A Serpent's Tooth
A few miles shy of Ocho Rios, the road from Kingston passed through Fern Gully, a deep gorge with huge ferns and trees clinging to the steep rock walls, forming a verdant canopy that in places completely blocked out the sun. Ketch was getting nervous -- the little blue Triumph convertible was still on their tail, keeping a respectful distance.
"We are almost to Ochie, mates," he told Robinson and Scott. "What do I do?"
"Not to worry, Ketch, baby," said Scott. "It's in the bag."
"In the bag, Mon?" Ketch threw a puzzled glance at the Rhodes Scholar via his rearview mirror.
"It's under control," translated Robinson. "So be cool. Give her some gas when you go around that sharp bend up ahead, and then do exactly what I say when I say to do it, okay?"
The driver of the blue Triumph saw the taxi speed up as it disappeared around a bend in the road, and accelerated slightly to keep up. Coming around the bend, though, he had to stomp on the brakes. The taxi was stopped right in the middle of the road. Robinson was leaning against the back of the car, arms and legs crossed. The driver of the blue Triumph realized there was no way around -- the road was too narrow here. Before he could decide what to do, Scott came bounding out of the thick jungle foliage and vaulted into the passenger seat. The .45 Colt automatic in his hand looked as big as a cannon to the startled driver.
"Howdy, pard," drawled Scott, with a big grin. "Just keep both hands on the wheel."
Robinson materialized beside the car on the driver's side. He reached under the man's jacket and produced a small .32 caliber snubnose revolver.
"Now, now, what is this that we have here, sir?" asked Robinson.
"I know," said Scott. "It's one of those cigarette lighters disguised as a pistol."
"You think? Let's see." Robinson casually aimed the .32 at the driver's chest, curled a finger around the trigger.
"Hey!" yelped the driver. He was slender young man with a moddishly cut green jacket and a yellow silk tie adorned with crimson dancing girls. His most prominent facial feature was a long, bent nose. He had a pale complexion and long black hair.
"Hmm, I guess not," said Robinson. He tossed the revolver into the ferns.
"Man, I wish you hadn't done that," groaned the driver. "If I can't find it I'll have to pay for it. Not to mention having to fill out about a dozen reports, all in triplicate." He had a cockney accent.
"Hey, wait a minute," said Scott. "I know who this guy is."
Robinson looked at his partner, surprised. "You do?"
"Yeah, sure. You're one of The Beatles, right? Wait. Let me guess. You're Paul. No, George. Ringo, maybe?" Scott shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry. I get 'em confused."
"How droll," said the young man. "We are on the same side -- more or less. I work for British Intelligence.
"Have you ever worked with Jimmy Bond, by any chance?" asked Robinson. "I've always wanted an autograph."
The young man sighed. "No, I've never had the pleasure. What do you blokes intend to do now?"
"We want to know who you are and why you're following us," said Scott.
"As I said, I work for British Intelligence. My name is Quinby Featherstone. I...."
"Quinby Featherstone," said Robinson, drawing out each syllable. "Yep. He definitely works for British Intelligence."
Quinby gave him a dirty look. "I was assigned to surveille the two of you and...."
"Surveille," said Robinson.
"That means 'watch'," said Scott.
"....and report your activities to my superior," finished Quinby.
"Well, I'll tell you what you're going to do," murmured Scott. "You're going to take us to your leader. And we'll just tell him what we're doing, so that way you won't have to surveille us all over the island. How's that?"
Quinby glanced at the gun in Scott's hand. "I'd rather not."
"Sometimes we've just got to do what we don't want to do, Quinby," said Robinson. "You'll realize that when you grow up."
He walked back to the taxi and spoke briefly to Ketch, who nodded, climbed back inside, and pulled over to the side of the road. Returning to the Triumph, Robinson wedged himself in behind the two seats and Quinby started off, heading for Ocho Rios with the taxi now tailing him.
The drove to The Ruins where, according to Quinby, his superior took supper every day at six o' clock. The restaurant, one of the most popular in Jamaica, wasn't crowded yet. Quinby led them through the tables on the boardwalk, with a nearby waterfall plunging magnificently into a pool below. A man wearing a white tussore seat and straw planter's hat sat alone at a table by the railing, consulting the wine list. He looked up as Robinson and Scott -- Quinby in tow -- walked up.
"Oh no," groaned Robinson. "It can't be."
"I know we've been bad on occasion," said Scott, "but have we really been so bad as to deserve this?"
"Kelly! Scotty!" The man rose, smiling broadly, and extended a hand.
"George Ponson Rickeby-Hackaby," sighed Robinson. "As I live and breathe." Without enthusiasm he shook the proffered hand, then checked his fingers. "Let's see. Watch. Ring. One, two, three...."
