First Three Chapters
Prologue - 21 Octubres
“Se ha caido Fidel!”
Fidel has fallen!
Kate stood and shoved her way closer to the stage. She had been preparing to leave when it happened. She was really just here for local colour, not expecting anything of any interest to anyone to happen in Santa Clara, Cuba.
Santa Clara was the site of the penultimate battle of the Revolucion. Che had bulldozed a rail line that derailed a train full of Batista's soldiers, armed for bear, who were commanded to make a last stand against the Castro insurgents. Depending on whom an interested party talked to, either the nationalists had surrendered and been murdered or Che's men had killed all 400 in a fire fight using rifles and Molotov cocktails. Remains of a train and a bulldozer were within sight of the plaza where Fidel was speaking.
Fidel had spoken for over an hour; huffing and puffing and pausing for dramatic effect; jabbing his index finger into the air to emphasize his points. Finally, and at long last, even for the many acolytes among the thirty thousand people present, Fidel ended. He strode strongly and confidently forward to personally touch a selection of safe and trusted supporters.
Looking over the heads of those in the front row he had failed to see a short step ahead of him and fallen flat on his face. Shaken, he was surrounded by his supporters, helped to a chair and spoke to the crowd to assure them he was okay and could still talk. Fidel can always talk.
Kate had her digi-cam and used her elbows, reporter’s determination and charm to get close to the action. She videoed the event and the aftermath on her portable. Her clip, along with her own commentary, appeared on CNN that evening.
In response to her report a U.S. State Department spokesman said, “We heard that Castro fell. I guess you'd have to check with the Cubans to find out what's broken about Mr. Castro. We, obviously, have expressed our views about what's broken in Cuba.”
“The situation in Cuba is of our primary concern. The situation of Mr. Castro is of little concern to us, but, unfortunately, of enormous importance to the people of Cuba, who have suffered very long under his rule. And we think that the kind of rule that Cuba has had should be ended.”
But the entire empire of security services within the United States government had a great deal of concern about this event. And they began acting the way they always do; to protect their interests.
1 -- Uno
I deplaned our 737 at Cancun airport and, with only a carry-on, quickly cleared what passes for security there. People didn’t usually smuggle things into Mexico. I didn’t bring a swimsuit, which might have sent up a flag to Mexican immigration, but they never asked if I was travelling on business or for fun. If they had asked, I was representing the charter airline for which I officially worked and on which I had officially travelled. And while I’d visit our “Globalair” office, I wasn’t really visiting Mexico for corporate purposes, even though I was earning my company a pile of cash.
After clearing customs I stopped into our local office in the airport terminal and chatted with the local manager. There was really nothing to discuss and I pretended to be interested in her review of security upgrades and drug courier prevention programs. Her update took about twenty minutes, I told her to keep up the great work and I got the shuttle to our destination hotel on the Cancun strip.
When I arrived at the hotel a little after 1800 hours I went up to my reserved room without checking in. Executive privilege. I put on a pair of thin black leather gloves I had in my back pocket. My key card worked and so did my combination to the lockbox under the bed. I took out a Sig Sauer 9 mm automatic, a Ka-Bar Bowie knife, a balaclava, and a black Adidas athletic bag. I put my tools in the gym bag. I washed my face in the bathroom and looked in the mirror. People say I look like Kiefer Sutherland, but I’ve met my fellow Canadian, and I’m taller, about 30 pounds stronger, my blonde hair’s darker and I think I’m better looking. And I really do what Jack Bauer only pretends to.
Also inside the lock box were night vision goggles, camo paint tubes, a GPS navigator, an LED light, a car key fob, about four ounces of putty wrapped in plastic, a squeeze bottle of soap and a few other wired gadgets. I pocketed the light, GPS unit and key fob and put the rest in the bag.
I put all my civilian stuff in my almost empty carry on and went down the elevator to the lobby and out to a dark back corner of the parking lot. There was a black Jeep Wrangler. I pressed the unlock button on the key fob, got in and started it up.
I turned on the GPS unit and clicked the link for saved directions, then on the link for my trip. The unit was on loan from a foreign super power and had a magnification about a hundred times better than anything that Google Earth users had wet dreams about. And the map, satellite views and thermal imaging were displayed in real time from a specially tasked satellite that had been rented for a few hours at considerable cost to our client. They didn’t care about cost. It was part of their package. So was I if I didn’t get home. We were both provided for in the fee.
Following the GPS instructions I drove south to Rte 180 and then about an hour inland. I pulled off the highway onto a side road and drove about twenty klicks. For the last five I reduced my speed and turned the fog lamps on and the headlights off. I looked for and found a narrow path and followed it about a hundred meters into the jungle. I drove the 4x4 into the bush, checked to make sure the interior lights were off, got out and used the Bowie knife to cut foliage and hide the jeep. I turned on the small LED light, pulled out the gym bag and emptied the contents on the tailgate. I stripped and put on black cargo pants and a black long sleeved shirt and the balaclava and then camoed anything left on my body that might reflect light. I filled my cargo pant pockets with the remaining contents of my tool kit and got my bearings and quietly closed and locked the Jeep door.
