Jean Bruce - Dead Silence

Chapter One

The evil eye

The corridor was plunged in darkness. Taken by surprise, Hubert stopped dead. From his pocket, he took a tiny electric torch and flashed the light on to the top of a door, just long enough to read the number.

He started forward once more; slowly, his senses on the alert, prepared for any emergency. Another flash of light. This was it. He took from his coat pocket a bunch of oddly shaped keys.

An automatic glance at the luminous dial of his wristwatch. He took a step forward, focusing his light on the lock. A split second of light, darkness once more. Quickly he shrank back, every fiber of his body on the defensive. The door was ajar …

He froze into immobility, listening intently for a few moments. No sound to be heard. He relaxed a little, raised his hand and pushed against the door which swung silently open …

He penetrated into a narrow ante-room, closing the door behind him. No light was visible from underneath the door facing him, which would lead to the room beyond.

Intrigued, smelling a rat, Hubert fought down a desire to take to his heels and advanced, groping for the door handle. He found it, pressed it down with calculated slowness. His heart was beating with the rumble of a drum, sweat pearling on his forehead. He opened the door …

The light sprang on. Instinctively Hubert ducked.

Two menacing shapes stood facing him; He chose the nearer one and leaped.

He heard a noise, not unlike that of a cork popping out of a champagne bottle and left a sharp pain which cut like a knife. He engaged with his adversary and both of them tumbled to the floor. Taking care that his enemy's body was between the other one and himself, he raised his free hand. With a sharp knife, he slit the man's throat.

His victim jumped as though a powerful electric charge ran through the body, and fell back, lifeless.

Hubert had hardly time to disengage himself and jump to his feet to sidestep number two, who took a flying leap at him and landed unhurt, on the bed. With almost uncanny swiftness, Hubert threw himself on top of him. Clinging, one to the other, they landed on the floor at the other side of the bad. Hubert's position made it impossible for him to ward off the terrific blow that was aimed at him and for an instant, he believed that the impact had split his skull open. However, he did not lose consciousness. He pretended nevertheless that the blow had knocked him out properly, and uttering a last wailing cry of pain, collapsed.

In the next second, he had taken full advantage of his ruse. He had his opponent in a stranglehold. He watched the crimson face under him swell up, become purple, violet … A slight noise behind him gave him a warning of danger. He ducked quickly and the blow aimed at his head landed on the base of his skull. Had he not ducked he would have been a dead man. Now his head slumped forward, hitting against his victim's head. Then everything became enveloped in a thick mist ... As in a dream, he felt how they kicked him over on his side. He could hear confused voices; the echo of footsteps on the parquet floor that hurt his aching head; then there was darkness and utter silence …

Stretched on the floor, Hubert's breathing became more and more regular. He was rapidly recovering. A sharp pain cut piercingly through his spine at every deep intake of breath. He took no notice of it, knowing what had caused it. His only thought was to struggle back on his feet as quickly as possible. When he believed his strength had sufficiently returned to enable him to raise himself, he turned over on his stomach, waited an instant and slowly got into a kneeling position. His breathing came loud, hissing and fast. The blood was hammering painfully against his temples. His fingers clutched at the bad. He began to drag himself up until he sat down heavily on the side of the mattress, the springs of which protested vigorously. He took his head between his hands and sat there in the darkness waiting to recover his sense of balance …

Hubert fumbled in the pocket for his torch. It wasn't there. He remembered he had dropped it at the moment when he prepared for the attack. Blindly he returned to the far end of the room and without much difficulty, he found the light.

The room was in extraordinary disorder. In one corner, some suitcases had been opened and emptied out on the carpet. A dresser was gaping wide open.

Still, not at ease, Hubert mechanically walked over to an open door, which no doubt was that of the bathroom. A little cold water on his face would do him the world of good …

He found the light switch, pressed it and a singular grimace spread over his face as he swore under his breath.

Dressed in a dark colored suit, a man was hanging over the side of the bath which was nearly full of water. It looked as though he had been cut in half. His legs were on the outside of the bath whilst the upper part of the body was completely submerged.

Calmly Hubert glanced about him. The modern, well-equipped bathroom did not appear to hold much besides the body. Hubert advanced further into the bathroom and discovered on a stool at the end of the bath, an open wallet, and a passport. Disturbed by Hubert's unexpected intrusion, the murderers had undoubtedly forgotten to pick these objects up as they made their getaway.

Hubert bent down over the passport, read the name written on it - Andre Guerassi. There was no doubt, this man was indeed the person he had come to get in touch within this room. He had apparently had unexpected visitors. Others had got wind of the affair and had beaten him to it. “Others ...”

