Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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El Diablo Negro had a strange and intricate way
of saving his diamond hoard from the revolutionists...
THE bar-room of the New Grand International Hotel—accommodations of the highest class and rates most reasonable—was long and dim in a shadowed low-beamed ceiling. Sunlight slid through the iron gratings on the high, narrow windows and cut bright, waffle-like patterns on the stained floor. Big bluebottle flies sailed around and around over the small wire-legged tables, making a lazy, droning buzz.
Señor Mendigo, the owner and proprietor of the hotel, was sitting in the place of honor behind his own bar. He was a skinny little man with three parallel streaks of greasy black hair combed carefully over the top of his bald head. He was so cross-eyed that both pupils focused on a point about an inch in front of his long, inquisitive nose. Mendigo was carefully polishing his finger nails, using the towel he wiped the glasses with as a buffer, when Carson stopped in the side door that led to the hotel's inner patio.
"Ah!" he said cordially, seeing Carson. "Señor!"
Carson walked quietly across to the bar. He was a little over medium height, but so thick-set that he seemed shorter. His shoulders were wide, powerfully sloping, his arms long and thickly muscled. He had deep-set gray eyes that were always narrowed warily. His face was very darkly tanned.
"The clothes!" Mendigo exclaimed triumphantly. "They fit so beautiful, hey?"
Carson held up one arm. The sleeve of the white duck coat came down only to halfway between his elbow and wrist. He moved his broad shoulders a little, and a seam groaned in straining protest.
"Very beautiful," he agreed. "Who'd they belong to—a midget?"
Mendigo tapped his own meager chest proudly. "No. Me! I got two suits of clothes. Two! See?" He held up two fingers to illustrate his affluence.
"Marvelous!" Carson said. "How about my clothes?"
Mendigo shook his head regretfully. "Very bad. I have to throw them away. All muddy."
Carson stared at him. "You mean you threw my clothes away just because they were muddy?"
Mendigo nodded calmly. "Oh, yes."
"Did you ever think of washing them out?"
"She's bad, that washing," Mendigo said. "She's spoil clothes to do that."
"So it's better to throw them away?"
Carson sighed wearily. "Well, live and learn." He took a stubby pipe out of his pocket, began to fill it carefully out of an oilcloth tobacco pouch.
"You don't got more clothes?" Mendigo inquired, watching him.
Carson shook his head. "Nope."
"You don't got any baggage at all?"
Carson lit a match and sucked flame into the scarred pipe bowl. "Nope. Want me to pay in advance?"
"No, no!" Mendigo said, looking shocked at the very thought. "No, no! Of a certainty!" He leaned close and lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. "Ask for payment in advance when I know the Señor could buy the whole hotel with one of the diamonds? Such a foolishness!"
Carson blew out the match with a sudden puff of breath. "Diamonds?" he repeated blankly.
MENDIGO smirked at him and then winked very mysteriously, holding one finger over his lips. He went down to the end of the bar and looked carefully around the dimness of the room. The only other person in sight was an Indian woman sitting on the floor near the front door. In the shadows she was a squat bundle of gaudily colored cotton cloth. There were a few dusty wilted bunches of jungle flowers on the floor beside her. Her multiple skirts had slipped aside a little, showing one bare, flat foot and the thickly muscled brown calf of her leg. A fold of her shawl was thrown over her face.
"Hola!" Mendigo yelled at her fiercely, leaning far out over the bar and pointing a skinny finger. "Out! Go! Begone from this place!"
"Leave her alone," Carson said. "She's all right."
Mendigo moved his shoulders up to his ears and let them slide back to normal again. "I was only thinking of the Señor's safety. She is the nuisance, anyway. She just sits there, and everybody that comes in has to walk around her. No one in their senses would want to buy any of those old weeds she thinks are flowers. She has not sold one since she has been here, and she has no money."
"Maybe she's hungry," Carson said.
Mendigo moved his shoulders again. "One hopes so. One hopes she will get hungry enough to go back where she came from. Indios, they are no good."
Carson felt in his pockets, finally dug up one battered silver coin. It was all he had. He flipped it glinting in the air, caught it in his palm. He walked over to the woman, knelt down and selected one of the freshest flowers. Dropping the battered coin in the woman's lap, he put the flower in the buttonhole in the lapel of the coat.
One of the woman's brown hands moved up to the shawl that covered her face, pulled it aside. She looked silently up at Carson. Her face was square, firm-set, smoothly flat. Her eyes were a dull, soft black, widely expressionless. She didn't say anything, made no move at all, except after a moment to draw the shawl across her face again.
"See?" Mendigo said. "No gratitude. Not even the thanks."
Carson walked back to the bar. "She probably can't speak Spanish or English. You were saying something about diamonds?"
"Sssh!" Mendigo hissed, nodding warningly at the woman. "She pretends she cannot understand, but one never knows about these Indios. They are of the most treacherous."
"Diamonds," Carson repeated patiently.
"Diamonds!" said Mendigo. "Ah, the beautiful diamonds! Glittering like the white fire! The Señor carries them in a money belt around his waist, no?"
"No," said Carson flatly.
Mendigo nodded, grinning slyly. "Fear not, Señor! Mendigo can be trusted! Not a word have I breathed since I have known of the Señor's perilous mission!"
"Mission?" Carson repeated. "Perilous?"
"Yes!" Mendigo hissed dramatically. "El Diablo Negro has many enemies—fierce and murderous ones! But you are safe here, Señor!"
"I'm beginning to doubt it," Carson said frankly. "Now would you mind explaining just what you are talking about?"
"Mendigo knows all! You see, Señor, sitting here in his New Grand International Hotel, many rumors come to the ears of Mendigo, who listens to all with the great care and never speaks."
"I noticed how little you talk," Carson said. "You're practically a sphinx, aren't you?"
"Yes!" Mendigo said. "Yes! Never a word does Mendigo say! Sitting here silent, Mendigo heard of the terrible revolution in Panvuelo, whose border is only the few kilometers away. Mendigo heard that the president of Panvuelo, Pedro Guiterrez, he who is known as El Diablo Negro—was overthrown and forced to flee for his very life with his enemies at his heels, anxious to stand him up against the wall. But El Diablo Negro was always the clever one! He escaped his enemies! And El Diablo Negro was always the far-sighted one, too. Many are the rumors Mendigo has heard of the diamonds El Diablo Negro was hoarding against the day when his ungrateful subjects would rise in wrath against his benevolent rule!"
