The e-book experiment

(To buy this novel as an e-book in the pdf format for only $5, scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Dear readers:

I have made available exclusively here “The Fool,” a novel that I wrote 16 years ago and was published in Japan and Italy.

To read on screen (or print) its preface and first four chapters for free (a total of 34 pages) all you have to do is scroll below.

Once you reach the last complimentary page, you might want to read the rest. If so, you will find instructions on how to purchase it as a digital book to read on screen or to print. You would get the full novel, including what you’ve already read.

Based on the results of a survey  that I recently conducted among fervent readers, I have set a middle-of-the-road price: 5.00. You cannot pay one cent more or less because the transaction won’t go through, it has to be exactly 5 Canadian or US dollars, British pounds or euros.

There are two ways to pay, using your credit card or  your Pay Pal account. It is important to know that once you pay you have just 24 hours to download it to your computer, so I strongly recommend downloading it as soon as you pay.

You may have to provide a shipping address, but of course nothing will be shipped to you. That is another payment processing requirement.

Word of mouth is fantastic, so should you inform your friends about the complimentary chapters I will appreciate it.  If you recommend buying the whole novel I will be much obliged.

Thanks.

José

THE FOOL


Copyright ©2010 José Latour. All rights reserved. The use of any part of this electronic publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the author—or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.

PREFACE

Real-life events lie at the root of the book you are about to start reading.

In the spring of 1989, the Cuban Communist media reported that some high- and mid-ranking officers from the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior would be tried for “grave crimes.” The ensuing trial, Cause Number One/1989 was videotaped in its entirety, but Cuban television broadcast only select fragments during several evenings. Newspapers published exactly what had been said in the public broadcast.

That was and still is the only source available to Cubans concerning the crimes committed and the alleged perpetrators. The complete judicial process remains secret.

The defendants were charged with embezzlement of funds, corruption, abuse of power, possession of foreign currencies and other, less important accusations. The most serious indictment, however, was that they had authorized Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar to use Varadero, a beach resort on the northernmost point of Cuba, as a transshipment place to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

Three-star Army General Arnaldo Ochoa and Captain Jorge Martínez Valdés from the Army, as well as Colonel Antonio de la Guardia and Major Amado Padrón Trujillo, from the Ministry of the Interior, were sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on July 13, 1989. Around a dozen others were given prison terms. At Interior, minister José Abrahantes Fernández, was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment; he died from a heart attack while still incarcerated. All the vice ministers were sacked and scores of officers sent into retirement.

For thirty years the official discourse in Cuba had been that the officers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior were the most devoted and self-sacrificing among all revolutionaries. The man and woman in the street knew that military officers enjoyed privileges such as special discount stores for acquiring products unavailable to the general population, well-equipped hospitals and exclusive health and beach resorts. Most generals and colonels lived in well-appointed residences, spent their vacations abroad, hunted at private game preserves and went yachting in the Gulf Stream. They also had mistresses, two or three chauffer-driven official vehicles and private cars for family members. Cause Number 1 contended that worse things had been going on too.

Soon after the executions, the Party’s propaganda machine started working full time to restore confidence in “the purity of the Revolution.”

A couple of years later, motivated by that affair, I started writing “The Fool.” I delivered the manuscript to publishing house Editorial Letras Cubanas in 1994 and waited patiently for two years. In 1996, after I had argued in favor of the novel on several occasions with bureaucrats from the publishing house, the Union of Writers and Artists, and the Ministry of Culture, a person speaking on condition of anonymity told me that the manuscript had been sent, of all places and first of all, to the Ministry of the Interior. The decision made was that The Fool would not be published in Cuba as long as the Communist Party called the shots.

The same person said that I had reached a crossroads. Either I started writing crime novels in which officers from the Ministry of the Interior behaved exemplarily or I would have to apply for a job sweeping streets or digging graves if I wanted to feed my family.

