Fear is The key
If you could call a ten by six wooden box mounted on a four-wheel trailer an office, then I was sitting in my office. I’d been sitting there for four hours, the ear-phones were beginning to hurt and the darkness was coming in from the swamps and the sea. But if I had to sit there all night, then I was going to do just that: those ear-phones were the most important thing in the world. They were the only remaining contact between me and all the world held for me.
Peter should have been within radio range three hours ago. It was a long haul north from Barranquilla, but we’d made that haul a score of times before. Our three DCs were old but as mechanically perfect as
unceasing care and meticulous attention could make them. Pete was a fine pilot, Barry a crack navigator, the West Caribbean forecast had been good and it was far too early in the season for hurricanes.
There was no conceivable reason why they shouldn’t have been on the air hours ago. As it was, they must have already passed the point of nearest approach and be drawing away to the north, towards Tampa, their destination. Could they have disobeyed my instructions to make the long dog-leg by the Yucatan Strait and flown the direct route over Cuba instead? All sorts of unpleasant things could happen to planes flying over war-torn Cuba those days. It seemed unlikely, and when I thought of the cargo they were carrying it seemed impossible. Where any element of risk was concerned, Pete was even more cautious and far-seeing than myself.
Over in the corner of my office on which
a radio was playing softly. It was tuned in to some English-speaking station and for the second time that evening some hill-billy guitar-player was singing softly of the death of mother or wife or sweetheart, I wasn’t sure which. ” My red rose has turned to white ” it was called. Red for life and white for death. Red and white — the colours of the three planes of our Trans-Carib Air Charter service. I was glad when the song stopped.
There was nothing much else in the office. A desk, two chairs, a filing cabinet and the big R.C.A. receiver-transmitter powered by a heavy T.R.S. cable that ran through the hole in the door and snaked across the grass and mud and one corner of the tarmac to the main terminal buildings. And there was a mirror. Elizabeth had put that up the only time she’d ever been here and I’d never got around to taking it down.
I looked in the mirror and that Was a
mistake. Black hair, black brows, dark blue eyes and a white strained haggard face to remind me how desperately worried I was. As if I needed reminding. I looked away and stared out of the window.
That was hardly any better. The only advantage was that I could no longer see myself. I certainly couldn’t see anything else. Even at the best of times there was little enough to see through that window, just the ten empty desolate miles of flat swampland stretching from the Stanley Field airport to Belize, but now that the Honduras rainy season had begun, only that morning, the tiny tidal waves of water rolling endlessly down the single sheet of glass and the torn and lowering and ragged hurrying clouds driving their slanting rain into the parched and steaming earth turned the world beyond the window into a grey and misty nothingness.
I tapped out our call sign. The same
result as the last five hundred times I’d tapped it. Silence. I altered the waveband to check that reception was still O.K., heard a swift succession of voices, static, singing, music, and homed back on our own frequency again.
The most important flight the Trans-Carib Air Charter Co. had ever made and I had to be stuck here in our tiny sub-office waiting endlessly for the spare carburettor that never came. And until I got it that red and white DC parked not fifty yards away on the apron was about as useful to me right then as a pair of sun-glasses.
They’d have got off from Barranquilla, I was certain of that. I’d had the first news three days ago, the day I’d arrived here, and the coded cable had made no mention of any possible trouble. Everything highly secret, only three permanent civil servants knew anything about it, Lloyd’s willing to carry the risk even although at one of the
highest premiums ever. Even the news, received in a radio report, of an attempted coup d’etat yesterday by pro-dictatorship elements to try to prevent the election of the Liberal Lleras hadn’t concerned me too much, for although all military planes and internal services had been grounded, foreign airlines had been excluded: with the state of Colombia’s economy they couldn’t afford to offend even the poorest foreigners, and we just about qualified for that title.