"I've heard a few rumors about Pedro Guiterrez and his benevolent rule, too," Carson said. "But not the same ones you have. I heard that he got himself elected president as the defender of the poor people and then promptly proceeded to load them with taxes until their backs broke. I've heard that he stayed in power by stuffing the ballot boxes regularly and shooting everyone he could find with nerve enough to vote against him. He kept a couple of firing squads busy all the time. The blank bandana handkerchiefs that they used to blindfold their victims were his trade-mark. He was a black-hearted murdering rat, and it's too bad those poor devils he misruled for so long didn't catch him and stand him against a wall and give him a dose of his own medicine."
Mendigo stared wide-eyed. "You— you say that about him?" Then he chuckled, nodding. "Ah, but I see! You are the clever one, Señor! Who would suspect you of being his employee when you speak that way?"
"His employee!" Carson exclaimed blankly. "Me?"
"You," said Mendigo. "Ah, I knew it from the very first, Señor! You see, the rumors had come to the silent Mendigo. The rumors said that El Diablo Negro did not wish to carry his diamonds with him when he fled, because, you comprehend, if he was caught, he could use them to buy his way free again. So the clever El Diablo Negro gave them to a messenger he could trust to get them out of the country for him. The little rumors whispered to Mendigo that the messenger was an Americano. And then when Mendigo hears of a whole company of the rebel army of Panvuelo chasing an Americano to the very border of this country—then Mendigo adds the two and the two!"
"I see," Carson said quietly. "I wondered why those birds were chasing me. They didn't give me a chance to ask. They started shooting as soon as they laid eyes on me and kept it up every time they caught a glimpse from then on."
"Surely," said Mendigo. "El Diablo Negro's diamonds are worth many hundreds of thousands of pesos. Who would not shoot for the chance to have them?"
"I wouldn't," Carson said. "I never saw them, and I don't want to. I'm a mining engineer, after a fashion, and I'm trying to make a living digging things out of the ground."
Mendigo winked knowingly. "The Señor is very wise. Trust no one with your secret, Señor!"
CARSON stared at him for a long moment, scowling, and then he turned on his heel and walked back across the barroom to the door through which he had entered. He went out into the whitely bright sun glare of the patio. A red and green cockatoo in a wicker cage screeched at him insolently. Carson went up stone steps to the balcony that circled the inside of the patio, walked around it to the door of his room. It was a small, white-walled cubbyhole furnished with one rickety chair, a narrow bed with a lumpy mattress and a ragged mosquito-net stretched on a rack over it.
Carson leaned over the bed, fumbled around under the covers at the foot.
He brought out his hand holding a .45 Colt revolver. It was a gun that had seen much service. The bluing was worn off the cylinder and short barrel in thin streaks where holsters had rubbed it. The checkered walnut grips were stained with sweat, chipped and battered from numerous blows.
Carson flipped out the cylinder with a quick, casual twist of his wrist, ejected the cartridges in it on the bed. He reached under the covers again, found an unopened box of cartridges.
He smiled wryly to himself, weighing the gun in one hand, the cartridges in the other. They were his total available resources at the moment.
He opened the box of cartridges, loaded the big Colt, slid it into the waistband of Mendigo's' trousers. Mendigo's coat fitted him so badly that the bulge it made was unnoticeable when he stood up. He dumped the rest of the cartridges into his pocket, walked over to the window and tossed the empty box outside.
The jungle stretched away from the back of the hotel in one thick, unbroken green mat as far as the eye could see. There was nothing else—just that hungry livid green. Carson watched it, puffing thoughtfully at his pipe.
Two weeks ago he had been prospecting in the Panvuelo back country. He had owned plenty of food and equipment, an expensive outfit. And then, without a word of warning, the detachment of rebel soldiers had descended upon him, stolen or destroyed his outfit, hunted him through the jungle like a wild beast. AH because of some wild rumor that he was carrying El Diablo Negro's hoarded diamonds.
Carson wasn't particularly resentful about it, or even very amazed. He had been prospecting through Central America for ten years. He had learned long since that anything can happen there, and quite frequently does. He took what came and made the best of it. He figured now, and quite rightly, that he was lucky to have gotten out of Panvuelo with his life.
He stepped to the other side of the window, leaned against the wall. From here he could see the rest of the town of El Hilo. A scattered litter of flat adobe buildings, silent and dusty and dead against the living green of the jungle, with the heat waves rising in slow wriggling shimmers. Further on there was the white curving sand of the beach, incredibly glittering and bright against the slow heaving green of the ocean.
There was no reason for El Hilo. It served no purpose at all. It sat there cooking in its own heat, visited once in a while by fruit steamers plying up and down the coast, sleeping with the jungle waiting around it, ageless and untiring.
The cockatoo in the patio screeched suddenly on the obscenely jangling note it reserved for those who disturbed its privacy. Carson turned away from the window, walked quietly out on the balcony. He stood looking down into the contrasting glare and shadow.
FOR a moment he couldn't see anything, and then he noticed the white blur of her dress moving a little. She was flattened against the wall under the overhang of the balcony on the opposite side of the patio, half hidden by the thick, intertwining vines. She moved again, very cautiously and silently, as Carson watched her, sliding carefully along the wall. Her profile was a pale, neat etching against the dark of the adobe, and her slender body was rigidly tense. She was watching the blue-painted door at the back end of the patio, evidently the one through which she had entered.
The door was closed now, but Carson heard the latch click as he turned his head to look at it. The cockatoo had stopped screeching and was watching with beady-eyed interest, tilting its green head as it looked first at the door and then at the girl.
She had stopped moving when the latch clicked, and for a second there was no motion or sound anywhere. Then the hinges on the blue door creaked, and it moved a little inward.
After a second Carson could make out the face in the shadow behind it. A thick lumpish smear of flesh with eyes that were black narrowed slits under the down-turned brim of a straw sombrero. The face moved a little from side to side as its owner stared around the patio. The slitted eyes searched carefully through the shadows, found the girl. A hand with long rope-like fingers slid around the edge of the blue door, pulled it further open.
Carson deliberately scraped his foot on the floor of the balcony. The girl whirled against the wall, staring up at him. The lumpish face behind the blue door turned to stare, too, slowly. The slitted eyes studied Carson carefully, dispassionately, and then very slowly the blue door closed again and hid the face.
