Jack Higgins – The Last Place God Made

I had never cared much for the place. There was a sugges-tion of corruption, a kind of general decay. A feeling that the jungle was gradually creeping back in and that none of us had any right to be there.

I felt restless and ill-at-ease, reaction to stress, I suppose, and wanted nothing so much as to be on my way, looking back on this place over the sternrail of a riverboat for the last time.

I found the agent in the office of a substantial warehouse on the waterfront. He was tall, cadaverous, with the haunted eyes of a man who knows he has not got long to live and he coughed repeatedly into a large, soiled handkerchief which was already stained with blood.

He gave thanks to Our Lady for my deliverance to the extent of crossing himself and in the same breath pointed out that under the terms of my contract, I only got paid on safe delivery of the Vega to Belem. Which was exactly what I had expected and I left him in a state of near collapse across hisdesk doing his level best to bring up what was left of his lungs and went outside.

My cab still waited for me, the driver dozing in the heat of the day, his straw sombrero tilted over his eyes. I walked across to the edge of the wharf to see what was going on in the basin which wasn’t much, but there was a stern-wheeler up at the next wharf loading green bananas.

I found the captain in a canvas chair under an awning on the bridge and he surfaced for as long as it took to tell me he was leaving at nine the following morning for Belem and that the trip would take sixdays. If I didn’t fancy a hammock on deck with his more impoverished customers, I could have the spare bunk in the mate’s cabin with all found for a hundredcruzeiros. I assured him I would be there on time and he closed his eyes with complete indifference and returned to more important matters.

I had just over a thousandcruzeiros in my wallet, around a hundred and fifty pounds sterling at that time which meant that even allowing for the trip down-river and incidental ex-penses, I would have ample in hand to buy myself a passage to England from Belem on some cargo boat or other.

I was going home. After two and a half years of the worst that South America could offer, I was on my way and it felt marvellous. Definitely one of life’s great moments and all tiredness left me as I turned and hurried back to the cab.

I had expected the worst of the hotel but the Palace was a pleasant surprise. Certainly it had seen better days, but it had a kind of baroque dignity to it, a faded charm that was very appealing, and Hannah’s name had a magic effect on the Senhor Juca he had mentioned, an old, white-haired man in an alpaca jacket who sat behind the desk reading a newspaper.

He took me upstairs personally and ushered me into a room with its own little ironwork terrace overlooking the river. The whole place was a superb example of late Victoriana, caught for all time like a fly in amber from the brass bed to the heavy, mahogany furniture.

An Indian woman in a black bombazine dress appeared with clean sheets and the old man showed me, with some pride, the bathroom next door of which I could have sole use, although regrettably it would be necessary to ring for hot water. I thanked him for his courtesy, but he waved his hands deprecatingly and assured me, with some eloquence, that nothing was too much trouble for a friend of Captain Hannah’s.

I thought about that as I undressed. Whatever else you could say about him, Hannah obviously enjoyed considerable standing in Manaus which was interesting, considering he was a foreigner.

I needed that bath badly, but suddenly, sitting there on the edge of the bed after getting my boots off, I was overwhelmed with tiredness. I climbed between die sheets and was almost instantly asleep.

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