Near Havana, Cuba
Midnight in Havana, the glow of the ancient city’s lights curving above the distant horizon like some pale, enormous moon. Not as grand a glow as might have been cast in the days before the revolution, perhaps, but burning bright enough, even at this late hour. Beneath that curving halo to the east lay the still-busy streets of the Old City, sunburned Euro-tourists jostling from bar to bar along the cobblestones, past the sweet-smiling hookers and the rum- and cigar-hustling touts, all of them converged in a place you might mistake for some new-world Florence—when the lights were low, that is.
Saturday night in Habana Vieja, the old man thought, a person might have a couple of mojitos and forget the revolution had ever come.
Here, on the outskirts of Miramar, the fortunate suburb that had somehow managed to survive through everything, all was relatively dark and still, except for the idle clanking of halyards in the nearby marina and some faint son music drifting from the paladar on the far side of the harbor.
Was it a sinking moon or rising, the old man found himself wondering? He glanced at his watch, a good omen for his voyage or bad? In any case, his last view of the city, and who knew for how long.
“It is a good night,” the Cuban beside him said, as a listless breeze picked up, then fell away again. It was late summer, hurricane season in fact, but the air lay heavy and the seas were calm.
The old man shook his head. “It’s never a good night to leave Havana.”
It brought a pause. “True,” the Cuban said finally. “But the winds are in your favor. And you will be back.”
“So you say,” the old man told him. He wished they could stroll along the harbor’s edge to the restaurant where colorful lanterns winked, join the late-night revelers for whatever catch might be on the menu and one or three icy Hatueys while the mournful music played.
“I am sorry,” the Cuban said.
“It’s not your fault.” The old man shrugged and bent to pick up the valise he’d brought with him from the car that sat nearby. “One day El Presidente is your friend, the next day he’s not.”
He paused and glanced again at the car. “I’ve had a good run here,” he said. “I’m surprised it’s lasted this long, tell you the truth.”
“The changes are coming to our country,” the Cuban said. “Everyone knows it, even El Presidente himself. He grows older, his fears cloud his reason. The faces of his friends appear as enemies…”
“Hell, he’s right not to trust me,” the old man said. “Nothing wrong with his judgment at all.”
The Cuban laughed softly and reached out a hand. “We will meet again, my friend.”
“I sure as hell hope so.”
The Cuban pointed toward the nearby dock, one used ordinarily for equipment storage, the last slip in a distant corner of the harbor, where a lone cabin cruiser was tied, bobbing in the gentle swells. The boat would have slipped in just after dark, attracting little attention in this marina where even Americans might dock, if they were content not to make a show of themselves.
“The crew is Bahamian,” the Cuban said at his side. “They know the out-island passages there well. We have worked with these men before, all of them. They are to be trusted. In any case, Rogelio will be with you.”
The old man nodded, glancing at the broad-shouldered silhouette looming near the front of the car. He’d seen what Rogelio could do to Russian-trained mercenaries and a few of El Presidente’s handpicked thugs. A crew of Bahamian boatmen hardly seemed a threat. Besides, they were being well paid for his safe passage to their country. He had little fear for his safety.
“You will be safe in Andros for as long as you wish,” the Cuban said. “No one else here knows where you are going. And arrangements are in place for your transfer to Madrid; or to Buenos Aires, if you prefer. Whenever you are ready…”
“How about Key West?” the old man asked. “A room at the Casa Marina and my old table at Sloppy’s.”
It brought another laugh from the Cuban, but there was a nervous hitch in the sound. Far less chance of such a visit than a stroll along the bay to a paladar; not in this life, anyway.
“Hell, don’t mind me,” he said, clapping the Cuban on the shoulder. “Why don’t we just get saddled up?”
The Cuban turned and gestured to Rogelio, who moved to a rear door of the car, one of the ubiquitous Fiats that were gradually replacing the equally ubiquitous Russian Ladas on the island, though this Fiat was an uncharacteristically larger model. The door swung open and the young woman stepped out and came to embrace him, bringing with her the scent of lime and hyacinth, and a flood of memories that weakened him at his knees.
“I will miss you so,” she said, wrapping her arms tightly about his neck.
“You’ll come and visit,” he told her, returning her tight embrace.
She didn’t bother to reply. After a moment, she released her hold and stood back to regard him in silence.
“You’re every bit as beautiful as your mother,” he told her. “I wish she could be here,” she told him.
He felt another jolt at the back of his knees. He would have to move soon, or Rogelio would be carrying him down the dock. “Probably just as well she isn’t,” he said.