But I’d taken no chances. I’d cabled Pete to take Elizabeth and John with him. If the wrong elements did get in on May 4th — that was to-morrow — and found out what we’d done, the Trans-Carib Air Charter Co. would be for the high jump. But fast. Besides, on the fabulous fee that was being offered for this one freight haul to Tampa…
The phones crackled in my ears. Static, weak, but bang on frequency. As if
someone was trying to tune in. I fumbled for the volume switch, turned it to maximum, adjusted the band-switch a hair-line on either side and listened as I’d never listened before. But nothing. No voices, no morse call sign, just nothing. I eased off one of the earphones and reached for a packet of cigarettes.
The radio was still on. For the third time that evening, and less than fifteen minutes since I’d heard it last, someone was again singing “My red rose has turned to white.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I tore off the phones, crossed to the radio, switched it off with a jerk that almost broke the knob and reached for the bottle under my desk. I poured myself a stiff one, then replaced the head-phones.
“CQR calling CQS. CQR calling CQS. Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Over.”
The whisky splashed across the desk, the glass fell and broke with a tinkling crash on the wooden floor as I grabbed for the transmitter switch and mouthpiece.
“CQS here, CQS here!” I shouted. “Pete, is that you, Pete? Over.”
“Me. On course, on time. Sorry for the delay.” The voice was faint and faraway, but even the flat metallic tone of the speaker couldn’t rob it of its tightness, its anger.
“I’ve been sitting here for hours.” My own anger sounded through my relief, and I was no sooner conscious of it than ashamed of it. “What’s gone wrong, Pete?”
“This has gone wrong. Some joker knew what we had aboard. Or maybe he just didn’t like us. He put a squib behind the radio. The detonator went off, the primer went off, but the charge — gelignite or T.N.T. or whatever — failed to explode.
Almost wrecked the radio — luckily Barry was carrying a full box of spares. He’s only just managed to fix it.”
My face was wet and my hands were shaking. So, when I spoke again, was my voice.
“You mean someone planted a bomb? Someone tried to blow the crate apart?”
“Anyone — anyone hurt?” I dreaded the answer.
“Relax, brother. Only the radio.”
“Thank God for that. Let’s hope that’s the end of it.”
“Not to worry. Besides, we have a watchdog now. A U.S. Army Air Force plane has been with us for the past thirty minutes. Barranquilla must have radioed
for an escort to see us in.” Peter laughed dryly. “After all, the Americans have a fair interest in this cargo we have aboard.”
“What kind of plane?” I was puzzled, it took a pretty good flier to move two or three hundred miles out into the Gulf of Mexico and pick up an incoming plane without any radio directional bearing. “Were you warned of this?'”
“No. But not to worry — he’s genuine, all right. We’ve just been talking to him. Knows all about us and our cargo. It’s an old Mustang, fitted with long-range tanks — a jet fighter couldn’t stay up all this time.”
“I see.” That was me, worrying about nothing, as usual.
“What’s your course?”
He said something which I couldn’t catch. Reception was deteriorating, static increasing.
“Barry’s just working it out. He’s been too busy repairing the radio to navigate.” A pause. “He says two minutes.”
“Let me talk to Elizabeth.”
Another pause, then the voice that was more to me than all the world. “Hallo, darling. Sorry we’ve given you such a fright.” That was Elizabeth. Sorry she’d given me a fright: never a word of herself.
“Are you all right? I mean, are you sure you’re—–“
“Of course.” Her voice, too, was faint and faraway, but the gaiety and the courage and the laughter would have come through to me had she been ten thousand miles away. “And we’re almost there. I can see the lights of land ahead.” A moment’s silence, then very softly, the faintest whisper of sound. “I love you, darling.”
“Always, always, always.”
I leaned back happily in my chair, relaxed and at ease at last, then jerked forward, on my feet, half-crouched over the transmitter as there came a sudden exclamation from Elizabeth and then the harsh, urgent shout from Pete.
