Caribbean Crisis

by Desmond Reid

5. southern departure

Eighteen hours later, armed with two letters by Sir Gordon Sellingham, a wallet full of American dollars and Maliban currency and a detailed mental record of his instructions from Craille, Sexton Blake fastened his safety belt as the Comet IV airliner prepared to land at Maliba.

The flight through the long night had been uneventful, but Blake had had a great deal to think about.

Before leaving London he had barely had time to brief Paula Dane on his movements, write a couple of notes for Edward Carter and book his passage on the plane. Everything had depended upon his reaching Maliba as soon as possible, while the scanty information available was still fresh.

Now, as the island of sugar-cane, palm trees and coral white beaches loomed up on a sea of blue in the path of the aircraft, he was conscious that he had a lot to do -- and that a lot depended on it.

Brilliant sunshine shone down on the tropical world beneath, and the sea was a dazzling sapphire blue.

It looked deceptively calm. Blake wondered what the next few hours would bring.

The Airliner was soon landing.

Its wheels bumped once, gently, at the end of the airport's main runway, then it settled -- taxi-ing ...

*            *            *

The passengers disembarked into a sultry atmosphere of Caribbean summer. Heat embraced them, soaking immediately into every pore as they stepped from the air-conditioned coolness of the jet-liner.

The airport buildings were modern, white and dazzling, giving an extra glare to the morning heat as they were cleared through customs beneath the watchful eyes of armed guards.

Outside the rear of the buildings Blake saw another reminder that all was not well in the Republic of Maliba -- soldiers in olive drab uniforms manned machine guns at the perimeter of the parking area where sandbag emplacements and barbed-wire had been hastily thrown up. The airport was a forbidden zone to Maliba citizens ... and a strategic keypoint to anyone planning insurrection.

Ironically, the uniforms worn by the troops were American; as were the jeeps and machine-guns. A smooth, gleaming American-built airline bus stood waiting to whisk the latest arrivals from the airport to the island's capital.

Soon they were aboard, and a warm breeze was fanning the detective's face as he sat behind the driver getting his first view of the island's scenery.

Tall, incredibly-green palms swayed gently on a distant beach where a cobalt blue sky met the deeper sea in a blaze of morning sunlight.

The coast grew nearer, for their destination -- the island's capital, Carabanos -- was a city which hugged the harbour for its livelihood.

Carabanos was a tightly packed city; packed with buildings and packed with people. It seethed with humanity as only a Latin city can.

Soon Blake was watching its decaying suburbs flash by.

The road from the airport was good, but the reason was not far to seek. President Nonales had obviously recognised the value of the tourist trade. All the signs were there; large, lurid posters advertising American and European luxury products -- the finest Havana cigars and Caribbean rum...

But it wasn't hard to see why a man like Juan Callas should want to change things in Maliba.

The houses he saw were mean hovels. Pitiful attempts at whitewashing had only made them look worse -- more sleazy and decrepit that they already were.

The whitewash blistered and flaked in the sun.

Restaurants, bars and shops of all descriptions began to appear as they approached the city-centre.

Soon the bus slowed and stopped outside a large hotel. HOTEL PALMA, the sign said simply, and to justify its name the building had a pair of faded palm-trees shading its entrance.

Blake disembarked, thanking the driver. He picked up his light suitcase and entered the hotel through its misty glass doors.

The lobby was decorated like a late Edwardian ballroom. Red plush, somewhat worn, was everywhere; and wherever possible the woodwork was ornately carved and painted gold.

The lobby was dark, but a roof-fan turning lazily overhead kept it thankfully cool.

A wizened porter came smartly towards him. He was a small man, a half-caste mixture of Spanish and Carib. He wore a white uniform with tarnished brass buttons. There was a peaked cap sitting firmly on top of his head, pressing his ears down at the side.


"I have a room booked," said the detective. "Mr. Blake."

He was deliberately using his own name. If anyone knew him in Maliba they would recognise him; the age of the television newsreel had placed strict limitations on the use of pseudonyms, and it was better to appear to be hiding nothing than to stimulate curiousity among the Maliban authorities.

If it became known he was a private investigator looking for Sir Gordon Sellingham's son, it would be unfortunate, perhaps, but not disastrous.

On the other hand, too much official curiousity about his identity might imperil the mission he'd been given by Craille.

The porter took his bag and led him to the reception desk.

A pretty, raven-haired girl in a costume which was the nearest thing Maliba had to a "national dress," greeted him with an intimate smile.

She wore an off-the-shoulder blouse and a flaring, scarlet skirt edged with blue. Her trim legs terminated in small feet pushed into shoes which were black and tall in the heel.

Her wide, sensuous lips curved in welcome. She laid her hands on, with their crimson-lacquered fingernails, on the desk. Between them was a reservation book.

Her large brown eyes appraised Blake and approved of what they saw. "Welcome to Maliba, Señor Blake."

Blake returned the smile and signed the book. "Thank you."

The girl took a key from the hooks behind her and gave it to the porter. "Room twenty-six."

Blake turned and followed the porter towards the lift..

*            *            *

Over a late breakfast in the hotel restaurant, Blake read the day's local newspapers. A brief analysis of the main news stories told him that Maliba's unofficial censorship was not confined to foreign correspondants.

There was no mention of any political disturbance. Instead large feature articles were devoted to explaining to the population the nature and purpose of the latest "army exercises."

