About the Author
His published works include more than forty books and countless short stories. Mute Witness was made into a movie starring Steve McQueen. Mr. 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 Mr. Fish was always eager to assist young writers in their craft.
Robert L. Fish, the youngest of three children, was born on August 21, 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended the local schools in Cleveland and went to Case University (now Case Western Reserve), from which he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. He married Mamie Kates, also from Cleveland, and together they have two daughters. Fish worked as a civil engineer, traveling and moving throughout the United States. In 1953 he was asked to set up a plastics factory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He and his family moved to Brazil, where they remained for nine years. He played golf and bridge in the little spare time he had. One rainy weekend in the late 1950s, when the weather prohibited him from playing golf, he sat down and wrote a short story that he submitted to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. When the story was accepted, Fish continued to write short stories. In 1962 he returned to the United States; he took one year to write full time and then returned to engineering and writing. His first novel, The Fugitive, won an Edgar Award for Best First Mystery. When his health prevented him from pursuing both careers, Fish retired from engineering and spent his time writing. His published works include more than forty books and countless short stories. Mute Witness was made into a movie starring Steve McQueen.
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
CAPTAIN JOSÉ DA SILVA, liason officer between the Brazilian Police and Interpol, put his telephone receiver back on the hook with a beatific smile and swiveled his chair to stare blissfully out of his high office window. The broad view of Guanabara Bay, replete with little green islands and squat dingy ferries chugging manfully between Rio and Niterói, was as lovely as ever, but it could have been the morning lineup of the night's catch down at the Police Delegacía for all it registered on his mind. His imagination, always active, was already transporting him to distant shores and beautiful, mysterious ladies...
The invitation from the Itamaratí--the Brazilian Foreign Office--was not too strange in itself. It was the extreme politeness of the Foreign Minister, who had spoken to him personally, that was so surprising. As a general rule the Itamaratí did not request his presence; it demanded it. The calls usually came to Captain Da Silva when the officials had something to complain about, and they were seldom cordial. Since Interpol often had to deal with the foreign colonies of Rio, situations occasionally arose where the nationals of other countries considered themselves offended, or at least considered offense the best form of defense. Their nervous outcries would be transmitted through attaché and consuls, who in turn would pass them on in further exaggerated form to the Brazilian Foreign Office. By the time a complaint would come to Da Silva, the magnification often made the case either nonrecognizable or nonacceptable. His further habit of filing most of such complaints in the wastebasket did little toincrease his popularity at the Itamaratí.
This time, however, the Foreign Minister had been politeness itself. Friendliness had been the keynote; immediate reception when he had called--quite rare in itself--had been assured. There could be no doubt about it, Da Silva told himself: this time the Ministry required services where either his suaveness of manner, or his knowledge of language, or possibly the eminence of his family name was essential to its purpose. Of course there was one definite way to find out exactly what the Minister had on his mind, and that was to go over and ask. The sure way but the hard way, he thought with a wry grin, and pulled himself to his feet.
Da Silva was a tall, athletic man in his late thirties with a lean, pockmarked face; the full, bushy mustache of the Brazilian of the interior; and a deceptively slender-looking frame, which easily balanced his one hundred and ninety pounds and his six feet of height. His swarthy skin and high cheekbones gave him an almost Indian look that was relieved only by the curliness of his thick black hair and the flamboyance of his mustache. When happy or amused, he could flash his teeth in the brightest of smiles: at such times his rugged features appeared almost handsome. Conversely, when irritated, he could frown in such a manner as to make hardened criminals or softened assistants wince. At the moment--purely through ignorance--he was smiling.
His secretary had disappeared on one of her normal coffee-making assignments--she had six per day--so he dashed off a short note informing her of his destination and walked down the hall to the elevator. He pressed the button and hummed to himself happily. Things had been slow since that business at Urubuapá, and the thought of a major case was pleasing. And there could scarcely be any doubt that a major case was involved: the Foreign Minister not only had been extremely courteous in his request for Da Silva's presence but had actually sounded most anxious for the interview.
As he stepped into the elevator a sudden dismal thought struck. There was always the possibility, Da Silva was forced to admit to himself honestly, that there was no case at all, but simply a new approach in chastisement on the part of the officials. Maybe somebody had given the Foreign Minister a book by Emily Post; maybe the Public Relations Section had told the Minister that in the long run you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But no, he said to himself positively; I refuse to believe that. It would be too shattering to the golden dream of foreign intrigue and wondrous travel and, of course, lovely ladies....