I let the GPS unit guide me to my destination that showed on the unit as being about five klicks over fairly rough terrain. It took me a half hour in a comfortable dogtrot to get where I was going and another half hour of careful and silent prowling before I was discovered and in trouble.
I’d tripped a motion detector, discovering the beam a second after I’d passed through it.
I jumped into a dried up creek and waited. My intell told me there’d be six of them looking for trespassers and assassins.
I had a knife and sidearm. They probably had Mac-10s, the awful portable preference of that type of fiend whom I was sent to harm. They were coming. I waited. I put on my night vision and the world turned green.
The first one moved like a moose. He passed within three feet of me, deaf and blind to his peril, and was dead in two seconds by K-Bar; dying while blood was still gushing from his throat. Not even one of the gekkos in the audience noticed.
The second was to my left and called what I supposed was the decedent's name. I grunted with a Spanish accent and hid behind a tree. In ten seconds the second target was down and done. Then there was a buzz, and foliage all around me was torn with a swarm of bees. They had silenced Mac-10s. Great: fifteen rounds a second. Their weapons were noise suppressed. The shooter had it on full automatic; which was good: it tagged him as an amateur. He emptied the mag faster than he could replace it.
I ate ground and waited. There was no noticeable movement from the bad guys.
I backed up, still belly down, about twenty meters until I had a field of vision. I waited. There was a movement to my left and I adjusted my night vision. There were two; no more than five feet apart. Geniuses. Not. I killed them both with two quick taps. The recoil of my silenced sidearm was loud enough to be heard in the quiet night and I sensed movement to the right of their position. I became a ghost and silently moved behind some foliage and hunted.
The targets had a hacienda about a hundred meters away, I knew their path of retreat and I was a lot less in a panic than they were. I circled around; got behind them, and ruined their day with two twenty-metre shots that combined took less than a second.
If the intelligence that cost our clients fifty k was accurate, there were two more left: Sylvio and Sergio Navarro. They were thirty year old twins that passed on to turistas about a quarter of all the drugs sold in the Riviera Maya. I had a map of their estate and of the hacienda that included all the security codes. They should have paid their cleaning staff more and treated them better.
When I came within sight of their place, I had memories of Al Pacino's palace in Scarface. It was pristine white marble, the size of a significant public library. There were twin red Carreras parked in the front driveway. I knew there was a servants' passage and I knew how to get there and get in. If they had an inkling that I was coming for them, it was likely that they had one less janitor.
I put a dollar’s worth of C-4 with a timer on the mansion’s front gate, set the fuse and moved twenty meters to my right around a corner toward the servants' entrance and waited a few seconds. The explosion tossed the steel gate fifty feet in the air and rubble even higher. The twins likely thought the marines had invaded.
I put in the security code and was inside, not just the compound, but inside the structure itself.
I waited. After the explosion it had become deathly quiet.
I slowly and silently moved through the kitchen and into a cathedral ceilinged dining area. Through the other side, past an interior waterfall, a snooker table the size of a yacht and a massive marble statue of the Virgin, the main door stood open. I hid behind the statue and waited.
The twins rushed back to their sanctuary and carefully backed inside their front door. They each held one of the deadly Ingram machine pistols. I shot them both, getting one of them in the forehead as he reacted to the first shot. I strolled over and made sure with two more taps.
I opened a fridge next to their hot tub and found a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne to keep me company for my return trip. My dog trot back went faster than before. Back at my jeep, I cleaned up and scrubbed my camoed body parts off with a special cleanser, changed into civvies and drove back to my hotel. I left all my goodies in the blacked out rear of the SUV and locked the doors and dropped the key fob in a dumpster surrounded by rats the size of cats. I was back in my room and my hotel bed by midnight.
2 -- Dos
As always there was a big line up at Customs at Jose Marti Airport when I got back to La Habana and I renewed my relationship with Cuba’s first line of defense.
I had been in Cancun for less than a day doing a job that almost no one else could do, or at least would confess to. I often pretended to be a travel agent to do such things.
I only had a carry-on so I had only to clear Customs and didn't have to wait for Marti Airport's often thieving gang of baggage handlers to do their thing with my luggage.
The International Terminal 3 at Jose Marti Airport in Havana is up to the standards of almost any in North America and was a gift from the Government of Canada.
I descended the escalator into the customs room and its dozen Cuban customs officers, each in a little bullet-proof booth. There was at least an hour's worth of people in each line, smoking, talking with strangers and commiserating with family. Some looked a little worried.
For whatever reason, the Customs guards seem to take about 20 minutes with each person to examine their Turista Card or credentials, compare pictures in the passport to its owner, take a picture and provide an official stamp. Maybe they’re paid by the hour and not the piece.
But with my work visa granted as the Cuba-based employee for Globalair I got through with a lot less hassle than a tourist or returning resident would.
I exited the terminal and the impact of exhaust fumes on the senses was throttling; the day was humid enough to almost liquefy the sooty pollution.
A security type of some kind waved me up to a grinning, fiftyish little cab driver and an equally middle-aged Toyota. He opened the trunk; I dropped my bag within and climbed in the back and instructed him to take me to my place off of 23rd Avenue - La Rampa - not far from the old Havana Hilton, the Ice Cream park and Meyer Lansky’s old Capri Hotel.
