It was not a very good hotel, but it was the best in the town, and it had a fine old bar with overhead fans which rotated slowly, casting shadows across the ceiling. He was partial to that bar, with the creaking fans, and he liked the bartender, Henri, so whenever he came to Valladolid he stayed in the hotel.
The girl said, “Do you come here often?”
“Every month,” he said.
“Snakes have made Charles very rich,” Henri said. Henri was an old Parisian; he loved to talk, long into the night. He particularly liked to talk to Raynaud, because he traveled so much.
“Pour yourself a drink,” Raynaud said, “and shut up.”
Henri laughed delightedly.
“And pour another for the girl,” Charles Raynaud said.
The girl was sitting there, wearing trousers and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She was rather pretty, long blond hair pulled back casually; Henri introduced her as Jane Mitchell. She seemed quiet and reserved and a little stuffy.
“Miss Mitchell,” Henri said, “just arrived today.”
Raynaud said, “You’re with a tour?”
She shook her head. “Hate tours.”
He was genuinely surprised. “You came alone?”
“I can take care of myself,” she replied quickly.
“Miss Mitchell,” Henri said, “is on her way around the world.”
“Escape,” she said.
“From New York,” she said, pushing her glass across the bar to Henri.
“And how did you happen to choose this gay resort?”
“I wanted someplace out of the way.”
“That,” he said, sipping tequila again, “you definitely have.”
Henri said, “Miss Mitchell was expressing great interest in your work.”
“You’ll have to excuse Henri,” Raynaud said, “he is an incorrigible matchmaker.”
“Nonsense,” Henri said.
“Well, it’s true,” the girl said, “I was curious. I never heard of anybody collecting snakes before.”
“Oh,” Raynaud said, “I don’t collect them. I sell them.”
“To zoos,” Henri said, “and to scientists.”
“And snake farms,” Raynaud said. “You might say I’m in the venom business.”
“Is it interesting?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s really quite dull.”
“How do you catch them?”
He shrugged. “Prong, sometimes. Or a trap. But usually just bare hands.”
“That,” she said, “sounds interesting.”
He smiled. “Only if you make a mistake.”
“And you don’t make mistakes?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“You are very sour tonight, Charles,” Henri said. “Invite the girl along. You can see that she wants to go.”
“Oh, I couldn’t—”
“Nonsense,” Henri said, raising his hand. “Charles would be delighted to have you. He would say so himself but he has not had enough to drink. He’s very shy.”
“Really, I don’t think—”
“You mustn’t be put off by Charles, as you see him now. He is actually quite charming. Charles, be charming.”
Raynaud grinned. “Miss Mitchell,” he said, “you are cordially invited to a snake hunt tomorrow morning.”
“If you don’t accept, I shall go to my room, which I now know to be second best in the hotel, and hang myself from the ceiling fan because I lacked the charm to convince you.”
She smiled back at him. “That sounds awful.”
“Then you accept?”
“Good. But you must understand two things. The first is that we leave at five in the morning. Sharp.”
“And the second is that you will probably be very bored by the whole thing.”
She smiled, and said, “I’ve been bored before. I think I can stand it.”
“Then,” Charles said, “allow me to buy you a drink.”
When the girl had finally gone to bed, Raynaud stayed at the bar to have a last drink with Henri.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Raynaud said.
“You were disgraceful,” Henri said.
“I didn’t want her to come.”
“Absolutely disgraceful. Are you getting too old?”
“I have a tight schedule tomorrow.”
“But she is very pretty, Charles.”
“She is attractive.”
“And besides, she is so unhappy. I think she has had bad luck with love, and now she needs to be happy.”
“You think catching snakes will make her happy?”
“I think,” Henri said, “that it will divert her.”
“And I think that she will sleep peacefully until noon.”
Henri looked at him slyly. “One hundred pesos?”
“One hundred pesos.” He took the money from his wallet and set it on the bar.
“I fear you have just lost a bet.”
“We’ll see,” Raynaud said.
He sat hunched over the wheel, concentrating on the driving. The Land Rover bounced over the muddy ruts of the jungle road as the first pale rays of dawn broke over the corozo trees along the horizon. They were huge trees with forty-foot fronds, glistening after a week of hot rains.
Alongside him, the girl sat smoking a cigarette, watching the road. Ramon, the boy, dozed in the back seat with all the gear.
“How much?” she said.
“A hundred pesos.”
“Why did you bet?”
He shrugged. “Why does anybody bet?” he said.
“And now you’re angry because I made you lose?”
“No,” he said. In fact he was not. The usual girl he took hunting showed up in a cotton dress and sandals, and had to go back to change. But this one had arrived in heavy twill trousers and high boots, very businesslike. And in a way he was glad for the company.
“Where are we going?” she said. “Chichen.”
“Chichen Itza? The ruins?”
“But is it open yet?”
He smiled. “I have a key.”
“You seem to know your way around.”
“I don’t lose all my bets, if that’s what you mean.”
“No,” she said, looking at him. “I don’t think you do. But when Henri was talking about you...”
“You expected a little potbellied man with a pith helmet and a butterfly net.”
“And instead you are dazzled by my wit and verve.”
“How old are you?”
“Thirty-four. How old are you?”
“I’m not supposed to tell,” she said.
“Yes. But then I’m not supposed to ask.”
“Twenty-five,” she said.
