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The long-lost father - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

Ever since that unsuccessful trip on the submarine Baltasar had been in the blackest of moods.

“Damn the Whites! “ he was saying grumpily one afternoon, sitting all by himself in the shop. “They took our lands from us and made us their slaves. They maim our children and steal our daughters. They want to kill us off, down to the last babe-in-arms.”

“Hullo, brother”, he heard Cristo’s voice. “I’ve brought news. Big news. Ichthyander’s found.”

“What?! “ “Baltasar sprang up from his seat. “Well, go on, for heaven’s sake.”

“I’ll go on if you don’t chip in — if you do I’ll forget something. He’s come back. I was right that time: he was on that wreck.”

“Where’s he now? At Salvator’s?”


“Ill go to Salvator and demand my son back.”

“He won’t agree,” Cristo said. “And he forbids Ichthyander to swim out into the ocean. Sometimes I let him go though-”

“He will! I’ll kill him if he won’t! Let’s go, straightway.”

Cristo waved his hands in alarm.

“Wait till tomorrow at least. I’d a hell of a job, I can tell you, getting permission to look up my granddaughter. He’s turned so suspicious. He sure sees right into your heart with them eyes of his. Put it off till tomorrow, I say.”

“All right. Let it be tomorrow. Today I’ll go to the gulf. Perhaps I’ll be able to see my son, even if only from afar.”

All that afternoon and night Baltasar spent on a cliff over the gulf, peering into the waves. The sea was rough. The cold southerner blew in fierce gusts, carrying foam off wavetops and spraying the cliff with it. Surf pounded the shore. In and out of the racing clouds, the moon threw a fitful light on the waves. Try as he would Baltasar could spot nothing in the seething ocean. Dawn came and found him squatting stock-still on the cliff-top. Th” ocean was less sombre now but as empty as before.

Then Baltasar stirred. His keen eyes had espied a dark object, bobbing up and down on the waves. A man. Perhaps, a drowned man? No, the man was floating stretched out on his back, his hands behind his head. Could that be him?

Baltasar was not mistaken. It was Ichthyander.

The old man rose and, pressing his hands to his chest, shouted, “Ichthyander, my son! “ and lifting his arms above his head took a dive.

It was a deep dive and when he broke water the man was gone. Baltasar dived again but then a mammoth roller caught up with him, turned him, tossed him ashore and rolled back with a deep growl.

Baltasar rose, dripping, looked at the waves and sighed.

“Could I have imagined it?”

When the sun and wind had dried his clothes he went off to the great wall of Salvator’s estate and knocked on the steel gates.

“Who’s there?” a Black asked peeping at Baltasar through a half-open spy-hole.

“I want to see the doctor on urgent business.”

“Doctor’s not receiving,” the Black said and slid the spy-hole shut.

Shouting, Baltasar started pounding the gates but they remained closed. The only sound coming from beyond the wall was a fierce barking of dogs.

“Just you wait, you Spanish gallow-bird! “ Baltasar threatened and set off for Buenos Aires.

Not far from the Law Courts there was a pulqueria, called La Palmera, a squat old building with thick white walls. A narrow verandah ran along its front, complete with striped awning, rows of tables and cacti in blue enamelled vases. It was quite a busy place in the evenin
gs; in the daytime the customers preferred the cool low-ceilinged rooms. During court sessions the pulquen’a was a sort of law court lobby where plaintiffs and defendants, witnesses for the defence and witnesses for the prosecution whiled away hour after tedious hour over a glass of wine or pulgue. A few bright youngsters shuttlecocking between the Law Courts and La Palmera kept them abreast of the latest developments. This arrangement suited everybody. Shyster attorneys and false witnesses frequented the place in search of customers.

Baltasar’s curio trade had brought him more than once to La Palmera. He knew he could obtain advice there or get somebody to write a petition for him. So this was where Baltasar bent his steps.

He passed quickly through the verandah into the cool hall where he first drew in a deep breath of cool air and wiped beads of sweat off his brow.

“Larra here?” he asked a boy hovering nearby.

“Don Flores de Larra’s here, sitting in his usual place,” the boy replied promtly.