“He’s diving on us! The bastard’s diving on us and he’s opened fire. All his guns! He’s coming straight—–“
The voice choked off in a bubbling,
choking moan, a moan pierced and shattered by a high-pitched feminine cry of agony and in the same instant of time there came to me the staccato thunderous crash of exploding cannon-shells that jarred the ear-phones on my head. Two seconds it lasted, if that. Then there was no more sound of gunfire, no more moaning, no more crying. Nothing.
Two seconds. Only two seconds. Two seconds to take from me all this life held dear for me, two seconds to leave me alone in an empty and desolate and meaningless world.
My red rose had turned to white.I don’t quite know what I had expected the man behind the raised polished mahogany desk to look like.Subconsciously, I suppose, I’d looked for him to match up with those misconceptions formed by reading and film-going — in the far-off days when I had had time for such things — that had been as extensive as they had been hopelessly unselective. The only permissible variation in the appearances of county court judges in the south-eastern United States, I had come to believe, was in weight — some were dried-up, lean and stringy, others triple-jowled and built to match — but beyond that any departure from the norm was unthinkable. The judge was invariably an elderly man: his uniform was a crumpled white suit, off-white shirt, bootlace necktie and, on the back of his head, a panama with coloured band: the face was usually red, the nose purplish, the drooping tips of the silver-white Mark Twain moustache stained with bourbon or mint juleps or whatever it was they drank in those parts; the expression was usually aloof, the bearing aristocratic, the moral principles
high and the intelligence only moderate.
Judge Mollison was a big disappointment. He didn’t match up with any of the specifications except perhaps the moral principles, and those weren’t visible. He was young, clean-shaven, impeccably dressed in a well-cut light grey tropical worsted suit and ultra-conservative tie and, as for the mint-juleps, I doubt if he’d ever as much as looked at a bar except to wonder how he might close it. He looked benign, and wasn’t: he looked intelligent, and was. He was highly intelligent, and sharp as a needle. And he’d pinned me now with this sharp needle of his intelligence and was watching me wriggle with a disinterested expression that I didn’t much care for.
“Come, come,” he murmured gently. “We are waiting for an answer, Mr. — ah — Chrysler.” He didn’t actually say that he didn’t believe that my name was Chrysler,
but if any of the spectators on the benches missed his meaning they should have stayed at home. Certainly the bunch of round-eyed schoolgirls, courageously collecting credit marks for their civics course by venturing into this atmosphere of sin and vice and iniquity, didn’t miss it: neither did the sad-eyed dark-blonde girl sitting quietly on the front bench and even the big black ape-like character sitting three benches behind her seemed to get it. At least the broken nose beneath the negligible clearance between eyebrows and hairline seemed to twitch. Maybe it was just the flies. The court-room was full of them. I thought sourly that if appearances were in any way a reflection of character he ought to be in the box while I was below watching him. I turned back to the judge.
“That’s the third time you’ve had trouble in remembering my name, Judge,” I said reproachfully. “By and by some of the more intelligent citizens listening here are going
to catch on. You want to be more careful, my friend.”
“I am not your friend.” Judge Mollison’s voice was precise and legal and he sounded as if he meant it. “And this is not a trial. There are no jurors to influence. This is only a hearing, Mr. — ah — Chrysler.”
“Chrysler. Not ah-Chrysler. But you’re going to make damned certain that there will be a trial, won’t you, Judge?”
“You would be advised to mind both your language and your manners,” the judge said sharply. “Don’t forget I have the power to remand you in gaol — indefinitely. Once again, your passport. Where is it?”
“I don’t know. Lost, I suppose.”
“If I knew that it wouldn’t be lost.”
“We are aware of that,” the judge said dryly. “But if we could localise the area we could notify the appropriate police stations where it might have been handed in. When did you first notice you no longer had your passport and where were you at the time?”