He took the left fork at the monument turnoff. Here, for no particular reason, pavement began. The road was good all the rest of the way to the ruin.
The girl brushed her hair back from her face. “It’s already getting hot,” she said.
“Yes. It will be a good day. The natives will refuse to work.”
“Because a hot day after a rain brings the animals out.”
“Then it should be perfect.”
“Depending on your viewpoint,” he said.
She finished her cigarette and lit another from the glowing tip. He glanced over at her and she said, “I’m not nervous. It’s just how I wake up.”
They came to the edge of the ruins; the pyramids could be seen to the left, rising over the trees.
“Have you ever been bitten?” she said.
“More often than I wanted to be.”
“Are you married?” she said.
He did not answer. They parked by the gates in front of the sign, glistening damp: “I.N.A.H. Departamento de Monumentos Prehispanicos, Zona Arqueologica de Chichen Itza, Yucatan.” They got out; around them the jungle was noisy with howler monkeys and the shrieking chatter of parrots. The ground underfoot was damp and steaming as Raynaud walked to the back of the car and began unloading the gear: a long, pronged aluminum stick, a machete, a heavy canvas bag, double-lined, and a small battered metal box.
Ramon, the boy, crawled yawning from the back seat. Jane Mitchell looked at the gear laid out, and said, “You don’t have a gun.”
“I do,” Raynaud said. He produced the heavy .45 revolver. “But the boy gets it.”
He handed it to Ramon.
“He comes with us?”
“No, he stays here. To make sure the car isn’t stolen.”
“But then you won’t have a gun...”
“Won’t need it,” Raynaud said. He threw the bag over his shoulder, picked up the aluminum stick, and handed her the metal box.
“Just in case?” She opened the lid and surveyed the tourniquets, syringes, and rows of small vials.
“Just in case,” Raynaud said.
They walked to the gate, unlocked it, and stepped inside.
She watched the way he moved through the tall grass. He was a big man, well over six feet, and powerfully built, but he walked with a slow grace. He kept his eyes on the ground, his neck bent, and she noticed again the pale white scar that began behind his right ear and disappeared down his collar. The scar bothered her; many things about him bothered her. He did not fit into any of the expected categories: too nasty to be a zoologist, too subtle to be a bush hunter. She wondered if he had done other work before.
“Where did you get the scar?”
Absently, he touched the line. “An accident.”
“What kind of an accident?”
“When I was a child,” he said vaguely, and moved ahead, forcing her to hurry after him. He seemed to her a suddenly mysterious figure, standing to his knees in tall grass and clinging, steamy mist; he seemed almost to be floating, with the pyramids all around them. The jungle on the perimeter was now silent as a tomb: all sound from the animals had stopped as soon as they had entered the gates. Now there was nothing but a faint swishing as they moved across the grass.
“Have you been in Mexico long?”
“Always working with snakes?”
“No. I began as a foreman for archaeological digs. I was good with languages, you see.”
“And French. German. Russian and Japanese. A smattering of English.”
“Where did you learn them? College?”
He was frowning; her questions seemed to bother him. He had a pleasant, almost boyish face, but it took on an ugly aspect when he frowned, something dark and faintly sinister.
“But you are American.”
“Oh, yes. Born and bred. The Bronx, actually.”
And then he doubled over in a quick jackknife and was lost in the mist and grasses, and she heard a nasty hissing sound.
He raised up with a long black snake dangling from one hand. He had caught it right behind the head. The snake wrapped itself about his forearm in sinuous coils.
“How do you like it?” he said, holding it so she could see the head, the gaping jaws, the pink grainy mouth.
She knew he was trying to shock her but she was not shocked. The snake was large but not half so ugly as the rattlesnakes she had grown up with.
“Very pretty,” she said. “What is it?”
“Genus vera ribocanthus. Quite deadly. The natives call it the rollersnake, because of the way it moves.” He examined it critically. “This is a fine specimen.”
He dropped it into the bag and moved on.
“The poison,” he said, “is a potent anticholinesterase. Interrupts nervous transmission at the neuromuscular junction. The victim dies of asphyxiation, by respiratory paralysis.”
“Have you been doing studies?”
“No. Professor Levin at LSU. I supply him.”
“You supply a lot of universities?”
“Quite a few.”
They walked on. In a few minutes, the pattern was repeated again—a swift darting down, a scramble in the grass, and another snake. It seemed to be the same kind. He dropped it into the bag.
“You’re very good at this.”
“Practice,” Raynaud said.
As he moved through the grass he was hardly aware of her. The questions annoyed him because they broke his concentration, lifting his attention away from the grass, where he was watching for small movements, small disturbances which moved counter to the wind.
As he walked he wondered about her, because she did not seem repelled by the snakes. Or fascinated: she watched them with a kind of cold, almost clinical interest. She showed none of the horrified thrill that the others had demonstrated.
He bent forward slightly. He needed a third snake, and it might as well be a vera. They were cumbersome animals, easily caught. And there seemed to be many of them today.
In a few minutes, he saw another, sliding away. He darted forward and gripped it swiftly, catching the damp slimy body behind the head, squeezing the scaly flesh, feeling the coldness. He always had a moment of revulsion when his fingers touched it—just the briefest moment of elemental disgust, and then it passed.
Still bent over, he held the snake firmly as it wriggled and hissed. The tongue flicked out.
And then he froze.
