A small, wiry man in flying boots and leather jacket sat on the end stool constructing a tower of toothpicks on the base of an upturned glass. There was no barman as usual I dropped my grip on the floor, went behind the counter and found a bottle of Courvoisier.
His left eye was fixed for all time, a reasonable facsimile of the real thing in glass. The face was expressionless, a wax-like film of scar tissues, and when he spoke the mouth didn’t seem to move at all.
“Jack Johnson,” he said in a hard Australian twang. “Not that I’m any bloody punch-up artist like the black fella.”
I held up the brandy bottle, he nodded and I reached for another glass. “That your Rapide up on the field?”
“That’s it, sport, Johnson Air Transport. Sound pretty good, eh?”
“Sounds bloody marvelous,” I said and stuck out my hand. “Neil Mallory.”
“Well, I’ll come clean. That Rapide is Johnson Air Trans-port.” He frowned suddenly. “Mallory? Say, are you the bloke who’s been flying that old Bristol for the Baron?”
“The Baron?” I said.
“Sam Hannah, the Black Baron. That’s what we used to call him at the Front during the war. I was out there with the R.F,C.”
“You knew him well?”
“Hell, everybody knew the Black Baron. He was hot stuff. One of the best there was.”
So it was all true, every damned word and I had been con-vinced he had told me some private fantasy of long ago, a tissue of half-truths and exaggerations.
“But that was in another country, as they say,” Johnson went on. “Poor old Sam’s been on the long slide to nowhere ever since. By God, his luck certainly turned when you came along. You saved his bacon and no mistake. I hope he’s paying you right?”
“The boot was on the other foot,” I said. “If he hadn’t taken me on when he did, I’d have ended up on the labour gang. He already had another pilot lined when I arrived.”
It was difficult to come to terms with that face of his.There was no way of knowing what was going on behind the mask. There was just that hard Australian voice. In other words, he gave nothing away and to this day I am still not certain whether what happened was by accident or design.
He said, “What other pilot? What are you talking about?”
“Portuguese, I think. I don’t know his name. I believe he’d been flying for a mining company in Venezuela which went bust.”
“First I’ve heard of it and pilots are like gold on the Amazon these days, what with the Spanish war and all this trouble coming up in Europe. You must have seemed like manna from heaven to poor old Sam dropping in like that after all those bad breaks he had. But he sure ran it close. A week left to get a second plane airborne and Charlie Wilson waiting to fly up from Belem and take over his government contract”
“Charlie Wilson?” I said.
“Haven’t you met Charlie?” He helped himself to another brandy. “Nice bloke – Canadian – works the lower end of the river out of Belem with three Rapides. Sell his sister if he had to. Mind you I always thought Sam would come up with some-thing. Nobody in his right mind is going to let twenty thousand dollars slip through his fingers that easily.”
It was all turning over inside me now, currents pulling every which-way, explanations for some irrational things which had never made any sense rising to the surface.
“Twenty thousand dollars?” I said carefully.
“I hadn’t realised it was as much as that.”
“I should know. I bid for the contract myself originally then my partner went West in our other plane so that was that. I’ve been free-lancing since then in the middle section of the river operating from Colona about four hundred miles from here. I don’t get into Manaus often.”
He went on talking, but I didn’t hear for I had other things on my mind. I went round the counter, picked up my canvas grip and moved to the door.