In a blighted stretch of the Amazon, three men have come to blow up a bridge. Just before they complete their mission, one of them turns on the others, gunning one down and burying the other with the force of the explosion. He is stepping into his getaway plane when he notices that the first man’s body is gone. It doesn’t matter, he thinks. An injured man could not last a day in the jungle.
When a daffy young American comes to Rio de Janeiro in search of her missing brother, Captain José Da Silva does his best to stay out of it. But when her search draws her into the mystery of the bridge that went nowhere, Da Silva will have to risk a jungle expedition of his own to save her life.
About the Author
Fish died February 23, 1981, at his home in Connecticut. Each year at the annual Mystery Writers of America dinner, a memorial award is presented in his name for the best first short story. This is a fitting tribute, as Fish was always eager to assist young writers with their craft.
Read an Excerpt
The Bridge That Went Nowhere
A Captain José da Silva Mystery
By Robert L. Fish
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Robert L. Fish
All rights reserved.
The full moon, impersonal and serene, shepherded its scattered flock of lamb's-wool clouds as they slowly munched their way eastward; beneath its cool eye the jungle fretted through its usual uneasy rest, still steaming from the torrential rains that had swept through at midnight. From the raised plateau where the twin-engined plane huddled on the now-abandoned airstrip, the roof of the jungle stretched beyond sight, a sea of shadowed green with taller stands of striated palm and giant white cetigo rising like eerie islands, standing guard above the ruffled surface.
A deeper band of black curved through the darkness at the western edge of the cleared space, marking the sheer chasm where the river ran far below, twisting its way over jagged rocks; the high canyon walls held its sound to a murmur, scarcely heard over the usual night noises of the restless selva. In the moonlight the pale reflection of the bridge glimmered faintly, as if aware, somehow, of its strangeness in this primeval wilderness, and even more aware that its majestic architecture deserved something more impressive than the rough dirt trails that twisted their way from its approaches to disappear into the brush. It spanned the depths below gracefully, a monolithic monument to modernity in a jungle as ancient as time; the jungle had withdrawn from its roadway as if to calculate some means of absorbing it, as it had all other attempts at intrusion into its domain.
The younger of the two men squatting beneath the wing of the plane completed packing his attaché case; he snapped it shut and came to his feet, ducking his head around the leading edge of the wing. Beside the nosewheel of the plane a Coleman lantern hissed steadily, furnishing a cone of light that attracted thousands of insects; the young man slapped half-heartedly at one, as if aware that the gesture was useless in that flood of stinging life, and grinned down at his companion. It was a pleasant grin, friendly and unenvious, which made his freckled face seem even younger.
"Well," he said with open admiration, "I don't think there's any doubt. Your hunch was right."
"You're quite sure?"
"As sure as I can be with what I brought. Of course, once we're back in civilization, I'll verify it." He shook his head. "It's really remarkable. I've never seen anything like it. You know, you're a lucky man."
The second man stared at him thoughtfully. "Lucky?" He seemed to consider the statement a moment and then nodded slowly. "I suppose you're right." He pulled himself heavily to his feet, tugging his gun belt to a more comfortable position, sighed, and then shook his head almost sadly.
The younger man smiled at him quizzically. "What's the matter? You should be happy as a lark. Why the long face?"
The older man sighed once again. "Because not everyone is as lucky as I am." He shrugged. "You, for example."
"Me?" The younger man had turned to place his attaché case on the wing, ready for loading into the plane. He swung about to seek an explanation for this cryptic statement and stopped short, his eyes widening. His companion was holding a revolver in one hand; his attitude was negligent, his expression almost apologetic, but the hand holding the revolver was as steady as rock. The light from the lantern winked along the barrel, emphasizing the black cavity of the muzzle. The eyebrows of the armed man were slightly raised, the eyes sardonic. The younger man's jaw tightened dangerously.
"What is this—a joke? What's that for?"
"I've been trying to tell you. You're just not lucky," the older man said quietly, and fired.
The black wall of trees surrounding the field returned the echo of the shot as if rejecting any responsibility for the deed; there was the crashing of brush, and a third man came running across the field. He pulled up, panting, staring incredulously at the body on the ground; the man with the gun straightened up a bit reluctantly. His arm had been extended rigidly, preparatory to administering a coup de grâce; instead he tucked the revolver back into his holster. The newcomer stared at him with wide, black eyes, tipped his stained chapeu back with one thumb and then used it automatically to wipe sweat from his swarthy forehead.
"Deus me livre! Quê que há?"
"An accident," the older man said sadly, and shrugged. "An unfortunate accident."
The small swarthy man frowned at him unbelievingly and then moved forward, bending over the body, but the other's hand shot out, gripping him roughly by the arm, dragging him back. The deep voice became hard, threatening; the heavy fingers bit into his arm.