Carson scratched a match on the wall, applied it to his pipe. He already regretted that he had interfered. He had never seen either the girl or the man before. The whole affair was none of his business. He had troubles enough of his own at present without going out of his way to assume some one else's. He pretended now that he hadn't seen the girl. He walked down the stairs, started straight across the patio toward the barroom without looking in her direction. She waited until he was almost to the door and then said softly: "Señor."
Carson turned around slowly. "Yes?"
She walked with a peculiarly effortless grace. As she came closer to him Carson saw that she was even smaller than he had thought, but not so young. Her skin was clear, softly olive, and her features were thin, aquiline, faintly cruel. Her eyes were wide, slanting just a little, a deep-blue-green. She was beautiful in a calculating, cat-like way.
"Thank you." She spoke English with a slight accent that was not Spanish.
Carson shrugged. "For what?"
She made no effort to explain, watching him thoughtfully. "You are Señor Carson?" she asked at last.
Carson nodded casually. "Yes."
"I am the Countess di Redozi."
"Glad to meet you," Carson said.
She smiled a little, meaningly. "You don't know me?"
"No," said Carson.
She kept on smiling, and then she moved her slim shoulders in a casual little shrug. "Then perhaps you would refuse to do a favor for this person you do not know?"
"Perhaps I would," Carson said. "And then again, perhaps I wouldn't. It depends on what it is."
"Will you walk with me to the place I am staying?"
"Why?" Carson asked.
"Because of the man who waits outside for me."
"The same one who just looked in through the door?" Carson inquired.
She nodded easily. "That one. It would be best for both of us—and for him—if you went along with me, I think."
"I don't know why it should be," Carson said. "But I was going to take a walk anyway. Do you want to go out the front or the back?"
"The back, if you please. It is closer."
THEY went across to the blue door, and Carson kicked it back with a quick trust of his foot. There was nothing in sight except the blank green wall of the jungle and a faint path that wiggled darkly off at an angle away from the hotel.
"That way," she said, pointing along the path.
She started off at her easy, graceful walk. Carson stood in the arched doorway for a second, listening, looking around in the close knit vegetation, and then followed her. The path made a quick turn, and then the jungle closed in silently all around them and there was no sign of any other living thing than themselves.
"Have you seen him yet?" she asked softly.
"No," Carson said.
"You were to meet him here?"
"No," Carson said stolidly.
"He couldn't tell me all his plans," she said. "He was wounded, and I had to leave him with friends while I came to meet you."
"You'd better not say any more," Carson told her. "I think you're making a mistake."
"No. But I will not say any more." The narrow path turned again, slanted off to the left. There was a clearing ahead now, like a flat scar cut in the jungle and half healed over again. The creeping green vines had begun to crawl across the bare ground in a thick mat, to feel their groping way up the crumbling adobe walls of the house whose empty windows stared out at them—lifeless, dusty, deserted.
She went straight across the clearing, stopped in front of the moldy, iron-studded door. "This is where I am staying."
"All right," said Carson. "Then I'll be saying good-by."
He turned away and started back the way he had come on the narrow path.
"Señor Carson," she said softly.
Carson stopped and turned around. "What—"
She moved the small automatic she was holding in her right hand, and the sun caught the nickel plating on the stubby barrel and made a bright, jumping glitter.
"I will take the diamonds now. He wants me to bring them to him. He said that you could keep any one that you chose for your pay. Give me the rest."
"I told you you were making a mistake," Carson said. "I don't have any diamonds that belong to El Diablo Negro. I never saw the man in my life, and I hope I never do. I don't know how this rumor that I'm carrying his diamonds for him got started, but it's caused me plenty of trouble, and I'm getting tired of it."
"Give me the diamonds, please."
Carson shrugged wearily. "I tell you I haven't got any diamonds."
She smiled, and there was thin, calculating cruelty in her blue green eyes. "Señor, it is quite useless to lie. I know you have his diamonds. Pedro Guiterrez told me that he gave them to you. He told me that himself, and he sent me to get them from you. No one lives in this house, Señor. Neither I nor anyone else. There is no one close enough to hear a shot. Mendigo told me you were carrying the diamonds in a money belt. It would be best for you to give them to me—now."
She raised the automatic casually, and the safety lever made a quiet little click that had a deadly note of finality about it.
"Now," she repeated, without raising her voice.
Carson's lips tightened thinly. He was too far away to reach her before she could shoot, and yet close enough so that she couldn't miss.
"Listen to me," he said quickly, and then he saw the moldy iron-studded door in back of her move a little.
There was no noise. No click of the latch or creak from the rusty hinges. Just the door moving back a little and showing the black, shadowed gloom of the hallway of the deserted house, showing that and nothing more, until two hands came around the edge of the door very quietly. The hands were encased in white cotton gloves, with long floppy fingers that hung horribly lax. They looked strangely like the hands of a scarecrow.
The hands came forward out of the blackness of the hallway and closed their floppy fingers around the soft throat of the Countess di Redozi. Her face twisted terribly, and she had time to utter one short, strangled cry. And then the hands jerked her back through the doorway, and the big door slammed with a thunderous boom that echoed and re-echoed flatly.
CARSON stood there for a long second, staring at the closed door with a blank, unbelieving amazement. He could feel the sweat wetly cold on his forehead and his throat was thick and stiff when he swallowed. He took a deep breath and drew the .45 out of his waist band. The checkered butt was coldly comforting gripped close in the palm of his hand.
The sun had gone down behind the green rim of the jungle now, and shadows made a black lattice work across the face of the door. The latch moved easily under Carson's fingers. He pushed the door back with a quick shove of his left hand, stepped sideways in the same instant with the big revolver leveled hip high.
The door swung back silently, bumped into the wall with a heavy thud. A long slanting ray from the sun came into the dark hallway over Carson's shoulder and touched the Countess di Redozi's thin, faintly cruel face like a tiny questing spotlight. She was lying on her back on the dusty floor, and her neck was twisted sideways until her sleek head rested flat against her shoulder.
There had been perhaps a ten-second interval between the time the door slammed and the time Carson opened it again. In that time, the owner of the hands with the long floppy fingers had broken the Countess di Redozi's neck as easily as snapping a dried stick and laid her very carefully down on the floor. She hadn't had a chance to struggle at all. Her clothes weren't even mussed. The small nickel-plated automatic was still gripped in her hand.