Just three feet away was a diversnake, its orange and blue body coiled around a clump of grass. The diversnake was reared back to strike, the head high and moving from side to side, the mouth wide, the fangs showing whitely.
He did not move.
The diversnake was fiercely poisonous. No one had been known to survive a bite, and people had died of the most superficial scratches.
For a moment he thought the diversnake, having been startled up into an attack stance, would lapse back. But then he realized that it was not going to, that it was pulling back in the last smooth gesture before it flung itself forward to strike....
A shot rang out, and another.
The first bullet caught the snake in the head, tossing it to one side. The second hit it as it fell and buried the head deep into the mud. The animal was dead, the body continuing to writhe reflexively.
He looked back over his shoulder. The girl was standing there with a gun in her hand, looking pale. Her purse was open and the gun was smoking faintly.
For a moment neither of them spoke, and then she said, “Are you all right?”
“Yes. Fine. Thanks to you.”
“It was. About as mean as they get.”
He straightened up and dropped his snake into the bag. The girl slipped the gun back into her purse and clicked the latch shut.
“You, ah, had that with you all the time?”
“Yes. I always carry it.”
He set the bag on the ground and took out his cigarettes. He shook one out for her, lit it, and took one for himself.
“You never can tell,” she said, “when you’ll need it.”
“You obviously know how to shoot.” He glanced back at the snake. She had fired from thirty feet, perhaps more. Most people couldn’t hit a building at that distance, with a hand gun.
“I learned young,” she said, sucking on the cigarette. “I grew up on a ranch.”
“Alms to your teacher,” he said. “You saved my life.”
She smiled slightly. “Glad to be of service.”
On the way back, he said little. The girl sat alongside him, and as he drove, he found himself growing curious about her. He looked over at her and decided that Henri was right, she was exceptionally pretty.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Me?” She smiled. “Nothing.”
“How would you like to go to a party?”
“In the jungle?”
“Hardly. There’s going to be a reception at the German Embassy.”
“Embassy? But that’s in—”
“Mexico City. Yes.”
“I don’t have a plane ticket,” she said.
“You don’t need one,” he said.
At three thousand feet, the jungle lay vast, dense, and impenetrable below them. Raynaud checked his compass and sat back in the seat. In the cockpit alongside him Jane Mitchell said, “How long have you had it?”
“It says ’Herpetology, Inc.’ on the side panel. Is that your company?”
“That’s it,” he said.
“Snakes must pay well,” she said.
“They do, they do.”
She lit a cigarette and said, “Why did you ask me to come to the party?”
“Because you saved my life.”
“You did.” He laughed. “Besides, you’re very pretty. Have you got a dress, or do you want to buy one?”
“I have a black cocktail thing,” she said. “It’s mildly indecent.”
“Perfect,” Raynaud said. “The German ambassador is a dirty old man.”
She looked out at the jungle. “But I don’t have a hotel reservation,” she said.
“You don’t need one,” he said.
The house was located in the Marjunas suburb of Mexico City, a modern, almost futuristic area of lava fields, the houses blending into the stark landscape. Raynaud’s house had a pool and fountains in front, a lush garden in back. The house itself was glass and steel, harshly simple.
She looked at the living room, the Barcelona chairs and the native rugs, the careful use of heavy Spanish furniture, the white walls.
“Snakes may pay well,” she said, “but not this well.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said.
His housekeeper, Margarita, a severe-looking woman of fifty, greeted them. She looked with distaste at Jane. “Will you have dinner, sir?”
“After the reception.”
When they were alone in the living room, Jane flopped onto a chair. “I’m exhausted.”
“Drink first. There’s plenty of time. The reception isn’t until seven. What will you have?”
“Scotch on the rocks.”
He mixed two scotches. She was still wearing her boots and slacks and a man’s shirt. She watched as he made drinks, and said, “I have a feeling about you.”
“Yes. I have a feeling that you are a liar.”
He laughed. “I am.”
“I mean, a good liar. A professional.”
“I am. But I have a feeling about you, too.”
He gave her the drink. “I think,” he said, “that you are running away, and not just from New York.”
“His name was George,” she said. “Does that explain anything?”
“Georges are awful,” he said. They clicked glasses. Reddish afternoon sunlight streamed into the living room. “Would you like the guest room,” he said, “or the master bedroom?”
“Which is preferable?”
“The master bedroom.”
“Does it include the master?”
“Generally speaking,” Raynaud said, “it does.”
She looked at him steadily over her glass. “You were right about one thing,” she said.
“You’re not very romantic.”
He laughed. “No, I suppose I’m not.”
“I think I would like a cold shower,” she said, standing up. “I feel grubby.”
“There’s something better.”
He nodded to the outside. “The pool.”
“I didn’t bring a suit.”
“It does to me.”
“I mean,” he said, “that I stock a supply.”
He stood by the side of the pool in the fading light and; watched as she swam. He toweled himself dry and sipped the scotch and smiled as she turned at the poolside, and swam back in long, easy strokes. She had chosen the smallest bikini, a yellow one with red trim, and she wore it with grace and quiet confidence. She also didn’t mind getting her hair wet: he disliked women who paddled about with their heads above the water.
He sat down in a deck chair and watched as she got out of the water and wrapped a towel around her. She sat next to him and said, “It feels marvelous. Stop staring.”
“I have to lose three pounds.”