No expense, said one editorial, was being spared to train Maliba's gallant troops in the most realistic conditions, to guard the Republic against any future threat of Communism.

The only reference to the recent rebel attack on the island's main army garrison, was a brief paragraph which spoke of "recent acts of hooliganism committed by a fanatic minority of subversive foreigners."

Doctor Nonales had evidently decided on a policy of "no publicity, no public interest" towards the rebels.

Blake folded up the papers and finished his breakfast. He decided that his first move should be to trace Peter Sellingham's movements and to begin by visiting the hotel from which the young man had last written home.

A few minutes later, dressed in a light, tropical suit, Blake left the hotel on foot and set out towards the centre of the city.

*            *            *

The day was already uncomfortably hot, and the streets themselves radiated heat. It came at Blake from all sides; from the verandas and walls above; from the pavements and gutters beneath.

Like the noise, it was inescapable.

And the noise was everywhere.

Guitars and maraccas sounded from every small bar and café in the narrow, twisting thoroughfare. Roadside vendors cried their wares; beggars kept up an interminable wail for money.

And if they didn't receive their few centavos they weren't about picking up stones or refuse from the gutters and hurling them at any unfortunate tourist who had the strength of mind to refuse.

Donkey-carts, horse-carts and hand-carts were everywhere, piled high with fruit, coloured sweet-meats, black cheroots and cheap cigarillos.

Garishly-painted plaster figures of innumerable saints looked down on display from every corner shrine.

And everywhere Blake saw flaring oil stoves, black and greasy, upon which pans of dough fried and bubbled and sizzled until they were sold for a few centavos.

Ragged urchins ran between the crowds of adults. Urchins with worldly eyes which had seen too much, too soon...

The aromatic, bitter-sweet smell of coffee penetrated everywhere, disguising the less wholesome odours -- the stink of greasy food, garlic and dirty lavatories.

Over all lay the smell of sweating grubby bodies; for humanity seethed everywhere.

There was no apartheid in Carabanos -- no racial discrimination. It was impossible to discriminate at all.

Faces of every shade were there, from the light tan of Europeans and Americans to the shiny-black of full-blooded negroes.

Creoles, Spaniards, Carib-Indians, negroes, Britons, native Malibans and Americans -- all were there. Jostling together, their very bulk allowed for no niceties of distinction. Social standing was judged by the cut of one's suit and the girl on one's arm.

The girls were certainly worth looking at. And there was no shortage of lookers. Hot, greedy eyes were everywhere darting to-and-fro so as to never miss the sway of a wide skirt of the flash of a bright blouse.

Many of the women had the dark, sultry Latin beauty which Hollywood has used to represent the tropical American image all over the globe. Seeing these women in the flesh was like stepping into a wide-screen movie-spectacular. Their beauty was arresting, powerful -- and as Hollywood has demonstrated, intensely visual.

It was the kind of beauty which would stay with them until they were thirty ... if they were lucky.

They wore off-the-shoulder blouses and wide, flaring skirts. Their heels were high and their hair was black. Golden ear-rings flashed in the bright sunshine.

The overall impression was of vitality; of enjoyment of life. For all the squalor, poverty and corruption -- for all the dictators who had ruled Maliba and still did, the people lived to capacity. They still had zest.

Blake couldn't help but wonder how they would react if grim, grey communism took control. Could such an alien system of government -- a system of the cold, arctic north -- thrive here?

The question lay heavy in Blake's mind as he turned a corner and came in sight of his first port of call.

He had reached the poorest, dirtiest part of Carabanos where the hotels tried to compensate for their abysmal sleaziness by adopting the most grandiose names.

Young Peter Sellingham's last dwelling-place must have been the sleaziest of all, for it boasted the most pretentious possible name --


Peter Sellingham had obviously elected to suffer with the poor. It looked just the place a young idealist might have chosen to live in -- especially if he had money.

But whereas the poor were used to the tatty squalor, Blake guessed that the rich man's son had really suffered.

Strong garlic greeted the detective as he pushed open the wooden door of the hotel and went inside; but at least it was cooler in the narrow, distempered hallway.

There was a bell, but no reception desk.

Blake rang the bell.

No-one answered. Blake rang again.

Eventually a greasy man with a greasier smile shuffled in, wearing a dirty vest and filthy blue jeans. He sported a partly waxed mustache and a chin in need of a shave.

"Buenos dias, señor," he said through thick, bestial lips.

"I understand that a Señor Sellingham resides here?" Blake spoke the formal Spanish of Castille.

"Before two or three days. He departed. He did not return." The voice was surly, insolent.

"I was supposed to meet him here this morning." Blake feigned anxiety. "Where could he be?"

The other shrugged.

Absent-mindedly Blake drew a ten peso note from his pocket and released it into the man's greedy clutch.

"Perhaps the señor will find the man he seeks at the Ostra..."

"Ostra?" Blake frowned. The word meant oyster.

"A cantina," the bestial lips muttered, "a drinking-bar two streets from here on the right. You will see it."

Blake nodded his thanks and left.

Out in the sunlight he glanced at his watch. It was unlikely that young Sellingham would be in the bar suggested by the man in the hotel.

A visit to the Ostra could wait.

Before the fatal hour of siesta descended to paralyse the island and bring his inquiries to a halt, the detective wanted to form some idea of how he stood with the authorities.

Moving instinctively away from the seamier part of the city, Blake headed towards the distant main streets in search of the Police Headquarters.

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