Six years earlier, in 1990, I had resigned to my position as global analyst at the Ministry of Finance to become a full-time author and writing was my sole source of income, so I translated and interpreted to make some money. In my spare time I decided to try writing crime novels in English where the protagonists were not paragons of virtue from the Ministry of the Interior. Outcast, published in the U.S. in 1999, was nominated for an Edgar and soon after translated and published in eight countries. Afterward I translated The Fool into English, which was published in Italy and Japan.

All of a sudden diplomats from democratic nations stationed in Havana invited me to cocktail parties at their embassies and visited my home. Somehow a few American tourists got my phone number and called to ask if they could drop by to get their copies signed; most of the time I acquiesced. Such notoriety was not to the liking of some people and eventually I discovered that I was being followed. I got some threatening calls as well. Fearing for my safety and the future of my son and daughter, in 2001 I applied for immigrating to Canada.

In 2002 I was invited by the publisher Planeta to launch Outcast in Spain. I said I would go if they sent letters of invitation to my family so they could accompany me (this is a requisite demanded by Cuban authorities of nationals who wish to travel abroad.) I made clear I would cover all their expenses. Consulates in Havana rarely grant tourist visas to a whole family out of fear that they won’t return to Cuba, but in our case the Spanish Consulate made an exception.

On August 6, 2002, we arrived to Havana’s international airport with one suitcase each, like ordinary tourists. We’ve never returned to Cuba. After two years in Spain, the Canadian immigration process concluded and we arrived to Toronto on September 1, 2004. Now I live in a free country.

José Latour

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Paco Ignacio Taibo II made the trip to Yucatán possible. The staff at the library of Casa Benito Juárez in Havana went out of their way to allow me to research the Mayan culture in Yucatán. Staff at the Reference Section of my country’s National Library provided valuable assistance. To all, my sincere gratitude.

PART ONE


CHAPTER ONE


Lying on a steel folding bed, wearing boxers and a T-shirt, partially covered by a bedspread, Ariel Landa read a paperback about white soldiers of fortune in Africa.

The large bedroom was overcrowded. Mismatched night tables flanked a double bed; across the room from an enormous mahogany wardrobe, an uncomely chest of drawers, an impressive nineteenth-century desk and two straight-backed chairs.  A single light bulb hung from the high ceiling. The walls, covered with flakes of light-green vinyl paint, gave the place an air of neglect. The benign chill of a dissipating cold front seeped in through the shuttered windows. The stale odor of cigarette butts pervaded the room.

Landa shared the bedroom with his nephew, Caris, who slept soundly on the double bed, impervious to the occasional creaking of his uncle’s bedsprings and to the bulb’s glare.  The teenager’s brown hair contrasted with a spotlessly white pillowcase; his exposed left leg revealed the sharp angularity of rapidly-growing bones.

The man yawned, read a few more lines from the novel, then glanced at the Concord Centurion strapped to his wrist.   He laid the book on the floor, pulled away the bedspread. Thrusting his bare feet into old brown loafers, he smiled at the squeaking springs.

He approached the desk, extracted a cigarette from a pack of Aromas, lit it. On his way to the window he pulled the blanket over his nephew’s bare leg. By the shutters he peered at a short section of Lamparilla Street fifteen feet below. It had the post midnight stillness that lasted no more than three-and-a-half hours. Landa watched bugs crashing against the streetlight, saw a stray dog on the sidewalk across the street, its claws scraping the cement. Probably a few Old Havana rats were scurrying along the curb, he thought.

Blowing smoke into the darkness, he recalled his African experience. The outskirts of Luanda back in ’75—with improvised logistics, suspicious locals, and a fearless enemy—had been devoid of the paperback’s hookers, whiskey, flashy cars, modern hotels, and air-conditioned assault vehicles from whose cozy cabins terrorized tribesmen could be safely machine-gunned. He had had nightmares of snakes and alligators while sleeping in foxholes, eaten so much canned food that he feared botulism, showered and relieved his hurting testicles once a month, been deprived of basic necessities for weeks at a time.

