Read The Scared Stiff Online

Authors: Donald E Westlake

The Scared Stiff (7 page)

I laughed, feeling the tension ease down another notch. "Arturo, we couldn't stand there making a
movie."

"Be a hell of a movie," he said.

 

 

It was almost two-thirty in the morning when we finally pulled to a stop in front of the anonymous wall surrounding Cousin Carlos's place. Carlos had given a key to Arturo, who gave it to me, and it worked first time, as simple as if I'd been coming here this way for years.

I waved to Arturo, who yawned and waved back, and I went on inside as he drove off. I'd asked him earlier if he didn't want to stay here tonight, rather than do more hours of driving, but he said that was okay, he wasn't going all the way home to Sabanon but would stay over in San Cristobal. Maybe that meant his alleged wife and putative children were about to get a rare and precious Arturo sighting.

In any event, I was now on my own. I let the door in the wall snick shut behind me, which put me in darkness alleviated only slightly by star shine, just enough to make out the general shape of the building. Arturo had told me what I should do next. The same key would unlock the front door of the house. I should go in there, and I'd see a nightlight down the hallway to my right, which would be in the kitchen. I should continue on past the kitchen to the door at the end of the hall, which would be open. That was my room.

Yes. The key worked on the house door, as promised. I stepped inside into greater darkness, with what might have been a living room in front of me. I could vaguely see hints of the windows that would overlook the pool and the lawn and the river. A hall extended to my right, as advertised; the spill of light from a doorway on the left down there must be the kitchen. And the black rectangle beyond it would be the doorway to my new room.

I moved slowly and silently down the carpeted hall, not wanting to wake anyone. More of those free-form metal sculptures were on the walls here, like the ones I'd noticed on the inside of the perimeter wall. They were interesting abstract things, at the same time both primitive and sophisticated. They didn't seem to go with Cousin Carlos at all. But you never know about people.

I reached the kitchen and looked in, and Luz was there, looking at me. She was seated facing me at a large heavy mahogany table, a paperback photo novel open in front of her, along with a beer bottle and a plate containing half a thick sandwich. She gave me a very loose smile, with mischief twinkling in those large dark eyes, and said, "How you doin', Ernesto?"

I knew enough now to pretend I hadn't heard her, but that I would realize she'd spoken because I'd seen her lips move. So I smiled and nodded and waved my hand at her, and continued on along the hall, thinking, Damn it, what's
she
doing here?

Can it be she wants to check me out anyway, that the thought of syphilis — cured, after all — is becoming less of a deterrent? I don't need this, I really don't. I don't need Luz hanging around, and I don't need Lola
hearing
that Luz is hanging around.

I was closing the door of my pitch-black room when what she'd said floated through my brain again: "How you doin', Ernesto?"

In English.

 

12

 

I woke up late; ten-forty by the Rolex, which I still had. I'd thought long and hard about whether to accessorize Mr. X with my watch and wedding ring, in addition to my wallet, and finally decided there was too much likelihood they'd be lost in the crash. So the heck with it; they
were
lost in the crash. I'd keep them both with me, but hidden, until I could get back to the States as Felicio, when they would be given to me, as part of her dead husband's remaining effects, by my grateful sister, Lola.

This was the very tricky part now, when I was floating among identities. I couldn't very well claim to be Lola's brother in front of her family, most of whom weren't in on the scam, so that's why I was having to be Ernesto Lopez, the pitiful but no longer scabrous deaf mute, until the time was right to leave the country. I was hoping it would only be a week or two.

The idea was, Barry Lee would be buried on Monday, after a very touching funeral mass in the same church in which he'd been married only fourteen years ago, and on Tuesday Lola would fly to New York, carrying with her the death certificate and the funeral card and videotape of the funeral and a copy of the order for the gravestone and Señor Ortiz's undertaker bill and the deed for the grave plot, and turn all that over to our insurance agent. Then she'd go out and buy a lot of black.

