Ben Smith, a market researcher from New York City, has arrived on Santo Stefano, an island two hundred miles off the coast of Peru. At the behest of his company’s seafood division, he’s gauging the potential profitability of the island’s abundance of rock lobsters. Encouraging a little tin-pot country to draw foreign investment should be a breeze—a beautiful one, too, berthed, as he is, in such an exotic locale.
But Ben’s interests are soon divided between the seductive Infanta Elissa, daughter of the island’s powerful guano king, and another American tourist who has come in search of a reportedly lost and invaluable Panama portrait painted by French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. And something sinister is taking over Santo Stefano. The locals call it festa brava, a ritualistic hanging ceremony, dating back centuries, in which competitors test their courage against the gallows. Whether you survive or not, it’s said to be the ultimate experience.
As an undercurrent of violence and unease rises closer to the surface, Ben wonders what else awaits him on the island, how it will change him, and how far he’ll be expected to go on a journey of adventure, self-exploration, and absolute fear.
From a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, The Panama Portrait is “a [spellbinding], sophisticated, barbaric, and hypnotic” thriller (Kirkus Reviews).
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About the Author
Stanley Ellin (1916–1986) was an American mystery writer known primarily for his short stories. After working a series of odd jobs including dairy farmer, salesman, steel worker, and teacher, and serving in the US Army, Ellin began writing full time in 1946. Two years later, his story “The Specialty of the House” won the Ellery Queen Award for Best First Story. He went on to win three Edgar Awards—two for short stories and one for his novel The Eighth Circle. In 1981, Ellin was honored with the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. He died of a heart attack in Brooklyn in 1986.
Read an Excerpt
The Panama Portrait
By Stanley Ellin
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1962 Stanley Ellin
All rights reserved.
The Hotel Buchanan, as its manager had pointed out with pride, was the biggest and best hotel in the entire Republic of Santo Stefano, but, in truth, it was not much of a hotel. For that matter, Ben mused, Port Buchanan was the biggest and best city in Santo Stefano, and it was not much of a city.
Yet, it had its dramatic moments. Standing at his window he saw the world outside swimming in honey, and then, as if someone had pressed a button, the honey turned to flame, everything was bathed in scarlet, the whole city was on fire with the sunset. The fire cooled and darkened, and he became aware of the sky overhead — a pure, pale green merging into a delicate lavender in the distance and finally on the horizon becoming a royal purple, a purple so rich and splendid that it hurt to see it dim, change to a blackness that quickly curtained the heavens. And suddenly one glittering star appeared in the middle of that void. Sunset and evening star.
The street below was the Avenida Hermanos, the main street. A fluorescent light went on in the window of the cantina across the way. Other fluorescent lights appeared along the street. A block away, a chain of lights flickered merrily around the marquee of a movie theater. In the doorway of the theater stood the life-sized cardboard image of a masked cowboy aiming a gun at the innocent ticket buyer. Some Indian children, dodging among the legs of their elders and betters, ran up to the cowboy, cocked their fingers at him, fired, ran away. A moment later they reappeared, clustered around the cardboard figure, stroked it lovingly, admired it noisily. Fastest draw in Santo Stefano, Ben thought. A policeman was moving down the street toward the theater. The children saw him, scattered like a flock of birds at the sound of a shotgun. This time they did not reappear.
The policeman went his placid way. He wore a short white cape and white gloves and spun a truncheon around one finger with arrogant ease. The venders along the avenue, the Indian women squatting before store-fronts with the inevitable baskets of candies, cigarettes, fruit, odds and ends at their feet, would rise when he approached, sling the straps of their baskets around their necks, and slowly walk in the same direction he was going. When he had passed them they would stop where they were, remove the baskets, and squat again, back in business. Which meant, Ben conjectured, that when he returned along his beat from the other direction, the process would be reversed, and the women would be back where they had started. As it was the whole world over, the policeman was the tide, and the venders, the unlanded gentry, moved back and forth in his course.