He wondered whether the lifelong friend and Army buddy he would be meeting the next morning had read the book, then chuckled at his naïveté; Maxi was too important now. No longer were they Lizard and Snot stoning sparrows in their neighborhood; nor were they the seventeen-year-old Army recruits that trained rigorously in a Special Forces unit.  Their formative years concluded the day medals were pinned to their chests, and to the chests of eleven other troopers, at a military parade broadcast nationwide on Channel 6.

At present, the position his friend held demanded that Landa treated him with some deference. Maximino was assistant manager in an important corporation; Landa was merely in charge of payroll, accounts receivable and accounts payable at an institute of scientific research. Like holding up together a Russian Moskvish and a Porsche.  It could be worse, he told himself.  Minister versus street cleaner.

The fingertips of Maximino’s secretary were probably still sore from the rotary dial, reflected Landa: Finding a has-been through the inefficient Havana telephone system was not an easy chore.  On Tuesday afternoon, when he picked up the phone and confirmed that, yes, he was Ariel Landa, her sigh of relief had been audible. She had identified herself, said Maxi wanted to meet with him at Agile headquarters and, would Thursday at 9:30 be okay? He had agreed on impulse, just to see how his buddy was doing, but after hanging up he had searched for an explanation. Maximino wanted something. A favor? No, up-and-comers don’t ask favors of nobodies. Someone he could trust for the corporation’s accounting department?  That seemed more plausible. Perhaps Maximino was following the time-honored code of choosing friends.

Ariel Landa dragged on his cigarette and considered the situation for a few moments. Almost any position would entail new challenges, a change of setting, better prospects.  If  his guesswork turned out to be correct, he should hear out Maximino, ask for  a couple of days to think it over and then hit the bricks —moderation, prudence, tact. He snuffed out the butt, turned off the light and crawled back into bed.

Landa laid still, hands clasped under his head, admitting to himself that he was sick and tired of being treated like a non-belonger in almost every realm of his life. His casual encounter with Maximino three years earlier came to mind. They had bumped into each other in the hall of the Ministry of Foreign Trade. He had recently returned from London on a brief vacation; his friend was headed to the airport to catch a plane to Mexico City, en route to Tokyo. Bear hugs, backslaps, laughter, quick updates, the exchange of home phone numbers —all in less than a minute.

“Hey, we gotta polish off a bottle of hooch.”

“Anytime, man. Call me when you get back.”

“Ten days, tops. See you.”

He had subsequently lost the number scribbled on the back of a business card. Perhaps Maximino had lost his number as well.

Then the floor had fallen under his feet. But he had held firm to one of his deep-seated convictions: A true revolutionary never resorts to the old boy’s network.

Well, maybe Maximino called him after Carla divorced him and she hadn’t passed along the message, stringing one more bead onto her necklace of retaliations. Landa yawned, dropped his eyelids, and fell promptly to sleep.

—0—

Ariel Landa got off the bus at Thirty-first Avenue and Sixth Street, then leisurely strolled two blocks north to Fifth Avenue. He was early — a measure of interest or eagerness he didn’t want Maximino to perceive. But bus service in Havana was in such state of disarray that punctual people, to avoid being late, nearly always arrived too early and had to loaf around for a while.

With thirty-five minutes to kill, he strolled along the boulevard’s central walkway glancing at the well-tended flower beds. Dwarf, date, and betel palms surrounded by gladioli, oleander, Bulgarian roses and jasmine. The stylized gardening also included well-pruned laurels and pines. His perfectionist streak made him take note of the cracks in the pavement and wonder if the manicured lawn hadn’t been mowed too close for the dry season. The rumble and honking of cars, panel trucks and motorcycles flowing east and west along the thoroughfare’s four lanes drowned out the warbling of birds and the murmur of foliage lovingly caressed by a nice breeze. The sun glowed benignly in the cloudless sky. Nine strokes from a tower clock two blocks ahead rounded out the pleasant circumstances that Landa wanted to interpret as a good omen.