She picked up her drink and combed her wet hair. As if suddenly remembering, she said, “How will I ever dry it? There won’t be time.”
“I have a hairdryer.”
She paused then, and looked at him. “You come fully equipped.”
“Just the usual,” he said.
She sat back in the chair, closed her eyes, and faced the sun. “This is marvelous,” she said. “I could stay here forever.”
Without opening her eyes: “Thanks anyway.”
“Really,” he said. “I’m going away on business. You’ll have the house to yourself. You might as well stay.”
“You certainly could.”
She picked up her drink. “Where are you going?”
“To London. There’s a convention of herpetologists.”
“Is that funny?”
“No. It’s just that I have to go to London as well.”
“On business,” she said.
“I thought you were traveling around the world.”
“Yes. But I have to stop in London.” She looked at him. “When are you leaving?”
Feeling strangely guilty, he said, “Tomorrow morning.”
She paused and sipped the drink, then set it down on the glass poolside table.
“I could go with you,” she said.
“All right,” she said quickly.
“I have to go to Paris first,” he explained.
“Oh,” she said. “I don’t like Paris much.”
“Neither do I.”
She seemed depressed for a moment, then smiled. “Well, perhaps we’ll meet in London.”
“Yes.” he said. “Perhaps we will.”
“The Bronx,” he said, standing in front of the mirror and tying his black silk tie. He looked at her reflected image as she stood in the doorway, watching him. She wore a black silk dress that was as scandalous as she promised: cut high to the hip and low over her breasts. “The Bronx. Ever been?”
“I’ve lived in New York.”
“East Side, I bet.”
She smiled. “Off and on.”
He adjusted the ruffles of his shirt and shrugged into the dinner jacket. “Well, I was raised on the rough side of the Bronx.”
“What made you decide to come to Mexico?”
He buttoned the jacket. “I went to Yale for a while. Six months, to be exact. Then I...left. Joined the Army. The Army discovered I was good at languages. They sent me to Monterey.”
“But now you’re going to the German Embassy reception.”
“Yes. In Mexico, they think I am amusing. I had an aunt in Columbus who left me some money. Nobody knew she had it until she died.” He laughed. “My parents were furious.”
“That was how you started your business?”
“More or less.”
He pulled his sleeves and adjusted the cufflinks. Then he turned away from the mirror.
“Shall we go?”
“You look quite foppish.”
“An act,” he said, taking her arm. They walked out of the bedroom to the living room. There he paused.
“Wait a bit. Forgot my cigarettes.”
He left her and walked back to the bedroom. There he paused to look through the door; she was standing in the living room, admiring a Spanish chest, running her fingers over the carved surface.
He went to the bedroom dresser, took out the revolver, broke it open, and counted the shells. Then he jammed it into his belt.
He returned to the living room a moment later. “All set.”
As they went to the door, she said, “You know, I don’t believe you left your cigarettes behind at all. I think it was something else.”
“Because there were three packs of cigarettes on the bar.”
“Forgot they were there.”
“Not likely,” she said.
They walked down the steps cut into the lava to the garage.
The butler, dressed stiffly in white tie and tails, opened the door for Jane Mitchell and helped her out of the gray Imperial convertible. “Good evening, Madam,” he said. “Good evening, Mr. Raynaud.”
“Good evening, Luis.”
“They are gathering upstairs, sir.”
Luis opened the door to the mansion and they entered the marble lobby. A curved staircase led up to the second floor; they heard the tinkle of glasses and laughter. As they walked up, Jane said, “Very impressive.”
“The Germans are trying hard in Mexico. Making up for lost time.”
“Or lost rebellions,” she said.
At the head of the stairs, the man inquired after their names and announced loudly, “Señorita Mitchell and Señor Raynaud.”
They moved down the receiving line.
“Charles,” said the first in line, Mrs. Burkheit. “You have brought another beauty with you. Wherever do you find them?”
“In the bush,” Raynaud said.
“Charmed,” Mrs. Burkheit said.
“Delighted,” Jane said, extending a frosty hand.
“Do look after Charles,” Mrs. Burkheit said. “He is so unstable.”
“He seems to look after himself,” Jane said.
Charles smiled blandly.
The rest of the receiving line was the same: Mrs. Everson; Mrs. Spengler; Mr. Spengler; the wife of the Ambassador, Mrs. Kronkheit; and finally the ambassador himself.
“Delightful,” the ambassador said.
“Wonderful to see you again,” Raynaud said.
“She is quite delightful,” the ambassador said, looking down Jane’s dress.
“Thank you,” Jane said, giving him a small curtsy and a large look.
At the end of the receiving line, as was the custom, stood a man with a large tray of drinks. Jane took a glass of champagne and said, “You were right.”
“He is a dirty old man.”
“You chose the dress,” Raynaud said.
“Still, he didn’t have to stare that way.”
“Anyone would stare.”
“Yes, I have,” Raynaud said, staring.
“Stop it,” she said, sipping champagne.
“Only if you tell me your decision,” he said.
“About whether you want the master bedroom or the guest room.”
They moved out among the guests at the reception. Raynaud walked to a corner and stood near the wall. In a sudden movement Jane pressed up against him and then stepped, back, smiling.
“So,” she said.
“You forgot cigarettes?”
“You forgot the gun which is stuck in your belt,” she said. “I’d guess it is a thirty-eight Smith and Wesson.”
“You have a very sensitive stomach.”