There was no one else in the hall. There was no sign that there ever had been anyone else in it. The dust was thick on the walls, grayishly moist, untouched, and Carson's heavy breathing sounded startlingly loud in his own ears.
"Hello," he said.
His voice came back to him in a hundred slyly whispering echoes, but there was no other sound. Carson walked slowly down the narrow arched hallway. Instinctively he crouched a little, with the revolver held out in front of him.
He came out into the gray shadowed gloom of what had been the inner patio of the house. It was a crumbling ruin now with the moss growing like green crooked snakes in the cracked walls. Carson advanced slowly toward the center of the patio.
"Hello," he said again.
The only answer was the dull boom of the outer door closing. The sound hit Carson with the force of a physical blow. He whirled and ran back through the door by which he had entered. The arched hallway was dark now, and cold. Carson's lips felt dry, thick against his teeth, and he could feel the heavy thud of his own pulse pounding in his ears.
He slid along in the darkness with his back against the cold roughness of the wall, feeling out ahead of him with his left hand. His right hand held the .45, cocked, flat against his stomach, where no sudden blow could knock it out of his grasp.
His left hand touched the studded panels of the door, found the latch. He swung the door back toward him, stiffening warily. The jungle twilight rushed in softly and showed him the empty hall, showed him the hall completely empty except for himself. The Countess di Redozi's body was no longer lying on the dusty floor.
Carson's breath, suddenly expelled, made a little whistling sound in his nostrils. He slid through the door, out into the open. The clearing looked just as it had before—a little darker now with the twilight drawing a gray, mysterious veil over it. Carson backed slowly away from the house, watching it. He didn't relax until he reached the path by which he and the Countess had entered and the walls of the jungle closed in around him.
IT was completely dark by the time Carson got back to the New Grand International Hotel. He came in through the blue-painted door at the back of the patio, went across to the entrance to the barroom. He was inside the room before he noticed that there was anything wrong, and he stopped short then, sliding his hand inside the ill-fitting coat.
The man standing at the bar turned around slowly, and the brilliance of the kerosene lamp hanging low over his head glittered brightly sleek on his leather boots, on the military belt across his chest and the twin rows of brass buttons down his olive drab coat. He was a small man, stiffly erect. His military cap was tipped a little to one side, giving him a faintly jaunty air. He had a blandly round, impassive face, a black needle-pointed mustache.
"Buenas noches, Señor," he said amiably, and then in precise English: "Good evening, sir. You are the American—Mr. Carson—who is registered at the hotel?"
Carson nodded warily. "Yes."
The man clicked his heels and bowed. "I am Captain Garcia of the Guardia Civil. Will you drink with me?"
"With pleasure," Carson said promptly.
There was a bottle on the bar in front of Garcia, and he was holding a glass in his hand. He reached across to the shelf in back of the bar, got another glass.
"Brandy?" he said, raising his eyebrows. "I'm sorry there isn't a wider choice, but I am not very expert at mixing drinks."
"Brandy is fine," Carson told him. "Where's Mendigo?"
Garcia nodded his head sideways absently. "There." He carefully poured liquor in Carson's glass, handed it to him.
"Where did you say—" Carson stopped short, and his hand jerked suddenly, spilling a little of the brandy out of his glass.
At its far end, the bar made a sharp angle. Mendigo was lying in the shadow under it, close against the wall in a crumpled motionless heap. His face was turned up to the light, and his crossed eyes stared in glazed, frozen amazement. His whole shirt front was a sodden red, and there was a black spreading stain under his slight body.
"He's—he's dead?" Carson asked thickly.
"Yes," Garcia said. "Quite dead." He raised his glass. "To your very good health, sir."
Carson drank automatically. The liquor burned in his throat, spread a slow, creeping warmth in his stomach.
Garcia shrugged. "Suicide. Very regrettable. Probably financial worries drove him to it. I understand the hotel was not doing very well. At present you are its only guest."
"Where is the weapon?"
"I do not know," Garcia said indifferently. "Someone must have removed it. Some thievish peon, probably."
Carson put his glass down on the bar, stepped closer to the limp body. There was something wrong about the face—the mouth.... Carson saw that the mouth was open, gaping wide, and that a black silk handkerchief had been stuffed into it like a gag. Carson swallowed hard.
"That—that handkerchief—in his mouth...."
"A black bandana," Garcia said.
Carson stared at him narrowly. "That's the trade mark of El Diablo Negro."
Garcia nodded. "Yes, I know. Remarkable coincidence, isn't it? If we didn't know that he had committed suicide, we might think that perhaps El Diablo Negro had arranged his death, leaving the black bandana gag as a sign that it is not healthy to talk too much about certain subjects."
"Yes," said Carson. "If we didn't—know he committed suicide."
"Juan!" Garcia said sharply, turning from the bar.
There was a lazy stir in the shadows near the doorway, and a tall, gangling man ambled slowly into sight. He was dressed in the tattered remnants of several uniforms of different sizes. Black, lank hair sprouted out from under his cap, hung down over his dully staring eyes. He had a long, sad face, a slack-lipped, senseless mouth. He carried a rifle, holding it by the muzzle and letting the butt trail along behind him, scraping on the floor.
"Outside!" Garcia said, pointing to the door.
The military scarecrow turned around listlessly and ambled out the door. There was a clatter of his rifle thumping down the stone steps outside.
"My newest recruit," Garcia said. "An example of the excellent material they send me from the capital. I don't dare let him have any cartridges for that rifle for fear he would accidentally shoot himself, or me. Another drink, sir?"
"Thanks," Carson said.
Garcia filled both glasses, sipped at his own appreciatively. "You see, Mr. Carson, this town of El Hilo is peculiarly situated. It is only three or four days' travel on foot through the jungle to the Panvuelo border. On the other hand it is at 'least a week's travel the same way to the nearest city in this country. Now presidents come and go—and sometimes they come back again. El Diablo Negro is going at the moment, but he might return to power. If he did, it would be unfortunate for me if I were his enemy. There would be nothing to prevent a detachment of his soldiers from slipping over the border and paying me a visit. You saw the specimen that just left. He wouldn't offer much resistance."
"I see," Carson said.