Sitting on a pine-shaded marble bench, he unfolded the newspaper that he’d bought half an hour earlier.  Having exhausted his interest in the news within ten minutes, he lit a cigarette and allowed five more minutes to slip by before resuming his walk. The few pedestrians in this highly residential section of the city mistook him for a foreigner because of his formal clothing: black sports jacket with golden pinstripes over a dove-gray dress shirt, dated beige bell-bottoms and polished black loafers. One last glance at his watch made him hurry. Perspiration vaporized the traces of after-shave slapped on at dawn.

He turned right at Eighteenth and jaywalked across the westbound blacktop. On the next corner stood a restored, two-story residence built in the early ‘20s that conformed to the description given by his pal’s secretary. Its cream-colored exterior had cornices, brackets and imposts in white matching the enamel of the wide, louvered doors and tall windows. A verandah along the top floor was roofed with large, green plastic tiles supported by a galvanized-pipe frame. The early-century aristocratic ambiance was marred by a TV dish and two radio antennas atop the flat roof and by air conditioners protruding from several walls.

A majestic porch had been closed in with green-tinted plate glass stretching from floor to ceiling. Inadequate landscaping framed the elegant mansion. The top floor of a three-car garage, originally intended as servants’ quarters, had been renovated too. Ten-foot arrow-tipped iron bars spaced six inches apart fenced in the entire lot. At the main gate, a light-skinned black man in a private-guard uniform rested his forearm over his gunstock and cast a glance at the approaching stranger.

“Good morning. Is this Agile Corporation?” Landa asked.

“Yeah.”

“I got an appointment with Maximiliano Arenas.”

“Come in, sir.”

The petite secretary appeared to be in her late twenties and exuded a slight fragrance of Estée Lauder. Brunette, close-cropped hair, green eyes, too thin calves. Landa quickly discarded the concern of having overdressed; she and everyone in the office wore clothing unavailable to the average Cuban consumer, compelled since the mid 60s to tolerate poorly designed and clumsily sewn garments.

When the young woman slid away from her IBM desktop to knock on her boss’s door it was precisely 9:30 a.m. on January 14th, 1988 a Thursday.

Smiling broadly, Maximiliano Arenas rose from an executive swivel chair and rounded a huge cedar writing desk. He wore a starched linen guayabera, Levi’s, and black calfskin boots. Six feet one, he combed his black hair straight back to allow full display of a handsome, wide and almost totally unlined forehead. His brown eyes sparkled amusedly over dimpled cheeks; perfect white teeth flashed behind well-formed lips under an aquiline nose. His limbs were disproportionately large for a torso whose flabby pectorals betrayed the sedentary lifestyle of a bureaucrat. He offered Landa sober greetings and a firm handshake as the secretary withdrew.

Arenas motioned his friend to a club chair upholstered in ivory-colored leather and eased himself into an identical piece facing his old friend. They chatted casually while the visitor took in the maroon couch, glass-topped coffee table, mahogany credenza, two metal filing cabinets and a small bookcase. What may have been a remodeled dining room also had a VCR, a TV set and a portable tape recorder. Beneath a closed window, facing out to the garden, an air conditioner hummed quietly.

The secretary reentered, served two cups of espresso, then left. Landa and Arenas sipped coffee and lit cigarettes while pondering the whereabouts of a mutual acquaintance. Instants later Arenas judged the moment ripe for presenting his proposal. He took a last drag on his Marlboro, crushed it on a blue Bohemian glass ashtray resting on the coffee table, reclined in the club chair and stared at Landa.

“Why were you given the sack in Cubazúcar, Ariel?”

Landa grinned mirthlessly, dragged on his Aromas and killed it alongside the American butt. “If you didn’t know what happened I wouldn’t be here.”