The man who went by the pompous name of don Flores de Larra had once been a court clerk, but was dismissed for accepting bribes. Now he had a big clientele of all those whose cases stood in bad need of expert advice. Baltasar had had dealings with the man before.

Larra was sitting at his table near a broadsilled Gothic window. On the table within easy reach were a wine glass and a bulky brownish attache case. Always at the ready his fountain-pen peeped from the breast-pocket of his worn olive-coloured suit. Larra was fat, bald, red of cheek and nose, clean-shaven and proud. The light breeze that found its way into the room raised the remnants of his silver hair in a crown. The Senor Chief Justice himself could not have been a grander sight.

Seeing Baltasar approach Larra threw him a casual nod and motioned him to a wicker chair opposite his own.

“Pray be seated,” he said. “What business brings you here? Would you like some wine?Pulque?”

As a rule Larra did the ordering and his client the paying.

Baltasar seemed not to hear him.

“Important business, very important, Larra.”

“Don Flores de Larra,” the learned in the law corrected him and sipped a little wine.

But Baltasar let that go.

“And what this important business of yours might be?”

“You know, Larra-”

“Don Flores de-”

“Oh, leave your tricks for those who don’t know you,” Baltasar said with feeling. “This is important business, I tell you.”

“Well then, out with it,” Larra said in quite a different tone.

“D’you know the ‘sea-devil’?”

“Have not had the honour of meeting personally so far but heard a lot about,” Larra said, relapsing into his fustian.

“Well, the one that everybody calls the ‘sea-devil’ is my son Ichthyander.”

“But that’s impossible! “ exclaimed Larra. “You must have been drinking, Baltasar.”

The Indian banged his fist on the table.

“I haven’t had anything to drink or eat since yesterday-unless you call a few mouthfuls of sea-water a drink.”

“Then it’s even worse.”

“You think I’m loony? No, I’m as clear-minded as can be. Now, shut up and listen to me.”

And Baltasar told Larra the whole story. Larra listened to the Indian, deeply engrossed, his grey eyebrows invading his forehead. When the Indian stopped, forgetting all about his grand airs, he slapped the table-top with a fat hand and shouted, “Mil diablos! “

A boy in a white apron, a dirty napkin in his hand, ran to the table.

“What can I do for you?”

“Two bottles of iced Sauterne,” and turning to Baltasar, Larra said:

“Splendid! That’s a peach of a case. Thought all that up by yourself, have you? To tell you the truth, though, your fatherhood’s the weakest point in it.”

“You don’t believe me?” said Baltasar, flushing with anger.

“There, there, no offence meant, old boy. I’m only speaking as a lawyer, looking at your case with the eye of the law, if you know what I mean, and it’s not got very strong legs to stand on, you know-I mean that last point. But we can stand it on stouter legs, I’m sure. Yes. And land a bit of money, too.”

“It’s not money I need, it’s my son,” Baltasar retorted.

“Everybody needs money and particularly those who expect an addition to their family, as you do,” Larra said sententiously, and screwing up a shrewd eye, continued, “You see, what makes the whole thing almost as safe as houses is that little point about the kind of surgery Salvator’s been engaged in. It can be given such a turn that pesos will rain out of that money-bag like overripe oranges dropping from a tree in an autumn gale.”

Baltasar took a little sip of the wine Larra had poured him out to wet his lips and said:

“I want my son. You must write a summons against Salvator for me.”

“Not on your life! “ Larra exclaimed, almost frightened. “Not at this stage anyway, unless you want to botch up the whole thing. The summons can wait.”

“Well, what do you advise?” Baltasar asked.

“First,” and Larra bent a fat finger, “well send Salvator a letter couched in terms of the utmost politeness. We’ll tell him we know all about his illegal experiments and operations and would he please pay us a tidy sum of money to avoid it being revealed. One hundred thousand pesos. Yes, one hundred thousand and not a centavo less.”

Larra looked enquiringly at Baltasar. The Indian frowned but didn’t say a word.