"Really, Kelly, old boy, you must work on some new material," said Hackaby, with a good-natured chuckle. "You do that every time we meet. Scotty, how are you?"
"I was doing pretty good until about thirty seconds ago, George."
Hackaby laughed, motioned for them to take chairs. Quinby started to sit down, but Hackaby stopped him.
"No. Not you, Quinby. Go back to the office. I'll deal with you later."
"Don't be too hard on him, George," said Scott, as a dejected Quinby walked away. "We were all wet behind the ears once."
"Yes, well. I'd rather work alone. But Sir Frederick insisted I bring young Featherstone alone. Show him the ropes, so to speak."
"So what brings you to Jamaica, George?" asked Robinson.
"Isn't this a wonderful spot?" asked Hackaby. "It has a fascinating history. An Englishman by the name of Robert Rutherford built a sugar factory near here in the 1830s. He married a local girl named Rose Dale and they moved into a great house near these falls. Later, while Rutherford was in England on business, Rose fell in love with one of the plantation's overseers. When her husband returned home, he learned of his wife's indiscretions. One night, he took Rose and her lover to a cave between the falls, chained the couple to the wall, and sealed the cave with a boulder." Hackaby smirked. "Brings to mind that little affair in Spain, when last we met. As I recall, you boys tied me up, stuffed me into the wall of an abandoned building, and bricked over the opening." He looked at Robinson. "You were reading passages by Edgar Allan Poe, weren't you?"
"That was the most fun I'd had in a long time," said Robinson, smiling at the fond memory. "The only downer was that we weren't allowed to leave you in there for ten days -- the same amount of time we spent in a Capetown jail, thanks to you, George."
"Let's let bygones be bygones, shall we?" asked Hackaby. "Why don't you join me for dinner. My treat, of course."
"No thanks," said Scott. "We just want to know what you're up to. And this time don't change the subject."
"And I just want to know what you're up to, Scotty. Shall we compare notes?"
"We're trying to find out who killed Hugh Carlow."
Hackaby clucked his tongue and shook his head. "Tragic. Though I must say, I warned him to move into town. He was much too exposed up there in the hills. But he wouldn't listen. You Americans tend to think you're invincible, don't you?"
"Who killed him?" asked Robinson.
"Poto, I'm sure. No 'foreigners' are safe -- especially foreigners who own businesses in Jamaica."
"You don't think Poto killed him because he was in the business?" asked Scott.
"I'm not sure Poto knew that." Hackaby motioned for a waiter, ordered a Drambuie on ice. "Are you certain you won't join me, at least for a drink?"
Robinson and Scott shook their heads.
"And now you've been off to see Dr. Pringle," said Hackaby. "Quinby called me from Kingston. It occurs to me that we've been given, essentially, the same assignment. Poto has received a preliminary, and rather small, shipment of arms from Cuba. A much larger one is due to arrive shortly. It mustn't be allowed to get through. With that kind of firepower, Poto could, conceivably, topple the government."
"And that would be a bad thing," said Scott.
"Quite. It's not the best of governments, admittedly -- but it's the one we want to see remain in power, because it's committed to protecting British business interests here, of which, as you can imagine, there are many. And I presume you're here because one Cuba in the Caribbean is enough for Washington."
"Yep," said Robinson. "These pesky Marxist guerrillas are responsible for an epidemic of stomach ulcers in D.C."
"Not to mention a rash of nervous breakdowns and hives," chimed in Scott.
"And what did our dear Dr. Pringle have to say?"
Robinson and Scott exchanged glances -- and Scott shrugged.
"He says he's sitting this particular revolution out."
"You believe him?" asked Hackaby.
"Not necessarily," replied Scott.
"He's become such an untrusting soul," said Robinson, a mock complaint.
"Well, gentlemen, someone is buying those arms for Poto. He doesn't have the wherewithal. Dr. Pringle is a wealthy man. And a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. I say we work together. If we can stop that arms shipment, the local security forces will be able to handle Poto on their own."
"We don't trust you, either, George," said Robinson.
Hackaby put a hand over his heart, and a pained expression on his face. "That cuts me deeply. Yes, I stole that microfilm from you in South Africa. But you took credit for recovering that lost art in Spain, after I did all the legwork. I'd say we're even. So how about it? Allies?"
"I thought you preferred to work alone, George," said Robinson.
"I do. But it will be much easier to keep an eye on one another this way."
Scott looked at his partner. "What do you say, Elroy?"
"I say we might -- I repeat, might -- live long enough to regret it," said Robinson.