The smoke and fumes were gritty and it seemed as if they were saturated with coal dust. Looking at the cars, it would not have surprised me to learn they were, indeed, all fuelled by anthracite.
The driver was highly adept at missing other vehicles and most of the potholes while maintaining 120 kph and smoking a huge Churchill. He tuned his radio to a Miami station playing “The Miami Sound Machine” and exhibited typical Havana cabbie friendliness by giving me a non-stop and detailed travelogue about every point of interest we passed.
Soon after leaving Havana's airport, and passing by a Viva la Revolucion sign, I re-entered the third world: huge acreages of farmland randomly overgrown or tangled. There were mushrooms in the fields picking something green. At least they looked like mushrooms, but they were farm workers in gigantic straw hats. We passed ramshackle concrete block huts; some scarred by burn marks or falling in on their foundations. Off on one side stood a huge stadium for soccer or baseball, completely enwrapped by creepers and various other foliage.
We sped down the Avenida de la Indepencia / Boyeros between the stately rows of palm trees that lined both sides of the impressive roadway and passed by the Plaza de la Revolucion, Fidel and Raul’s office building and the Jose Marti Tower. I could see the famous Che metal sculpture on the side of the Interior Ministry adjoining the square.
I’d decided to move to Cuba a little over a year ago after a busted romance and a couple of close shaves. It was more convenient to get around the Caribbean countries than Toronto. Plus, I liked the place immensely and I didn’t have a lot of friends left back home.
I’d kept my place in Toronto, though; in the city’s exclusive near-downtown neighbourhood of Rosedale. It had been the coach house of the adjoining mansion but was a luxurious Tudor in its own right. It had three bedrooms, a pool and a generous back yard that ended in a ravine where foxes, rabbits and hated raccoons played.
I’d lived alone until I moved to Havana. But I kept my place in Toronto as a safe haven and place of respite.
Toronto is a world-class movie city, appearing as every possible place but itself and my place had been rented for filming. The lead actor in the show absolutely had to buy it and after I declined, his agent pleaded with me until I finally allowed his client-actor to move in and pay rent. He agreed, which gives him a place to stay while filming in Toronto. It also provides a live-in gardener for the grounds: my roommate has a lot of time off, and loves to work around the house.
Josh Tanner is stunningly handsome, women tell me, and has a starring role in a series filmed in Toronto called “Victim of Fashion”. It's about a male model turned private detective. Don't ask me how they dream these ideas up, but the show draws a huge audience every Thursday night, mostly among the lithe and lovely, in at least two countries.
In Havana, I’d been tempted to live in the oldest part of the city, Havana Vieja, but its grime and its hustlers, hookers and drunken turistas had made me look a little further a field. Miramar was too much like Miami, Centro was rough and tumble, so I chose Vedado.
Vedado is a slightly upscale neighbourhood in Havana populated mostly with relatively wealthy Cuban bureaucrats and officials. It’s home to the Castros’ headquarters, the biggest collection of hospitals in the city and the university.
There are a few creature comforts in my neighbourhood along with the university; one is the ice cream. They don’t have a lot in Cuba, but the cigars and sugar are world class and I normally partake in at least one Cohiba and one ice cream cone a day. My apartment is only a block away from Havana’s famous ice cream park, the Coppelia, which is across the street from Fidel’s first headquarters at the Havana Hilton, but I think that’s a coincidence.
We pulled up to my century old apartment building. I got my bag and paid with a Canadian twenty, walked up to the second floor and knocked to see if Abelinda, my housekeeper was in. This was her day to work. She opened the door.
“Señor McCaul, you are back! Let me take your bag.” I said hi and followed her into my perfectly scrubbed and shining flat.
Every time I walk into my place I speculate as to who might have lived here before. It’s front door is about ten feet high, it has twelve foot high tin ceilings and cornice moldings, white marble tiled floors and some stained glass windows. I thought a previous resident must have been at least a Mafia capo, if not a consigliere, and at least eight feet tall.
The furnishings came with the place and are acceptable if not ostentatious. One of the things I had added was an ultra silent generator with a solar panel for the many times that Fidel’s power monopoly failed. I had a flat screen TV, a DVD player and a portable Bose stereo but seldom used any of them.
Abelinda also came with the place. Actually it was her place; it had been assigned to her family for her father’s loyalty in serving in Angola. Her parents had passed on, but had passed on to their daughter an apartment that got her a $1,000 monthly rental from me. This made her very wealthy in a country where entire families are expected to exist on ten bucks a month.
Of course, she couldn’t spend the money or look rich. But she lived with her cousin nearby who was the local CDR rep so she got away with it. The Committee for the Defense of the Revolution is the Marxist equivalent of a Neighbourhood Watch but watches the residents to make sure they’re being perfect little socialists, not to inhibit strangers or intruders. A real neighbourhood watch would be pretty useless in Cuba; nobody had much of anything worth stealing.
I thanked her for doing such a beautiful job. “Oh, muchas gracias, Señor. I be back next week.” She nodded and left me to myself.
