Off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, a freighter battles the waves. The steward has been stricken with appendicitis, but the sea is too rough for the ship to dock. A coast guard helicopter brings him to shore, where he is put in an ambulance and rushed the hospital. But when the ambulance arrives, the patient has disappeared. He was never sick, and he is not a sailor. He is an assassin, and he’s vanished into thin air.
The Organization of American States is holding a summit in Rio, and Argentinian representative Juan Dorcas is planning an incendiary speech. When Interpol liaison José Da Silva hears whispers that Dorcas will be assassinated before he has a chance to speak, his thoughts turn to the sailor who jumped ship, to commit a murder that will rock a hemisphere.
About the Author
Fish died February 23, 1981, at his home in Connecticut. Each year at the annual Mystery Writers of America dinner, a memorial award is presented in his name for the best first short story. This is a fitting tribute, as Fish was always eager to assist young writers with their craft.
Read an Excerpt
Always Kill a Stranger
A Captain José da Silva Mystery
By Robert L. Fish
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Robert L. Fish
All rights reserved.
The sea, which had been so deceptively peaceful and calm when the freighter Santa Eugenia had discharged a portion of its cargo in Salvador de Bahia and headed south along the Brazilian coast, was now beginning to perceptibly roughen. Whitecaps flecked the growing waves beneath a dismal morning sky rapidly filling with threatening black clouds; a sudden chill touched the rising wind. The increased movement brought protesting creaks from the rusty plates of the ship, which nosed deeper into the murky green depths, as if searching for the cause of this abrupt unfriendliness. In the small galley below, dishes slid haphazardly and pots clattered; dim bulbs in the forecastle angled perilously on their twisted flex, swaying erratically, throwing monstrously distorted shadows across the stacked bunks.
On the small open bridge that jutted from the wheelhouse, Captain Enrique Juvenal, master of the Santa Eugenia, studied the latest radio reports of the storm into which the ship was heading, and shook his head. Captain Juvenal was worried. A cautious man by nature, he knew his beloved Santa Eugenia was neither the newest nor the sturdiest of freighters, and he also knew his cargo was in severe imbalance as a result of their offloading in Salvador de Bahia. And even more he knew that the sudden tropical storms that could sweep this area, while rare, were certainly no less treacherous for that.
He leaned over the flaking rail of the bridge and stared down at his young first mate, balancing himself expertly on the pitching deck below, busily directing the shifting of the meager deck-cargo in an effort to put some semblance of security into their tenuous position. Captain Juvenal scratched his heavily bearded face and sucked fiercely on his thin black cigar; smoke billowed about him, to be instantly snatched away by the increasing gale. A respectful touch on his shoulder drew his attention; it was the radioman handing him another slip. He nodded dismissal even as he scanned the paper, frowned blackly at the message it contained, and then bent over the rail, his white teeth gleaming about the cigar.
The first mate looked up, gave one final suggestion over his shoulder to his men to prevent them from disappearing for coffee while he was gone, and trotted up the narrow companionway. He paused a moment at the top to study the darkening horizon, and then touched his cap.
"How's the work going?"
The mate raised his shoulders. "Slow." His tone seemed to indicate that in his opinion it was also largely useless. He met the captain's eye squarely. "It isn't the deck-cargo that's the problem, sir; it's those large generators in the hold. The ones for Buenos Aires. And we can't move those at sea with our equipment."
"I know." The captain puffed on his cigar, thinking. His eyes dropped to the slip of paper in his hand and then came up again. "How much of the cargo goes off in Rio? And how much in Santos?"
The mate stared at him a moment, and then smiled in sudden understanding. He dragged a thick batch of papers from his hip pocket, wet a finger, and began leafing through them. The news was good; when he looked up it was with satisfaction. "Not a great deal for either place, sir. Nothing that couldn't be shipped back from Montevideo, or even dropped off on our return, as far as that goes."
"And how about the passengers?"
"That's no problem. Three getting off in Montevideo, and the other one in Buenos Aires."
"I see." Captain Juvenal squinted thoughtfully at the end of his cigar, carefully considering the various alternatives. His eyes came up to the horizon; he frowned at it a moment and then made up his mind. The slip of paper was jammed firmly into one pocket of his sea jacket, as indicating his arrival at a decision. He nodded. "All right. We'll miss both Rio and Santos. And also the worst part of the storm. I'll make up a cable advising the company and also the Rio agents. You post a notice below."
"Right, sir," said the mate in a satisfied tone.
"And then get back to shifting that deck-cargo," the captain added dryly. "We don't intend to go to Africa to miss this storm. We'll still feel enough of it."
"Yes, sir!" said the mate with a nice combination of alacrity and agreement, and trotted happily back down the companionway.
To the four passengers the Santa Eugenia carried, the change in plans made little difference; when one took a freighter one calculated the maximum travel time in any event, and none of them had plans which would be seriously inconvenienced by the changed schedule. Nor, in general, did the posted notice make any great difference to the crew. Salvador de Bahia was only two days behind them, and their pockets were empty and their vices temporarily assuaged. And, in any event, missing a storm in a ship whose cargo was out of balance was certainly no cause for any rational sailor to complain.