Hubert's well shaped, sensual lips were turned down in a disapproving, disappointed grimace. He pocketed the wallet and the passport. Thus, the local police could not come to a verdict of suicide and would be obliged to do something about it. Hubert would keep himself informed of their progress.

He searched the dead man's pockets but found nothing of great interest. He put the corpse back in the exact position as he had found it and returned to the room after having switched out the light in the bathroom.

He knelt down beside the open, ransacked suitcases, took a pair of rubber gloves from his pocket, put them on and began an examination.

Visibly disappointed, he straightened himself and looked at his watch; it was half past one. It would not be wise to linger any longer. He looked for his torch which had rolled under the bed and assured himself that he had left no traces of his presence. He was on the point of leaving when the telephone bell, immobilized him. He hesitated an instant, then went over to the apparatus and lifted the receiver with his still gloved hand. There was a quick intake of breath at the other end of the line. Hubert in a toneless voice said:

“I am listening … “

He waited a moment, listening to the heavy breathing of the invisible party. Then a strangely choking voice, a voice which oozed panic and terror, quickly said:

“Have you the evil eye?”

Intrigued as well as oddly distressed, Hubert asked sharply:

“Who are you? What do you mean?”

The sound of the receiver being hung up was the only answer he obtained. The connection had been broken. Slowly, obviously puzzled, Hubert replaced the receiver. For a few seconds, he stood there, staring at the apparatus, his brain working at top capacity. Then, he returned to one of the suitcases and took out a large envelope. In it, he placed the passport and the documents which the wallet contained, sealed it and using the bedside table for a desk, pulled out his fountain pen and wrote an address on the envelope. Had this done he returned to the bathroom, tore up the banknotes and cheque book, threw them in the lavatory and pulled the chain.

Without another glance at the body, he left the flat of tragedy, carefully closing the door leading to the corridor. He took off his rubber gloves and walked away through the still dark gallery. Reaching the lift, he calmly pushed the button.

He entered the lift cage and congratulated himself on the fact that the lift attendant did not even look at him. Mingling with the hotel crowd he reached the hall which, despite the late hour, was still crowded.

Calmly he took his pocketbook from one of his pockets, choose a stamp and stuck it on the envelope which he had prepared upstairs. He found a letterbox at the side of the reception counter. He pushed the envelope through the slot and left the hotel.

Hubert marched down the black and white mosaic of the pavement into the night. He made his way to the Chiado, still bristling with light and life, brushing past groups of merry, friendly drunks, who were engrossed in interminable discussions. A large crowd had assembled outside the doors of the “Brasileira” and Hubert left the narrow pavement in order to make a detour around this mass of people.

He had reached the Rua Nova da Trinitade when he noticed that he was being followed.

Obligingly he crossed over to the right-hand side of the practically deserted street. He continued on his way without turning around once, diving into the heart of the “Bairro Alto”, the higher part of Lisbon. The air was fragrant with the smell of coffee, and the heavy roar of the presses in the Newspaper Printing Works intermingled with the impalpable noise rising from the town.

“Have you the evil eye?”

Who could it have been who put this question to him and what could be the meaning of it? The voice which had whispered this ambiguous question was undoubtedly panicky. For whom had this message been intended? For him, Hubert, or the unknown murderers who had arrived there before him? It was, at least for the time being, impossible to give the answer to this question.

He took advantage of a dark corner to look around. The street behind him was deserted. And yet he knew that someone was following him. He went on, climbing steadily. A slight ache at the back of his neck reminded him of the fight at the hotel. That fight very nearly had meant his death.

He was sure that he had knocked his first opponent out and he had had the other one at his mercy when someone struck him that blow. Therefore, there must have been a third guy.

When this affair had been assigned to him two days ago, it had appeared to be a simple case; child's play. The Service had allowed Guerassi to leave the USA with his information. The man had been shadowed all the time and there would be no escape for him. He had not got away, true; however, he would never be caught again, and that was a fact …

Suddenly he saw a silhouette of the “San Rogue” in front of him. He consulted his watch; two o'clock in the morning. In a little apartment in a nearby road, a young woman would be getting restless. He had a feeling desire to look an open cabaret and from there phone her and tell her what he had decided. He gave up the idea almost at once. He meandered about for a while in Rue Alcantara when he heard the sound of a car engine, slowly approaching from behind, like a menace …

He did not alter the rhythm of his step, but the muscles of his shoulders contracted to a hard, firm bundle. What if they started shooting, would they kill him without any form or shape of trial? It was possible. He suppressed a shiver as the car slowly came level with him. He stepped back, but the barrel of a tommy gun protruding from the corner of the window of the door, seemed to paralyze him. A quiet voice ordered him in English: “Get in!” The door opened. A man got out to make room for him and got in again after him. There were two other people in the car. Hubert quietly set down. A vicious blow from behind sent him to painless sleep.