He walked out into the heat of midmorning and slid easily into his red Jaguar sports car parked at the curb. A young ragged lad sidled up, his hand outstretched for a tip, the deep sincere expression in his soft brown eyes assuring the man behind the wheel that he had guarded the parked car with his very life. Da Silva laughed and gave the boy a ten-cruzeiro note; then, after putting the car into gear, he shot into traffic. There was a hint of rain in the sky, but the thought of removing his hands from the steering wheel just to raise the top was too frightening, even to Da Silva. In Rio De Janeiro two hands are needed on the steering wheel at all times, and sometimes--mostly--even those aren't enough. God's a Brazilian, he said to himself, repeating the old phrase with conviction. He won't let it rain when I'm on my way to the Foreign Office. It would be sacrilege.
He came racing down from the Perimentral highway at its end, shot through traffic with the practiced ease of the Carioca, crashed the red light at the Avenida Branco, and headed down the broad Avenida Vargas in the direction of the Praça Republica. A transit policeman whistled frantically before he recognized the car and then choked as he attempted to stifle his whistle in mid-blow. A taxi driver, less well informed, leaned out of his cab window screaming imprecations and waving both hands for emphasis without in any way reducing his velocity. Da Silva smiled genially in the general direction of both and continued blithely on his way. He came to the entrance to the War Department, swung past it with singing tires, and approached the ornate gates of the Itamaratí. The gatekeeper, busy with a crossword puzzle, waved him through absently, and he pulled up sharply in a parking space reserved for foreign ambassadors. One does it right or one doesn't do it at all, he thought with a firm nod, and set his hand brake with a slight flourish.
Trotting up the broad marble steps of the sprawling pink building, he unconsciously straightened his shoulders and stroked his full mustache. A Foreign Office assignment, eh? The geniality of the Minister could mean no less. Evening clothes, boutonniere, intrigue in the salons of Rome or Paris or London? Lovely ladies, maybe? He grinned and turned into a wide corridor. New York or Washington, do you suppose? It's been a long time since I've been in Washington, he thought. A fantastic city. I wonder if that top-heavy brunette who worked in the State Department is still there....
The ante-room to the Minister's office was empty; the usual receptionist was absent. Probably out making coffee, Da Silva surmised, and was about to seat himself when the door to the inner office opened and a young woman appeared, laden with important-looking folders. Da Silva straightened up, eyes opening wide, barely repressing a flattering whistle.
She was exceptionally tall for a Brazilian, with the warm honey complexion and soft sweeping brown hair to which Da Silva was particularly partial--although, being honest, he would have been forced to admit he was partial to most women. His eyes dropped automatically to the floor and started their detailed inspection. Lovely legs, with good taste in shoes, rare in most women. Hemline proper, neither too high nor too low. Nice hips--very nice--and a slim waist. Pleasantly filled blouse and a strong, straight neck. Beautiful mouth, very good nose. Eyes ... He came to with a sudden start. The eyes were cold as ice, staring at him with considerable disdain.
She dropped the folders to the desk, seated herself with a discreet swirl of skirt, and began tapping her foot.
"If you are quite through," she said evenly, "could you simply state your business? This is the Foreign Office, not a ringside table at some nightclub."
Da Silva grinned. "And worse luck." He shook his head as if to clear it and looked around. "Whatever happened to Iracema, the girl who always took such fiendish delight whenever I caught hell around here?"
The query was contemptuously disregarded. "Could you give me your name, please?"
Da Silva brightened. "Absolutely. In fact, I'd like to trade you. My name is José María Carvalho Santos Da Silva, but my short-breathed friends coll me Zé."
"Oh!" She caught her breath; the disdain vanished from her eyes, replaced by a rather curious expression. "Captain Da Silva. I know the Minister is very anxious to see you. One moment, please."
She arose and started for the inner door, glancing back at the tall, mustached man once again in that curious fashion. He tried to interpret her odd look but failed; he took refuge in a shrug.
So the Minister was anxious to see him, eh? This was the real red-carpet treatment. Undoubtedly there was a good assignment in store for him. Tokyo, perhaps? He'd never been to Tokyo, but from what he had heard it was definitely a place to visit. With the large number of Japanese immigrating to Brazil, it was a very definite possibility. Ah, Tokyo--what did they call that street? The Ginza? Here now, he said to himself sternly; let's keep that imagination under control. It may really only be New York. Of course, even Lisbon wouldn't be too bad. Has Lisbon been in the newspapers lately? He sighed. A pity they don't let you take a secretary along on these jobs, he thought, his eye straying speculatively to the inner door. I'm sure she would make any assignment abroad a lot more interesting.