How I'd love to fly north with her, but of course I couldn't. Or, that is, her brother Felicio couldn't, since he didn't at this point have a passport. Soon he would apply for one — with, as usual, the invaluable assistance of his brother Arturo — but we didn't think it would be safe for Felicio to make any official move until after the insurance company, having decided there was no problem, had paid off. Then, once Lola had that check in hand, Felicio would leave the land of his birth for the very first time just as quickly as he could, to fly north to comfort his widowed sister in her hour of travail.

The death certificate was the key to all this, and one of the reasons we'd decided to work this scam in Guerrera instead of at home is that, in Guerrera, the coronor doesn't actually have to see the body to give you a death certificate, just so he has a signed statement from a mortician. The reason is that there's only one coroner for the whole country, but there are morticians everywhere there's a graveyard. So Señor Ortiz would drive his statement to San Cristobal on Monday, come back with the certificate, and Lola would catch her plane north on Tuesday.

That was the plan, and for the next part of it my job was to do nothing. Not that I had to stay in this tiny room all my life. Seen by the light of day, it really was very small and plain; the word
monastic
comes to mind, and not only because of the huge mahogany crucifix hanging above the bed. The bars on both windows also helped.

The furniture, apart from this fairly comfortable single bed, consisted of a very crude clunky small dresser, which looked as though it had been made by a Shaker on speed, and a bulky uncomfortable mahogany armless chair built by the same person during rehab.

Well, it was a small room, and it was very late, and yet I was reluctant to get up and start my day, and the reason for that was Luz. She'd spoken to me in English last night. She didn't buy Arturo's story, masterful though it had been. She believed something else, but what?

She believed I could hear, and she believed I spoke English.

So Luz was a problem, though I didn't know yet
what
problem she was. But it was a problem that would have to be dealt with.

Finally, though, it wasn't the need to deal with Luz that got me out of bed and into the white terry-cloth robe draped over the chair. It was my bladder. I needed a bathroom.

When I opened the door, the hall was empty and the house silent. I stepped out and saw an open door on my right, before the kitchen, and when I looked in I saw it was a bathroom. It was very modern, with a stall shower and a stack of thick white towels on an attractively graceful small white-painted wooden table completely unlike the usual cumbersome mahogany creations with which so much of Guerrera is littered.

The medicine chest was stocked with unwrapped toothbrushes and combs and disposable razors and all the usual accessories. I could shave!

So this was the guest area of the house, and this was the guest bathroom, and it was not at all what I would have expected from Cousin Carlos, but I was grateful. And that shower looked very tempting.

And refreshing. When I went back into the guest room fifteen minutes later, I felt much more positive about life. I was clean and rested. My face was tingling with aftershave rather than itching with stubble, and in the bathroom mirror I had seen a man with a definite mustache: not nearly as luxurious as his driver's license photo yet, but showing promise.

Now that I felt physically better, I felt better about everything else, including Luz. She was family, after all. She might be a provocateur, but there was no reason for her to make real trouble.

Next to the dresser in my guest room, on the floor, stood the ratty little cardboard suitcase Arturo had brought up to Rancio earlier, containing Ernesto/Felicio's few shabby possessions. I emptied it now into the dresser, putting some of the clothing on my fresh new body along the way, and then I went out at last to see what the day had to offer.

This morning, in the kitchen, it did not offer Luz but rather the woman servant who'd fed us all lunch outside last time I was here. She was slicing plantains when I walked in, but she turned around at once, smiled at me, dried her hands on her apron, and gestured for me to sit at the table. (I obviously couldn't be the deaf mute with this woman, not and live here, so Carlos had told her
she
should be the deaf mute outside this house, in re me.)

I nodded my thanks, took the same chair as Luz had used, and the woman started bringing me things: a tall glass of fresh orange juice, a huge colorful mug of strong black coffee, and, when I made pouring gestures, a tan earthenware jug of warm milk to pour in with it.

And more: Three eggs, sunny side up. More coffee. Then half a melon the color of gold accompanied by half a lime the color of cash.

I could get to like it here.