I get a pay cheque every two weeks from a charter air travel company called Globalair to be their Vice President of Security for the Caribbean region. Supposedly my job is to make sure that our passengers get back home to tell their lurid stories of Caribbean delights.
But that’s a false front. I get my real income for doing special projects for a company called Flanders. Just Flanders; no Inc. or LLC at the end because it doesn’t pay taxes or even officially exist. A guy named Jud Webster owns both the airline and Flanders, though the latter is a well kept secret and Jud is invisible with it.
Webster had been in Britain’s Special Air Service in the sixties and seventies and made his bones fighting the IRA and in the Suez and the Congo. After he left the service he'd been a free agent mercenary until he had made a big score in Lesotho. I suspected that it was in diamonds and that he’s easily worth a lot more than a hundred million.
Webster had started Flanders in the nineties by recruiting a number of ruffians with whom he'd taken down or propped up governments in various places. Now he had close to a hundred operatives doing what I did; whatever had to be done for discrete clients that could generate a whole pile of money.
Jud was good at his work and no amount of research could ever find his connection to the “security contracting” company he owned nor what it really did. It was in no government’s interest to have him found out, so none had ever looked too hard, or ever would. We had never done any work for the Canadian government, though. It was too close to home and too fragile in its own security to protect state secrets of its own.
The travel company was also a great benefit to Flanders as a goodly share of all the troublemakers in the world are at vacation destinations full time or at least occasionally. They are well guarded, but relaxed, and so are their keepers. For Webster and me there’s something almost poetic about taking down evildoers when they’re enjoying a paradise.
Webster has guys in Iraq, Afstan and almost every other global hotspot doing VIP security and black ops. Much of what we did was outside of someone’s law. But no one who shouldn’t know ever knew we did it.
I had a bottle of dark Havana Club in the kitchen cupboard and I poured a healthy measure into a heavy crystal glass, cut and squeezed half a lime into it and added some ice cubes. I turned on my laptop and checked my email.
I have one of the few privately owned wireless internet hookups in Cuba. It was a gift from a friend of Webster that owned a few resorts on the island, was a close friend of Fidel’s and also owned the services of a couple of Fidel’s security big shots. There is a hidden ultra-encrypted dish on my roof among the ubiquitous tangle of wires and rabbit ears that seem to occupy every rooftop in Havana. I also get satellite TV, but mostly only use it to watch NHL playoff games.
I deleted all the get rich quick and genitalia enlargement spam and was left with a few Google Alerts on global hotspots and one from Webster. I opened it. It asked me to call.
I loaded up Skype and clicked his link.
“Webster residence.” It was Clarence Wong, Webster’s chief cook, bottle washer, valet and chauffeur.
“Hi Clarence, I’m back in Havana, is Jud there?”
“He is, just a moment, Michael.”
“McCaul, there you are.” I heard him exhale and cough. He was onto one of his favoured Hoyo de Monterreys early. “How went the trip, Mike?”
“The clients will be satisfied, Jud. The twins won’t do no bad no more. What’s up?”
“I received a call from Earl Inglewood yesterday to propose a project for us.”
Inglewood was a drinking buddy of Webster’s as well as Canada’s Minister of Defense.
“Are you on a secure line?”
“Encrypted Skype, I suspect that Raul has bigger lines to tap than mine. The Canadian Government?”
“They still remember you in Ottawa, Mike, you can run, but you can’t hide.”
He was referring to a less than rosy view I have on working for the Canadian Government. After six years with Airborne I joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I’d been promoted rapidly and got put on their Intelligence team.
While providing security for delegates to an Asia Pacific Conference in Vancouver, I’d discovered that a couple of the delegates had applied considerable leverage to keep Canadian officials from examining industrial espionage by their ex-pats against Canadian tech companies.
All evidence made it appear likely that one of the delegates would be using diplomatic privilege to take some high-tech prototypes back to China to be reverse engineered. But some Canadian elected officials had been naughty during junkets to Thailand and the Asians had pictures. So all efforts were taken to make sure no efforts were taken to arrest the thieves or stop the thievery.
I wanted the thieves arrested while in Canada. The politicians didn’t. I caused a heck of a snowstorm.
It had resulted in us at the RCMP being directed to shut down our investigation, I’d been shut up and got demoted and back-officed doing paperwork and pressured to leave with threats of dishonour heaped upon me. Even though all parties conspiring to ruin my career knew full well that I was innocent and was among the horsemen’s top agents. But my reputation was ruined and all my cronies started avoiding me like the clap.
I’d gotten demoted from field work and disgraced for doing the right thing, and hadn’t lasted a month at a desk before Jud had found a place for me. I’d met him through his daughter to whom I had been engaged for a time. He and I had always gotten along better than she and I.
The years with Flanders since had been often exhilarating and a time or two a little scary, which was good.
“So what does Earl want, Jud?”, I asked skeptically. Helping out the Feds in their hour of need wasn’t on my bucket list.
Webster said, “Well, what I know is that it’s a special project to help out our friends in D.C. and it takes place down your way. I think they want some recon work done before they get too far along with their current discussions to kiss and make up with Raul.”
He said, “And I think our PM wants to bask in the glow of the President’s friendship. Their leader is way more popular up here than our own is.”