She looked at him and sipped champagne. “I don’t understand you,” she said. “You won’t take a gun snakehunting, but you take one to a diplomatic reception.”
“Actually, I have to leave soon.”
“Yes. A brief departure. For half an hour or so.”
“Of course,” Raynaud said.
She stared at him evenly. “You’re lying,” she said.
The butler came up. “Señor Raynaud, you have a telephone call.”
Raynaud moved away from her. “Excuse me for a while.”
“I don’t know anybody here.”
“They’ll introduce themselves. Don’t worry.” He moved off into the crowd. “Just watch out for the German ambassador. He’s a whipper.”
He moved to a corner and picked up the phone.
“Señor Raynaud?” It was a deep and throaty voice.
“I am ready.”
He was about to hang up when the voice said, “But señor...”
He paused. “Yes.”
“There is a small trouble.”
“Our friend. He has made preparations.”
“Then we shall also make preparations,” Raynaud said, and hung up.
He went downstairs and ducked back into the shadows beneath the curving marble stairway. There, he withdrew a penknife from his pocket and flicked open the blade. Deftly, he stabbed the tip of his finger and squeezed it until it was bleeding profusely. He wrapped the finger in a handkerchief and made certain that the blood stained through the white cloth.
Then he went to see the downstairs butler, Luis.
“Señor Raynaud, you have hurt yourself.”
Raynaud shrugged. “A small cut. Broken glass.”
“But you must attend it.”
“No time,” Raynaud said. “Call a taxi.”
“There is a taxi outside, señor,” Luis said. “It will take but a moment. If you will come with me to the first-aid kit...”
Raynaud hesitated, then followed him. They walked down a hallway to a small bathroom. A kit hung on the wall. Luis opened it and took out a bandage.
“I can take care of it myself,” Raynaud said. “Just give me the tape.”
Luis looked doubtful. Raynaud took the tape.
“Really, it is nothing. Very small. I can take care of it in the taxi.”
“If you insist, señor...”
Raynaud dropped the tape in his pocket, and with his other hand gave Luis fifty pesos.
“Now let’s get a taxi.”
In the taxi he applied a small strip of tape to the cut and put the rest of the roll in his pocket. He directed the taxi to a garage in the poor, Valdente section of town. There he got out and went in, tipping the attendant. He climbed into a battered, dusty Chevrolet sedan, inserted a key, and drove off. He was tired, gripping the wheel tensely. He knew it was the job, and the strain that was coming. He did not like to think about it, but it hung at the back of his mind. It was a big risk, with so much money involved.
For a moment, he wondered what Jane Mitchell would say if she saw him now.
He drove for several minutes, deep into the slums south of the city. At length he parked across from a modern high-rise structure. It was brightly lighted and freshly painted, but the laundry hanging out from the balconies gave it a dismal, depressing air.
He drove past the apartment house slowly, peering out of the car window. Around the building, someone had attempted to grow grass and small bushes, but the ground was too dry for the plants to take hold; they were blighted and scruffy.
He looked closely.
He saw one, crouching back from the door.
Two: a second, pulled back into the corners and deep shadows to the right.
And there was probably a third somewhere. Because Miguel could afford a third man, and because he would know it was necessary to handle Raynaud.
He drove around the block and parked his car. He paused, blinked his lights, and doused them. Then he waited. After a moment Rico came up and slipped quietly into the back seat.
“What have you seen?” Raynaud said.
“Three,” Rico said. “One in the front. Another to the side. A third upstairs.”
“No more,” Rico said.
“How long have you been watching?”
“Five hours, as you instructed,” Rico said. He smiled, showing white teeth in the dark. “You do not trust Miguel, eh?”
“I trust no one,” Raynaud said. “Not even you.”
Rico seemed to accept this; he nodded. “Miguel has a new woman. She is a beauty.”
“He cannot afford her.”
“So he cuts the corners, eh?”
“If he can.” Raynaud lit a cigarette and smoked in the silence. “Do you think they will try it before, or after?”
“After, I think.”
“Did you see guns?”
“No. No guns.”
Raynaud nodded, and puffed the cigarette. He stared at the apartment building. “You have done well, Rico.”
“Thank you, Señor Raul.”
“I shall go in now. If you hear gunshots, call the police. Understood?”
“Understood, Señor Raul.”
Raynaud got out. He stripped off his dinner jacket and slipped it into the trunk; then he took out a long serape. It looked absurd, the brightly colored material against his dark trousers with the stripe. But in a fast situation, no one would notice.
He started to walk away, and Rico called, “Señor, shall I have him killed?”
“No. Not yet.”
He moved forward toward the apartment house, watching the bushes from the corner of his eyes. Nothing moved. This, he knew, was the hardest part, to walk among the men as if he did not know they were there. But he had no choice; he must not alert Miguel. Otherwise all was lost.
The last time Raynaud had visited the smuggler, he had noticed the woman. She was striking, a smoldering black-haired woman, but she was too expensive for Miguel. It was inevitable that he would try something like this.
Raynaud entered the building and took the elevator up to the ninth floor. His heart was pounding, thumping away inside his chest.
The elevator gave a musical chime and stopped. Raynaud walked down a long corridor to the door marked 12. He knocked, and stepped back.
Miguel answered, looking sleepy.
“Señor Foxwell. I thought you would never come, my friend.” Miguel smiled, stepped back, and gestured for Raynaud to enter.
