It was hotter than hell in Uncle Guillermo’s playroom. The heavy vertical blinds had not been raised—Señora Pellano was not here; if she had been here, they would have been—to take advantage of the breezes coming off the Rio de la Plate.
By the time he had raised them, and opened the windows to the balcony, Clete was sweat soaked. He stripped off his clothing, down to his shorts and boots, and then went onto the balcony to catch the breeze.
Who’s going to see me, anyhow? And if somebody does, so what?
He sat down on one of the six comfortable, cushioned chairs around the table and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then he stood up and went to the ice chest, which, he thought with pleasure, should certainly be stocked with cold beer.
There was beer, but it was floating around in tepid water.
When the cat’s away, the mice will play, he thought. If Señora Pellano had not been at the big house, taking care of the Old Man’s girlfriend, there would be cold beer in here.
And then the hair on his neck curled.
Jesus Christ, if Peter was serious, what I’m doing is making one hell of a target of myself for somebody with a rifle over there in the race track grandstands!
He quickly went back in the bedroom, and stood with his back against the wall. His heart was beating rapidly, and his sweat was now clammy.
Then he told himself that he was being foolish.
It’s incredible to think that someone is over there in the race track grandstands with a rifle. If there had been, they would have taken a shot at me when I drove up in the Horche.
And besides, there are those Argentine FBI guys—the Internal Security agents—outside on the street.
But then he remembered that there had been no car on the street, no South American Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat standing under the tree.
I probably lost them when I took the Old Man’s Horche from Uncle Humberto’s. They are standing around watching for the Buick.
That made him smile, and with the smile, he lost the feeling of terror. He pushed himself off the wall.
You are a melodramatic asshole, Clete Frade!
But shit, Peter sounded serious. Better safe than sorry.
He walked quickly around the room turning off the lights. Then he carefully lowered the shutters.
He turned the lights on again.
And, as I learned as a Boy Scout, “Be Prepared!”
He went to the wardrobe where he had hidden the Argentine copy of
the Colt Model 1911 .45 pistol and took it out. He removed the magazine,
emptied and reloaded it; dry-fired the pistol, satisfied himself that
it was functioning properly, and then reinserted the magazine, and
worked the action, chambering a round.
And then he felt a little absurd again. “Why don’t I do this right?” he asked himself aloud. “If this is going to be a replay of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, why not do it with a Colt six-shooter?”
He went to the desk and took out his Christmas present, the felt-lined walnut box holding the old Hog Leg, the Colt Army .44-40 revolver, the pistol his grandfather had carried while commanding an Argentine Cavalry Regiment.
What did the Old Man say it was, The “Husare de Pueyrredón”?
You’d be proud of me, Grandpa, sitting here with your Hog Leg about to defend myself against the Argentine equivalent of the Apaches.
Jesus Christ, it’s hot in here with those goddamned blinds closed!
He stood up and walked to the rear of the apartment, where, he seemed to recall, there was a second balcony. He finally found it, behind the elevator shaft and the steep stairway.
It was barely large and wide enough for two simple wooden chairs with leather seats and backs, and offered a far from charming view of the service entrances of other houses, and what, to judge from the smell of it, was the Buenos Aires version of a privy.
But it was in the open, and there was a small breeze. He started to sit down, and then decided a warm beer was better than no beer, and went back into Uncle Guillermo’s playroom.
Feeling more than a little sheepish, he turned off the lights, opened one of the vertical blinds, and crept onto the balcony, taking two beers from the ice chest, and then crept back inside. He lowered the blind again, and then started for the balcony.
The .45 semi-automatic was on the desk, beside the .44-40 Hog Leg.
I should put that away before Señora Pellano comes in here with my breakfast and sees it.
Ah, to hell with it. I’ll take it with me, and put it away before I go to bed.
He went to the rear balcony, settled himself as comfortably as he could—sitting in one of the two chairs, resting his booted feet on the other—and opened one of the warm beers.
Warm beer is better than no beer at all. I doubt if they serve any beer at all to convicted cowards resident in the Portsmouth Naval Prison.
And what about that? Are they really going to court-martial me? Could they make the charge stick, if they did?
Sonofabitch, that Nestor!
I don’t really have to report aboard that goddamned destroyer under arrest. I’m an Argentine citizen. All I have to do is tell the Old Man I want an Argentine passport, and I’ve got one.
There are a number of advantages to that little scenario, including the one spelled Virgin Princess. All I would have to do would be wait a couple of years until she grows up. Grows OLDER. With a body like that, she’s as full grown as she’s going to get.
Say in three years. Say four years. That would make her twenty-three, and I would be twenty-six. A lot of people get married with that much difference in age.
The only problem there is that we could never visit the United States, because my picture would be hanging in the post office, WANTED FOR DESERTION FROM THE MARINE CORPS.
I can’t desert the fucking Marine Corps!
Maybe Colonel Graham will understand why I wasn’t going to get myself and Tony and Ettinger killed. Maybe the court-martial will. What the hell, just before I came down here, I had my picture on the front page of The Los Angeles Times as a fucking hero. Will that mean anything to a court martial board?
Maybe the whole thing will just be slipped under the rug, and they’ll let me quietly go back to the Marine Corps and fly airplanes.
I could write the Virgin Princess—if her father didn’t throw my letters away—and tell her I was sorry I had to leave without saying good-bye, and that I would be coming back here when the war is over, and that I would like to correspond with her, if she would like to write.
And some slick sonofabitch down here would steal her away from me while I was on some fucking island in the Pacific!
I could call her just before I report aboard that goddamned destroyer and tell her I love her, and that I’ll write and will be back.
Can I tell her I love her?
Why the hell not? She already thinks I did.
And she liked it. She looked at me out of those beautiful eyes and pursed her lips in a kiss...
Jesus Christ, I’d give my left nut to put my arms around her and kiss her!
What the hell is that?
A cat or something? Rats?
What the hell is it?
He carefully lowered his booted feet to the floor and stood up. He had left the door to the rear balcony slightly ajar. He went to it, put his hand on the knob, and started to open it. Then he changed his mind, and dropped to his knees and felt around the floor until his fingers encountered the Argentine .45.
He went back to the door. He heard the sound of feet on the stone stairs again, and then his heart jumped as he realized someone was coming up the stairs.
No. Someone is already on the top floor and a somebody else is coming up the stairs, and it goddamned sure isn’t Señora Pellano. Then who the hell is it?
He smelled a man.
A man who hasn’t had a bath in a long time. Smells like an infantry Marine from the ’Canal.
The second man walked toward Uncle Guillermo’s playroom.
What the hell do I do now?
Clete eased the door open and, walking on his tip toes, left the balcony and walked toward the playroom.
It was absolutely dark inside. He found the light switch, closed his eyes, and turned the lights on.
He opened his eyes, and in the time it took for them to adjust to the sudden light, saw two men.
What the hell is he doing next to my bed?
The second man was closer, shielding his eyes against the light. He had a long, slightly curved knife in his hand. When he saw Clete, he brought the arm holding the knife up across his chest, so that he would be able to slash at Clete when he got close.
The man next to Clete’s bed started to get to his feet. He had an even larger knife in his hand, and assumed a crouching position.
Clete looked at the man closer to him, in time to see him start to rush at him.
Did I chamber a round in this thing?