I said, “I’ve got no prob talking to him.”
“Good. Can I link him in?”
I heard him call to Clarence. “Clarence will you come and hook up this damn phone to Earl for me.” There was some rustling and noises and finally a voice at the other end.
“This is the Minister’s office.” Clarence introduced himself and a second later, “Inglewood.”
Jud took control, “Earl, it’s Webster and I have McCaul on the other line.”
“Well, Mike McCaul, it's been a long time.”
“Yes, Minister, it has been that.” I like Earl but sometimes he’s a little too cheerful without reason. He’s good company with a cocktail in hand and a successful politician whose first job is to be liked.
“So Mike, how ya like living behind what’s left of the Iron Curtain?”
“Love it so far. Mostly hot and sunny, Earl. What have ya got in mind?”
“Mike. Foggy Bottom’s putting a lot of pressure on Foreign Affairs to pick up our military commitment to Afstan or to do some of their dirty work elsewhere if we don’t. The second’s more popular politically for us because we can hide it under official secrets.”
“Keep talking, Earl. What do I have to do?”
“It’s real simple. The Company wants to know if Fidel is in control, if Raul is on his way out and if they’re messing around with any of the Americans’ most hated enemies in return for oil and cash.”
“If the Castros’ are playing footsie with the Bin Laden types or his Saudi financiers, there’s a problem. At best this won’t work with the new President’s desire to be friends and at worst they might want to see Fidel and Raul retire,” he said.
“At the very least, they want more comfort in the Cuban situation before they take any steps to reconstruct a relationship.”
“So you want me to be your Man in Havana? Why me?”
“First off, you’re on the scene. The assignment calls for someone who has the trade-craft, can move around Cuba freely and knowledgeably, and can ask the right questions to the right people. You’d also need to do a lot of snooping around while looking like a travel agent. With your Airborne and RCMP experience, you're the only guy we got who can do this. And be totally off the record.”
“Sounds good so far. What’s in it for me?”
“Well, Mike, that depends on what you might ask for?”
“Hmmmm. Earl, you know that I’ve got a little issue with this. Your predecessor really gave me a hard time. You know I don’t get invited to Mountie reunions any more.”
“Yes, Mike, that’s a travesty. How about a written apology for your demotion, as well as a letter of commendation that will go on your service file. I’m also delegated to, say, offer some additional concessions or incentives. Fair enough?”
“How about this. You pay a normal fee to my employer.”
Inglewood said, “No problem.”
“I’d also like a bonus of some considerable amount, say $100,000, paid to the Rosedale AIDS Hospice and presented by the Prime Minister himself on the day I start.”
“Well, I can ask, I don’t think he’s ever been in one before. Is that it?” I sensed that he thought he was getting off easy.
It came to me that finally I could get my rep repaired, play a “get out of jail free” card with the guys I’d worked with in the past who had ignored me since the Asian Conference slander. A media release on my adventures wasn’t an option, but a public award from the government who had impugned me would be. Something that would cause no one to ever question my integrity with the government and past history again.
I said, “Well, how about one of those Orders of Canada?” I took a good long drink and tilted my head back to wait for an answer.
“That would seem to be a possibility, upon successful mission completion.” Inglewood said.
“I can't control success. I think I should get it in any case,” I said.
“Our staff officer in charge of this assignment wants to meet tomorrow in Havana to start things rolling. His name is Lucien Larue, he’s a sergeant in JTF2.”
JTF2 is the successor to Airborne and is every bit as good, tough and as secretive as Delta Force or the Brits’ SAS.
I said, “Four o’clock at the Telegrafo Hotel bar.”
“You got it. I’m hanging up to arrange things. Thanks, Mike.”
Jud said, “Thanks to you, Earl.” Earl hung up.
Jud spoke, “you good on this, Mike?”
“Now. . . I’m good.”
3 -- Tres
I opened the french doors to my balcony and once again enjoyed my view of the Malecon between the Havana’s high rise TV Centre and the Hotel Nacional. The clouds were starting to be blown away by a gentle off shore wind and it promised to be another glorious and ridiculously humid Havana day.
My relocation to Havana was personal.
A couple of years ago I had a love affair break up. I’d been seeing a woman for over a year and after a lifetime of solitary confinement, I had thought that this was it. Around her I was less serious and liked myself more.
Kate McKee was a TV reporter who made men all across our great nation stand up and pay attention every night at ten o’clock. Yes, she was stunning, but she was also animated, incredibly fun, persnickety, took no prisoners and suffered no fools. And she was a terrific foil to my usual quiet self.
But she had chosen career over me and even with promises that things wouldn’t change between us she had moved on to bigger and higher incomed things. And I hadn’t seen her since, except on CNN. She was gorgeous and I missed her.
I had wanted a new start. As well as being asea and heartbroken, none of Flanders’ consultants kept a residence in a civilized place that had active intelligence agencies that might be forced to spill the beans by government enquiries. So I decided to leave town.
In my travels with Globalair and Flanders the city that had always appealed more to me than others was Havana. At least in the non-hurricane months. I still went back to Toronto every few months.
Havana is a city of survivors.