Arenas smiled enigmatically before pressing on. “I was hoping to hear your side of the story.”

“I trust your sources. Anyway, what happened isn’t important. The punishment is. Was it fair? Should I’ve been punished? Oh, let it go.”

“Times change,” Arenas said as he rested his ankle on his knee. “Now there’s a different environment. In this company we care about results, not personal problems.”

“Glad to hear that,” a touch of irony in Landa’s voice.

“No, really,” Arenas insisted. “We choose people based on their merits. Talent, initiative, dedication, those are our main considerations. We’re state-owned and never hire disaffected people, but among the millions that believe in socialism, we pick out the best.”

“Do I detect a slight interest, or am I imagining it?” a smiling Landa asked.

“There might be an interest in your skills.”

“Which exact skills?”

“Sugar futures.”A switch tripped. For an instant, Landa visualized his London cubicle at dawn, price curves crisscrossing the computer screen, a steaming mug of coffee close to his right hand. The switch tripped again.

“Well…, I’m no longer proficient in that area,” he said with slight nostalgia.

“Why, buddy?”

“Futures are… how can I put this?  An experience that requires daily nourishment, if anything.”

“So does life,” responded Arenas.

“Yeah, but I’ve been hibernating for over two years. I’ve missed tons of information―facts and figures. I’ve lost my sources; don’t know which alliances have fallen apart, nor the new ones forged. I’ve missed the flap jaw too. I’d have to process an incredible amount of data just to reach square one. And the truly important rumors, the crucial, rarely get printed.”

Arenas uncrossed his legs and moved to the edge of his seat, then winked.

“Listen. I know that before you were… declared redundant, Cubazúcar was making some pretty good dough in London’s futures. Rumor has it you were one of the bright boys on the fast lane. Anyhow, profits slipped noticeably after they sacked you.”

“You got a snitch there.”

“No way. But people I know think it’s stupid to lay off a guy who can pump a lot of greens into this country just because he’s… well, screwing the competition, literally.”

Landa remained silent, gazing at a poster of Varadero in which a suntanned blonde in a skimpy two-piece bathing suit posed provocatively beneath a caption that read “Paradise under the sun.”

“I need a sugar futures analyst,” Arenas pushed on. “A guy that I, and the Revolution, can trust. If the Soviets make half the economic reforms forecast by Moscow News, we’re gonna need every copper penny we can grab. Without turning our backs on matters of principle, of course. A private foreign company inexperienced in commodity markets is interested in diversifying into sugar speculation…”

“Inexperienced?”

“That’s right.”

“And they want to speculate?”

“Buy and sell futures. All commodity markets are speculative, aren’t they?”

“Perhaps you know more about this than I do.”

“I don’t know the first fucking thing about commodity trading! I’m just trying to close a deal that could net two or three hundred thousand dollars a year for this corporation… for Cuba.”

“That much?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you give me thirty minutes?” Landa asked, stealing a glance at his watch.

“All morning if necessary.”

“Okay. Hand me one of those. I can’t remember when I smoked my last. Commodity markets were not invented to speculate…”

For the next eleven minutes Landa tried to make himself understood. Arenas nodded occasional encouragement.

“Hedging is the name of the game and all the pros—Man, Czarnikow, Sucres ET Denrées, Woodhouse, Mitsui, and some others—speculate only marginally. Processors and merchants invented futures four centuries ago as insurance against price fluctuations, that’s the purpose. Are you following me?”

“I suppose so.”

“The loner who enters the market to speculate sits in the bleachers and bets, just like a sports fan. He’s not a broker, he’s not a commission house, and should one of the players drop the ball, he can’t do a damn thing about it. Well, not exactly, but he has few options.  He’s not in the know, has no access to inside information. Yes, in London I played the market, but the big guys respect Cubazúcar because it can swing the market and they passed on facts disguised as rumors hoping for a reward in kind. I had incredible sources. Once in a while I would listen to what a dude said, and think ‘March will drop twenty-five points today’ and a couple of times I was right. You remember Waldo?”