To one member of the crew, however, the announcement came with a shock that was sickening. As steward for the four passengers and the ship's few officers, Nacio Madeira Mendes was alone in the small dining salon when the first mate came in whistling cheerfully, thumbtacked the notice to the bit of plywood that served as bulletin board, studied his handiwork a moment and found it exceeding good, and then went back out on deck. Nacio came forward with natural curiosity to read the fatal words, interrupting his clearing of the breakfast dishes to do so. It took a few seconds for the full extent of the calamity to strike him, but when it did, the blood drained from his thin face, leaving him white and rigid with shock.
Nacio Madeira Mendes had joined the Santa Eugenia in Lisbon for the sole purpose of reaching his native Rio de Janeiro with the minimum of trouble. His forged passport would almost certainly have caused investigation had he traveled as a passenger by either ocean liner or airplane, since at best it was a poor job. However, it was all that Nacio had been prepared to pay for, and certainly in his opinion ample for the purposes of a dining room steward, since cabin help were always in demand and under such conditions shipping agents paid small attention to papers. And at Rio, Nacio had anticipated no difficulty at all. The crew would be given their normal shore leave, and by simply not returning to the ship he would have been free in his native land with small chance of ever being located. The false passport would have been destroyed, or possibly even sold for a profit—for the name on it was nothing likes Mendes, and the picture might easily have been of almost anyone between the ages of twelve and sixty. His jaw clenched painfully. It had all been so simple up until that moment!
Nacio Madeira Mendes was a medium-sized man, with a sharp but small beak of a nose, and a widow's peak that divided his broad forehead the slightest bit off-center. The effect was to give his lean face a rather attractive appearance, heightened somewhat by the smoothness of skin that belied his forty-two years of age. Only the coldness of his eyes, to those few who ever bothered to note them, indicated that not only was the small tense man not as young as he appeared, but that his years had not been spent in careless abandon.
As he stood swaying to the restless, creaking movement of the ship, bitter anger diffused him, flushing his face; anger at the captain for making his decision, at the storm for influencing the captain, but mostly at himself for being such an idiot. He should have jumped ship in Bahia, safely on Brazilian soil, and managed to reach Rio de Janeiro by pau de arara, or even by omnibus, neither of which was normally scrutinized by the police. But he had been so stupidly sure of arriving with the Santa Eugenia that he had wasted his time there in a ridiculous bar with a couple of even more ridiculous girls and had then staggered back like a docile imbecile to what was now going to be a prison-ship carrying him past his destination. Good God!
His thin lips pressed themselves together tightly, leaving them bloodless, as he stared at the impartial bulletin board. Sebastian had told him when they had met in Lisbon that the opportunity of a lifetime awaited him; the chance to earn a fantastic sum for a few minutes' work. And now he was being carried helplessly away from it! He tried to force down his anger and attempt a cold calculation of his position, but it was impossible. With the scheduled detour, the ship would not arrive in Montevideo for at least another four days, and Sebastian had been very clear that he had to be in Rio de Janeiro by the sixth of the month at the latest, or to forget the entire matter. And the sixth was tomorrow! Damn! And again damn! Why in the name of the beloved Saint whose job it was to watch over such fools as himself hadn't he left the ship in Salvador de Bahia?
He stood staring bitterly at the scrawled notice but in actuality only seeing the black turmoil of his thoughts. It was not until the hand on his arm had shaken him rather severely several times that he realized he was being addressed.
"Bad news, Steward?"
Even in his daze, Nacio recognized the other as being one of the four passengers, a small globular man with a full fat face and a hairline mustache curved under a tiny blob of a nose; a man named Dantas, or Dumas, or Dortas, or something like that; a man whose large black eyes were liquid and fathomless, and whose sparse graying hair seemed to have been painted in place. Nacio stared at him blankly.
The little man was patience itself. "I said, the notice seems to be somewhat of a shock to you."
"The notice?" Nacio forced his mind from the fateful meaning of the scrawled words, automatically assuming the semiservility of a steward. "No, senhor. I was merely a bit surprised. It really makes no difference to me."
The smaller man studied Nacio's features a moment thoughtfully, and then changed his tactics. His voice became conversational. "You're a Brazilian, are you not?"
It was impossible to deny this; Nacio's accent betrayed him in every word, even to this little man who spoke in a Spanish that was marked with the harsh gutturals of the Rio Plate. "A Brazilian? Yes, senhor, I am."
"And you aren't disappointed that we shall not be stopping in Rio?"
"Disappointed?" For a moment the complete inadequacy of the word almost removed Nacio's rigid control. He forced back a wave of bitterness and even managed at last to shrug, even to force a deprecating smile. "Naturally, senhor, to a Brazilian our lovely Rio de Janeiro must always be the only city in the world. And not to see it, when one is actually so close ..."
"A pity." The tiny fathomless eyes looked at him calculatingly. "I admire you, Steward. I admire the calm way in which you accept this—ah, this disappointment." The small shoulders raised themselves delicately. "I think in your place I should be less brave."