"And so"—Garcia finished—"and so—Mendigo committed suicide. Undoubtedly the medical examiner will confirm my verdict. I'm waiting for the good doctor now. I sent a couple of my men after him, but it will probably take them quite some time to arouse him. He is usually drunk by this time in the evening. And—while we wait—will you join me in another brandy?"
"I will," said Carson.
THE moon was a shallow silver coin pinned against the soft blue blackness of the sky when Carson came across the patio and mounted the stone steps to the balcony. There was no other sound but the grate of his feet on the stone until he pushed back the door to his room, and then a soft voice said out of the darkness: "Stand still, please." Carson's hand flipped his coat aside, gripped the battered butt of his .45. Instinctively he started to step backwards, out of the doorway, and then the cold sharpness of a knife-blade pressed flat against the back of his neck.
The same soft voice spoke from in front of him. "You will be very wise if you take your hand away from your gun and stand still."
Carson moved his hand away from the .45, standing rigid.
"That's better," the soft voice commended. "Much better."
There was a little scraping sputter, and a match flared. Nothing was visible in the flicker of the yellow flame except the hands of the man who held it. The hands were encased in clumsy white cotton gloves, and the long fingers had a horrible laxness about them, like the hands of a scarecrow. The hands moved across to the lamp on the little shelf against the wall, touched the match flame to its wick. Light swelled out softly, and Carson could see the face of the man with the white-gloved hands.
It was a long pale oval of a face with a bony forehead and sunken, shadowed hollows in the cheeks. The mouth was a pinched dry line. The eyes were black pools that had no life or feeling in them, but still gave the impression of casual, callous cruelty. The man had a short, puffy body that, taken with his long skinny arms and legs, gave him the appearance of a gigantic bloated spider.
"You may take the knife away now, Tomas," he said. "Stand outside and see that we are not disturbed."
The knife blade slid away from the back of Carson's neck. He turned his head a little. The man Tomas was tall, thick-boned with brutally flattened features and slitted eyes under the brim of a floppy sombrero. He was the same man Carson had seen watching the Countess di Redozi through the blue door that afternoon. He was holding a long knife in his hand. He slid it into his belt now, backed through the door on to the balcony, softly closed the door after him.
"Sorry to have startled you," the man with the white gloves said in his soft, pleasant voice. "I was afraid you might shoot before I had a chance to explain myself. Will you sit down? My name—for the present—is Valdon."
Carson sat down slowly on the lumpy bed. He said nothing, watching with narrowed, wary eyes.
"We almost met this afternoon," Valdon said. "I thought it best not to show myself then—for several reasons."
"I suppose," Carson said slowly, "that I should thank you for saving my life."
"You should," said Valdon. "You should, indeed. The Countess would certainly have shot you in about another second. Never think that she wouldn't have done it. You wouldn't have been the first on her list by any means."
"You didn't have to kill her."
"Not to save you—no," Valdon said. "But I had another little matter to settle with her. Have you ever heard of me?"
"No," said Carson.
"Very few people have. Do you know anything about El Diablo Negro's early history?"
"No," said Carson. "I'm not interested."
"Then you'll pardon me, I'm sure, if I bore you with it," the man said suavely. "About five years ago I was exploring in the back country of Panvuelo just to see what I could see. I didn't find anything but a man by the name of Pedro Guiterrez. I didn't even find him, as a matter of fact. He found me. He was the leader of a dozen or so flea-bitten horse thieves and bandits. He had the audacity to kidnap me and hold me for ransom. One of my agents paid him off in counterfeit money. He didn't have sense enough to know the difference. But a little later I had some trouble with the government of Panvuelo. They refused to give me some concessions I wanted. I thought of this Pedro Guiterrez again, then. I went up in the back country and located him. He was still running his flea-bitten crew of petty thieves. That man, who was once Pedro Guiterrez, is now El Diablo Negro."
"So?" Carson said politely.
Valdon nodded. "Yes—so. I made Pedro Guiterrez into El Diablo Negro. When I started with Pedro Guiterrez he was a half-witted lazy hulk of a peon, more than half Indian, with a peon Indian wife and a dozen brats. He was a bandit because he was too lazy to work. I furnished the money and the bribes and the rifles for his army. I planned the campaign by which he led a revolution of the peons and overthrew the government and set himself up as president. I told him what to do and when to do it and what to say while he did it. I made him president, and for doing it I got the concessions I wanted—free."
"You made other people pay a big price for them," Carson said gravely. "You saddled that country with a government so corrupt and extravagant and vicious that it set the progress of the whole nation back ten years."
Valdon shrugged indifferently. "Faugh! What do I care for that? The point is that I made El Diablo Negro president. I even invented that name for him. I thought up the idea of using those black bandana handkerchiefs for a symbol. And then as soon as he got in office, his power began to go to his head. He began to think how clever he was, what a great diplomat and political schemer. He acquired some very polished manners and even learned to speak English. And he double-crossed me just as soon as he got the chance. He waited until I got my concessions developed to the point where I could make some money out of them, and then he cancelled them and re-sold them to a syndicate of which he and the Countess Redozi held all the stock."
"Is she actually a countess?" Carson asked curiously.
"No. She stole the title the same as she always stole everything else she could lay hands on. She got hold of El Diablo Negro, and she was clever enough to get him to do anything she wanted.
"He even married the woman, although he neglected the little formality of divorcing his first wife before he did it."
"All this leaves us where?" Carson asked.
"Right here," said Valdon. "I made that tramp into a president. Now I want my pay for it. I'm not greedy. But I want to get my investment in him back again. I want half of those diamonds."
Carson sighed wearily. "I thought we'd get around to that before the end. I'm getting tired of explaining about it. I don't have El Diablo Negro's diamonds. I-never saw them, nor him either. Somebody started a rumor that I had them. I don't know who, but I'd like to find him. As a result of his little story, I lost all my outfit and was chased out of Panvuelo by a company of rebel soldiers. If they'd been a little better shots I wouldn't be here now."
Valdon's tight little mouth twisted knowingly. "Yes, yes. Of course. That's all very interesting. But now I want half of those diamonds."
Carson said very slowly: "I—don't have—any—diamonds."
"I know you do," Valdon said amiably. "The Countess thought you did—and certainly if she thought so, then you do have them. It's lucky you didn't give them to her, by the way. She would have skipped out with them and left El Diablo Negro to stew in his own juice. I'm not quite so foolish as she is. I know you're not carrying the diamonds now. You've hidden them somewhere."