 

13

 

After breakfast, feeling better, I went from the kitchen to the patio, planning to sit quietly in the shade and watch the lazy river while I slowly digested. There were a few white chaise longues over by the pool, under the extensive blue-and-white awning; I started in that direction and then stopped when I realized I wasn't alone.

She realized it at the same instant and turned to look at me. She was seated on one of the chaises, legs up, in profile to me, but she immediately stood, a tall striking woman who was all bronze and black; bronze skin, black one-piece bathing suit, large black sunglasses, thick black hair pulled back through a glittering bronze figured circlet. She spoke to me in firm aristocratic Spanish, telling me that whoever I was, this was not my proper place.

I gaped at her, partly doing my Ernesto number and partly just gaping at her. I don't know if she was beautiful, but she was certainly dramatic, with a firm jawline and strong nose and full-lipped mouth and the tall lean body of a swimmer to go with that bathing suit. She was one of those women about whom it is impossible to guess the age; surely over thirty, most likely under fifty, but who could know?

I had no idea who she could possibly be, but I thought I should get out of her way so, maintaining my blank expression, I began to nod my head and back toward the house door I'd just come out.

But then she abruptly shook her head, and her expression changed. Her whole body language changed, from sternly authoritarian to casually dismissive. Bending one knee slightly as she turned a fraction away from me, she said, in English, "Oh, you're the one the cousin married."

Who
was
she? Could Cousin Carlos possibly have a mistress who looked like this? (She certainly seemed as though she ought to be
somebody's
mistress, but the somebody should be a high-ranking government official, at the very least.) Was she another cousin, from a loftier realm of the family than I'd so far met? Or possibly an important local woman, waiting for Carlos, here to hit him up for a charitable contribution to something or other?

In a bathing suit? And why the switch to English? And what did she mean when she said I was the one the cousin married? Did she mean Lola? Does she
know
what's going on?

She frowned at me, and no doubt I was still wearing the stupid expression, honestly earned, because she shook her head and said, "Oh, come sit down out of the sun." Then, turning away to spread herself out again on the chaise, she said, "The mustache is a good idea."

I moved forward until I was in the shade under the awning, but I didn't feel comfortable enough to sit. I said, "I take it I'm not Ernesto Lopez at the moment."

"Is that the name?" Seated there, one long bronze leg stretched out on the white waterproof cushion of the chaise, the other knee lifted, she looked up at me appraisingly through the sunglasses. "Why not?" she decided. "Ernesto Lopez. And the clothing is good, that's what confused me. How are you, Ernesto? I'm Maria."

Maria. I should have remembered having heard the name, but I was feeling a little flustered, not knowing if I had to worry that my secret was out, my security compromised, my cover blown. So I merely stepped forward closer to her, stuck out my hand, and said, "How do you do?"

She took the hand, and hers was firm, maybe a bit too much so. Looking up at me, amused, she said, "You have no idea who I am, do you?"

And then I did.
Maria.
Maria was Carlos's wife, up in Caracas to see her dealer and now home. "Oh, for God's sake," I said, as she gave me my hand back. "I'm sorry, I've been a little… distracted."

She laughed, a musical sound, if throaty, and said,
"Do
sit down, Ernesto, you're giving me a crick in the neck."

"Sorry." I was saying sorry a lot; I
must
be rattled. I pulled the foot of a nearby chaise closer to her, so we'd see one another at an angle, and sat. "This is a beautiful place," I said.

"Thank you," she said. "We brought most of the furniture from Ecuador. You know Carlos used to manage the bottling plant there."

"Is that where you're from?" She had almost as little accent as Lola.

"No," she said. "Argentina."

"Way south," I said, thinking,
We've gone directly into cocktail party chat.

But then she said, "How did your death scene go?" and I found myself laughing. I said, "It looked great when I left. I haven't heard from anybody since. Tell you the truth, I just got up."

"Do you need something? I could have Esilda make some breakfast—"

"No more," I said, pressing both hands to my stomach. "Esilda — she's the woman in the kitchen? — she just fed me very well."

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