The door opened once again; the girl was nodding for him to enter. With a debonair grin he passed her, aware of her perfume and conscious again of the curious expression in her eyes. He heard the door close softly behind him.
His first doubt as to the reason for his invitation came when he saw the grim look on the Minister's face. Still, he told himself, the pattern for reproof had not followed any of the standard methods. He searched his memory for any recent infringement Interpol might have made on Foreign Office prerogatives; he couldn't recall any. Actually, he thought in self-defense, there hasn't been enough activity lately to allow us to step on anyone's toes. So what could that cold look on the old man's face possibly portend?
The Minister was an elderly, heavyset man with thick iron-gray hair swept back from a broad, lined forehead; a strong, deeply furrowed face; and a jaw as rigid as petrified piroba. He stared at his visitor for several moments before speaking. Da Silva waited patiently. Finally the deep, resonant voice came.
"Hello, Captain. It's good to see you again. I appreciate your coming so quickly. Please be seated."
"Thank you, sir."
So far, so good. Da Silva let himself easily into a deep leather chair before the wide desk and waited for the other to continue. To be honest, there was nothing in the Minister's funereal expression to lead one to expect Paris or Rome or even boutonnieres. The deep tones seemed to be withholding tragedy. Moscow, possibly?
The heavyset man behind the desk swung his chair around slowly and then returned it, setting his elbows firmly on the desk. He seemed to be selecting his words, and Da Silva found this particularly surprising. His previous interviews with the Foreign Minister, whether stormy or calm, had never begun with hesitation. He's probably forced to give me a good assignment and just hates to do it, Da Silva thought, and smiled a bit smugly to himself.
The sonorous voice finally spoke. "They tell me you are familiar with the interior, Captain."
The smile within Da Silva faded. His face fell.
"The interior, sir?" He attempted one pitiful evasion. "The interior of where?"
The Minister brushed aside the attempt. "The interior of Brazil, of course. The upper Amazon region, to be exact."
"The upper Amazon?" Da Silva stared at the other in unconcealed disappointment. "You have an assignment for me in the upper Amazon?"
The thick gray eyebrows lifted. "What's the trouble, Captain? You seem perturbed."
"Perturbed? Well..." Da Silva attempted a smile. "To tell you the truth, sir, I had assumed ... After all, a call from the Foreign Office ... naturally I assumed that if there were an assignment involved, it would be somewhere abroad."
"Paris in the spring, eh? Although it's a bit late in the year for that to be attractive." The chuckle in the deep voice was wiped out instantly. "I can imagine what you assumed, Captain. Unfortunately, the problem involved is a bit different."
The stern, lined face across from him refused clarification. "Well, Captain; you haven't answered my question. How familiar are you with the upper Amazon region?"
Da Silva shrugged fatalistically, wiping New York and Washington from his mind. An assignment is an assignment he said to himself; nobody made you become a policeman. He looked up.
"I've been there once or twice. But I'd certainly never qualify myself as an expert on the region."
"There are no experts on the region." The heavy voice was flat. "It's too big."
"But there must be plenty who know the area a lot better than I do." Da Silva took out a cigarette and lit it, his eyes fixed curiously on the man seated behind the wide desk. The Minister leaned over and pushed an ashtray closer. Da Silva dropped his match into it, his eyebrows raising at the gesture. "What's the story, sir?"
Instead of answering, the Minister leaned back in his chair and pulled open a drawer of his desk. He reached in and withdrew a small buckskin sack and placed it upon the desk, but he did not open it. He pushed it to one side and stared calculatingly across the wide expanse of mahogany at the swarthy face awaiting his answer.
"Tell me, Captain," he said softly. "You're acquainted with John Bailey, aren't you? The American explorer?"
"John Bailey? Quite well." Da Silva studied the end of his cigarette while his mind attempted to fit this question into a slot that might give direction to the interview. "Any time he passes through Rio we usually manage to spend at least one evening together." He hesitated. "As a matter of fact, the last time I was up that way--in the Amazon, that is--was to help him outfit for his last trip. I took my vacation and went up as far as Manaus with him."
The Minister nodded. "How long ago was that?"
"Last summer, six or seven months ago. Why?"
"Have you heard from him since?"
"No." Da Silva shook his head wonderingly at this line of questioning. "But there's nothing unusual about that. Why do you ask?"
The Minister disregarded the question. His fingers moved to the buckskin bag and unconsciously began to stroke it. Then, abruptly, he withdrew his fingers as if in distaste. He cleared his throat.
"Do you have any idea what Bailey was doing up there, Captain?"