Carson merely shrugged his shoulders in a resigned way.
"You don't have to bring them all to me," Valdon said, "if you don't trust me. Just bring me half of them. I know how many there are. Or, if you don't believe the story I just told you, tell me where El Diablo Negro is hiding, and I'll go collect them from him myself after you've given them to him." The long fingers in the floppy white gloves moved in a slow squeezing motion. "I'd like to do that."
"I don't know where the diamonds are," said Carson, "and I don't know where El Diablo Negro is, and I don't see any point in talking about it any longer."
"Of course not," Valdon agreed, smoothly polite. He stood up. "If I were you, my friend, I would consider this matter at some length before I made any decisions that you might regret."
"I've considered it all I'm going to," Carson said. "You'll find the door in the same place it was when you came in. Good-by."
"Good-by," said Valdon amiably. "You'll be seeing me again—very soon. Let us hope—for your sake— that you see things in a more reasonable light before that time."
HE walked to the door, opened it quickly. The man Tomas was standing there, bulking huge and thick in the doorway. He slitted little eyes were wide now, and bulging, and his loose mouth was a motionless round O of surprise. He had been leaning against the closed door, and now he swayed forward stiffly.
He fell straight forward on his face and hit the floor with a jarring crash that raised a thin sifting of dust particles that glittered brightly in the light of the lamp. He never moved after he struck the floor. There was a neat little slit punched in the rough cloth of his shirt in the back just over his heart. Blood had soaked down his back in a wide, ragged stain. There was a black silk bandana knotted neatly around his throat.
Valdon stared down at his body for a long moment, and then he looked up at Carson. His eyes were like black smooth blobs of pitch that reflected the light in molten little glints.
"You and El Diablo Negro are both going to be very sorry for this little trick."
His soft voice was as smooth as ever, and his long pale face showed no emotion at all. Without saying another word he stepped over the body with a startling snake-like agility and disappeared through the doorway.
Carson stood for a long moment looking down at Tomas' still form. He shivered a little suddenly and drew the .45 out of his waist band. The big hammer made a coldly comforting click coming back to full cock. Carson blew out the lamp and slid out the door with the gun balanced in his hand.
The brightness of the moon painted the walls in contrasting silver and black streaks. Carson went very slowly and quietly down the stone stairs, across the patio.
Captain Garcia was standing in the same position as when Carson had seen him the first time, except that he was not quite so erect now. His back had lost all its stiffness, and his knees were bent a little. He was leaning forward over the bar, balanced on his elbows.
"Good evening," he said in a thickly dignified voice. "I am Captain Garcia of the Guardia Civil!"
"Good evening," Carson said gravely. "My name is still Carson."
"Ah, yes. Yes, yes. I think we've met before."
"I think so, too," Carson agreed.
"I am waiting... waiting..." Garcia stopped and blinked vaguely around him.
"Waiting for the medical examiner," Carson finished for him.
"Oh. Yes. Yes, I believe I am."
"When he comes—if he does—there's another suicide for him to examine upstairs."
"Very strange," said Garcia absently. "Must be an epidemic. Will you drink with me, sir?"
"There isn't any more," Carson said. "You've finished the bottle."
"So I have," Garcia agreed, looking at the empty brandy bottle in a mildly surprised way. "But there's more behind the bar. Allow me to offer you—"
He unhooked his elbows from the bar and stepped backwards. He wavered a little on laxly bent knees and then sank slowly and gently down to the floor and rolled over on his back. His eyes closed and his mouth opened. He began to snore quietly.
Carson watched him for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders wearily. His mouth was twisted into a bitterly resigned line. Still carrying his cocked revolver in his hand, he walked across the room to the front door, looked cautiously out.
There was a sputtering little giggle from the darkness. Carson swung out of the light, flattening himself against the wall, leveling the big revolver.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
The shadows moved and Garcia's lank, ragged recruit shambled into the light. The butt of his rifle trailed along behind him on the ground, making a snaky groove in the dust. His glittering little eyes stared cunningly up at Carson through the lank hair over his forehead. His mouth moved and twisted, the thickly wet lips mouthing mumbled fragments of words.
"El Diablo Negro—El Diablo Negro...."
He laughed again, twitching his gaunt shoulders.
Carson didn't say anything, watching him narrowly.
The recruit shambled cautiously closer. He held out his clenched fist toward Carson and then suddenly opened his fingers wide. There was a black silk bandana on his grimy palm.
"El Diablo Negro," he said.
"Donde?" Carson asked. "Where?"
The recruit jerked his head back toward the jungle. He walked a few dragging steps, then stopped and jerked his head, inviting Carson to follow.
THE path was a winding narrow slit between the high thick walls of the jungle. In that darkness Carson could see nothing but the bobbing crooked shoulders of the ragged recruit just ahead of him. Carson held the big Colt leveled, lined up with those shoulders, his thumb curled comfortably around the hammer.
The path made a sharp turn, and ahead Carson could see a small clearing with the moonlight drenching it in a thin silver mist. The recruit slowed a little, and his face made a white blur in the gloom looking back at Carson.
"Esta aqui," he said casually. He turned and ambled on toward the clearing.
Carson followed cautiously, trying to peer ahead. He had almost reached the edge of the clearing when an invisible hand grasped him by one ankle and jerked. Carson half-twisted, trying to catch his balance. The hand jerked harder, and he went down flat on his face in the path.
He tried to roll over, but sharp knees dug into his back, holding him flat on his face. Cloth covered fingers closed gently and slowly around his neck.
"I warned you," Valdon's soft voice said. "You see, I thought you might be a little stubborn, and I planned in advance. I hired this half-witted recruit to lead you out here in the jungle. I knew you wouldn't suspect him. Now I want those diamonds."
"I haven't any diamonds," Carson said, making his voice casual. His right hand still held the big Colt, and he moved his arm very slowly and silently, swinging the short barrel around until it pointed back up over his shoulder. The muzzle of the gun was only about an inch from his face, and he closed his eyes tightly to protect them from the powder flare and squeezed on the trigger.
There was sudden movement in the darkness, and the metal shod butt of a rifle slammed down on his cramped wrist. The blow numbed his whole arm. The rifle butt moved a little, knocked the Colt spinning out of his lax fingers. The recruit laughed.
Valdon's fingers dug into Carson's throat. The fingers were incredibly, inhumanly strong. They were like steel hooks, biting right through the muscle, crushing it.
