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Masters of Noir: Volume 2
by Hal Ellson
No sound, no movement anywhere, then a perceptible awakening. A breath of wind, a palm frond moving, and shadows thickening below the hotel balcony. Jim Withers sat forward and watched the white-clad figure climbing the steep road toward the hotel. Even at that distance he recognized the man and frowned. In another moment he leaned forward again and nodded his head in sign of grudging respect for the one in white. The chap was running up the hill.
But why not? The natives were capable of feats that could stun, if not kill, anyone else. But this Juan... Jim sat back once more and wiped the perspiration from his face. The wind had faded, evening brought no relief from the fierce tropic heat. He closed his eyes, steps on the tiled floor alerted him. Seconds later a pair of cool hands pressed against his eyes. An exotic bouquet floated around him.
As he broke free and turned, Kathy smiled, beautiful and cool-looking in white. “Lazy-bones, sleeping again?” she said.
“No, thinking of when we’re leaving this place.”
“But how can you say that? I could stay forever in Acapulco.”
“Then it’ll have to be without me.”
“Fresh,” she said and laughed in a way that set his pulse racing. A wild surging desire made him want to crush her in his arms, but she stepped back, as if she had read his mind, and said, “We’d better dine, don’t you think?”
“Have to wash up,” he mumbled, rising from the chair. Then, escorting her as far as the stairs, he went to their room, washed quickly and hurried to the upper balcony.
In that brief interval a swift transition had taken place. The night had closed in, a vast canopy stretched overhead; on the slope of the hill below the balcony nothing but silence.
Jim sat down abruptly. “You’re out of sorts,” Kathy said, watching him.
“No, it’s the heat,” he lied. For he could bear with that, but to have found Juan with Kathy was too much. As Juan had gone back to the kitchen, Jim said, “He’s altogether too friendly.”
Kathy opened her eyes wide, innocently. “You mean Juan?”
“And who else would I be talking about?”
“Oh, he doesn’t mean anything. He’s just friendly.” She was smiling now. “But don’t tell me — it’s not really jealousy.”
Warned, Jim turned his head. Others were arriving. A table for two. He nodded to the couple and turned back to Kathy.
“From Michigan. They motored down. Very nice people,” she whispered.
Then Juan appeared from the kitchen bearing a large tray. He smiled. “And how are you this evening, Mr. Withers?” His white teeth flashed, his smooth brown skin gleamed. Not a drop of sweat on his face after that run up the hill.
Jim nodded, unable to speak. Juan set him on edge. All eyes for Kathy as he served, his words directed at her. She appeared delighted by his attention.
“Are you going fishing tomorrow?”
Both of them were looking at Jim now and he appeared almost stunned.
“I hadn’t thought of it for tomorrow,” he finally answered.
“But why wait?”
“Yes, why wait?” said Kathy. “Wasn’t it one of the reasons you came?”
“If you go in a big boat,” Juan was saying, “very big fish. Sailfish, swordfish, anything you can name.”
“And any price the boatman can name too.”
“Ah, but you are rich.”
Kathy laughed with delight at this remark.
“All Americans are not rich, particularly this one,” said Jim.
Exchanging glances with Kathy, Juan only smiled and said, “If you wish, I can make the necessary arrangements.”
Jim finally conceded. “All right, tomorrow, at what time?”
“At six it is best for hooking the big ones.”
“Make it seven.”
Juan shrugged. “As you wish. The boys will be waiting at Caleta Beach. Ask for Rodriquez.”
Juan returned to the kitchen. Voices in heated argument made Jim turn. No door to the kitchen. He saw a barefooted Indian woman — the cook — berating Juan.
“That old devil’s at it again.”
“Well, she has work to do and he’s holding her up.”
“I still don’t like her.”
Kathy’s eyes widened. “But don’t be silly, Jim. He’s cute, that’s all.”
Jim picked up his fork, not caring to pursue the subject. The food was excellent, as always, not to be ignored.
“You know,” he said, “that’s the most remarkable thing about this place.”
“The food. No two meals alike, a kind of endless variety and perfection.”
“I hate to admit it, but the old she-devil does wonders.”
“Probably no one appreciates it, either.”
At that moment Juan arrived back at the table, apparently not upset by the argument with the cook. “A bottle of Bohemia,” said Jim. “And if you don’t mind, tell the cook that my wife and I are in love with her cooking.”
After what had taken place, another man would have at least hesitated before such a request, but Juan smiled, as if sharing in the compliment, and went immediately to the kitchen. Watching, Jim saw the Indian woman turn her ugly pock-marked face and smile at him.
Juan returned with the bottle of Bohemia. As Jim poured the light golden beer, he said, “Coming along tomorrow, Kathy?”
“Fishing? Are you out of your mind, Jim?”
“It was just an idea.”
After dinner, a few couples gathered on the lower balcony. Intensely dark now, a soft wind from the sea, palms stirring, the lizards darting at insects lured by the lights. Utter silence in the shadowed jungle on the slope below the balcony.
Kathy had left with the other couples to join the Canasta players in the lobby. Jim leaned over the railing. Looking down, he saw a light flash. Nothing then, but he knew of the forlorn native shacks hidden below. The cook, and perhaps Juan lived in one of them.
Jim turned away, thought of Juan rousing his anger. What does Kathy see in him? he asked himself, starting for the hall that led to the lobby. There he found the Canasta players at their tables but not Kathy. Gone to the room, he thought, and he walked through the open lobby, then down the front steps.
Palms shadowed the driveway. A night-bird cried out. About to light a cigarette, Jim turned and saw a white-clad figure jump from the small balcony of his own room and quickly disappear. In the next second he turned round, mounted the steps and hurried through the lobby.
“Kathy?” The door was locked. He rattled the knob. Footsteps, and the door swung open. No light in the room. He flipped the switch and stared at Kathy.
“Thought you were going to play cards?” he said, watching her eyes.
“I changed my mind and decided to lie down for a while.”