"Splendid," said Hackaby cheerily. "Now, please, order something. We'll put it on my expense account. I can recommend the gringo pea soup and the escoveitched, a bottle of good chardonnay and some Blue Mountain coffee." He consulted his watch. "And then it will be time to meet my man in Poto's organization. He has vital information regarding the arms shipment."
It was well after dark before they finished their meal. They walked out to the parking lot and headed for the taxi, where Ketch was still working on his supper, which a waiter had brought out to him at Scott's behest. Robinson got in front while Scott and Hackaby climbed into the back.
"Well, mates," said Ketch. "Where to now?"
Robinson glanced back at Hackaby. "Tell the man, George."
Hackaby cocked an eyebrow. "Are you sure he can be trusted?"
"I trust him a lot more than I trust you, George, old boy," smiled Robinson.
Hackaby grimaced. "Starve Gut Bay," he told Ketch. "The Savannah Plantation. Know it?"
"I know it well enough to stay away from that place. It be full of duppies."
"Duppies?" asked Robinson.
"He means ghosts," clarified Scott.
Robinson had to smile. "Well, then, three more spooks will hardly be noticed."
When they arrived, forty five minutes later, at Savannah Plantation, Robinson took one look at the place and could see why Ketch was wary of it. The ruins of what had once been a stately mansion rose above the mangrove thicket just off a curve of white beach.
"Legend has it that unspeakable cruelties were visited upon the poor slaves who once worked here," remarked Hackaby. "Many died here. And, as your driver has said, the locals claim the place to be haunted. Which makes it a perfect location for our rendezvous. It isn't likely we'll be intruded upon."
"Except by duppies," murmured Scott. "They say that if a duppy breathes on you, you're doomed to a painful death."
"Don't tell me you're superstitious, sir," said Robinson.
"I'm not superstitious. I just don't like duppies, is all."
They got out of the car -- except for Ketch. Robinson leaned back in and peered at the cabbie.
"You will be here when we get back, right? It's a very long hike back to the hotel."
"I'll be here," said Ketch. "Walk good, Mon."
The once majestic house had faced the bay across a lawn spotted with ancient oaks. The lawn was overrun with vines and weeds, the oaks draped with Spanish moss. Reaching the long veranda without mishap, Robinson, Scott and Hackaby moved to the doorway, stepping over what was left of an ornate door that had rotted off its hinges. Once across the threshold, Hackaby produced a penlight with a powerful beam, played it across a main hall as spacious as a cathedral. A sagging staircase straight ahead, rose into the umbrage. The large rooms to left and right were empty save for rats' nests, cobwebs, broken plaster and litter blown in through shattered windows. The place reeked with the musty ambience of abandonment.
"Well, this is a real fixer-upper," said Scott.
Hackaby led the way to the end of the hall and through another doorway. Their footsteps echoed hollowly on creaking floorboards. They emerged into a courtyard covered with debris and embraced by two wings of the big house. A breeze off Starve Gut Bay rustled the tops of trees. Old brick walkways radiated out from a fountain, sectioning off what Robinson presumed had once been a garden. The cherubs that adorned the fountain had been blackened by the passage of time; the fountain itself was filled with black, stagnant rainwater. Hackaby played the penlight beam around the courtyard, then checked his wristwatch.
"He should be here by now," said the Englishman. "Perhaps he couldn't make it."
"Um, no," said Robinson. "I think he made it. Shine your light in the fountain, George."
Hackaby complied. Robinson reached down and grabbed a handful of shirt and turned the corpse over on its side so that Hackaby could get a look at the face. It wasn't a pretty sight, but then Robinson knew that death rarely was. The dead man's lips were pulled back from the teeth. Eyes bulged sightlessly, as if he'd been terrified by the final reality of his life. He had been a powerfully-built man, in the prime of life. Work-callused hands were clutching at the six-foot long viper that had bitten deeply into his jugular vein. The snake was also dead, unable to squirm out of the grasp of those strong hands, drowned beneath the weight of the man its venom had killed in a matter of seconds.
"Fer-de-lance," said Scott. "One of the deadliest of the pit vipers."
"Poto's calling card," said Hackaby grimly.
Robinson turned and scanned the ruins of the plantation house. An instinct honed by years of plying the spy trade warned him that they were being watched. He saw shadows moving -- the wind had suddenly picked up, thrashing the tops of the moss-draped trees.
"Well," said Hackaby, disappointed. "We're not going to learn anything from him. You chaps ready to go back?"
"I think I can tear myself away," said Scott.
They returned to the road. Ketch was sitting in the Chevy with the doors locked and windows rolled up.
