The Cuban whore was thirsty.
The room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel was dank and shuttered, dustballs gathering behind the carved mahogany headboard of the creaky bed. William Alexander Morgan, an inch or two over six feet, blonde, blue eyed and American, lay in the soiled sheets, watching the beige curl smoke of his Pall Malls billow out in the warm air. He hadn't meant to wind up here, it had all sort of happened after getting off the ferry from Miami and not finding Ramirez. But there it was. Couldn't have been in town more than four hours and he was already shacking up.
Shame on you, William, he thought, you ought to know better. Shame on you. You're right, I know. But Nicky would have appreciated it.
He smiled at the whore, a bright eyed cinnamon colored girl with soft black hair who could not have been over eighteen. Pointed brown nipples, caramel legs, insatiable mouth. She had already slipped back into her cotton shift and was now making a drinking gesture. He pointed at his crotch. She smiled back and rubbed her fingers together. Why the hell not.
The waiter at the cafe opposite the Plaza de Armas was surprised that the Americano would actually take such an obvious harlot out for a Coke. Those creatures were good for only a quick tumble in bed and then adios chiquita. Nonetheless, the waiter--a florid skinned Spaniard sporting a pencil thin moustache and an effusively false smile--dutifully brought out the refrescos for the visitor and his lady, setting them upon the small marble topped wrought iron table with the same panache of his Parisian confreres at the Closerie de Lilas. He knew that someone so foolish as to parade his hired bedmate in public would also leave a generous tip for a hard working man.
Morgan nodded at the waiter and lit another of his Pall Malls, playing with the Zippo lighter, close, open, close, open, close, open, trac, trac, trac, trac, trac, trac, while the whore sipped her Coke from the bottle through a striped paper straw.
A late afternoon breeze rose off the bay, which shone like pewter in between the massive grey buildings housing the Navy Department and the Stock Exchange. Crowds of locals and tourists hustled down Oficios street, now that the temperature had eased down to the seventies and the lingering rays of the sun fractured in reds and purples over the mauve horizon.
Nat King Cole played from the jukebox en español. Soon there would be another of the famous starry nights of Havana, a city wrapped in music, rum and sex, where every man was Don Juan and every female Carmen.
Too bad Nicky isn't here, thought Morgan. I'm going to miss the son of a bitch. But what the hell was he doing at the Palace? Since when was he mixed up in island politics?
Nick Ramirez, five foot six, white skin, dark hair, with the even teeth and slim hips of a flamenco dancer, was the ballsiest little Spic Morgan had ever known. Morgan never figured out exactly how an intelligence officer like Nicky had wound up in the trenches in Korea--a failed mission, a missed contact?--but Morgan sure had been grateful for his help when the Chinese rushed their position, drunk on the mad music of Mao thought. Morgan's A-15 had jammed and Nick stood alone, on the hill, his machine gun rattling time and again, the barrel of his gun giving off steam on that cold day, mowing down the invaders until they pulled back and Morgan scrambled from the forward point and joined the party at the summit and killed and killed and killed. The next morning the Chinese were gone, retreating overnight into the Korean mist with the capriciousness of Nature itself and Morgan knew he would always owe Nicky a big, big favor.
Here in his hometown Nicky became, through the alchemy of geography and culture, Licenciado Nicolás Esteban Ramírez y Caballero, attorney, dutiful son and devoted husband, the rankest product of Cuban society and not just another Latin G.I. In La Habana Nicky enjoyed the success that Morgan never knew in his own feckless country, where all he had to show for his efforts to contain Communism were bruises, curses and the stockade. So when Nicky had asked him down to Cuba, Morgan had jumped at the chance. Anywhere as long as he was out of Uncle Sam's reach.
"Come on down to Havana! It sure was fun seeing you again at the ball park in New York the other day. Sorry about the little trouble you've been having with Uncle Sam but then, who likes the old fart anyhow? I'm sending you these tickets because I think a change of scenery would do you a world of good, if you know what I mean. I have a job for you down here that I think you'll like. I'll meet you at the dock.
"Abrazos (that means watch your butt buddy)
"PS Keep this under your hat, alright? I'll tell you all about it when I see you.
That morning, stepping off the ferry from Miami and seeing Nicky nowhere to be found, Morgan had hailed a taxi to his savior's home. The driver, Caucasian features wrapped in glistening chocolate skin, glanced at the return address on the letter Nicky had enclosed with the tickets.