The apartment inside was brightly lighted. Raynaud entered, his hand at his waist, beneath the serape.
“I am alone,” Miguel said in a hurt voice. “Except, of course, for the woman.”
“Of course.” Raynaud grinned. “You think I don’t trust you?”
“I know you don’t trust me,” Miguel said unhappily. He closed the door. “Brandy?”
“This is a very special brandy,” Miguel said. “Courvoisier.”
“Where did you get it?” Raynaud asked, sitting down. He tried to appear casual; he knew it was important.
“It was borrowed from the British Embassy,” Miguel said. “Five cases of it. The delivery truck had a flat tire, and while the driver went to telephone...” He shrugged, and poured a glass for Raynaud. “Excellent timing.”
Raynaud raised his glass. “To you, Miguel.”
“And you, Señor Foxwell.”
Raynaud brought the glass to his lips and then set it aside as if a thought had come to him. “I am eager to be going.”
“Ah. And I hoped you would stay.”
“I cannot.” Raynaud set the glass down. “The stuff,” he said. “You have it?”
“Yes. Both. In superb condition. You wish to see?”
“No,” Raynaud said.
“Ah.” Miguel grinned. “Then you trust me after all.”
Raynaud shook his head. “I will wait until I am in the hall to look,” he said. “You know that.”
Miguel laughed, not sure whether to believe it or not. He went to get the stuff and Raynaud waited on the couch. The girl came in, wearing a tight red knit dress that clung to her body.
“Señor Foxwell,” she said.
“Señora.” It was a polite term only; there were no illusions.
“It is nice to see you again,” she said.
“Indeed, it is my pleasure.” He watched her closely as she approached him.
“I cannot speak now,” she whispered, “but be careful as you leave. There is a man and he may be armed.”
“Yes. One. But an evil man.” She came close and brushed her breasts against his arm. “Be careful. And tomorrow you can find me at the Café Andaluz.”
“All right,” he said.
Miguel returned with the cardboard box under his arm. “Here it is,” he said.
“Good.” Raynaud took the box, feeling its weight, then set it on the chair. “Now the money.”
“You will remember,” Miguel said, “that we agreed upon one thousand dollars.”
“That’s right,” Raynaud said. He opened his billfold and removed three crisp hundred-dollar bills. He set them on the table.
“Miguel,” Raynaud said, sliding back his serape to show the gun, “I have received some bad news recently.”
“But, señor, I do not know what you have heard. It cannot be true. We do business together for many years. We are old friends.”
“That’s right,” Raynaud said, standing up. “But I trust my source.”
“Yes. Your friend there.”
The girl looked at him in shocked surprise, and Miguel whirled on her.
At that moment, Raynaud brought the barrel of the gun down hard across the back of Miguel’s head. It made an ugly crunching sound and the Mexican dropped silently.
The girl stared with wide eyes. “Señor,” she began.
“Sorry,” Raynaud said, “but you know how it is.”
With a second blow, he caught her behind the ear, a careful blow so as to avoid the face. The girl’s face was her livelihood and he did not want to ruin it with a jagged scar from the sight at the end of the barrel. If Miguel wanted to ruin her face later, that was his business.
Besides, the girl had lied to him. There were three men.
He watched as she fell to the carpet, her skirt sliding up to her hips. She was a sensual girl, even unconscious. Quickly, he bent over her and withdrew the tape from his pocket. In a few quick strokes he had taped her hands and legs behind her back, and fastened a strip across her mouth and eyes. He moved to Miguel and did the same. The tape over the eyes did nothing, except disorient them.
He slipped out of the apartment with the box firmly under his arm. The hallway was clear. He shut the door and walked down the hall to the elevator.
He paused at the elevator, then pressed the button. It lighted. He hesitated a moment, then hurried down the service stairs at the end of the corridor. He moved quickly but silently down eight flights of stairs, and halted at the ground floor.
Looking out through the small glass window in the door, he saw a Mexican in peasant costume—bright serape and drab, baggy pants—lounging next to the elevator. Another was just outside the door, and a third, near the street and Raynaud’s car. They were obviously good men; they blended well, inconspicuous, average, retiring. Their bodies seemed perfectly relaxed though he knew they were not.
He went back to the first floor, padded down the corridor, and pulled the fire alarm.
Racing back down, he saw the three men looking at each other, startled, confused. The alarm rang loudly, and above him he heard the shouts of frightened tenants. The men heard them too. Raynaud ran out toward the first man and caught him head on, knocking him to the ground. He kicked him hard in the head and stomach; the man vomited and was still.
Raynaud pushed through the doors with the box under his left arm. The second man crouched as he approached. Raynaud drew his gun and the man backed off; Raynaud swung and caught him in the face with the flat of the barrel and the bones of the nose cracked sickeningly. The man fell to the ground.
The third man, waiting by the car, drew a knife. Raynaud glanced back at the building; the alarm still sounded and the tenants were opening their windows, shouting, looking out, and running down the stairs. Raynaud fired his gun in the air and the third man, startled and afraid, turned and ran. He dropped his knife in the street.
Raynaud jumped in his car and roared off as the first police patrol car and fire engine arrived. As he drove away, he hoped that Miguel would have the sense to run for it. If Miguel was quick, he would break the tapes and cross the Guatemalan border before midnight, hiding out in a small village somewhere. If he did that, Angelo would never find him.