Ben turned impatiently from the window. By now, any place else in the world, he would have been dressed and ready for dinner. His mistake had been in giving the hotel valet both his suits together for pressing which, as the valet must have known, rendered him totally helpless. He started to reach for the phone, then thought better of it. Either the girl at the switchboard would excitedly say, "Yes, yes, yes!" until other voices would cut in on the line loudly demanding her attention, or if by chance the call reached the valet, buried away somewhere in the bowels of the hotel, the valet would say with gentle reproach, "All in good time, Room 404. All in good time, please," and hang up, leaving Room 404 to digest his lesson and mend his ways.
The room was shadowy now, lit only by the reflections of the lights across the street. Ben made his way through it and found on the dresser the pack of cigarettes he had bought in the lobby. It was a local brand named Conquistadores, and, as he discovered when he lit one, aptly named. The cigarette flared up briefly, almost burning his nose, then settled down to a rank, harsh smoke which bit the tongue and stung the palate. He stretched out in bed on his back, punched the pillow into shape under his head, and smoked the cigarette cautiously, determined to be philosophical about his small troubles.
And why not? Here he was, the honored representative of Seaways Industries, traveling on a luxurious expense account, and berthed on an exotic island in the Pacific, four thousand miles from New York. It was his first time abroad. It was as much a journey of exploration, an adventure, as a business trip. That might not be the proper frame of mind for a representative of Seaways Industries, but, on the other hand, it might be the very reason he was picked for this deal. He wondered about that.
O'Harragh in New York had said to him, "What we want, Ben, is a nonpolitical rock lobster." Trust O'Harragh to put it that way. He had a reputation for summing up complex situations in one line. He also had a reputation for brilliance, for dash, for reckless self-assurance in handling Seaways' affairs. General manager of Seaways' entire corporate structure. A big man handling a big job, because Seaways, since the Second World War, had gone far afield, had expanded steadily.
The business of the original company had been the processing of sea foods. The corporation still bore the old name, but today it dealt not only in sea foods, but in oil and steel and aluminum as well, and in the construction of houses, and even in the publication of books. It was O'Harragh who had led that battle for diversification of interests, who had helped nurse each new operation into full flower, who fervently preached to the board of directors and the stockholders the need for greater expansion. From the Times: No Middle Ground, Says O'Harragh; Advance or Retreat. From the Herald Tribune: Future Lies in Economic Growth: O'Harragh. From the Wall Street Journal: O'Harragh Opposes Gov't Hard Money Policy.
That was James F. X. O'Harragh. That was the man who had decided, among other things, that Ben Smith, one junior executive out of a host of junior executives, one nonentity out of a battalion of nonentities, must travel four thousand miles in search of a nonpolitical rock lobster. A rock lobster itself is simply a seagoing prawn whose tail makes a delicious meal. What right did it have to be in politics in the first place?
In his five years with the company Ben had seen O'Harragh twice. The first time was when the executive training program in which Ben had enlisted — the Seaways Cycle it was called by those who remembered their army basic training with loathing — had completed its course, and the trainees who had made the grade were called together for congratulatory and admonitory addresses by their future superiors. O'Harragh had attended that meeting. He had not spoken, but had sat there, arms folded on his chest, listening, God silently presiding while the archangels spoke. He had the reputation for being a hard drinker, and observing the man's blotched complexion, the swollen, veiny nose, the dark pouches under the slumbrous eyes, Ben had decided he must have fairly earned the reputation.
That was five years ago. In the interim, O'Harragh was a name heard in office councils or read in the newspapers. He was of no concern to Ben. The man Ben had to please was Mark Hough, head of his department in the sea foods division, and Hough was evidently pleased enough to recommend him for a series of small raises and promotions without undue prodding. The last raise had put Ben in the twelve-thousand-a-year class, had encouraged him to lease a handsome three-room flat on Sheridan Square, and had made him one of the most eligible, and wariest, bachelors in the entire Seaways Building on Broad Street.