Some had made it through the hard times working as mercenaries for the USSR in their attempts to spread Marxism to the world’s poorest places.
Older residents had lived before the revolution and survived Batista and the mafia and managed to somehow still be around.
The young survive by not knowing that others lived any better than they do, except from their wide-eyed survey of tourists and occasional radio reception from Miami.
All, except for the socialist elite, still survive from the meanest police state in the hemisphere, a lack of reliable electricity, a paucity of clean water and a diet of rice and root vegetables. They are also funny, friendly, generous and I love the music. So far I haven’t touched any of the spectacular beauties that abound.
I was still dressed in my travel clothes, which is no way to walk around in the city, and walking around the city is one more reason I had moved here.
I pulled off my linen suit and pulled on a pair of shorts, a Montreal Canadians tee shirt and a pair of feather light Puma runners. I stuffed a small wad of Convertible Pesos in my pocket, locked up, trotted downstairs and started jogging down the hill toward the Caribbean. In a couple of minutes I was dodging old Chevies, rattletrap Ladas, cyclo-taxis and the Audis of government officials to cross the Malecon and continue running along the sea wall.
I passed the Maine Memorial which celebrated the explosion of the US warship that started the Spanish American War. I ran by kids diving, old men fishing and lovers hugging. I ran harder as I neared the old city and sprinted up Colon until I got to the Revolutionary Museum. I glanced at Fidel’s means of return to Cuba: the small fishing boat, “Granma”, commandeered from an American tourist and the tanks and airplanes that had supposedly made Cuba free.
And I entered 1920 Havana, walking up the city’s famous Prado boulevard to Parque Central.
The Parque Centrale is a great place to enjoy a bench, play some dominoes, or argue about baseball. Beneath the ubiquitous Jose Marti statue there is a large group of animated fans, some with bats in hand, noisily discussing the state of the Latin American Baseball League as I crossed the park.
On the other side of the park is the Museum of Fine Arts, a stunning classically designed structure, across a little plaza from a former convent that is now the Cuban version of a shopping mall: a place where Habañeros can acquire or trade rationed goodies.
Every second step I had a young black guy ask me if I wanted chicas, langostas or cigars.
I passed the Floridita Bar, supposedly the favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. There were a couple of bearded Hemingway look-alikes wandering around aimlessly, most in khaki cargo shorts, some getting their pictures in the famous watering hole next to a bronze statue of Papa.
One step onto Calle Obispo, and again it was obvious that it’s a very special place. Sloping gently downhill with more potholes than gravel or cobblestone, the 30 foot wide pedestrian-only mall was awash with people: late middle-aged couples looking for photo subjects, sidewalk fixers, sidewalk hustlers, cigar sellers, 80 year old paper boys, children playing tin can soccer. Music blaring, people dancing, sweating people leaning into holes-in-the-wall buying ice cream. People strolling down the byway licking their ice cream with rapturous expressions, laughing all the way, smoke trailing behind from cigars in their free hands. Middle aged Hemingway doppelgangers smoking fat cigars and speaking in English, Italian and German.
Buildings on either side that lifted spirits: many, many generations old; people leaning over balconies festooned with plants, yelling at compañeros across the street, and being laughed at back.
Many dogs, none of a consistent genealogical heritage, yapping, snarling, wrestling and jumping on anything that seemed the least bit edible. Old women, obviously weak from age and lack of food, quietly holding out their hands, looking for even a gram of charity.
Cars parked along each side street. The ubiquitous Havana jalopies, some in much better condition than others, like they had just rolled off the showroom floor after their buyer had seen a “see the USA in your Chevrolet” television ad. Some others lurching along, like every breath of exhaust might be their last. Cubanos in various stages of conducting mechanical work on their beloved cars, some leaning into engine compartments, others just visible as disembodied legs sticking out from underneath.
I came to my favorite bar, Casa de Escabeche. It’s a little place on a dilapidated corner with brown wooden doweled walls, and a smiling little doorman who welcomed me in. It’s name is revealed in a neon sign on the wall. It’s got a great little takeout window that serves fried rice that is likely the worst looking, but best tasting, I have ever eaten.
The place is perhaps 20 steps wide by 10 deep, with a burgundy wooden bar directly in front of the entrance. The bar paralleled the back wall, from the front right of the room toward the back.
The place was quiet, the only inmates were the bartender and a husky mulatto guy in the corner at a table seeming to hold court over a duo of male admirers. Strange, because they all looked Cuban; usually locals are forbidden from CUC bars without a turista with a wallet.
The bartender remembered me and he lifted a bottle of rum; I nodded and he began to start the mojito making process.
“Señor, have a chair, put a load down.” His English was good, but not good enough to realize what he’d just said.
“Hola, I’m Mike.”
“Sit down, Señor, I’m Umberto.”
“How about you try the best rum in the world, Methuselum. Have you tried?”
“No, Umberto, do pour.” And he poured a solid three fingers without ice.
I sipped, it was good, very sweet and powerful.
“Fifteen years, Señor. You are Canadian, of course.”
“Are you here casing the joint?”
Umberto had seen some American movies, circa 1960, probably starring Joe Friday.