"The diamonds," Valdon said, and the terrible grip relaxed a little, allowing Carson to breathe.
"I haven't—" Carson said thickly.
The grip clamped down again, before he could finish. He writhed back and forth, trying to arch his back, but the smooth, soft earth of the path gave him no purchase. Valdon's bony knees dug into his back. The man's weight held him flat. The silver and shadow of the jungle spun in a whirling, crazy pattern in front of Carson's straining eyes.
Valdon's voice sounded faint and thin and far away.
"The diamonds. Where are the diamonds?"
Another voice said, "Right here, friend."
Valdon's clutching fingers suddenly jerked away from Carson's throat. His knees released their pressure on Carson's back. Carson sucked in air in a great gulping gasp, rolled over on his back.
The two men were crouched in the path, close together, facing each other. The recruit had lost all his slackness, all his aimless idiocy. He had attached the bayonet to his rifle, and its thin, glittering point almost touched Valdon's chest.
"They're in my pocket, friend Valdon," he said. "Right in my pocket, where they've always been."
"Guiterrez," said Valdon in a whisper. "El Diablo Negro!"
"Yes," said the recruit. "Pedro Guiterrez—El Diablo Negro—at your service. You should have talked to me where the light was better, Valdon. You should have looked a little more closely at my face. But who would think that Pedro Guiterrez—that stupid, half-witted hulk, that flea-bitten petty thief who you turned from a tramp into a president—would have the sense to make a plan? Who would think that he would know enough to provide himself with a disguise? Who would think that he could make himself another identity that would fool everyone—even the great Valdon?"
"You have learned very quickly," Valdon said in a strained voice. "You've won this time, Pedro. Let me congratulate you."
He spread his hands in a casual gesture, and all in the same motion half turned and struck at the bayonet with his closed fist, trying to knock it aside. Pedro Guiterrez stepped backwards agilely, and the rifle swung back, then forward again with a quick, twisting thrust.
There was a thump, the ugly grate of steel on bone. Valdon screamed once in a horribly choked voice. His long arms flopped up and down, the gloved fingers clawing at the air. Pedro Guiterrez freed the bayonet with another quick twist. Valdon's puffy body crashed backwards into the underbrush.
CARSON came up to his knees, groped frantically on the path in the darkness, searching for the Colt.
"Don't," Guiterrez said softly.
The bayonet was leveled again, the blood-stained point at six inches from Carson's throat. Over it, Guiterrez's thin face split into a widely cruel grin.
"Why should we quarrel?" he asked. "You don't want my diamonds, do you?"
"God knows I don't," Carson said emphatically. "I've had enough trouble on account of them. I'm sick of the sound of the word, even."
"Just, so," said Guiterrez. "And besides, Señor, I owe you a debt of gratitude. You see, I was the one who started the rumor that you were carrying my diamonds for me."
Carson got up slowly. "Why?" he demanded.
Guiterrez shrugged, keeping the rifle leveled. "When you are a dictator, you learn a great many things. One of them is that people put money even above revenge. I have a great many enemies, but any one of them would gladly see me go free with my life if he could get his hands on my diamonds. So I laid a false trail. I told everyone you had my diamonds, and while they chased you I escaped. I think I made a wise choice in my decoy. You seem well able to take care of yourself."
"I'm not feeling so capable at the present," Carson said morosely. "Well, what happens next?"
"I think your troubles are over," Guiterrez said. "All the leading—ah—prospectors, shall we say?—for my diamonds have been eliminated by one means or another."
"You mean—I can go back to the hotel?" Carson asked incredulously.
"Not just now," Guiterrez answered, grinning. "You see, I also learned while I was dictator that it is not wise to trust anyone—not anyone. I didn't even trust my dear wife—the Countess. I told her that you had my diamonds. I acted very wisely, too, as it proved. She preferred my diamonds to me. She joined forces with Mendigo, the prying little rat, to try to get you to deliver the diamonds to her by one means or another. Mendigo, the fool, even cut to pieces the clothes you gave him to clean, looking for them. I settled the score with him, and I'd have done the same for her if Valdon hadn't done it first. As for you, Señor Carson, I really don't think you want the diamonds, but just in case you change your mind about that, I've arranged to give myself a little time to get away. There is a hut in the clearing back of us. It has a strong door, a good lock that I provided. I'm going to leave you inside."
Carson took a step forward. "You—"
"Careful!" Guiterrez warned, raising the rifle. "Careful, Señor. Captain Garcia told you I had no bullets for this rifle. He was wrong. I have. The hut has only a dirt floor. It won't take you longer than two hours to dig your way out. But by that time I will be a long ways away from here. Come."
He backed slowly out into the clearing. Carson followed him reluctantly, step by step.
The hut was a thick, windowless hump in the earth, shadowed by the moonlight. The door was closed. Guiterrez knocked it open with the butt of his rifle, jumped agilely aside.
"Go in!" he snapped. His voice was suddenly harsh.
Carson hesitated, watching him.
"Go in!" Guiterrez repeated in a thin snarl.
Carson edged slowly into the hut's dank darkness. The door slammed behind him as soon as he cleared the threshold, and he heard the grate of the hasp, the solid click of a padlock.
The interior of the hut was pitch black —a thick, heavy blackness that was absolutely impenetrable. Carson caught a trace of a thin, sickening odor that was like a cold hand laid against the back of his neck.
Guiterrez's voice came, faintly muffled, through the mud walls: "Señor Carson, I have something else to tell you. I thought you might be lonesome waiting there in the darkness, so I left you a companion. He is about eight feet long and considerably bigger around than your arm. He is commonly known as a bushmaster. I hope you enjoy his company."
CARSON stood rigid. He could feel the sweat ooze slimily down his back underneath his shirt. The bushmaster is the most deadly snake in the western hemisphere. A gigantic species of the pit viper, its fangs are as big as a man's little finger and hold enough venom to kill within a few short moments.
Guiterrez laughed savagely. "You see, I like my disguise, and you are the only one who knows it. I intend to stay a recruit for a while, and then when the chase dies down a little, go to Europe or your own United States and live the rest of my life in peace and luxury. Are you listening, Señor Carson? Have you found your little friend yet? No need to look for him. He will find you!"