And Raynaud hoped to hell that Angelo would never find him.
The butler said, “Ah, Señor Raynaud, you are back.”
“Luis, I must make a call.”
“Of course. There is a private telephone in the drawing room.”
The butler showed him the way to an empty room on the ground floor, decorated with heavy, Spanish-American furniture, but charming in its way. Luis retreated respectfully as Raynaud dialed.
An irritable, sleepy voice answered. “Hello.”
“Angelo? This is Marcus.”
The voice did not seem particularly pleased. “So? Business or pleasure, Señor Marcus?”
“Business. You know Miguel Santoz?”
“The little mestizo who smuggles?”
“What about him?”
“Kill him,” Raynaud said.
The voice at the other end sighed, “Kill him, or scare him?”
“One hundred dollars.”
“For one hundred dollars,” Angelo said, “I do not go into Guatemala. I am wanted there.”
“Kill him in Mexico.”
“If he is still here.”
“Yes,” Raynaud said. “If he is still here.”
He hung up and went back to the lobby.
Jane Mitchell was in a corner, talking with a short man in a rented, baggy set of tails. It made him look rather like a turtle balancing on the edge of his shell. Jane introduced him and said, “Charles, this is Peter Manchester.”
“How do,” said Peter Manchester, with a small but firm handshake. “Import-export. What’s your game?”
“I’m in the slave trade,” Raynaud said.
“Oh,” Manchester said. “That’s related.”
“Related to what?”
“Import-export,” he said vaguely. He was quite drunk. “How long you been at it?”
“The slave trade.”
“Years,” Raynaud said. “You see, my father was an Eskimo.”
“Really? You don’t look Eskimo.”
“I know,” Raynaud said, “but I have an Eskimo name.”
“Personally, I hate the cold,” Manchester said. “Hate it. That’s why I came to Mexico.”
“Understandable,” Raynaud said.
“Quite,” Manchester said, and wandered off for another glass of champagne.
Jane looked at him for a moment. “Everything all right? With your business.”
“Fine,” he said. “Just fine.”
“Nothing much,” he said.
“You seem in a good mood.”
“I am,” he said. He noticed again her abbreviated dress, and put his arm around her. “Won’t you catch cold, in a dress like that?”
“Don’t you know?” She laughed. “We Eskimos never catch cold.”
They walked off, through the party.
“I’m glad you’re back,” she said.
“I’m glad to be back.”
“Then take your hand off my ass.”
“It was around your waist.”
“Then it slipped.”
“I guess it did.”
“And it’s rubbing right this minute.”
Benson came up. Benson was drunk as usual. Benson always got drunk on other people’s liquor.
“Charles. What brings you in from the bush?”
He shrugged. “Business.”
“Snakes again?” Benson shuddered. “Where are you off to now? Sweden? Canada? Rio?”
“Paris, actually. A delivery of three.”
“Paris.” Benson sighed. “And all he cares about is snakes. A tragedy.” He winked at Jane. “Quite a looker you have there, snake man.”
He wandered off.
“Snake man?” Jane said.
“That’s what they call me.”
“Because of my, ah, line of work.”
“Somehow,” Jane said, “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe you’re only interested in snakes. Get your hand off my ass. People are watching.”
“People aren’t. And talk nicely.”
“I’ll scream.” Pause. “That’s better.”
“You’re very cruel,” he said, his hand up around her waist again.
“And you’re quite dexterous,” she said.
“Quick hands. Useful in business.”
“I’m not in business,” she said, and spun lightly away from him.
They had dinner on the terrace, alongside the pool. He told her stories about his travels and avoided too much talk about his past. He disliked talking about his past, or thinking about it. Things were good now: he could sit by his pool beneath the stars and eat a candlelit dinner with a pretty girl. The present was enough.
After dinner they had coffee and cognac. She sat back in her chair and said, “I’m tired. All that champagne.”
He glanced at his watch. It was late; he would have to pack. And for that, he would need to be alone.
“All right,” he said. “Margarita will make up the guest room.”
She smiled slightly. “I don’t have to fight you off?”
“I admit,” she said, “I was expecting a battle.”
“I never fight with women.”
“Whom do you fight with?” she asked, looking again at the scar.
“Customs officials,” he said, and rang the bell for the servant.
Margarita took Jane off to the guest wing, and he remained alone for a moment, staring up at the stars and planning the next morning. He considered the details, and small points, the minor facts. They would be crucial, as they always were.
Raynaud believed in details. You never got caught, if you attended to details, and did your homework.
He got up and went past the master bedroom to a small study. There he unlocked the lowest drawer of the desk and removed a strongbox, also locked. He opened this and took out the four passports.
Charles Foxwell, born Louisville, Kentucky, 1930. Middle-aged, white hair, horn-rim spectacles.
Barnaby Raymond, born Chicago, Illinois, 1928. Grinning all-American into the camera, a smooth unlined salesman’s face.
Raymond Charles, born New York, New York, 1931. A drooping, jowly countenance with a dissatisfied scowl. Moustache.
Charles Raynaud, born New York, New York, 1932. His own picture, without changes.
He picked them up and examined them in turn. Then he looked at the other documents, the import and export licenses for Mexico, France, England, Germany...
“Am I disturbing you?”
He looked up. Jane was standing in the doorway, in a floor-length white nightgown. How long had she been there?