“No, Umberto. I’m just a travel agent.”
He leaned over close to me, “I think you are more than that, Señor.” He whispered, “I want to help you, Mister Mike.”
He reminded me of Peter Lorre in Casablanca. “I hear you’re not here to help Fidel, but to help Cubans, Señor.”
“That’s not really true, Umberto. I’m just here on business; but if it was, how could you ever help me?” I sipped my Methuselum and he glanced over my shoulder toward the corner table and nodded slightly then he went back to making my mojito. I noticed that he used a different bottle of white rum than the one on top of the bar.
“I know things and people, Señor.” I heard a slight ruckus behind me and noticed the corner table meeting was wrapping up with hugs and smiles. Umberto poured a little extra white rum in a shot glass from the below the counter bottle and offered it. I tasted and it was full strength; he wanted me to know he wasn’t ripping me off like often happens here.
“Manuel, he want to buy your mojito, Señor.”
The big mulatto guy from the meeting sat down next to me offered his hand and smiled. I had seen him around.
I took the mojito and set it beside my Methuselum and shook. “Manuel, Michael McCaul.”
He was dressed in an obviously expensive black linen suit with black sandal shoes and a black tee shirt. His hair had been carefully short-cut in a style common in any North American city.
“I know your name, Señor.” His English was slightly accented.
“How do you know my name?”
“Señor, if the secret police know your name, than I know your name.” He raised his class of amber rum in a toast, “Viva la Cosa Nostra.”
I clinked his glass, another adventure.
“What’s your game, Manuel,” I said.
“Beisbol. But I try to live well. I’m a hard worker.” I noticed a six inch scar along the left side of his neck. “I’d like to work with you.”
“You want to get into the tourism business?”
“Señor McCaul, Camporno’s secret policia have a file on you that I was told about. Many of his people keep two jobs. One job is with me and I pay much better.” He took a drink of his rum.
“They say you are a former spy and probably working for Los Americanos. But they are not sure so will just keep an eye on you. I was told about you by a mutual friend.”
So much for our security program. I took a longer drink.
“I am a new revolutionary. I am what you might call a banker. My grandfather was a business partner of Meyer’s from America who left in the plane with Presidente Batista when Fidel succeeded in his coup.” He pronounced it “coop”.
“My grandmother and father were left behind and my grandfather was assassinated in America later after he was deported in the Mariel boatlift. But I have done quite well here.”
I had met the Cuban Michael Corleone, I thought.
“Mi amigo has a car outside if you would honour me by sharing a meal.”
I thought, why not? I’ve got a couple of hours to kill. “Sure.”
4 -- Cuarto
It was starting to get dark as my new friend guided me back along Obispo toward the Parque Centrale and opened the rear door of a like new Corolla station wagon in front of the Floridita.
I got in the back and Manuel got in the front passenger seat and turned around toward me. “This is my car, Señor. I buy it from a nurse named Petronia for five thousand CUCs. She earned the right to buying a car from Fidel by him selling her services to African revolutionaries for many years, but she wished cash more than transportation.” Fidel is known for trading his doctors, nurses and soldiers to the highest bidder in currency while paying them in his worthless pesos. He likely knows that his slaves would sell these rights to vehicles in the black market as a pension, but like all things in his country, he knows that people have to do what they can to survive.
Manuel tooted the horn. “My friend Abelardo drives it as a taxi for both of us. It is better to have a car to make money than to have the convenience.”
A thin Spaniard dressed in tight red bell bottoms, a white golf shirt and aviator sunglasses, despite the dusk, appeared from among the smokers and got in the driver’s side. He turned and offered his well manicured hand and I shook it.
“Bienvenida, Señor”. He turned the key and launched his CD player at mind numbing decibels of Barry White using his basso for a love tribute to his babe at the time.
He waited for a couple of Panataxis and pedicabs to pass by and rocketed around the Parque, changing gears as slickly as an F1 racer and driving almost as quickly. After making the circle Manuel yelled to him in Spanish and Abelardo pulled into a side street and slammed on the brakes and stopped with the engine running.
In a second, a man in uniform appeared from a doorway and passed a bulky burlap bag to Manuel who plunked it on the floor. Abelardo stepped on the gas and pulled away in another second.
I thought it might be a head from its size, but Manuel turned around to assure me. “Don’t worry, it’s not a head, Michael.” He had read my mind. “It’s a can of petro. The police drain their tanks and sell it to me.”
I chuckled. What a place.
“Let’s go eat.”
Abelardo continued showing his F1 skills and in a few minutes and a thousand bumps in the road later we pulled down a dark and narrow street and slammed to another stop in front of a well lit passageway.
We got out and I wondered how tall the old Spaniards were; there was another twelve foot high doorway. We entered and Manuel pointed out a mural of a face in the Cuban flag. “Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos, Señor. A great hero.”
I had read about him. Camilo was a brother in arms of Fidel. Competent while Che was erratic. Calm, while Che was emotional. Successful in war, while reports on Che's military leadership record are mixed.