Carson stayed flat against the wall, not moving, trying not to make any noise even with his breathing. The snake was somewhere on the floor, coiled in the darkness. It was long enough to strike him from any place inside the hut. He couldn't see it. He had no weapon to fight it with if he could....
But sooner or later the thing would strike anyway. He couldn't stay motionless forever, and it would strike, even if he did....
His muscles were numbly stiff. Very slowly, a little at a time, he began to move his left hand into his pocket. In his imagination he could see that flat, triangular head with its mottled markings, the lidless eyes.
His hand came slowly out of his pocket, grasping several matches between cold fingers. He began to crouch, forcing himself to bring his head and face closer to the floor and those deadly fangs. He settled his back firmly against the mud wall.
Perhaps if he struck the matches, the snake would strike at the light. Perhaps he could catch the head before it struck again. Perhaps! It was fantastic. The bushmaster moved like a streak of lightning. But it was the only thing he could do....
The matches sputtered in his hand, flared into sudden flame. Carson drew in his breath, tensing himself, eyes searching frantically through the shadows.
He released his breath with a sudden startled grunt. There was another person in the hut. Another person sitting on the floor against the opposite wall, watching him with impassively smooth black eyes.
It was the Indian flower woman who had been in Mendigo's hotel bar that same morning. Her smooth brown face was indifferent, calm, emotionless. The long bright blade of a machete— a bush-knife—lay across her lap. The bushmaster's blunt venomous head lay on the ground just in front of her bare feet. It had been severed neatly at the neck. The rest of the snake's thick mottled body lay in a dusty heap in the corner of the hut, squirming a little with stubborn life.
There was a black gaping hole in the hut's wall at the back. Carson swallowed hard, staring at the woman incredulously. He knew what happened as surely as if it had been explained to him in detail, but it was unbelievable. The Indian woman had cut through the wall of the hut from the outside, chopped off the snake's head with the bush-knife, waited here....
The matches burned Carson's fingers, and he dropped them on the floor. He fumbled in his pocket, found more, scraped them alight.
The Indian woman nodded at him slowly. She indicated the hole in the hut wall with a sideways gesture of her head. Slowly she turned and crawled through. Carson kicked the snake's head aside cautiously, then put out the matches and crawled after her.
The hut's wall backed up against the jungle, and they were deep in the undergrowth. The woman was a black shadow, waiting stolidly, until Carson stood beside her, then she circled quietly back through the brush. Carson followed numbly.
They came out suddenly in the clearing on the other side. Guiterrez was still there, sitting on a fallen log. He was holding a squat bottle in one hand, a black leather pouch in the other. As they watched him, he tilted the bottle up to his lips, swallowed in an audible gulps. He put the bottle down on the log, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Carson!" he yelled. "Señor Carson! I don't hear you talking with your companion. Hasn't he found you yet?"
He laughed jeeringly. Untying the draw-string on the pouch, he held it up and poured a white-fiery stream of diamonds into his other palm. He put his face close to the diamonds, crooning to them greedily, moving his hand so the moonlight shot glittering little streaks from their facets.
The woman deliberately walked out into the clearing. Carson reached forward to stop her, but he was too late. He jumped forward after her.
Guiterrez heard them and swung around tensely, reaching for the rifle beside him. The woman was in the bright moonlight now, her features plainly visible. She stood still, staring stolidly at Guiterrez.
"You!" said Guiterrez numbly. "You!"
HE recovered himself with a jerk, swung the rifle up to level. The woman raised her right hand, palm held flat. She was holding a tiny round vial. With her left hand she pointed to the vial and then to the bottle beside Guiterrez. Then she pulled the cork out of the vial, turned it upside down. Nothing came out of its unstoppered mouth.
Her sign language was very plain. She meant that the contents of the vial she held were in the bottle from which Guiterrez had just drunk. She uttered one word. It was an Indian word, a queer jumble of vowels. Carson had heard the word before. He knew what it meant. It was the name of a poison made by Indian witch doctors from the steeped roots of certain swamp vines. It was a poison that they reserved for their worst enemies.
Carson had seen its effects. They were terrible. The poison acted on the membranes of the throat, swelling them slowly and inexorably until the victim died of long drawn out self-strangulation, his limbs twisted horribly, face a thick purple, eyes bulging out of their sockets.
The rifle dropped out of Guiterrez's stiff fingers, and the diamonds spilled on the ground in a sudden glittering stream.
"No!" he screamed. "No, no!"
The woman's head nodded slowly.
Guiterrez screamed again and clutched at his throat with both hands, digging into the skin with frantic fingers. His whole body twisted and jerked. Then suddenly he whirled around and crashed blindly into the jungle, running senselessly, crazily, trying to escape from the death he carried inside himself. The sound of his crashing progress grew fainter, faded.
The woman walked stolidly over to the log, began to gather up the diamonds that glittered like molten fire in the dust. She put them carefully in the black pouch, pulled the draw string tight. She stood up, looking at Carson. Carson stared back at her blankly.
She fumbled in the folds of her skirts, brought out a flat paper-wrapped package. Very carefully she undid the string tied around it, held it out toward Carson. He took it automatically.
It was a picture—a faded, old tintype. It was a family group—the man and wife standing, the children in a neatly graduated row in front of them.
Carson counted the children—an even dozen. He looked at the face of the husband. It was Guiterrez. He looked at the wife's face. It was the same impassively smooth brown face that was staring at him now.
Carson remembered Valdon's words.... "When I started with Pedro Guiterrez he was a half-witted lazy hulk of a peon, more than half Indian, with a peon Indian wife and a dozen brats...."
Carson stared at her wide-eyed. She nodded slowly, took the picture out of his hands, carefully re-wrapped it. She reached under her skirts again and brought her hand out clutching the battered silver coin Carson had given her. She took a diamond out of the leather pouch, dropped the coin and the diamond into Carson's hand.
Carson blinked at the jewel incredulously. It was a perfect blue-white stone cut with a flat top that was almost the same area as his thumbnail.
"Here!" he said. "What—"
She pointed carefully to the coin, then to the diamond. "Gracias," she said in halting Spanish. Her meaning was again very evident. The diamond was her thanks for the coin, her gratitude for his kindness.
"But here!" Carson protested. "Why, this diamond is worth thousands—"
"Gracias," she said stubbornly. She nodded again, and with no more farewell than that, turned and walked steadily across the clearing, disappeared into the blackness of the jungle.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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