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He bet on the red and lost. Bet and lost again.  Black! he said
cheerfully. This time he won a little. He placed another bet.
Claire leaned against the edge of the table. The smoke curled up
and around her as she watched his handsome face, intent on the ball
and the wheel. Her heat-swollen feet made her feel as if she were
standing on balloons. Andr kept on playing. Her eyes wandered to
the other faces around the table, most of them white and youthful.
Panama was no place for old Frenchmen. With the exception of Andr,
none of them looked happy. Their mouths were set in grim, desperate
smiles. Their eyes were lowered to hide the loneliness, the vulnerabil-
ity of grown-up children in an alien land where death panted down
their necks, where the faces of loved ones were no more than pho-
tographs with the edges worn from handling. Where boredom was
king and danger was prime minister. She thought of Paul and won-
dered how many hours he d spent in places like this. She brushed a
lock of hair back from her face and tried to smile at Andr when he
looked at her.
An orange-haired woman in a purple satin gown that clung tight
across her buttocks ambled up the stairs. A youth with a downy fringe
across his upper lip followed her, combing his hair with his fingers.
Claire turned her eyes away from them. She and Paul had had only
those few warm, clinging nights together, and it hurt her inside to see
the profanation of something that to her had been sacred and beauti-
ful. Paul. She could not think of him now. Not in this place.
Her attention had wandered from Andr and his game. Suddenly
she felt him stiffen beside her. She glanced across the table. A squat,
68
Drums of Darkness
broad-shouldered man who looked more Spanish than French was
glaring at Andr, his hands thrust into the pockets of his tropical suit.
The man s skin stretched across the hawkish bones of his face, brown
and tough as leather. A jagged scar ran like a streak of yellow lightning
down one side of his head, from temple to chin. His black hair shone
like polished jet in the dim light. His thin lips were drawn back in a
snarl, exposing two gold teeth.  Ladr n, he hissed.  Hijo de puta!
Bristling, Andr shot back a terse reply in Spanish: The other men
around the table leaned forward, dull eyes suddenly glittering with
interest, nostrils quivering, like a circle of wolves on a new scent.
Claire s eyes darted from the man s face to Andr s. Andr s skin was
pale, his cheeks two patches of hot color. His eyes glared back at the
man through narrow slits.
Some insult, she guessed. Some accusation, a slur on someone s
honor. Andr s? Hers, even? How she wished she could understand
Spanish. Andr stepped back from the table. His left arm pressed her
away from him, into the crowd that had widened to form a ring
around the two antagonists.
On the balls of his feet, he leaped clear of the table. Something glint-
ed in his hand. A small dagger. Had he had it with him all the time, or
had someone given it to him? The hawk-faced man crouched low. His
tawny fingers gripped the handle of his own knife. Claire caught her
breath to stifle a cry. The jungle, she thought. It didn t end with trees
and vines. It crept invisibly all through Col n, all through this
wretched place, turning men into beasts.
The circle of spectators widened as Andr and the dark Spaniard
stalked each other like two fighting cocks, the man slinking low, look-
ing for an opening, Andr weaving lightly, moving like a dancer on
the balls of his feet.
A grunt, a spring, a flurry of movement. The two leaped together,
knives flashing. They lurched backward. Andr s white sleeve was
running scarlet. Claire gasped. Someone behind her caught her arm
and held her back when she tried to go to him. Grinning, the man
came at Andr again. Andr sidestepped. Then his arm came down on
the man s wrist in a powerful chop that sent the knife spinning into
the crowd.
The man was unarmed now. Andr was deathly white. He circled
his prey, muttering something under his breath about teaching the
69
Elizabeth Lane
man a lesson once and for all. The Spaniard edged backward. His eyes
were wide, lips parted. The gold teeth gleamed in the lamplight. His
hand crept to his vest, thrust in, and jerked out a black derringer. A
murmur rustled its way through the watchers.
Now it was Andr who drew back. Straightening to his full height,
he glared at the man.  Cobarde! he spat out of the corner of his mouth.
 Filthy, stinking coward! A trickle of blood oozed down his left wrist
and made a pattern of red droplets on the muddy floor.
The Spaniard raised the derringer and cocked it. Andr stood
motionless, glowering. Claire noticed that he had moved his body so
its lean profile was exposed to his adversary, providing a less vulner-
able target.  Cobarde! he hissed.  Go ahead! Show them all how brave
you are!
They waited in a stillness that froze time. The Spaniard squinted at
Andr as he aimed the little derringer. Claire strained against the
hands that held her back, afraid to breathe.
A door at the rear of the room creaked open, spilling light into the
dimness. The only sound was the heavy, rapid tread of footsteps
across the marble floor. A tall man whose powerful shoulders threat-
ened to burst the stitches of his pearl-gray jacket, thrust through the
crowd to plant himself directly in front of the Spaniard.
 Don t be a fool, Lopez! he barked in French. His voice was
authoritative, but oddly high-pitched. Its thick accent was  Claire
searched her memory  Haitian. Like Bertrand s. His back was
turned to her. She could see only a squared-off head and wavy black
hair. His muscular frame bulged beneath the tight-fitting suit.
 Idiot! he snapped at the man.  You want to spoil it all? Eh? He
held out a well-manicured hand.  You give me that! Without wait-
ing for the quivering Spaniard to comply, he snatched the derringer
away.  Now, get out of here! You want to work for me? Then you
don t cause trouble!
He swung away from the man and turned toward Claire for just an
instant. He was surprisingly young, no more than thirty. His face, an
odd melange of black features and white, was the color of coffee with
cream, the eyes fiercely dark, the lips full and crowned by a fussily [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]