I knew that Camilo had risen from the streets of Havana to becoming a young exile from Fulgencio Batista in New York City. He had joined Fidel in the Sierra Maestra and risen from an undisciplined fighter to a brilliant captain of the point platoon, the most critical position in an attack. He had received a battlefield promotion to Comandante and led a seven hundred man force of the Rebel Army. He had furiously attacked government troops in Camagüey and Las Villas and was in charge of the victorious forces in Havana when the city was captured.
We were on the ground floor of a magnificent atrium gone to seed. There was a stunning cracked and broken staircase with a beautifully carved statue of a woman sans head and arms. On the wall across from the statue was a transcript of a Fidel speech. A metaphor for this puzzling island; decaying beauty next to tired propaganda.
I followed Manuel up the stairs. “This is the famous La Guarida paladar, Michael. All the movie stars and politicians dine here when in La Habana.”
I had heard of the place but never been here.
The courtyard was filled with clotheslined apparel and there was a cacophony of sounds at all levels of this ancient high rise; music, laughter, parents yelling at children, children yelling at each other.
Finally, at the third floor, Manuel knocked on a door, it was opened and we entered and Manuel was welcomed with a hug by a light skinned beauty and some small talk. He introduced her to me as Marta and I managed an “Hola, Señorita.”
She hustled us through a lightly populated dining room with a hodge-podge of table and chair sets and walls with book shelves and paintings, and landed us on a tiny balcony with barely enough room for a small table and two chairs. We sat and overlooked the dark street bustling below. A Spanish guy wearing a white wife-beater tank top studied us from a balcony across the street.
“We can talk here. This is where celebrities sit who don’t wish to be bothered by commoners.”
In a second, Marta brought us a bottle of bubbling water and a red wine. “I have ordered in advance for us; I hope that is okay,” Manuel said.
I said, “Of course, it seems you know your way around here.”
“Si. I come often.” He poured for both of us and took a sip of the wine. It wasn’t half bad. I looked at the bottle; a tempranillo following Cuba’s Spanish roots, from country west of Habana.
“We can talk here, Senior McCaul.”
I said, “I don’t have a lot to talk about. I just keep an eye on our airports for the company I work for.”
Our waiter arrived with fresh rolls and a chopped salad.
The salad, flavoured with some simple vegetable oil and red wine vinegar, was delicious. Its tomatoes didn’t resemble the nasty, mostly green, medallions seen at private restaurants and there was more greenery than cabbage. The bread was fresh and warm.
“I am working with people wishing to toss Fidel and his old monsters into the Gulf. They need things, I get them things,” he said.
“What’s in it for you?”
He said, “Well, my grandfather was in gambling and I expect that American gamblers will be more generous than Cuban burócratos.”
Marta brought our appetizers; a plate of shrimp dribbled with a pepper sauce.
She said, “Camerones Piquante, Señor.” The sauce had very little heat but lingered on my lips pleasantly like a kiss from my lost love, Kate. She placed another bottle of the wine to replace the one that Manuel and I had swallowed thirstily.
After I scrubbed my plate with a bit of bread, a bus person cleared our table and Marta arrived with the main course; chicken grilled with a honey sauce, a side dish of gratin potatoes and some real, almost live, broccoli. I dove in with both utensils. It was perfect; the pollo sweet and crispy, the spuds alive with flavour and the broccoli crunchy and fresh.
I had lived mostly on faux pizza since I had lived here and this was a revelation. It was as good a meal as I have ever eaten.
Manuel shared his life story with me. How his grandfather had left without notice and how his father and grandmother had looked for days trying to find his body or at least find out what happened. They were forced to live as beggars in a small apartment in Centro, his grandmother not able to receive any support from any official because of her husband’s history.
How his father was refused entrance into schools and how Manuel had helped support the family, even as a small child, by hustling for anything of value. He told me how cruel the Russians were, how they treated all Cubans as slaves while they impregnated as many women as they could.
How finally, when Manuel was a teenager, his mother’s brother had visited from Miami and left them money to live on. Cash had continued to arrive and the family no longer risked starvation. But Manuel was still refused entry to university, so he had gained a masters of trade; he became able to get almost anything for almost anybody. Now even highly placed officials depended on him to get them the luxuries they were not officially allowed to have. So they did him favours and he ran no risk of being arrested.
Marta arrived with two Café Americanos, two biscottis and a snifter of brandy. I was quiet having heard Manuel’s story. It would win a Pulitzer. I wondered how many thousands of similar ones could be told across the city.
“So Michael, consider me as a resource for you. If you need something, just tell Umberto and you will receive.”
“Manual, I appreciate your offer, but I don’t know how I could take advantage of it. I’m sure that the secret police think every gringo living here is a spy of some sort. But I’m only here for the sunshine and low taxes.”
He chuckled and placed his napkin on the table and he rose. “Whatever you say, Señor.”
I said, “We don’t have to pay?”, and joined him standing.
He chuckled. “Señor, they have to get their cognac and broccoli from somewhere.”
I followed him out. Marta was joined by a well dressed middle aged man. I shook his hand while Manuel hugged Marta and then we reversed positions and left.
Abelardo was waiting in the car, surrounded by children. Manuel gave them each a peso note and we got in the car and returned to La Floridita and a gaggle of Hemingways, while being serenaded in the loudest possible way by Barry White.