“I didn’t want a normal life,” said Erickson. “I was a clerk at a bank in New York. There was a girl. There would be a wedding soon, and then children, and then I would be fifty or sixty and it would all be over. It’s no different than the life of livestock when you think about it, and it’s just as boring. You understand that, Mr. Dawes, don’t you?”
“Call me Bill.”
The cafe’s waiter, a grinning mestizo stick-man, brought two more bottles of beer. Erickson paid. The sun sank behind the cathedral, throwing ecclesiastic shadows over the dirty, dusty town square. Bill regretted accepting the young American’s charity. Americans in foreign lands radiated loneliness. Even on holiday it seemed they never quite got over the fact that they weren’t at home.
Two men sat on the other side of the terrace, nursing glasses of American whisky. Neither of them spoke. Their clothing had exhausted them. They wore their suits like a sunburn, the material too thick, the color too dark for the climate.
Erickson was still talking.
“I knew it when I saw you,” he said. “You had a face I could trust. All these strangers, and it’s a relief, at last, to see one of your own kind.” Bill tipped his bottle back, wondering what that comment meant. He’d been ‘on the beach’ for a month, waiting for a ship, and it showed in his mood and empty pockets. Erickson looked just like all the other Americans.
Bill pointed at the packet of cigarettes on the table. The young man pushed the cigarettes towards him.
“I did it, Mr. Dawes,” said Erickson, leaning in close. “I stole the money. One hundred thousand. Oh, most of it’s bonds and stock certificates, but there’s a good thirty-five thousand in bills. It was easy. So many criminal things are easy, I’ve learned. It doesn’t need intelligence. All it takes is nerve and the will to do it. I did it. And I got away.”
Bill drank his beer. The confession impulse of Americans was embarrassing. No secret was too dark to be revealed, especially to strangers. The cathedral bell rang six o’ clock. The shipping office closed at seven and Bill wanted to check the board for open berths on an outbound ship.
“I got away, Mr. Dawes.” (“Call me Bill,” Bill said for the fifth time.) “I escaped to Mexico, but then the bank’s people got wind of me, and I had to leave, and I went to Guatemala… and then Honduras, and then Costa Rica and now here. I’m tired of running. And I’m tired of having all the money I could ever need and not having the opportunity to spend a damned penny of it without looking over my shoulder. I guess my life’s not normal now.”
“Where’s the money?” Bill wasn’t sure why he said that, but Erickson didn’t flinch or evade the question. He was waiting for it.
“Hotel Sulaco, room six.” Erickson sighed. He drank. He lit another cigarette. “The key’s there next to my change. Take it.”
The stick-man brought more beer. Bill paid for it from the money on the table. Erickson didn’t move. Bill swept the rest of the loose bills and change into his open hand and pocketed it. The key stayed on the table.
Bill took another cigarette.
“The bank only cares about the money, right?” said Erickson. He was speaking in a whisper and his hands stretched across the table as if reaching for something to hold on to. “Will it matter if I’m in federal prison or lost somewhere in the tropics, or dead, as long as they have their money back? They can have it. I don’t have a normal life, and I don’t need the money anymore.
“Tell them I resisted, Mr. Dawes, that you had to shoot me. Maybe I came down with fever and died, repentant. Anything. I’ll disappear. I won’t go back to America. My life’s not normal now, and maybe that’s what I asked for, but maybe I can get it back again somewhere else. Please, don’t act confused, Mr. Dawes. I knew you were one of them. You played your role perfectly. A penniless sailor in need of a drink and a friend? What detective agency do you work for, Mr. Dawes? Pinkerton’s?”
Bill fingered the key, and because there were people on the terrace (the stick-man and the two exhausted-looking whiskey drinkers), he closed his fist around it as if he were palming one of the American’s coins.
“The Javitt leaves tonight,” said Bill. He knew she was, he had tried to wrangle a berth on her earlier today. The Javitt had a full crew but she was still taking paying passengers. “You saved a little money for traveling expenses? Good. Get out of here as quick as possible. Go. Leave now.”
Erickson, smiled, the tension melting from his face. “The money’s in a bag in the hotel–if you hadn’t shown up, I was just going to leave it there and be rid of it. Thank you, Mr. Dawes.”
Bill got up. “Good luck, Erickson.”
Bill crossed the square to the street leading to the Hotel Sulaco. In front of the cathedral he looked back. Erickson, a happy penitent, still sat on the terrace, watching Bill leave.
The two whisky drinkers approached Erickson’s table and began speaking. Bill couldn’t hear what they were saying. Erickson, with embarrassed surprise, looked once in Bill’s direction and then he pulled a revolver from his jacket. The whisky drinkers were faster, firing their guns before Erickson’s cleared his lapel. The young American fell off his chair, coughing blood, clawing at the table, reaching for something to hold onto.
Bill rushed out of the square. He was just a penniless sailor. He had nothing to do with the stolen money, he told himself. Not yet. The key was in his right hand and the Hotel Sulaco was straight ahead.
Nick Logan lives and works in Woodstock, Illinois.