"Thank you." I could see she loved this. "I think he knows it. I'm lucky too."
She ran off to collect some empty beer cans we keep for shooting practice. Savanto watched her go. So did I. Whenever Lucy took off, I was always looking after her. Her neat little bottom would never lose its charm for me.
"Beautiful woman, Mr. Benson," Savanto said.
This was said very quietly and there was nothing but friendly admiration in the small eyes. I began to warm to this man.
"I guess so."
"You are doing good business?" He was looking at the buildings and the peeling paint.
"We've only just started. A school like this has to be built up. The previous owner got old . . . you know how it is."
"Yes, Mr. Benson. This is what I call a luxury trade. I see you are painting the place."
Savanto took off his hat and looked inside it. This seemed to be a habit. After he had waved the hat around in the air, he put it on again.
"Do you think you can make money out of a place like this?" he asked.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't." I was relieved when Lucy came from the bungalow carrying my rifle and a string hag full of empty beer cans.
I took the rifle and she set off across the sand, carrying the string bag. We had often gone through this routine together and it was now close to a circus turn. When she was three hundred yards from me, she dropped the cans on the sand. I loaded the rifle, then waved to her. She began tossing the cans high into the air. She knew by now exactly the right height and just how fast to throw them. I hit each can. On the face of it, it was impressive shooting. When I had punctured ten cans, I lowered the rifle.
"Yes. Mr. Benson, you are a fine shot." The little snake's eyes roved over my face. "But can you teach?"
I rested the butt of the rifle on the hot sand. Lucy went off to collect the cans. We were no longer drinking beer : these cans still had a lot of work ahead of them.
"Shooting is a talent, Mr. Savanto. You either have it or you haven't," I told him. "I've been at it for fifteen years. Do you want to shoot the way I do?"
"Me? Oh, no. I am an old man. I want you to teach my son to shoot." He waved towards the Cadillac. "Hey . . . Timoteo !"
The swarthy man who had been sitting motionless in the back of the Cadillac stiffened. He looked towards Savanto, then opened the car door and came out into the hot sunshine.
He was built like a beanpole with big feet and hands : a shambling brittle-looking giant with hidden eyes behind the black sun goggles, a full mouth, a determined chin and a small pinched nose. He shambled across the sand and stood expectantly by the side of his father, dwarfing him by his lean height. He must have been around six foot seven. I'm tall, but I had to look up at him.
"This is my son," Savanto said and I noticed there was no pride in his voice. "This is Timoteo Savanto. Timoteo, this is Mr. Benson."
I offered my hand. Timoteo's grip was hot, sweaty and limp. "Glad to know you," I said. What else could I say? He was a possible pupil.
Lucy had collected the beer cans and was now approaching.
"Timoteo, this is Mrs. Benson," Savanto said.
The beanpole giant turned his head, then he took off his hat, revealing crisp black curls. He ducked his head, his face expressionless. The twin mirrors of his black glasses reflected the palms, the sky and the sea.
"Hello," Lucy said and smiled at him.
There was a long moment of nothing, then Savanto said, "Timoteo wants very badly to shoot well. Can you make him into a good shot, Mr. Benson?"
"I don't know right now, but I can tell you."
I offered the rifle to the beanpole. He hesitated, then took it. He held it like you might hold a puff-adder.
"Let's go over to the gallery. I can tell you when I've seen him shoot."
Savanto, Timoteo and I walked across the sand towards the range. Lucy took the cans back to the bungalow.
Thirty minutes later, the three of us came out into the hot sunshine. Timoteo had fired off forty rounds of my expensive ammunition and had dinned the edge of the target once. The other shots had hummed out to sea.
"Okay, Timoteo," Savanto said in a cold, flat voice, "wait for me."
Timoteo shambled away, reached the car, got in and settled down : a depressed-looking statue.
"Well, Mr. Benson?" Savanto said.
I hesitated. Here was a chance of making a little money, but I had to be honest.
"He hasn't any talent," I said, "but that doesn't mean he can't shoot straight if he's carefully coached. With ten lessons under his belt, you'll be surprised how he'll improve."
"No talent, huh?"
"It might develop." I was reluctant to kill a possible pupil. "I can tell you after I've had him a couple of weeks."
"In nine days, Mr. Benson, he must be as good a shot as you."
For a moment I thought he was joking, then I realised he wasn't. The flat snake's eyes had become glittering bits of glass.
His lower lip had turned into a thin line. He was serious all right.
"I'm sorry . . . that's impossible," I said.
"Nine days, Mr. Benson."
I shook my head, controlling my impatience.
"It's taken me close on fifteen years to shoot well," I told him, "and I have talent. I guess I'm a pretty good teacher, but I just don't perform miracles."
"Let us talk about it, Mr. Benson. It's hot out here. I'm not a young man." Savanto waved his hand towards our bungalow. "Let us get in the shade."
"Why sure, but there's nothing to talk about. We'll just be wasting each other's time."
He walked off slowly towards the bungalow. I hesitated, then followed him.
In nine days he must be as good a shot as you.
The boy would not only never make a good shot, but worse, he hated the feel of a gun. I could tell by the way he handled my rifle and by the way he flinched every time he pulled the trigger. He had held the rifle so loosely, his shoulder must be one black bruise right now from the recoil.
Seeing Savanto coming towards the bungalow, Lucy opened the front door, smiling at him. She had no idea what he had just said and she imagined I was about to sign up my first new pupil.
As I joined him, she said : "Would you like a beer, Mr. Savanto? You must be thirsty."
He regarded her, the genial smile back in place and he lifted his hat.
"That is very kind of you, Mrs. Benson : not now; perhaps later."