“Secondly,” went on Larra. “When we get the aforementioned sum, as I’m sure we will, we’ll send Salvator a second letter, more polite, if anything. In it we’ll tell Mm that Ichthyander’s real father’s been found and that we have irrefutable proofs of the fact. Then we’ll tell him that the father is determined to have his son back even if he has to sue Salvator to get him, and that court proceedings may open the public’s eye to the way Salvator has mutilated Ichthyander. However, if Salvator wishes to avoid court proceedings and retain the boy, would he please pay to the persons and at the place and time specified by us the sum of one million pesos.”

But Baltasar was not listening. He grabbed a bottle and swung it over the lawyer’s head. Larra had never seen him in such a rage.

“Come, come, don’t get your monkey up. I was only joking. Come on, put that bottle down,” Larra was saying, covering with one hand his shining pate.

“You, you,” Baltasar raged, “you suggest that I sell my own son, my Ichthyander! Have you got no heart? Or you’re not a human being but a scorpion, a tarantula, and know nothing about a father’s feelings! “

“Don’t I! Don’t I indeed! “ Larra shouted back, also roused. “I’ve got the feelings of five fathers. I’ve five sons. Five little imps of all sizes. Five mouths to feed. I know, understand and feel everything. You’ll get your son. But first have patience and let me finish.”

Baltasar calmed down a little. He put the bottle on the table and looked at Larra.

“Well then, go on.”

“That’s better. So Salvator pays us the sum of one million pesos. That’ll buy all your Ichthyander needs — and leave a little over for me, for my pains and authorship, a mere hundred thousand pesos or so. No need to haggle over it. Salvator 11 cough up. Ill lay my head on it, he will. As soon as we have the money-”

“We bring him to court.”

“A little more patience. Well offer the story of a sensational crime to the biggest newspaper concern there is for say twenty or thirty thousand pesos-just pocket-money, you know. Perhaps well get a slice of the secret police funds as well. Some of them may make their careers on a case like ours, you know. And when we have squeezed Salvator dry, then go to court, yes, by all means, go and speak about your paternal feelings and may Themis herself help you to prove your claim and to receive in your affectionate embraces your long-lost son.”

Larra drained his glass at one gulp, banged it on the table and looked triumphantly at Baltasar.

“What do you say to that?”

“I can neither eat nor sleep and here you are advising me to drag out the case to the end of time,” Baltasar began.

“But look what you’ll get out of it! “ Larra cut in hotly. “Millions! Mil-li-ons. Has your brain suddenly stopped working? After all you’ve lived without Ichthyander these twenty years.”

“Yes, I have. But now — Well, write that paper for me.”

“Yes, you’ve really stopped using your brain! “ exclaimed Larra. “Come to your senses, Baltasar! Try to understand! Why, man, it’s millions! Money! Gold! You’ll have everything money can buy. The best tobacco, cars, schooners, this very pulqueria-”

“Write that paper or I go to somebody else,” Baltasar said in a final tone of voice.

Larra knew when he was licked. He shook his head sadly, heaved a sigh, took a sheet of paper out of his attache case and jerked his pen free.

In a few minutes a summons was drawn up in proper form against Salvator for unlawfully seizing and mutilating Baltasar’s son. “I’m telling you for the last time, come to your senses,” said Larra.

“Give it here,” the Indian said, stretching his hand for the sheet of paper.

“Hand it in to the chief prosecutor. You know where?” Larra instructed hisclient and muttered under his breath, “May you trip on the steps and break yourneck.”

Leaving the prosecutor’s office Baltasar ran into Zurita on the great white staircase.

“What business brings you here?” asked Zurita, throwing a suspicious glance at Baltasar. “You haven’t gone and lodged a complaint against me, have you?”

“Complaints ought to be lodged against the whole lot of you,” Baltasar said, meaning the Spanish “but there’s nobody to lodge ‘em with. Where have you hidden my daughter?”

“Ill teach you to keep a civil tongue in your head,” flared up Zurita. “Had you not been my wife’s father I’d have given you a taste of my stick.”
And pushing Baltasar roughly out of his way Zurita went up the steps and disappeared behind the monumental door of stout oak.

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