the arrabals in their best jackets, cigarettes dangling from their lips, dancing with tightly corseted women whose husbands were wise enough to go elsewhere; tough compadritos in double-breasted jackets cut tight to show the bulge made by their shoulder-holsters, and their putas in low-cut blouses and shiny skirts slit to the hip; and gente fina, slumming in black tie and ball gowns, laughing and ordering champagne in silver buckets. As he stood there, he saw Athena de Castro swing by with her new lover, Julio, twenty years her junior and still in high school. Athena wore nothing under a beaded gown so transparent that by the dark smudge between her legs you could see she wasn't a natural blonde, and as she danced by she waved gaily at Raoul, who nodded back, stiff as a soldier. He was running out of time.
Ceci swayed before him, eyes half-closed, moving in time to the music.
"Dance with me, guapo. This is a Discepolo tango. You know I can't help myself when they play one of his," she murmured, pressing her body against his. Raoul held her for a moment, trying to think.
"About this man, Ceci. Is he still here?"
Excerpted from War of the Raven by Andrew Kaplan. Copyright © 1989 Andrew Kaplan. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.