"I said it was an accident! And in any event, you weren't hired on this trip as a male nurse." He shook the smaller man slightly, as if to both demonstrate his greater strength and also to get his attention. "Now—what about the bridge?"
The swarthy man pulled free, looking sullen. "You didn't say anything about murder."
"Nobody ever says anything about murder." The tone indicated that this was so obvious as scarcely to require explanation. "And what could I say about accidents, since by definition they always are unpredictable?" The heavyset man studied the shocked expression on the face before him thoughtfully for several moments and then continued, calmly, logically. "Besides, we didn't want a lot of witnesses, did we?"
"No ..." The furrowed brow cleared slightly. "That's true. But even so—"
"And don't forget that he weighs—weighed—over eighty kilos." This statement was made flatly, finishing the discussion. "Now—what about the bridge?"
"The bridge?" The shorter man shook his head as if to clear it and then took a deep breath. Everything the patrão had said was true; they obviously did not want witnesses, and the fact was that the plane now had eighty kilos more capacity. And of course, there was nothing to be done about the other's death now and nothing to be gained by even thinking about it. He brought his mind back to business. "There's no problem with the bridge."
"Good," said the heavyset man, satisfied, and nodded. "Then suppose we get on with it, eh?"
He stepped over the body casually, moving to the side of the plane, swinging the narrow door open to lean over and rummage on the floorboards within. Two boxes were withdrawn, and a skein of wire tightly looped; a flashlight was removed from its clip near the pilot's seat and slung from his belt. The heavier of the boxes was handed to his partner; he made one last inspection to be sure he had not forgotten anything and then closed the door against any animal intruders during their absence. The lantern was retrieved from its position near the nose wheel and held high, its beam steadily piercing the darkness, as the two men moved in the direction of the bridge.
At the edge of the chasm they paused. The heavier man directed the shaft of light into the gorge, studying the twisting path leading down past the bridge piers to disappear into the depths. The light was raised, traveling up the white columns to the concrete girders holding the roadway, and then brought down again to the base cut in rock. He nodded and set his burden on the ground.
"You take the lantern; you'll need it." He handed it to his companion and unhooked the flashlight from his belt, flicking the switch and laying it down beside the black box. He squatted down in the glow of light, fumbling with the brass terminals that studded the surface of the box. A knife was withdrawn from a pocket, opened, and used to skin the wires protruding from the skein. The other watched him in silence. Suddenly the squatting man paused, looking up with a dark frown.
The smaller man awoke from his reverie; he hurriedly picked up the lantern and the roll of wire. The shaft of light from the Coleman disappeared over the brow of the cliff, sending back wildly swinging shadows to crisscross the wall of trees and finally fade from sight. After the first uneven jerk the wire payed out more slowly, pausing every now and then as some obstacle on the treacherous path was overcome. The waiting man hummed a tune softly as he waited, feeling the strands of wire trail gently through his fingers. There was a longer pause, followed by a slight dragging on the wire. He calculated the amount remaining, subtracted it from the full skein, and nodded in satisfaction. He allowed the wire to slip free of his grip and turned, bringing his hands to the terminal-studded cover of the box.
"All hooked up, my friend?" he said softly to himself. "Well, we'll soon find out. Ciao." His white teeth suddenly gleamed in a harsh and humorless grin; without further hesitation he pressed heavily on the plunger of the box.
The bridge coughed diffidently, rising gently in the center as if to protest politely being disturbed in its slumber. There was a sudden reverberation from below, repeated again and again as the dull shock waves of the explosion rolled echoingly along the chasm walls seeking outlet. For a moment the bridge hesitated, poised under the moonlight, vainly attempting to comprehend the unwarranted attack, and then it conceded defeat, folding almost gracefully, collapsing, sliding toward the river below, and taking with it the few trees that had managed a precarious hold on the rocky walls. A hollow rumble marked its descent, ending in a faint crash; the naked abutments remained, shining in the moonlight like jagged white teeth in the black mouth of the fissure. The echo of the crash returned several times, fainter each time, and then at last faded shudderingly into silence. For a moment the jungle seemed to hold its breath, waiting, and then it exploded, voicing its displeasure at the frightening sound in a thousand growls and cries and screams.
The man at the detonator came slowly to his feet and moved to the edge of the chasm, playing the light from the flashlight down the rocky walls. The faint beam lost itself on the cloud of dust that had swirled up from the explosion and now hovered protectingly over the shattered piers. He listened awhile, intently, playing the beam back and forth, and then with a faint shrug returned to his box, squatting down and tugging at the wires that trailed below. They resisted a moment, and then what remained of them came along, wriggling silently up the canyon walls and through the underbrush. He wound them about the handle with expert ease, tucking the ends in neatly, and then came to his feet once again.