He recovered consciousness in a bathroom, which he thought seemed a good omen. He noticed too that he had been stripped of his clothes.

What did embarrassed him though, was the manner in which his hands had been tied behind his back and his feet to a water pipe.

He was alone. Presuming that he would not be alone for very long, he settled down to put an order in the chaos of his brain. The individual who had alighted from the car to invite him in, with the help of a well-armed tommy gun, resembled, like a brother, the man he had attacked first of all in that room at the Palace. He had not sufficient time to see the others, but he would bet that all the murderers of Guerassi had been present.

He heard a door open than the sound of voices speaking in a language which he could not at first identify. Two men entered. One was tall and young, with closely cut hair. His blue, deep-set eyes were large, round, cold and shifty. They reminded Hubert of a snake. The other, not so tall and older, had black well-groomed hair and pince-nez, revealing a pair of keen, darting eyes. He was rather elegantly dressed and it was he who approached Hubert. Standing quite close so that he could touch him, he asked in English, with no trace of an accent:

“We did not find any identification papers on you. Would you be so kind as to throw some light on your personality?”

Hubert remained outwardly impassive. He pondered a few seconds before replying. “I would much rather hear first of all, who you are.”

The dark man chuckled and, turning to his imperturbable companion, said:

“Did you hear that? Our friend here would like to know who we are!”

He wheeled round, facing Hubert once again. The latter could not even raise an arm to avoid the kick that was aimed at his head.

“That's only the beginning.” he thought, and stiffened, preparing himself for what he knew would be coming.

At first, it was a sort of prelude in which the dark man's feet played the principal part. The fair one never moved and looked as if this kind of sport was far below him.

He would not remain impassive for long. Hubert sensed instinctively that his turn would come and somehow dreaded the moment when the other would take over.

One kick, harder than any of the preceding blows, hurt Hubert terribly, and he swore loudly at his torturer, who, his appetite having been whetted, doubled his ardor.

Then Hubert bundled up in his seat, tried as best he could and with all the experience he had of this sort of thing, to protect himself. He concentrated his mind on something outside this room. Catarina, for instance, would be a pleasant subject to think of … Despite his precautions, a violent blow landed on his mouth and he tasted his own blood, filling his throat. He swallowed painfully. If he did that, he would not be losing too much.

Then he had a brainwave. He moved his hand to indicate that he was willing to talk. The brute ceased his exercise, took a comb from his pocket and proceeded to comb his hair.

“What do you want to know?” Hubert asked.

The fair one approached and gave him the once over with his reptile eyes, whilst his accomplice wiped his face with a sponge and straightened his tie.

“What did you find?”

Hubert played for time, by asking:

“Find where?”

The dark man raised his foot but the other pushed him aside and addressed Hubert again:

“Don't ask the fool. If you won't talk now, we have the means to make you talk shortly. Ever heard of the bath treatment?”

Ironically, his swollen lips turned down at the corners with bitterness, Hubert retorted:

“Are you kidding? The huns gave me a taste of that, three times!”

“Swine!” The short dark fellow snorted. Unmoved, the tall fair one continued.

“I am not asking you whether or not they succeeded in making you talk. All I know is that I, at any rate, am going to get anything out of you, worth knowing.”

As Hubert observed a sagacious silence, the man went on.

“It would be better for everybody if we could come to terms on a friendly basis. When you came to Guerassi's room you were after the same thing we were after. We did not find it but we have good reason to believe that you were more fortunate because you undoubtedly possessed information which we lacked.”

Hubert did not budge.

“If you tell us what you did with whatever it was you found, we shall know to show how generous we can be. Moreover, in order to avoid any unpleasantness with your employers, we are prepared to return the object to you intact, after having had the use of it for only one hour. That, I think, is a very straightforward and honest proposition, don't you?”

Hubert smiled.

“Too honest,” he said. “Please, you'll excuse my saying so, but a discussion on this basis would be of any use if I had found the thing. Unfortunately, I am in exactly the same position as yourselves.”

“Yes refuse to comply?” he said slowly. “Just too bad for you. You've asked for it ...”

He made a sign to his companion who stooped down and freed Hubert's hands and feet. The latter waited calmly until the operation was finished. Then coming to life suddenly, like a cat leaps at its prey, he went for his torture. He hit him full in the face with such tremendous force that he sent the man flying through the room, hitting the opposite wall. Than Hubert braced himself for battle. Staggering to his feet, the man came up to him, uttering the foulest language Hubert had ever heard, in a mixture of English, Greek, and Turkish.