“No,” he said calmly, pushing the passports aside, so that they were out of her view. “Not at all.” He moved from behind the desk and walked over to her.
“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “that the room is wonderful, and I’m going to bed.”
She looked young and girlish in the nightgown.
“You want to be tucked in?”
“It’s not necessary,” she said. “Will I see you in the morning?”
“No. I leave early. But I hope you’ll stay and use the house...”
“I may, for a day or two.”
“Will I see you in London?”
He shrugged. “Possibly.”
“Then I’ll say good night,” she said.
She hesitated for a moment. He bent over and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“Good night,” he said.
He watched as she walked down to the other end of the house, then he turned back into the study and closed the door behind him, and locked it.
At the desk, he selected his own passport. It indicated he had not been to Paris in a year and a half, a respectable amount of time. His own passport would be fine.
He went to the closet and slid the doors open. He would need something tweedy and scholarly. It was summer, of course, but tweeds were still best. Then a heavy, woolen knit tie from England. And sensible cordovan shoes. It would all look right together.
He dropped his passport into the breast pocket, together with the French import license covering everything but unvaccinated primate animals and feathered birds. He put the Mexican export license in another pocket.
Then he walked out to the terrace. He took with him a red marker and a stencil. On the terrace was the perforated box. He set the stencil over it and wrote in French, Spanish, and English:
CAUTION: POISONOUS REPTILES
He lifted the stencil, surveyed the printing, and smiled. He set sawdust on the inside, then picked up the heavy canvas sack containing the snakes he had caught that morning, and transferred the snakes to the box.
They made rustling sounds on the sawdust. It was all mildly sinister.
He looked at the box while he had a final brandy and then, very tired, he went off to bed.
At six in the morning he was showered, and dressed in his tweeds. He had the box under his arm and was slipping out the door when he saw Jane Mitchell.
She smiled at him. “I wanted to see you off.”
“You shouldn’t have bothered.”
She nodded to the box. “Those are the snakes you are delivering?”
She was still wearing her nightgown; her face was creased prettily from sleep. “And why the get-up?”
“The tweedy clothes. You look like a college professor.”
He shrugged noncommittally.
“I think,” she said, “that you are very strange.”
“I hope we meet in London,” she said. “Do try to make it.”
“I will,” he said.
“Do,” she said, and came up and kissed him very hard on the mouth.
“That’s quite an enticement,” he said. “Is it a preview of coming attractions?”
“Maybe,” she said. She looked at him steadily for a moment. “We have a lot to talk about in London.”
“Yes,” she said. She kissed him again, lightly this time, her lips just brushing.
“Such as why you have four passports,” she said, and smiled.
“You were spying,” he said.
“I was curious,” she said.
“And now, I am even more curious,” she said, and gave him a final, very long kiss, which bothered him and amused him and left him feeling a little dizzy, but altogether good.
The airplane cruised at thirty-five thousand feet over the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. Seated forward in the economy class, looking rather timidly out the window, was Dr. Charles Raynaud, Assistant Professor of Zoology.
He had taken pains to be sure everyone knew his position; he announced it loudly to the ground crews and the girls on the plane. A stewardess came up and said, “Would you care for a drink, Doctor Raynaud?”
“I would adore it,” Raynaud said. “Absolutely adore it. I’m parched: do you have any sherry?”
“I’m sorry. We don’t.”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“Then ginger ale.”
The stewardess nodded and left. Raynaud removed his wire-rimmed spectacles and wiped them on the end of his tie. He squinted and blinked myopically at the other passengers, then replaced his glasses and settled back in the seat.
Professor. He smiled to himself.
He had learned long ago that certain kinds of status went unchallenged by virtually anyone. Few people recognized this. For example, nobody ever called upon a man to prove he was married, except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Similarly, you could claim any number of academic degrees and professional qualifications—professor, doctor, lawyer—without the slightest trouble, so long as you fulfilled the expectations of the people around you. A doctor had a black bag and a serious demeanor. A lawyer had a briefcase and a rigidly conservative suit. And a professor...
He smiled as the stewardess came up with his drink. She saw the box on the seat alongside him, and read the label.
“What do you have there?”
“Three snakes,” Raynaud said.
“Snakes?” She gave a girlish shudder.
“Very rare and valuable snakes,” Raynaud said.
“I see,” she said. “Are they really—”
“Poisonous? Very. Very, very, very.” He sipped his ginger ale and smacked his lips. “Among the most poisonous known. They are members of the species Xanthus, indigenous to the Yucatan jungle.”
“Fascinating,” she said, looking down the aisle, as if she wished to leave.
“Oh, quite,” Raynaud said. He rubbed his hands together. “Are you aware that one ounce—one ounce, mind you—of their venom could kill all the inhabitants of a small city? That no more than one hundred molecules of venom can paralyze a healthy man for life?”
The stewardess nodded numbly.
“The venom,” Raynaud explained, “does not work by the usual methods of depolarization of the neuromuscular junction or interruption of axonal coupling. Nor is there an oxidative-phosphorylation effect. Rather the venom contains an enzyme, phosphogluconase. It’s important in intermediate metabolism. Carbohydrate entry into cell membranes. Shift of receptor sites, that kind of thing.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” the stewardess said.
“Oh, yes,” Raynaud said. “You see, snakes are my life.”
Copyright © 1970 John Lange; Copyright Renewed, 2005, by Constant c Productions, Inc.