These were conditions that should have pleased him, but he was aware much of the time that they did not. He was doing well at his job, but no better than those around him. There were too many others like him, that was what it came down to. The higher you went, the narrower grew the pyramid, the tighter the squeeze, the longer the odds against you. When he had started with Seaways it had been his idea that the great advantage of working for an outfit of this size was the number of opportunities it offered for the big job and the really big money. Seaways had forty divisional vice-presidents and, with few exceptions, they had moved up from the ranks. The trouble was, he had learned, that when you're one of four hundred men qualified for forty posts, you are lost in the pack.
And as far as his bachelorhood went, he should, according to the propaganda, have been happy with it, but he was not. He had made a few close friends in the office, then one by one they married, and either they drifted away from him or he from them — the results were the same in either case — and he found himself isolated, apart, and lonely. There were days when he left the office and would stand hesitant on the street downstairs, unable to decide which was the lesser of the two evils: to return to his empty apartment, or to go uptown and seek livelier entertainment. And entertainment, he knew from experience, was never really entertaining unless you shared it with someone.
He was not by nature a Don Juan; he was perfectly willing, once he met the right girl, to marry and settle down. Who the right girl was, what he expected her to be like, he had no idea. All he knew with certainty was that he had not yet met her, and what he began to fear was that he never would. Certainly none of the women he ever went with in New York was the one. Each of them in turn, he felt, was putting on a performance for him. Silent or talkative, worshipful or companionable, coolly restrained or flagrantly sexual, each of them was still withholding her real self from him, was only playing a role which he might approve, might finally reward with marriage.
Not that this displeased him. He knew without vanity that his job, his appearance, his manners, his transparent respectability made him splendidly marriageable. He also knew that if it weren't for the bait of marriageability he would have had little success with women. Once they came to know him they liked him, but the introductions always made rough going. He had a sense of humor, he was intelligent and well informed, but he was more a listener than a talker. When he was with a woman he was so anxious that she enjoy herself that the strain would show, and a pall would descend over them. At the age of thirty he could sit in a cab at midnight, one arm around a highly desirable and slightly drunken companion, and wonder nervously whether it would be all right to kiss her, to take, at least, the first hesitant step toward seduction. Actually, he gained as much as he lost this way — hesitancy can be the perfect lure in some cases — but it galled him to know that he could claim no triumph on such occasions; it was the woman who was the aggressor. Only afterward, when the affair had taken on momentum, did he feel at ease. And after that, inevitably, came the time when he knew that this was not the right woman.
So he brooded about that, although not quite as much as he brooded about his job. Questions of romance and marriage, after all, may be answered by fate, but a man himself must do something about his career. What to do? Go elsewhere? Elsewhere was uptown. It was Madison Avenue and Rockefeller Center. It was not merely the rat race, it was the steeplechase, up and down over wicked hurdles on a furious course to the unknown. Downtown was Broad Street, and Bowling Green, and the solid bulk of the Customs House building. It was the gentlemanly canter to seniority.
By the time a man reached thirty, Ben knew, he had to make up his mind once and for all which way to go. Every year after that the decision was less his to make. At thirty-five you were already superannuated by uptown's standards; at forty you were dead. Now is the time to decide. Tomorrow at the latest.
Those were his thoughts at the very moment that fateful morning when Miss Gordon, his secretary, knocked on his office door and walked in without invitation. That was unusual for Miss Gordon. She was a good secretary — too good to serve mere clerks downstairs, but too stout and unattractive for the major executives upstairs — and hitherto she had always been uncompromising in her office manners. Even more unusual was the expression on her face. She had been with Ben for two years. This was the first time he had seen her pale and frightened.
She pointed at the phone on his desk. "It's Mr. O'Harragh," she said breathlessly. "It's Miss Thomas, his secretary. He says — she says it's about a lunch appointment, and would you please talk to her about it."