Nacio had no choice but to fall back upon a cliché. "Senhor, in this life what one cannot overcome, one must accept." Even as he said the words, he wished he could believe them.
"Not always." The little man dropped his eyes to the worn rug of the salon a moment and then raised them. "A person of ingenuity always seeks alternate routes to his goal. Different avenues. For example," he continued evenly, "if I were you, I should still manage to get to Rio. Or at least to try." He paused a moment and then added significantly, "And I should do it today...."
"Today?" Nacio studied the expression in the other's eyes a moment. The deep liquid pools seemed to be trying to give him a message, but without success. Was the little man making fun of him? The thought induced bitterness. "How, senhor? By swimming?"
"No," said the little man gently. "By becoming ill."
The faint hope that the small passenger might actually have a workable plan disappeared; it was obvious that the man was merely insane. Nor in his present mood did Nacio feel like wasting the time to humor him. "If you will please pardon me, senhor—"
The tiny hand that shot out to grasp his arm and detain him was far stronger than Nacio would have imagined.
"Ill!" said the smaller man firmly. "Sick! The captain of this ship is not the type to allow a member of his crew to suffer, and possibly to die, simply because he wishes to avoid some rough weather."
Nacio's eyes narrowed as the words of the other slowly began to germinate. It was, indeed, an idea. Possibly, even, a good idea. "But what kind of illness?"
"Appendix, I should say." The smaller man looked at him quite evenly; no trace of expression marked his full, fat face. "Now, tell the truth. You do not feel well, do you?"
Nacio studied the other carefully. "No, senhor. I do not."
"Good! I mean, I'm sorry to hear it. And, of course, you also have a terrible pain in your lower groin." Nacio's hand went automatically to his stomach. "Over a bit and a trifle lower," said the small passenger critically, and moved Nacio's hand. He studied the effect. "That's better."
"And nausea, of course." Dorcas—or Dantas, or Dumas, or something like that—considered the frozen face of the steward a moment, and then nodded. "I've seen sicker people, but I suppose it will have to do. You'd better get to your bunk. An infected appendix can be a serious affair."
"There's just one thing—"
"I shall advise the officials." The small hand came up to grasp Nacio's arm again, urging him toward the door. Nacio held back. It was quite obvious that this Dantas—or Dumas or Dortas or something like that—had his own reasons for wanting the ship to dock in Rio, and was only using him as a Judas goat. It was true that the scheme might well serve his, Nacio's, purposes, but still ...
"Just why are you doing this, senhor?"
"Why?" The little man smiled. "Let us say that I, too, have suffered the pangs of homesickness, and I appreciate them in others. Or, if you prefer, let us say that I have a distorted sense of humor and enjoy practical jokes. Or even, let us say," he added coldly, his smile disappearing instantly, "that I recognize illness when I see it, and in my estimation you should be lying down in your bunk. Now!"
His hand propelled Nacio closer to the door. The thin steward allowed himself to be led. Regardless of the other's motives, the fact remained that this could well be the solution to his own problem. He assumed an expression of pain, grasped his lower groin firmly, and nodded. "If you will pardon me, senhor ..."
"Of course," said the small passenger pleasantly.
He looked after the departing figure of the steward a moment thoughtfully, sighed, and then made his way to the deck. The sky had darkened considerably, taking on a weird yellowish cast, eerie at that hour of the morning; the wind had risen, shrilling through the guy ropes of the deck cranes, heavy with the threat of coming rain. He stepped daintily across the rope-falls that snaked their way across the sloping deck, and finally located the mate. He tapped the tall young man on the shoulder a bit imperiously.
"Your steward is quite ill." His voice was raised over the wind, but still seemed to be a trifle accusing, as if the affair were somehow the mate's fault.
"Ill? The steward?"
Miguel was rather surprised to hear this particular passenger evoking any great interest in anything, let alone the health of a crew member. This one had kept to himself throughout the voyage, seldom if ever spoke at the dining table, avoided even the slight entertainment the ship offered, and was usually found at night leaning over the bow rail, staring out into the empty blackness.
"Ill," said the passenger patiently. "In great pain. It's rather obvious that the man is suffering from a badly infected appendix."
The mate stared at him a moment, shrugged, and then turned back to his work, bawling an order to the deckhands. The small passenger frowned; his voice became icy.
"Mate! Did you hear what I said? I said—"
Miguel cast his eyes toward the heavens in supplication; the growing fury there certainly offered no solution. "All right! All right!" he said with irritation. "I'll have a look at him."
He shouted out a string of orders and turned toward the bow, shaking his head in disgust. He stamped up the tilted deck, turned into a passageway, and marched angrily toward the forecastle. Stewards! And passengers! The steward had probably only been sampling the wine; or in even greater probability was only suffering from the increased roll of the ship. And with all the work to be done on deck, he had to waste time going off to hold the man's hand!
Excerpted from Always Kill a Stranger by Robert L. Fish. Copyright © 1967 Robert L. Fish. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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