“Three days ago — and you know as well as I do where I was at the time. Sitting in the dining-room of the La Contessa Motel, eating my dinner and minding my own business when Wild Bill Hickok here and his posse jumped me.” I gestured at the diminutive alpaca-coated sheriff sitting in a cane-bottomed chair in front of the judge’s bench and thought that there could be no height barriers for the law enforcement officers of Marble Springs: the sheriff and his elevator shoes together couldn’t have topped five feet four. Like the judge, the sheriff was a big disappointment to me. While I had hardly expected a Wild West lawman complete with Frontier Colt I had looked for something like either badge
or gun. But no badge, no gun. None that I could see. The only gun in sight in the court-house was a short-barrelled Colt revolver stuck in the holster of the police officer who stood behind and a couple of feet to the right of me.
“They didn’t jump you,” Judge Mollison was saying patiently. “They were looking for a prisoner who had escaped from the nearby camp of one of our state convict road forces. Marble Springs is a small town and strangers easily identifiable. You are a stranger. It was natural—–“
“Natural!” I interruped. “Look, Judge, I’ve been talking to the gaoler. He says the convict escaped at six o’clock in the afternoon. The Lone Ranger here picks me up at eight. Was I supposed to have escaped, sawed off my irons, had a bath, shampoo, manicure and shave, had a tailor measure and fit a suit for me, bought underclothes, shirt and shoes—–“
“Such things have happened before,” the judge interrupted. “A desperate man, with a gun or club——“
” — and grown my hair three inches longer all in the space of two hours?” I finished.
“It was dark in there, Judge—–” the sheriff began, but
Moilison waved him to silence.
“You objected to being questioned and searched. Why?”
“As I said I was minding my own business. I was in a respectable restaurant, giving offence to no one. And where I come from a man doesn’t require a state permit to enable him to breathe and walk around.”
“He doesn’t here either,” the judge said patiently. “All they wanted was a driver’s
licence, insurance card, social-security card, old letters, any means of identification. You could have complied with their request.”
“I was willing to.”
“Then why this?” The judge nodded down at the sheriff. I followed his glance. Even when I’d first seen him in the La Contessa the sheriff had struck me as being something less than good-looking and I had to admit that the large plasters on his forehead and across the chin and the comer of the mouth did nothing to improve him.
“What else do you expect?” I shrugged. “When big boys start playing games little boys should stay home with Mother.” The sheriff was half-way out of his seat, eyes narrowed and ivory-knuckled fists gripping the cane arms of his chair, but the judge waved him back impatiently. “The two gorillas he had with him started roughing
me up. It was self-defence.”
“If they assaulted you,” the judge asked acidly, “how do you account for the fact that one of the officers is still in hospital with damaged knee ligaments and the other has a fractured cheekbone, while you are still unmarked?”
“Out of training, Judge. The state of Florida should spend more money on teaching its law officers to look after themselves. Maybe if they ate fewer hamburgers and drank less beer—–“
“Be silent!” There was a brief interval while the judge seemed to be regaining control of himself, and I looked round the court again. The schoolgirls were still goggle-eyed, this beat anything they’d ever had in their civics classes before: the dark-blonde in the front seat was looking at me with a curious half-puzzled expression on her face, as if she were trying to work out
something: behind her, his gaze lost in infinity, the man with the broken nose chewed on the stump of a dead cigar with machine-like regularity: the court reporter seemed asleep: the attendant at the door surveyed the scene with an Olympian detachment: beyond him, through the open door, I could see the harsh glare of the late afternoon sun on the dusty white street and beyond that again, glimpsed through a straggling grove of palmettos, the twinkling ripple of sunlight reflecting off the green water of the Gulf of Mexico…. The judge seemed to have recovered his composure.
“We have established,” he said heavily, “that you are truculent, intransigent, insolent and a man of violence. You also carry a gun — a small-bore Liliiput, I believe it is called. I could already commit you for contempt of court, for assaulting and obstructing constables of the law in the course of the performance of their duties
and for being in illegal possession of a lethal weapon. But I won’t.” He paused for a moment, then went on: “We will have much more serious charges to prefer against you.”