Da Silva shrugged. Eventually, he imagined, the Minister would get to the point, if there was one. He crushed out his cigarette and contemplated the other calmly.
"All I can tell you is what he said," he replied. "He claimed he was looking for diamonds. It's not the first time anyone has had that idea. Ever since the first white man explored past the Rio Madeira there have been extravagant stories of diamonds and gold and lost cities and all sorts of things up there."
The Minister frowned. "That's all you can tell me?"
"That's all I know. Why?"
Again the heavyset, gray-haired man disregarded the question. Instead, he reached over and pulled the buckskin sack closer to him. He untied the leather cord at the mouth, tugged the soft bag open, and gently upended it. A small blackened ball about the size of an orange rolled bumpily out and came to rest against the corner of the penholder. The elderly man sighed deeply.
"Did you ever see one of these, Captain?"
Da Silva reached over and picked it up. The action of handling it loosened the rough matting that covered the ball: long black hair unwound, tumbling down, revealing a tiny mask of a face, the roughened skin dark and leathery in texture. Each minute feature had been preserved. The straight nose had a pinched look at the nostrils; little stitches had closed the eye sockets without distorting their even line. Only the full lips, sewn together with heavier cord and wider stitches, appeared unnatural, giving the tiny head the semblance of a sardonic grin. Da Silva frowned in distaste.
"Yes, I've seen them. It's a Jivaro tsantsa." He swung the tiny skull about, the black hair coiling about his wrist, and peered closely at the minute sewing in the back. "It's authentic, all right." He laid it down, then unconsciously wiped his fingers as if to clean them. His eyes came up to the Minister questioningly. "Did John Bailey send it to you?"
The elderly man behind the desk leaned forward, his deep voice even more resonant as he spoke.
"Take a good look at it, Captain. Study it closely. Does it remind you of anyone?" He paused, his deep-set eyes intent upon Da Silva. "You say you knew John Bailey quite well?"
"Knew?" Da Silva sat up with a shocked grunt. "John Bailey?" His eyes went back to the little head smiling faintly at him from the desk. He forced himself to pick up the shrunken head once more, studying it closely with narrowed eyes. He finished his close inspection and then held it out at arm's length. The coarse black hair rippled against his skin, feeling repulsive and slightly obscene.
"Yes," he said at last, his voice sounding odd even to his own ears. "It does look like him." He stared at the little face in his hands, almost musingly. "John Bailey... ! It does look like him. It's odd the way they are able to maintain resemblance." He turned the head in his hands. "They smoke these heads, you know. That would account for the darkened skin. But the hair--John Bailey's hair wasn't black. Nor this long." He realized as he spoke that he was merely finding words to fill in the deep shock he felt.
"The color of the hair is due to the herbs they use in shrinking; together with the heat, they darkened the hair." The deep voice was impersonal now, stating facts. "That has been checked in our laboratory. In their opinion the hair is of a male Caucasian, probably originally light reddish in color. As to the length..." He shrugged. "I doubt if Bailey cut his hair since he went into the jungle. And it seems a lot longer because of the size of the head. The Indians, as you know, don't wear their hair very long." He returned to his facts. "The laboratory also took comparative measurements and checked them against photographs of Bailey alive. Our only photo of him was his entry-visa picture, but at least there was nothing contrary to the idea. We believe the head is definitely his."
Da Silva shook his head sadly and set the head down with a grimace. The small ball balanced itself a moment and then rolled over, nesting itself in the black swarm of hair. One stitched eye socket seemed to peek from the mass of hair directly toward him. He moved it again, distastefully.
"I don't understand it, though."
The Minister stared at Da Silva curiously. "You don't understand what, Captain?"
Da Silva pulled his eyes away from the blackened ball on the desk. "The Jivaros aren't a Brazilian tribe. They're over on the eastern slope of the Andes, mostly in Ecuador and Peru. What was John Bailey doing over there? If he wanted to explore the Jivaro region, why start from Manaus? Guayaquil would be the logical place; it's so much closer."
The Minister nodded somberly. "We know. Even more puzzling is why the head should be sent to us."
"It was sent to you?"
"Indirectly." The Minister's eyes involuntarily went to the small ball. "It was mailed--locally--to the Commandant of the Manaus Military District. There was a note with it which read: 'Please forward to the Foreign Office.' Inside the buckskin sack was another note that simply read: 'Itamaratí: here's your Mr. Bailey. Try again."'
Da Silva stared at him. "Try what again, sir?"
"We haven't the faintest idea" The Minister leaned forward, clasping his hands tightly before him. His eyes drilled into Da Silva's. "We thought you might have some idea."