I stepped around him, opened the sitting-room door and waved him in. As he entered the room, I patted Lucy's arm.
"I won't be long, honey. You get on with the painting."
She looked surprised, then nodded and went out into the sunshine. I moved into the room and shut the door, then crossed to the open window and looked out.
Lucy had gone around to the back of the bungalow. The black Cadillac stood in the hot sun. The driver was smoking. Timoteo was sitting motionless, his hands resting on his knees.
I turned around. Savanto had taken off his hat which he laid on the table. He lowered his bulk on to one of the upright chairs we had inherited from Nick Lewis. He looked around the room, slowly and with interest, then he looked at me.
"You don't have much money, Mr. Benson?"
I lit a cigarette, taking my time, then as I flicked out the match flame, I said, "No, but why bring that up?"
"You have something I can use. I have something you can use," he said. "You have talent. I have money."
I pulled up a chair and sat astride it.
"It is vitally important that my son becomes an expert shot in nine days, Mr. Benson. For this I am prepared to pay you six thousand dollars. Half down and half when I am satisfied."
Six thousand dollars!
Immediately, I thought what we could do with a sum like that.
Six thousand dollars!
We could not only give this place the complete face-lift it so badly needed, we could even run to a spot on the local T.V. station. We could
hire a barman. We could be in business!
Then I remembered how Timoteo had handled the rifle. An expert shot? Not in five years!
"Thanks for your confidence, Mr. Savanto," I said. "I certainly could use money like that, but I must be honest with you. I don't think your son will ever be a good shot. Sure, I could train him to shoot straight, but that's all. He doesn't like guns. Unless you really like guns, you just can't be a good shot."
Savanto rubbed the hack of his neck and his eyes narrowed.
"I think perhaps I will have one of your cigarettes, Mr. Benson. My doctor doesn't like me to smoke, but sometimes the urge is too strong for me. A cigarette at the right time is soothing."
I gave him a cigarette and lit it for him. He inhaled and let the smoke drift down his nostrils while he stared at the top of the table and while I thought of what Lucy and I could do with six thousand dollars.
Silence hung in the room along with our cigarette smoke. The ball was in his court so I waited.
"Mr. Benson, I appreciate that you are being honest with me," he said finally, "and this I like. I wouldn't be happy if you said you could make Timoteo into a good shot the moment I mentioned six thousand dollars. I know my son's limitations. However, he must become an expert shot in nine days. You told me you don't perform miracles. In a normal situation I would accept this, but this isn't a normal situation. The fact remains my son must become an expert shot in nine days."
I stared at him.
"There are important reasons. They need not concern you." His snake's eyes glittered. He paused to tap ash off his cigarette into the glass ash-tray on the table. "You talk of miracles, but this is the age of miracles. Before coming here, I made inquiries about you. I wouldn't be here unless I was satisfied that you are the man I am looking for. Not only do you have a great shooting talent, but also you are very determined. During the years you served in Vietnam you spent long, dangerous and uncomfortable hours in the jungle, alone with your rifle. You killed eighty-two Vietcong . . . cold blooded, brilliant shooting. A man who can do that is the man I am looking for . . . a man who doesn't admit defeat." He paused to stub out his cigarette, then went on, "How much money do you want to make my son an expert shot, Mr. Benson?"
I moved uneasily.
"No amount of money can make him that in nine days. Maybe in six months, I might do something with him, but nine days . . . no! Money doesn't come into it. I told you . . . he hasn't any talent."
He studied me.
"Of course money comes into it. I have learned over the years that money will buy anything . . . providing there is enough of it. You are already thinking what you could do with six thousand dollars. With that amount of money you would be able to make a modest living out of this school. And yet six thousand dollars isn't a big enough sum to convince you that you can perform a miracle." He took from the inside pocket of his jacket a long white envelope. "I have here, Mr. Benson, two bearer bonds. I find them more convenient to carry around than a lot of cash. Each bond is worth twenty-five thousand dollars." He tossed the envelope across the table. "Look at them. Satisfy yourself that they are what I say they are."
My hands were unsteady as I took the bonds from the envelope and examined them. I had never seen a bearer bond before so I had no idea if they were genuine or not, but they looked genuine.
"I am now offering you fifty thousand dollars to perform a miracle, Mr. Benson."
I put the bonds down on the table. My hands had turned clammy and my heart was thumping.
"You can't be serious." My voice was husky.
"I am, Mr. Benson. Make my son an expert shot in nine days and these bonds are yours."
To gain a moment of time, I said, "I don't know anything about bonds. These could be just pieces of paper."
"So you see, I am right when I said enough money buys anything. You now want to know if these bonds are forgeries. You no longer tell me that you can't perform a miracle." He leaned forward, tapping the bonds with his finger nail. "These are genuine, but don't take my word for it. Let us go to your bank and see what they have to say. Let us ask them if they will convert these two pieces of paper into fifty thousand dollars cash."
I got up and moved to the window. The little room felt suffocatingly hot. I stared out of the window at the black Cadillac and at the beanpole sitting motionless in the back seat.
"That won't be necessary," I said. "Okay . . . so they are genuine."
Again he smiled at me.
"That is good for there is little time to waste. I will now return to the Imperial Hotel where I am staying." He glanced at his watch. "It is just after five o'clock. Please telephone me at seven o'clock this evening and tell me whether or not you will perform a miracle for fifty thousand dollars."
He put the bonds in his pocket and stood up.
"Just a moment," I said, annoyed with myself at sounding so breathless. "I have to know why your son has to shoot so well and what his target will be. Unless I know, I can't hope to prepare him. You talk about an expert shot, but there are all kinds of experts. I must know, Mr. Savanto."
He thought for a long moment. He had picked up his hat and was