Caribbean Crisis

by Desmond Reid

10. Francesca

The heat of the afternoon was fading fast as Worple's befuddled mind eventually succeeded in guiding the Oldsmobile to the correct part of the city.

The bar, when they found it, was the one Blake had heard about previously. It was the one mentioned by the hotel keeper at Peter Sellingham's sleazy guest-house. It was called the Ostra -- The Oyster -- and it was a fifth-rate barrel house.

Blake helped Worple out of the car, made sure the doors of the Oldsmobile were locked, and with one arm supporting Worple crossed the murky threshold of the bar.

It was dark inside after the brightness of the streets; the late afternoon sunlight scarcely penetrated the narrow slits in the walls which served as windows, and the candles dotted sparsely on the tables in the bar had not yet been lit.

The only real light came from behind the bar itself where an illuminated display of cheap wines and doubtful looking rum glowed garishly in a dozen different colours.

The tables were arranged mainly in booths along the right hand side of the room opposite the long bar.

A few couples snuggled furtively together in the murkier booths, while at others men played cards, threw dice, talked in low voices, swore, spat and drank.

The men, from what Blake could see of them, were an uncouth lot. The dregs of Maliban society. Pairs of narrow, furtive eyes darted looks of fear and hostility towards the door as the two men entered -- then looked away.

In the darkest booth of all Blake could see a figure indistinctly outlined. Someone sat there alone, in silence.

Worple broke away from Blake and headed like a setter on the scent towards the bar. He clamboured unsteadily onto on of the stools. Blake joined him.

"A bottle of 'Old Kentucky' for my friend," Blake told the droop-faced man behind the bar. "And for me, cola."

"Si." The barman reached dejectedly for a bottle and set it on the counter with a thump. He poured a glass of cola for Blake who handed him a twenty pasos note and murmured "Keep the change."

The barman gave Worple a glass and poured the first measure of Bourbon for him.

Worple eyed it morbidly, picked it up and sank it at one gulp. "I know 'em all --" he said loudly, picking up the conversation where they left off: "--I know the rebels, and the police and the people from the sugar plant..."

"Keep your voice down," Blake cautioned. "Is Sellingham or the girl here?"

Worple looked around, blinking owlishly. He pointed a wavering finger towards the darkest booth. "There," he said, "that's the girl. Can't see Sellingham, though."

Blake made for the booth. Dutifully, the barman refilled Worple's glass.

Blake reached the booth and sat down. He could see better now. The girl was certainly worth seeing. She was startlingly beautiful, even in the gloom. She looked as out of place in the grubby bar as a diamond in a coal-pile.

She had long, black hair which curled around her shoulders, dark eyes which were, at the moment, wide with irate surprise at Blake's intrusion on her privacy.

Her blouse was white, stretched taut over her full figure. A silver crucifix hung at her soft throat.

"What do you want?" she said tremulously.

"I want to talk to you," Blake said firmly. "It's about Peter Sellingham -- I believe you know him?"

"No. I know no Peter Sellingham. I am sorry." She spoke with an air of certainty; an air of finality. As far as she was concerned the conversation was over.

But for Blake it had only just begun. He said:

"Tell me the truth, seņorita."

"I told you the truth, seņor. Now please go."

There was an angry light in her eyes -- but fear was there, too.

"Please go!"

"It's a matter of life and death!" Blake insisted. "This man's life may depend on you!"

"I know no-one called Peter Sellingham," the girl said heatedly. "I have never heard of him!"

Suddenly the girl was on her feet. Before Blake could stop her she was striding swiftly for the door of the bar.

Blake rose and crossed to the bar stool where Worple was sitting.

"Worple!" he snapped. "Take a look at that girl! Are you sure that's her?"

Worple turned on the stool and blinked towards the doorway. The girl was just whisking out.

"Thass her," Worple grinned. "Yesiree thass the girl! Know those legs anywhere...!"

Blake strode away from the bar, heading for the door in pursuit of her.

It was only as he reached the door that he became aware of the figure which had emerged from one of the booths and was striding across the floor to intercept him.

A heavy hand descended on Blake's shoulder, jerking him round: "Pardon, seņor--"

The voice was ugly and it matched the face. Blake found himself looking up into a pair of dark, slanting eyes which were set above bulging cheek-bones in the mahogany-skinned face of the tallest Carib-Indian he had ever seen.

The man was evidently proud of his extraordinary height, for he cultivated it by wearing a slim-tailored suit of black sharkskin. A silk cummerbund encircled his slim hips and a tall, sombrero style hat stood high on his head.

"Yes?" Blake demanded.

"Seņor," the man said softly, ominously, "you are a visitor to our country... you do not understand all our customs... There are many beautiful women in Maliba. Take your pick of any of them -- but not Francesca! Francesca belongs to someone special..."

Before Blake could answer, something else crept into his field of vision. From the corner of his eye he saw a stealthy movement -- as the men who had been playing cards rose and moved towards the Carib-Indian.

They were evidently bent on making a show of force.

Blake was out-numbered.

There was no point in starting a fight. He gave a polite shrug. "Of course I respect your customs... In any case my friend and I are just leaving..." He turned and crossed to the bar to collect Worple. As he returned to the door the Carib-Indian was still standing there, closely surrounded by the rest of his group of thugs.

"Remember what I said, seņor," he repeated quietly. "Take your pick of the other women, but leave Francesca alone. She belongs to a very special person..."

*            *            *

Once outside the Cantina, Blake's brows puckered into a narrow frown. Scanning the labyrinth of neighbouring streets he was just in time to see the figure of the girl called Francesca hurrying out of sight along a narrow, paved alleyway.