"Marianao," was the only word the driver would say until the end of the drive, Marianao and a grunt. Not knowing Spanish, Morgan assumed that meant I'll take you there.
"Marianao," repeated Morgan, sinking into the warm, leather back seat of the yellow Ford, smelling the oddly feminine lilac scent of the driver's hair pommade.
Tired and thirsty, Morgan did not remember much of his taxi ride, only that the cab pulled away quickly from the dock, down wide, white avenues leading inland, that they passed by a cemetery where they were held up briefly by a funeral procession, the files of gleaming new American cars moving slowly in the wake of the long black hearse festooned with blue ribbons and white flowers.
The taxi stopped before a Mediterranean villa two stories high, red tiled roof, sienna walls, pots of geraniums placed along the walkways, masses of red and white hibiscus spilling over the masonry wall. Morgan paid, got out, pushed open the creaking iron gate, walked hopefully with his cardboard valise to the front door. He pressed the bell button. Deep resonant clanging echoed inside the house. Morgan smelled gardenias and roses from the yard, noticed the thick, oak studded door, the Spanish barred windows, the small balcony overhead, a stage setting for an opera of some sort.
He heard steps darting to the door. The shutter opened and shut quickly. Then a woman in her 20s jerked open the door, as though seeking combat. Fair, dark haired, deep blue eyes ringed by circles of insomnia, the woman was dressed all in black. Her strong salient jaw ended in a defiant dimple.
"Qué desea?" she queried, what do you wish, the open vowels of Cuban Spanish ringing in the darkened foyer.
Morgan knew four words of Spanish and now he used them all.
"Sí, no hablo inglés. Nicky?"
The woman gave a perceptible start, controlling herself by an amazonian effort of will. She replied in a flat New York accent,
"Who are you?"
"Sorry to bother you, ma'am. My name is Morgan. William Morgan. I'm looking for Nicky Ramirez. He's a war buddy of mine. I just got into town. Nicky sent for me. I probably missed him down at the dock so I took the liberty. Is he in?"
The woman snorted, contempt mingled evenly with grief.
"Yes, he's in a casket."
"I mean he's dead. Nicky was killed during the attack on the Presidential Palace."
"I'm sorry, I had no idea. Are you his wife?"
"No, I'm his sister. His family escaped to the States already, thank God."
"Thank you. Condolences accepted. Now, Mr. Morgan, I advise you to take the next ferry to Miami. This is no place for the likes of you. If you don't mind, we'd like to be left alone."
Stunned, Morgan had barely mumbled,
"I understand..." when the woman slammed the door on his face.
Morgan picked up his cardboard suitcase, walked back to the gate and let himself out. He took a last look at the villa, then muttered, under his breath, lest the grieving woman overhear him:
Trac, trac, trac, trac. The whore put her hand over Morgan's to stop the nervous flickering. She shook her head no, large doe brown eyes full of reproach.
"OK, OK," said Morgan, "Coca Cola?"
"No, gracias," she replied, adding that she would soon have to go back to work. But Morgan simply nodded pleasantly, her Spanish words flowing like so many flowers down a river of sibilant speech. She jerked her head and gave a small impatient frown. Morgan grinned some more.
A hand dropped heavily on Morgan's shoulder.
"Willie? Willie Morgan? What the hell you do here!?"
Morgan turned in his seat and stared into the wildly animated face of a small man with a sharp nose and a sharper smile.
"Who are you, friend?" asked Morgan.
"Willie! You forget? I'm Max, Max Weinberg. We meet in New York last March, remember?"
"Sure! I was with Nicky Ramirez, remember? Ebbets Field, Dodgers play the Cubs. We jump for the ball when Roy Campanella hit home run!"
Morgan nodded, the veil of memory opening onto a day full of sun, beer and pretzels shortly after escaping from the stockade.
"Oh, yeah. That's right. Max, sit down. Man, it's good to see somebody I know."
Max, thin and agile, in a creased white suit that had seen many fruitless exertions, scooped up a chair and sat nervously on the edge of the seat, hands hanging down in between his legs. He cast a quick admiring glance at the girl.
"You don't waste the time, no?"