“The dabbler in philosophy?”

“That’s the guy. Once we had a heated argument. He said history books are fine ’cause they deal with the past, but books on forecasting are horse manure. Imagine. Back then I was a devout believer in economic planning. For hours I tried to convince Waldo he was wrong. He was right. Now, specifically in futures, to turn a profit you have to accurately forecast a month ahead, six months, a year. The longer the span, the riskier the bet. And you know the saying: He who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating glass. Which is why, Maximino, if someone who knows nothing about the sugar market requests my advice on dealing in futures, I’d recommend him to hire a top-class broker, or else that he just keep his dough in a long-term  bank account with a five or six percent annual yield.”

“But, Ariel, there are stop-loss orders, computer programs with a lot of variables that project trends…”

Doggedly, Landa listed additional factors: Changes in the agricultural policies of sugar-producing countries, estimates of production and consumption, inventories, weather developments, international conflicts, money exchange rates, gold and oil prices, inflation, consumer-price indexes. Then he rose, ripped a sheet of paper from a notepad on the desk and returned to his seat. Scribbling on the coffee table, he illustrated his misgivings with a hypothetical contract turned sour following a hurricane.

Arenas, shaking his head, collapsed in his seat. “I can’t believe this! An incurable optimist metamorphosed. You talk war, climbing oil prices, prime-rate increases. Can the opposite happen?”

“Of course. Anything can happen, Maximino. And the market will keep working smoothly whatever happens. Suppose a pessimist believes that all those factors will take a turn for the worse and that the June price will drop. He sells. If he’s mistaken, and the price goes up, he loses money.”

“He’d deserve it too, for not believing that good things can happen,” Arenas said.

“In this field, terms like good and bad are muddled. You aim for the best possible forecast, regardless of what’s good or bad for the world, its population, or the economic environment.”

A knock on the door interrupted them. The secretary slipped in and told her boss Drago was on line five. Arenas rushed to his desk; Landa surmised the caller wouldn’t accept delays from an assistant manager. He overheard half of a two-minute exchange concerning a shipment of tortoise shells to Seville, Spain. When Arenas hung up and returned to his seat, Landa lit a fresh Aromas.

“Ariel, you’re wasting your time in your present job.”

“You check up on me?”

“I did. Your potential is underrated and…”

“You still with Intelligence?” interrupted Landa again.

“Hell, no. I quit two years ago. Agile is strictly civilian.”

The visitor chuckled and Arenas grimaced, reluctant to insult his friend’s insight. “Well, you know how it is,” the executive added cryptically. “But I’m not pulling wool over your eyes. This is on the level; just business. Shit, man, you must feel lousy in bookkeeping.”

“Alternately bored and pissed off,” Landa agreed.

“This is my pitch,” Arenas said. “Resign and start working for me. There’s a little office back there, atop the garage. The first two months, update yourself. I can get you all the magazines, newsletters and newspapers you need.  Read, digest, assimilate for eight to ten hours a day. Once you’re back in shape, we’ll carefully debate the venture. You persuade me it’s crazy, I’ll find some other position for you. There’s plenty of work around here.”

“Thou shalt not tempt thy buddy, Lucifer.”

“Today’s Thursday. You could quit tomorrow, make a list of what you need over the weekend and start here Monday morning.”

“Did you sound out the wire-pullers?”

“Yep.”

“They approve?”

“The say you’ve drunk your castor oil like a stand-up guy. You’re finally out of the dark tunnel, Ariel.”

“All right. I’ll start on Monday.”

They got up and shook hands. After an instant’s hesitation, Arenas gave his new employee a quick hug before approaching his desk. He slid a drawer open, pulled out a carton of Marlboros, slipped it inside a Manila envelope.

“Nurse your lungs on the weekend.”

“Thanks, boss.”