The Minister shrugged. "You knew him; we didn't even have that."
"Did he have any connection at all with your office, sir?"
"That note," Da Silva said thoughtfully. "What language was it written in?"
Da Silva thought a moment and then shook his head. "It doesn't make any sense to me, sir. Where do I come in?"
The heavyset Minister leaned back. His thick fingers formed a tent; he stared at the tall detective over it.
"Captain, we don't like mysteries. We had no connection with John Bailey, but it seems obvious that somebody thought we did. In today's world..." He coughed and seemingly changed the subject. "You come in because somebody has to go up there and try to trace John Bailey's movements, to find out what this is all about."
"But why me?" Da Silva stared at the Minister. "There must be many others who know the area a lot better."
"We'll furnish you with somebody who knows the area. You were selected for several reasons. One, this seems to be a case where imagination and the ability to think and act independently may be vital; you'll be far from any official help. And nobody knows better than I do that you don't always follow the book of rules and regulations. Two, I've been informed that you have worked with the personnel of the American Embassy before."
"The personnel of the American Embassy?"
"Yes. We told them about this, of course, since Mr. Bailey was a citizen of their country. They claim to be equally in the dark, I might mention, equally curious. They are assigning a Mr. Wilson to the case."
Despite the seriousness of the discussion, a broad grin lighted Da Silva's face. "Wilson! Well, I can't think of anyone I'd rather work with. We've had our share of adventures together."
"I know." The Minister smiled dryly. "I spoke with Mr. Wilson. I thought I knew your record, Captain, but Mr. Wilson seems to know things about you that do not appear in the official files."
A twinkle appeared in Da Silva's dark eyes. "And I was still selected?"
"Yes, you were still selected. Well, Captain, that's the story. Do you have any further questions?"
Da Silva's grin faded. He thought a moment. "Do you have any idea at all why anyone would send you Bailey's shrunken head?"
"None. But I have a hunch it may be important."
"A hunch? Do foreign ministers work on hunches?"
The Minister smiled. "That's usually all we have to work on. Most of our facts are untrustworthy. Anything else, Captain."
"Do you have any information at all on Bailey, sir?"
"We made up a file on him," the Minister said. "Nothing of importance, though. We have his entry visas, his applications for permission to explore in the area, a few magazine articles written about him." He shrugged. "Not very much, I'm afraid; but you can have it. Elena will give you the file."
"The girl in the outer office. The one that brought you in here." The gray eyebrows raised in simulated surprise. "Don't tell me you didn't notice her. Mr. Wilson must have been giving us misinformation about you."
Da Silva laughed. "Yes, sir. I noticed her."
The deep voice was dry. "I thought you would. She'll give you the file. Mr. Wilson may be able to tell you more, although if the American Embassy has any information, they are not giving it to us. I believe Mr. Wilson will also handle your transportation. You leave for Belém in the morning."
"Yes, sir. I'll clear up my other work this afternoon."
The gray-haired Minister arose and came around the desk. He held out a large hand. Da Silva rose, taking the outstretched hand firmly. The Minister held the other's hand a moment longer than necessary.
"Goodbye, Captain. We've had our differences in the past, but let's forget that for now. Good luck."
"Thank you, sir. We'll do our best. Goodbye."
The door of the office closed slowly behind the swarthy detective. His last memory was of the heavyset man leaning over the desk, gently scooping up the shrunken head and slipping it back into the buckskin sack. We'll do our best, Da Silva said to himself--but on what?
He swung about as the door closed to find the tall, slim girl watching him alertly. The disdain had completely disappeared from her eyes. She held out a thin folder.
"This is for you, I believe, Captain."
"Thank you." Da Silva took the folder and stared at the girl speculatively. "Elena. That's a very beautiful name. Are you busy for lunch today, Elena?"
There was a smile in her eyes. "Yes, I am, Captain. But I can have lunch with you tomorrow."
"Fine!" Then his face fell. "But, unfortunately, I can't. Ah, well ... some other time, I imagine." He smiled at her ruefully. "Duty--that nasty word--calls. Goodbye, Elena."
"Au revoir, Captain Da Silva."
He walked down the wide corridor, hefting the thin folder in his hands. What a lovely girl! What a figure! What a vast improvement over that Iracema and her gloating when ever he appeared for a lecture. When this is over, he thought, I'll come back and wine and dine this girl, and then I'll take her out to one of our lonely beaches some night and lay my head in her lap and discover what mystery lies beyond those lovely eyes of hers.…
Most Helpful Customer Reviews