“Be quiet, will you?”

The fair one, exasperated, walked over to his acolyte to steady him.

Then the two of them set about Hubert in an endeavor to get hold of him once more. Hubert fought like a tiger but it was too unequal a fight and he was losing ground. The tall fair man struck him a violent blow which landed on his jaw with a terrific crash. Hubert's head hit the floor with a bang and he lost consciousness.

When he recovered, he was suspended by his feet. He noticed that his head and shoulders were well inside the bathtub and understood at once the machiavellianism of the arrangement. One of the taps was running and the bath was filling slowly but surely.

He contracted his muscles, raising himself sufficiently to be able to see the two men watching from a distance.

The fair one, impassive as ever, was smoking a cigarette. The dark one adjusted his pince-nez, smiling a cruel little smile.

Hubert let him drop down and felt the water already brushing his hair. He was not afraid. It was not the first time that he had undergone similar treatment and he had seen many others survive. Besides, it was all in the day's work one of that little unpleasantness of his trade. Ah, it wasn't always a child's play ...

The water, touching his skull now, was like a refreshing caress. He suppressed a shiver and decided to save his strength for the moment when it would be essential for him to ensure his breathing.

Calmly he tried to convince himself that there was no mortal danger. The two gents who were enjoying this choice piece of entertainment believed that he possessed what they were looking for. So long as they stuck to his belief, they would see no point in killing him. He had a fleeting thought of Guarassi. They had killed him, hadn't they? And wasn't his position very similar to the one Hubert found himself in, this very moment?

He felt a lump in his throat, all of a sudden he was scared. He could feel his stomach turn over inside him. A cold sweat broke out on his face as he was forced to make the first effort to rais himself, as the water reached his eyes …

His submerged ears could not hear the echo of the sinister laugh that was coming from the dark man's throat, at that moment. The tall fair one still remaining unmoved, but his eyes became like mere slits as he watched the first reactions of their victim.

Steadily the water level was climbing up, creeping up … Hubert had mobilized all his energy not to give himself over to a wave of panic which threatened to rob him of his consciousness. He thought suddenly, that he was on the point of dying here in this strange house in Lisbon. A stupid death for having relied too much on his own strength, for having thrown himself at the mercy of his enemies, of his own free will.

He made a violent effort to take a hold on himself, tried to persuade himself that it just wasn't possible.

Then, to his memory came the words of a French friend of his who had told him time and again:

“People like don't die! ...”

Once more his eyes were under water. He let himself hang down in order to save his strength.

Again his uneasiness changed into fright. His muscles contracted, as he tried to raise his face above the water. He succeeded with comparative ease but felt back again almost at once and could not avoid swallowing water. He choked. The next effort was more successful. He tossed to and fro, trying to get water out of his lungs. His muscles were beginning to ache and he felt an acute pain in the small of his back.

He let himself slide back into water, but this time he could not completely relax because the water covered his nose. For a split second he was afraid that he was going to faint, then he began anew to twist his body to and fro', in order to keep his head out of the water, with the result that he swallowed some more.

When the huns had decided on the treatment of the bath, they had intended to leave him there until his head was submerged and to pull him out only when he was nearly suffocated and turning blue. Than it would be very simple to persuade him …

He relaxed for an instant, his nose full of water and he was choking. He experienced a sensation of nausea which played havoc with his stomach and started suddenly to vomit. Owing to his position his nostrils became at once blocked and he had to plunge his head under water to wash his face clean.

Terror had him in its grip once more. He fought with veritable fury against imminent death, like a fish caught on a hook.

He swallowed again and his lungs were so full of water that he thought they would burst. He was loosing consciousness. Stars were dancing round in his brain. Then, he realized that he was being hoisted up. His head was out of the water. His breathing, irregular at first, was becoming steadier. The voice of the fair fellow came as a surprise, he had forgotten his tormentors entirely.

“Have you made up your mind to talk?”

It seemed to him as coming through a thick mist, enveloping him. His blood was hammering against his temples. He went mad with rage and in answer flung at the man an obscene curse.

Immediately he plunged back into the water and knew that the situation was indeed a serious one. It would be much better if they finished him off, right away.

He no longer resisted and giving up his struggle, drank and drank. However, he discovered that drowning was not as easy as he had imagined. His head seemed to be swelling out of all proportion. It would fill the bath … it was going to burst … burst like a balloon …

Stars were turning round and round in his head and before his eyes, the whirl made him dizzy. Bells were beginning to ring in his ears piercing his ear-drums.

Stars … bells … His head as big as the globe, that was going to burst … His heart was pounding like a sledge hammer on an anvil. He thought he screamed. He lost consciousness.