In that instant Ben knew that the one thing he wanted most in the world was his job. His beautiful, easy job at twelve thousand a year, and his cozy office, and the reassuring sound of Miss Gordon's typewriter outside, tapping out the day's reports. That was all he wanted, the job to which he had given himself for five years. It was the finest job in the world. It took this threat to it, this hurricane blowing down on it, to make him appreciate that. His stomach knotted with the intensity of his feelings. If he had only done something along the way to prove how good he was at it. Done what? Something, he told himself viciously. Anything.
He sat with his hand numb on the phone, and Miss Gordon stood waiting.
"It doesn't have to be bad, does it?" she said at last, the mere fact of her saying it proof to him that she shared his forebodings.
Yet it gave him pause. If it were bad, wouldn't Mark Hough, his immediate superior, be the one to let him know? On the other hand, if it were good, wouldn't Mark also be the one? How had O'Harragh even found his name on those endless company rolls? And wouldn't it be wise to call Mark first and sound him out?
Ben had lifted the phone to call Mark when he realized that O'Harragh's secretary was already on the other end of the line. Realized, as well, that you don't keep O'Harragh's secretary waiting too long.
"Go on," said Miss Gordon tensely, and he did.
"This is Ben Smith," he said. "Market research."
The voice at the other end of the line was blessedly warm and friendly. Its diction, unlike Miss Gordon's, was impeccable.
"Oh, Mr. Smith. I'm Miss Thomas of Mr. O'Harragh's office. He asked me to arrange a lunch appointment with you for one this afternoon. Will that be convenient?"
"Yes. Sure it is."
"It's to be just the two of you. He'd like you to meet him in the private dining room on the thirty-eighth floor. Do you know where it is?"
"No. I mean, it's all right. I'll find it."
"Thank you, Mr. Smith. That's one o'clock sharp. Goodbye."
Afterward, he was ashamed of his panic, could grow hot with embarrassment at the mere recollection of it. But he did not entirely regret the experience. He had no desire to delude himself, and he had learned at small cost that his idea of taking the big gamble, of trying his luck uptown, was a delusion. Knew to the core how much the job with Seaways meant to him.
O'Harragh met him at the entrance to the dining room. Ben had never been there before — it was for top echelon only — but Mark Hough had once described it to him, and it more than met expectations. It was an enormous, high-ceilinged room, one glass wall of which offered a panoramic view of Battery Park and the bay. The other three walls were a series of glass panels beyond which swam multitudes of small, exotic fish, flickering and flashing in the pale winter sunlight. Through the center of the room, water spilled over a series of shallow, tiled steps, and entered a pool full of plump, lazy trout.
The place could have seated a regiment, but there were no more than a dozen tables arranged in it. For the rest there was a small, luxuriously equipped bar and a few deep armchairs, the total effect being that of gentleman's club and public aquarium combined, which, Ben reflected, was not at all a bad way of symbolizing the aristocracy of Seaways.
O'Harragh shook his hand hard and said, "I'm Jim O'Harragh," an unnecessarily as Lindbergh identifying himself at Le Bourget. "Our table's over there in the corner. You don't mind, do you? The window offers a much better view, but we've got important business to discuss and the view can be a distraction."
"No," Ben said, "it's all right. It's fine."
It took four to wait on them, he observed: a major-domo, two extremely pretty waitresses, and a busboy. It reminded him that for the past month Miss Gordon had been pleading for a small raise in pay, a token raise. "Something," she said, "at least to give me a little encouragement on the job. At least I'll know I'm appreciated around here." The raise had not come through yet, although he had made quite an issue of it with Mark. One less waitress up here, Ben thought, or a few less pet fish to feed would more than provide for Miss Gordon's overdue raise.
O'Harragh was evidently in no hurry. He took his time ordering, shared a second round of drinks while they waited, talked about the weather. He hated New York in the winter. It was bad enough other seasons, but in the winter it was a nightmare. Then without warning he smiled and said, "I've heard that all the females downstairs have designs on you. Is that so?"
Excerpted from The Panama Portrait by Stanley Ellin. Copyright © 1962 Stanley Ellin. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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