The court reporter opened one eye for a moment, thought better of it and appeared to go to sleep again. The man with the broken nose removed his cigar, examined it, replaced it and resumed his methodical champing. I said nothing.
“Where were you before you came here?” the judge asked abruptly.
“I didn’t mean that, but — well, how did you arrive here from St. Catherine?”
“Describe it — and the driver.”
“Green saloon — sedan, you’d call it.
Middle-aged businessman and his wife. He was grey, she was blonde.”
“That’s all you can remember?” Mollison asked politely.
“I suppose you realise that description would fit a million couples and their cars?”
“You know how it is,” I shrugged. “When you’re not expecting to be questioned on what you’ve seen you don’t bother—–“
“Quite, quite.” He could be very acid, this judge. “Out of state car, of course?”
“Yes. But not of course.”
“Newly arrived in our country and already you know how to identify licence plates of——“
“He said he came from Philadelphia. I
believe that’s out of state.”
The court reporter cleared his throat. The judge quelled him with a cold stare, then turned back to me.
“And you came to St. Catherine from—–?”
“Same car, of course?”
The judge looked at the clerk of the court, who shook his head slightly, then turned back to me. His expression was less than friendly.
“You’re not only a fluent and barefaced liar, Chrysler ” — he’d dropped the “Mister” so I assumed the time for courtesies was past — ” but a careless one. There’s no bus service from Miami to St. Catherine. You
stayed the previous night in Miami?”
“In a hotel,” he went on. “But, of course, you will have forgotten the name of that hotel?”
“Well, as a matter of fact—–“
“Spare us.” The judge held up his hand.. “Your effrontery passes all limits and this court will no longer be trifled with. We have heard enough. Cars, buses, St. Catherine, hotels, Miami — lies, all lies. You’ve never been in Miami in your life. Why do you think we kept you on remand for three days?”
“You tell me,” I encouraged him.
“I shall. To make extensive inquiries. We’ve checked with the immigration authorities and every airline flying into Miami. Your name wasn’t on any passenger
or aliens list, and no one answering to your description was seen that day. You would not be easily overlooked.”
I knew what he meant, all right. I had the reddest hair and the blackest eyebrows I’d ever seen on anyone and the combination was rather startling. I’d got used to it myself, but I had to admit it took a bit of getting used to. And when you added to that a permanent limp and a scar that ran from the comer of my right brow to the lobe of my right ear — well, when it came to identification, I was the answer to the policeman’s prayer.
“As far as we can discover,” the judge went on coldly, “you’ve spoken the truth once. Only once.” He broke off to look at the youth who had just opened the door leading to some chambers in the rear, and lifted his eyebrows in fractional interrogation. No impatience, no irritation: all very calm: Judge Mollison was no
“This just came for you, sir,” the boy said nervously. He showed an envelope. “Radio message. I thought—–“
“Bring it here.” The judge glanced at the envelope, nodded at no one in particular, then turned back to me.
“As I say, you told the truth just once. You said you had come here from Havana. You did indeed. You left this behind you there. In the police station where you were being held for interrogation and trial.” He reached into a drawer and held up a small book, blue and gold and white. “Recognise it?”
“A British passport,” I said calmly. “I haven’t got telescopic eyes but I assume that it must be mine otherwise you wouldn’t be making such a song and dance about it. If you had it all the time, then
“We were merely trying to discover the degree of your mendacity, which is pretty well complete, and your trustworthiness, which does not appear to exist.” He looked at me curiously. “Surely you must know what this means: if we have the passport, we have much else besides. You appear unmoved. You’re a very cool customer, Chrysler, or very dangerous: or can it be that you are just very stupid?”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked. “Faint?”
“Our police and immigration authorities happen, for the moment at least, to be on very good terms with their Cuban colleagues.” He might never have heard my interjection. “Our cables to Havana have produced much more than this passport: ‘they have produced much interesting information.