“You will return,” she said, reaching to touch his hand. “People keep saying that,” he said. He would not have chosen to come to Cuba those many years before, all things being equal. But he had come to love it, despite the impossible politics, despite the many hardships. It was the most beautiful place he knew. And he had come to love those who lived here, as well.
He paused, fighting to keep the quaver from his voice. “You take care, now. I’d tell you to stay out of trouble, but that would be a waste of breath.” She and the Cuban and the others who were with them had a cause, and those who believed in a cause were destined for trouble. As for himself, he was too old for causes, but he had come to love some of those who had them, and that was why he would have to leave.
She smiled, and he raised his hand to brush her cheek, then turned and started down the dock toward the boat. He heard the car door close behind him and Rogelio’s heavy tread following along the boards of the dock. He heard the car motor start, die, then grind uncertainly to life again. He fought the urge to turn and wave…dark after all, he could get away with it, who the hell would even see…
…and that is when the first shot exploded, and he felt the splatter of wetness hot and sharp across the back of his neck.
He spun about as the shot echoed, to see Rogelio tottering at the edge of the dock, one hand thrown to his bloody face, another waving in the air, clutching for support. He lunged for the big man as another shot rang out, and another, two heavy thuds at Rogelio’s back, and the big man went over into the water with a splash.
He heard the sounds of footsteps running toward him from the far end of the dock—men who’d been hidden there among the pilings and the hawser coils, he realized—and then the engines of the cabin cruiser were coughing to life, Bahamian crewmen fore and aft shouting alarm and scrambling to cast their lines free. Other men were coming from the direction of land, knifing between him and the Cuban, who was running toward the car.
Someone on the boat was shouting at him, Come now, come on now, a voice cut off by a roar of automatic gunfire and ending in a scream.
He ducked behind one of the dock pilings for cover, groping inside the valise for his pistol. The steel of the pistol was cold and slippery, and heavier in his hand than it had ever seemed, and for a moment he thought that he might be caught in some terrible dream.
But the gunfire and the cries and the roaring motors and the biting odor of cordite that stung his nostrils came from no dream. In the next moment he had the pistol out and his hand was braced against the piling, and he was squeezing off round after round toward the vague shapes that advanced from the end of the cluttered pier.
He heard a groan and saw someone fall, heard the shouts of others now diving for cover. He heard popping sounds from the boat and realized that someone there had joined the firefight as well. Just pray they didn’t mistake him for the enemy, he thought.
He glanced in the direction of the car and saw the Cuban clawing at the door. The Cuban was not armed. He never was.
“Get her out of here,” the old man cried. He sent shots toward the figures that advanced along the shoreline. “Get out now.”
He heard the Fiat’s engine catch hold finally and the sound of its tires tearing at the pavement. A man rose from the shadows to order the car to a halt, a rifle poised as if to fire. The car’s bumper broke him at the knees, hurling him skyward, the rifle exploding aimlessly as he flew.
The boat was swinging away from the dock now, its engines maxed, the water at the pilings churning to a froth. He heard footsteps nearing in the darkness and turned to fire, but there came nothing but dull clicks from his pistol. He rose up and swung, clubbing steel into the face of the man who was lunging toward him.
He felt hands clutch him briefly, then slide away. He was running toward the boat now, could still make it with a mighty leap. He saw a crewman poised at the rail with his hands outstretched like the hobo in some train scene from an old movie, ready to pull his desperate pal on board.
Come on, old man, you can do it. One last burst of speed…
And he might have made it, might have managed that terrific leap, except for the blinding flash that came, turning the darkness into a sudden negative of itself. Instead of leaping toward the boat, then, he was hurtling backwards, flung by a wave of heat and light that had once been the particles of a boat and its crew, now transformed into a roaring fireball, and just as suddenly it was nothing at all.
# # #
“¿Adonde?” the man with the automatic rifle asked, staring down through the still-swirling smoke at the motionless form at his feet. Where do we take him?
What was left of the cabin cruiser still smoldered nearby, a few spars jutting at an angle from the shallow marina waters. Though anyone nearby would have heard the shots or witnessed the explosion, there was little sign of it. Only the music from the paladar was silenced, and the lights of Havana still burned in the distance.
The armed soldier’s superior, a man in a suit who carried no visible weapon, shrugged. “That depends,” he said, then moved to nudge the form on the dock with the thick sole of his shoe. There was a groan and a painful gurgling sound in response.
Good, the man wearing the suit thought. It would not have gone well for them if their quarry had not survived.
The man in the suit used his heavy shoe again, then again, and finally turned to his underling with a smile. “We will take him to the Castillo Atares,” he said, with a wave toward the distant city and the hilltop where their legendary headquarters was perched. “Where else do you think?”