Who was she? He wondered. And who was the "very special person" to whom she belonged? Surely not Sellingham?

He would have to be a very special person indeed to have inspired respect for his girl friend amongst such an unfriendly bunch of social misfits.

Blake guided Worple swiftly towards the Oldsmobile and bundled him firmly into the back seat. "Stay there, Worple. I'll be back in a few minutes."

Worple waved his bottle carelessly. "See you..."

Then Blake was away, striding swiftly towards the alley down which the girl had disappeared.

An once in the alley he was running.

Twenty seconds later he caught up with the sound of fast-clicking heels, and rounding a bend in the narrow passage-way he say the girl only a few yards ahead of him.

As he bore down on her she spun to face him, a look on angry defiance on her face. "Why do you follow me?" she demanded.

Blake pulled up, "Seņorita, I only wish to talk to you... about Peter Sellingham."

"I know no one of that name!"

"Then why did you run away?" Blake asked grimly.

Before she could reply he took a photograph of Sellingham from his pocket and held it out to her. "Does this help?"

The girl looked at the picture and the expression on her face changed sharply. The eyes lit up with sudden recognition.

"Where did you get this?" she demanded.

"Never mind where I got it from. You recognise him; that's enough. Where is he?"

"I don't know. Let me go--" She turned hurridly to make off, but Blake intercepted her, blocking her path.

"Listen! I've got to find him! I believe this man is in great danger!"

She looked up into his eyes. "What do you know about this man?"

"I know that he's been trying to help Juan Callas and the rebels," Blake said quietly. "I've been sent here from England by his father -- to find him. His father believes he may have been caught and imprisoned by the government."

A look of scorn spread across the girl's face. "If he had been caught by those fascist beasts he would not have been imprisoned," she said contemptuously. "He would have been executed like all the others!"

"Then he's not in prison?"

"Nor executed," she said. "You must tell his father that he is alive and well. Now let me pass--"

"Where is he?" Blake asked.

"I do not know."

"Did you know he was trying to help the rebels?"

The girl hesitated. "Who are you?"

"I'm a British private detective."

There was a long pause. The girl Francesca looked at Blake -- and it was a long, searching look. The a smile came to her dark eyes.

She liked what she saw; somehow she felt she could trust this tall, handsome stranger. There was sincerity and honesty in his voice, and his blue-grey eyes did not look at her in the way of other men who were strangers.

She said quietly: "Certainly I knew that the man you call Peter Sellingham was helping the rebels. It was I who put him in touch with Juan Callas!"

"You?" Blake's eyebrows arched.

"Why else do you think I frequent that filthy cantina?" The girl demanded. "I am a recruiting agent for the rebel army. It was there that I met your friend. I have met him there often and we have worked together -- but I did not know his name was Peter Sellingham. Now let me go."

Again Blake blocked the girl's path.

"Are you in love with him?" he asked.

"I am betrothed, seņor."

"To Sellingham?" Blake frowned.

"No, seņor, not to Sellingham," the girl sighed wearily.

"Then who?"

"I do not see that it is any business of yours, but if you must know, I am engaged to Juan Callas, the Leader of the Maliban Liberation Forces."

*            *            *

"Callas!" Blake exclaimed. It was a genuine shock, despite the warning words of the man in the bar. Then suddenly excitement seized the detective at the importance of his find.

"I've got to talk to you! It's vital to you and Callas and the whole of your movement and to the future of Maliba -- I must talk to you!"

"You are talking to me, seņor," the girl said dryly.

"Not here!" snapped Blake. "Where are you going?"

"I am trying to reach my car," the girl said tiredly. "It is parked on the public square at the end of here..."

She began walking and Blake fell into stride beside her.

"You ask a lot of questions, seņor," she said.

"I need a lot of answers," Blake replied grimly. "And I'd like to start with you. How do you come to be engaged to Juan Callas? He's been an outlaw in the hills for three years now..."

"And we have been engaged for four," she replied. "Were were to be married a few days after Doctor Nonales and his thugs assassinated President Vanan and seized power."

"Go on."

"On that day," she explained, "both Juan's family and mine were wiped out by the gunmen of the Nonales gang. Both our father's were ministers in President Vanan's government. Nonales destroyed the government because President Vanan had drawn up a programme of reform and modernisation. He wanted to do away with poverty and disease. For that, Nonales destroyed him and all his cabinet. And on that day, Juan swore to me that he would not rest until Maliba was free. He left for the hills with only a rifle and two friends."

"And now?" Blake demanded.

"Now he has an army of thousands. Properly trained and armed with modern equipment. Soon -- very soon now -- the Army of Liberation will strike. And I shall be by Juan's side when he speaks to the people. As soon as Nonales is dead, Juan will broadcast to the Maliba people and his army will march into the capital..." Her voice tailed off as she dwelt on the rapture of it; her long-cherished dream of the future.

Blake wondered bleakly if it would be as she imagined -- or if Craille's predictions about communist infiltration would turn it into a very different story...

They had reached the end of the alleyway and now they entered an open square of fountains and maple trees.

The swift dusk of the tropics was falling, and soon it would be dark.

A long, white, American convertible stood at one corner of the square. The girl led Blake across to it and they both got in.

"We can talk quite freely here, seņor," she told him. "No-one can hear us. Now what is it you wish to say?"

"I want to make contact with the rebel forces," Blake said quietly. "I want to see Juan Callas, and you can help me -- you can get a message to him."

"Why do you wish to see Juan?" she asked.

"I want to tell him something."

"What?" the girl eyed Blake steadily.

"I want to warn him," Blake said grimly, "that his organisation has been penetrated by communist agents who are determined to take it over."

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