"You agreed with me, remember?" he said softly, addressing the swarthy little man buried below under tons of crushed concrete. "We really didn't want a lot of witnesses, did we?"
He smiled at the thought and hefted the black box experimentally, as if deciding whether to throw it over the brink of the chasm or to take it back to the plane with him. It was doubtful that it would ever be found, and he knew it could never be traced to him; but there was still no need to take the chance. Dropped in another part of that vast jungle from the height of a flying plane, together with the attaché case, would be better. His grip on the handle tightened; he glanced at the shattered bridge once again.
"And also, my friend," he added quietly with a smile, "while small, you still weighed close to sixty kilos yourself."
The flashlight bobbed up and down as he tramped back across the field toward the waiting plane. The black box bumped against his leg with each step, like a pet who had performed well and clamored for recognition. It had been a full night, but one that had been well thought out, and its success, therefore, should not have been surprising. Still, one had to recognize the possibility of failure in bringing off the deaths of two men, both virtual strangers; but actually the plan had gone quite well. Of course, he might have waited until the plane had been loaded before disposing of the swarthy one—because now he would have to do it himself—but it might have been taking a chance. The little man might have started to think; this way was better. And, of course, there was still the job of disposing of the body beneath the plane, but that really was no major problem. It could be dragged to the cliff and dumped over to join the swarthy one and the remains of the bridge, or it could even be pulled to the edge of the jungle, much closer, and left to the mercy of the animals. Or it could even be left where it lay in the open field; the urubús would spot it from their wheeling observation points in the sky with morning's first light, and would make short of it. For best results, in that case, the clothing would have to be removed first, but once the black scavengers had made their meal, there would be little left for identification.
He came to the plane and set the box on the ground, turning to duck under the wing, raising the flashlight, and then froze, drawing his breath in sharply, feeling a chill sweep his spine.
The body was gone!
For one moment his mind refused to encompass the fact, and then for another it attempted to rationalize the disappearance as being the work of one of the braver of the jungle cats, but he thrust the thought aside as quickly as it had come, as being unworthy of anyone clever enough to have planned as he had. The first cold feeling of panic conquered, he moved swiftly to the plane, revolver ready in his hand. He pulled the door open, inspecting the interior. As far as he could tell, nothing in the tiny cabin had been touched; the high-powered rifle clipped to the fire wall was still there, and that—obviously—would have been the first object of a search. With a frown he returned to the spot where the body had sprawled, bending down, training the flashlight on the bloodstained earth, and then noting the erratic trail of red drops wavering toward the thick stand of trees that walled off the airstrip. With a grunt of satisfaction, not untinged with amusement, he moved forward, following the trail to its end in the heavy brush, and then raised his voice, addressing the jungle.
"My friend"—his voice echoed hollowly in the open space; his grip on the raised weapon remained steady—"why not come out and be given a merciful death? A quick bullet?" He sounded—and was—sincere. "Believe me, the jungle is not a good way to die."
There was a sudden chatter from a band of monkeys overhead, as if they were taking issue with his statement. He hesitated a moment longer, awaiting an answer, and then with a shrug returned to the plane. Armed and in good health, a stranger to these matos would be hard put to preserve life; unarmed and wounded merely meant that the jungle would quickly make up for his poor marksmanship. He tucked his revolver back into its holster, glanced over his shoulder once at the inhospitable forest behind, and began the task of loading the plane.
It was nearly dawn when he finished. He stood a moment, bathed in sweat, fighting for breath, and then hoisted himself wearily within the plane and buckled himself into his seat. First one motor and then the second whined shrilly before bursting into power, puffing clouds of gray smoke. The landing lights were switched on and responded, cutting through the darkness with twin splashes of light scattering themselves purposelessly in pools beneath the vibrating wings; he idled the motors for several minutes, checking the instruments, and then slowly pulled back on the throttles, bumping unevenly toward one end of the field.
As he swung the plane about for takeoff, the wing lights bathed the jungle's edge, and he felt a certain touch of pity. He brought the motors up in speed, studying his instruments intently, and then his foot had released the brake and he was racing across the rough earth, bouncing unevenly. And then he was clear of the earth, joining the brighter moonlight and the cooler air, rising above the jungle, glancing down over his shoulder at the diminishing rectangle of the airstrip even as his hands automatically trimmed the ship for its extra weight.
He frowned. Not that the wounded man offered any danger; actually, had the man been conscious, he would have been far better off accepting the plea from the forest's edge and coming out to be given a decent death. But that was not the point. It was simply that he hadn't planned it that way. It just wasn't the way he liked things to be.
Not neat, he chided himself sternly, and banked the plane gently toward the west, and the greater darkness there.
Excerpted from The Bridge That Went Nowhere by Robert L. Fish. Copyright © 1968 Robert L. Fish. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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