"There's a dead man back there," Robinson told the cabbie. "Tomorrow you'll report it to the police. A friend of yours was doing a little exploring and happened upon the body. Got it?" He and Scott had better things to do than to become involved with a murder investigation by the authorities.
"One more duppie," said Scott. He glanced at Hackaby. "I wonder how Poto found out about your informant."
Hackaby grimaced. "Who knows? But I'm afraid we're right back to square one, gentlemen."
The next morning they went down to the courts maintained by their hotel and Robinson honed his smashing serve and deadly baseline stroke at Scott's expense. Tennis was not just a cover for Kelly Robinson; he took the game seriously, and derived no small satisfaction that he was ranked in the top twenty on the international circuit. For his part, Scott was a better-than-average player, but he wasn't in his partner's league. After working up a sweat for about an hour, Robinson started taking it easy -- until, that is, he spotted Lily Pringle courtside. Scott hadn't seen her yet. Deftly moving Scotty out of position with a wicked crosscourt backhand, Robinson followed up with a forehand smash that put the ball right in the corner. Scott gamely tried for it, but missed, stumbled, and almost fell. Robinson angled across the court to where Lily was standing, a boyishly charming smile on his movie-star face.
"Good morning, Miss Pringle."
"Good morning, Mr. Robinson."
"He lets me win, you know," said the tennis star, toweling the sweat off his face.
"He's a very nice person," she replied, with a smile. "Too nice, I sometimes think, for the kind of work the two of you do."
Robinson peered at her. "I sometimes think so, too." He tossed a clean towel to Scott as the latter arrived. Scott caught the towel without looking; his attention was wholely focused on Lily. She looked particularly fetching, thought Robinson, in an orange sundress, ringlets of raven-black hair pulled back in a ponytail. "Well, boys and girls," he said, "I hate to leave you to your own devices but I have, um, places to go, people to see, stuff like that."
"Don't take any wooden nickels, Herman," said Scott.
"I won't. Better sit down for a minute and catch your breath, Gabby. You're getting a little long in the tooth to play this game."
"Oh, yeah? Just wait until I get you into a street football match."
"That'll be the day," said Robinson cheerfully. He bade Lily farewell and left them alone.
"So, how's your investigation going?" asked Lily, obviously trying to make small talk. "Found out anything more about Poto?"
"You didn't come all this way to talk about Poto, I hope."
"No. I came to see you. I was . . . wondering why you gave me the cold shoulder yesterday."
"Did I? How about something cold to drink?" He led her to a nearby cabana, ordered a couple of mint teas. They were sitting at a table in the shade of an awning when he continued. "Our contact man was murdered. So was an informant inside Poto's outfit. Kelly and I might be targets, and I didn't want you to get caught in the line of fire. Like last time."
"If I did you'd save me. Again."
"This is serious business, Lily. And I try not to mix business with pleasure."
She sipped her tea. "Or maybe you're just afraid. What we had before -- that was more than just a fling to me, Alexander. And the things you said to me . . . . I know you meant every word."
Scott sighed. "I did. But that was then. This is now."
"So we're finished? It's done with?" She shook her head. "No. You're just afraid. Of commitment. Tell me, Alexander, don't you ever think about settling down? Having a family? Doing something that's, well, more sane and safe and sensible than what you do?"
"All the time. It's a pleasant dream. Sometimes it helps me get through the day."
"But that's what it will remain, right? A dream? Because sometimes when you try to turn a dream into a reality . . . ."
"It's not all it's cracked up to be."
She nodded. "Do you know a man named Rojas? Dominic Rojas."
"I seem to have heard the name . . . ."
"A Venezuelan general, an expatriate, exiled from his homeland by the current government for plotting an uprising. He's very wealthy, and very left-wing, and it's rumored that he is very much into gunrunning operations throughout the Caribbean, utilizing his military connections. Anyway, his yacht is right out there." She made a vague gesture to seaward. "And he's having a party on board this evening. My father and I were invited. He doesn't feel up to it. But he suggested I invite you to accompany me. Kelly can come, too, of course. You might get a lead, who knows? Rojas will welcome you. He likes having celebrities around."
"Well, I guess Kel qualifies."
She smiled. "And the two of you can lean a little to the left, can't you?"
"My dear, I can quote long passages from Das Kapital, if I really have to."
Lily laughed. "No. Please don't. Will you go?"
"Sure. It's not like we have a whole lot of other leads to follow."
"Then I'll pick you up here at the hotel tonight, say, at seven?"
Scott agreed. She rose, and he did, too, and for a moment they stood very close to one another, and her perfume triggered those old memories for him again, and he wasn't sure if he was glad about that or not. Lily recognized the moment for what it was, but she didn't take advantage of it. "I'll see you tonight," she said softly, and left him standing there.