The Killing Ground
Forte Franco must have been the sort of posting which to any career officer was equivalent of a sentence of death. A sign that he was finished. That there was no more to come. Because of this I had expected the kind of second-rater one usually found in command of up-river military posts; incapable of realizing his own inadequacies and permanently soured by his present misfortunes.
Colonel Albert¯ was not at all like that. I was helping Mannie get the Hayley ready to go when the launch came into the jetty and he disembarked. He was every inch the soldier in a well-tailored drill uniform, shining boots, black polished holster on his right thigh. Parade-ground smart and the face beneath the peaked cap was intelligent and firm although tinged with yellow as if he’d had jaundice which was a common enough complaint in the climate.
There were half a dozen soldiers in the boat, but only one accompanied him, a young sergeant as smartly turned-out as his colonel with a briefcase in one hand and a couple of machine-guns slung over one shoulder.
Alberto smiled pleasantly and spoke in quite excellent Eng-lish. “A fine morning, Senhor Sterne. Is everything ready?”
“Just about,” Mannie told him.
“And Captain Hannah?”
“Will be down shortly.”
“I see.” Alberto turned to me. “And this gentleman?”
“Neil Mallory,” I said. “I’m Hannah’s new pilot. I’m going up with you, just to get the feel of things.”
“Excellent.” He shook hands rather formally then glanced at his watch. “I have things to discuss with Figueiredo. I’ll be back in half an hour. I’ll leave Sergeant Lima here. He’ll be going with us.”
He moved away, a brisk, competent figure and the sergeant opened the cabin door and got rid of the machine-guns and the briefcase.
I said to Mannie, “What’s his story? He doesn’t look the type for up-country work.”
“Political influence as far as I understand it,” Mannie said. “Said the wrong thing to some government minister or other in front of people. Something like that, anyway.”
“He looks a good man to me.”
“Oh, he’s that all right. At least as far as the job is con-cerned, but I’ve never cared for the professional soldier as a type. They made the end justify the means too often for my liking.” He wiped his hands on a rag and stood back. “Well, she’s ready as she’ll ever be. Better get Hannah.”
I found him in the shower, leaning in the comer for support, head turned up into the spray. When he turned it off and stepped out, he tried to smile and only succeeded in looking worse than ever.
“I feel as if they’ve just dug me up. What happened last night?”
“You got drunk,”I said.
“What on – wood alcohol? I haven’t felt like this since Prohi-bition.”
He wandered off to his bedroom like a very old man and I went into the kitchen and made some coffee. When it was ready, I took it out on a tray and found him on the veranda dressed for flying.
He wrapped a white scarf around his throat and took one of the mugs. “Smells good enough to drink. I thought you Limeys could only make tea?” He sipped a little, eyeing me speculatively. “What really happened last night?”
“Can’t you remember anything?”
“I won a little money at poker, that’s for sure. More than my share and Avila and his boys weren’t too happy. Was there trouble?”
“I suppose you could say that”
So I did. There was little point in holding anything back for he was certain to hear it for himself one way or the other.
When I was finished, he sat there on the rail holding the mug in both hands, his face very white, those pale eyes of his opaque, lifeless. As I have said, the appearance of things was of primary importance to him. His standing in other men’s eyes, the image he protrayed to the world and these men had treated him like dirt – publicly humiliated him.
He smiled suddenly and unexpectedly, a slow burn as if what I had said had touched a fuse inside. I don’t know what it would have done for Avila, but it certainly frightened me. He didn’t say another word about the matter, didn’t have to and I could only hope Avila would be long gone when we returned. He emptied what was left of his coffee over the rail and stood up. “Okay, let’s get moving. We’ve got a schedule to keep.”