The girl, knowing she was being talked about, fidgeted in her seat. But Morgan was all business, puzzled by his friend's disappearance.
"When was the last time you saw Nicky?"
"Maybe two, three months ago. I am very busy man here, you know. This is my country. I have a radio program, 'La Voz de Cuba, 'The Voice of Cuba'."
"Nicky was supposed to meet me at the dock and he wasn't there."
"Really? That is a shame. You know we Cubans always make it a point to go to receive the friends and the family when they come. We give them the welcome, a little coffee, make them feel good for coming to see us. Very bad manners Nicky has. Did you go to his house?"
"I did. This girl comes out, says he died during the attack on the Presidential Palace. I want to know, what gives? I had no idea. Was Nicky some kind of revolutionary?"
Max sat up, looked cautiously around him, then bent closer, his surface bonhomie vanished as quickly as his Cuban accent.
"What else did that woman tell you? Keep your voice down."
"She said I should go home."
"Maybe you should. A couple of weeks ago a group of rebels and students stormed the palace on a kamikaze action, trying to kill Batista. They failed. Now Batista's people are taking their revenge. Things are very unstable."
The girl, upset at Morgan's lack of attention, slammed down her Coke and released a torrent of Spanish, then strutted away from the table, crossing the street in a huff.
"What's wrong with her?"
Max smiled. "She says if you don't want to occupy her services any further that she'll have to go get another paying customer because she sure isn't going to waste her time with the likes of you, baby."
Max noticed two men in a green Chrysler Town and Country cruising down the street. Suddenly he loudly relapsed into his best fractured Cuban accent.
"Is OK, my frien'. We haff many chiquitas like her in La Habana. Come, I show you the good time."
Max pulled Morgan by the arm.
"Hey, what's going on?" said Morgan, looking at the departing hooker.
Two men had jumped out of the Chrysler and grabbed the girl. One of them, small and thin, yanked her hair, slapped her to the ground. She let out a moan of anguish, not from the pain she felt now but from the pain she knew was coming.
"Let's go while the going's good, Willie," whispered Max, again tugging at Morgan.
"Who are these guys?" said Morgan, angered by the sudden violence.
"Let it be," cautioned Max.
Morgan, with the strength of the righteous, jerked Max aside and in a few strides was next to the girl, who lay sprawled on the sidewalk, whimpering, as the little man in the brown suit beat her with a blackjack. People around the scene pretended to go on with their business, shining shoes, wiping tables, buying groceries, staring fixedly into space, refusing to get involved even though every muscle in their bodies strained to jump in.
Morgan shoved him the little man head first into a torn poster of the movie Vera Cruz on the wall, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas facing off in manly duel.
"Leave her alone!"
Startled, the hood whipped around furiously and eased a .38 out of his back pocket. Years of combat training burnt into his reflexes, with a swift kick Morgan dislocated the man's left knee while wheeling sideways, grabbing the gun and wresting it out of his grip. Just then the little mutt's partner, a tall hulking black man in a blue suit, tried grabbing Morgan from behind in a headlock. Morgan stumped on the man's foot, lifted his elbow to connect with the man's jaw, then slammed a hammer fist into the man's groin, dropping him unconscious to the ground with a broken jaw. Morgan turned around to see the little man propelling himself with his only good leg, lunging at Morgan with a a pearl handled knife.
Morgan pulled the trigger of the revolver. The little man flew backwards, his arms slamming against the brick wall, then slumped down to the sidewalk next to the girl, his face contorted in a grimace of hate. She shrieked, scrambled to her feet and ran away barefooted, leaving her black stilettoes next to the dead man.
Morgan stood helplessly around, as though dazed by his own deadly reaction. Max ran over to him.
"You fucking animal, you know what you did?"
Morgan shrugged, gun still in hand.
"It was self defense, he came at me with a knife. Call the cops."
A siren wailed some blocks away and the crowd around Morgan and Max took off running, wanting to put as much distance between themselves and the bloody melee as their legs would let them.
"Let's run!" said Max.
"No!" countered Morgan. "Let's wait for the police. I want to report this."
"You big schmuck, don't you get it, that was the police! Follow me, c'me on, run, run!!"
Without a thought, Morgan and Max raced down the cobblestoned street, darting down alleys and backways as night fell and the stars of Havana came out and Batista's police cars arrived on the square looking for their revenge.
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