A slightly bewildered Landa was retracing his steps toward Fifth Avenue when a piece of his past suddenly engulfed him. From the innermost recesses of his mind, sweet memories of Gwen Warner mounted an offensive in the unstoppable way they always did. Landa’s immediate surrounds vanished into misty images of the places she had taken him during the unforgettable first stage of all hopeless love affairs. He could see her chestnut hair hanging loosely below her shoulders, her rosy cheeks turned almost pink by the cold as they walked, holding gloved hands, laughing their heads off. Her Barbican Street flat: Crackling logs in the fireplace, both lying naked on the Axminster rug, her eyelids closed in sleep, her perfect lips forming a childish half-grin quite different from the no-nonsense smirk she carried during business hours at Woodhouse Drake and Carey.

He felt certain he’d never love a woman as he had loved Gwen. They had existed solely to interact and fuse: flower and stem, planet and atmosphere, time and space, ovum and sperm. Continents apart, he felt that not a day went by without some sort of spiritual communion between them, perhaps remembering a shared experience, or humming the same song at exactly the same moment. After Gwen, sex with other women paled by comparison.

At the intersection with Second Street the wailing siren of a speeding ambulance brought Landa back to the present.  His watch—her watch—said 10:56 a.m. He remembered that in four minutes the 1830 Bar-Restaurant would open to the public. He crossed below the miasma of the Almendares River through the hand-railed walkways flanking the underground car lanes of the tunnel.While pacing it off, he recalled Arenas’ peculiar expression: out of the dark tunnel.

The first customer of the day to land on a bar stool silently sipped dark-rum highballs and smoked, pondering his future. Around 1:30, he wolfed down two plates of chicken salad and continued drinking and reminiscing until 3:14. Then, with the dizzy happiness of a rescued survivor, he left the restaurant and caught a taxi to his brother’s home.

CHAPTER 2


Carla, his ex-wife, phoned him on Saturday morning with the news she would be marrying an angiologist on January 23, exactly one week later. That afternoon she and her fiancé had a shopping appointment at The Newlyweds and, since the boys hadn’t seen their father in two weeks, would he take them out and make her life a little bit easier?  He acceded and negotiated the pick-up time. Landa hung up and sat in a rocking chair contemplating his nonchalance. One of the two women he had loved, the mother of his two sons, yet news of her imminent second marriage left him impassive, neither happy nor sad, as if she were a next-door neighbor.

He’d told Carla about his dismissal from Cubazúcar the same day he was fired. She had wanted to know why. Choosing the hard alternative, he recounted when and how he had met Gwen and mentioned the unforeseeable intensity of the ensuing relationship. This was deemed totally unacceptable behavior for a Cuban working abroad for a state-owned firm under the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade, he explained to his wife.

Carla’s response removed the guilt from his conscience and the remains of his love for her. The following morning she hired a lawyer to file for divorce and gave him a week to find a new place to live. Nine days later she took a stage manager with a drinking problem to her bed. A Navy officer in his forties followed the alcoholic; next came a fifty-eight-year-old taxi driver, then an electronics engineer eight years her junior. It looked as if she wanted to make up for the orgasms she had missed during her ex-husband’s tryst abroad, or as if she was quenching her thirst for vengeance. During the last twelve or fifteen months, however, she had been less antagonistic when he visited to collect the kids. It seemed as if Carla had finally overcome the trauma and was now—just a few weeks short of her thirty-second birthday—planning a future different from the one she had been envisioning ever since she met Ariel, at age sixteen.

Landa’s involuntary hostess for the last two years, his sister-in-law Isabel, was hanging out laundry on a clothesline suspended from the banister that encircled a second-story landing above a ground-floor patio. Isabel had hoped for her brother-in-law’s marital reconciliation for the usual noble reasons, but also to free herself from the guest. She had obsequiously greeted Carla on the phone, had called Ariel with a syrupy tone, gingerly trying to figure out what they were discussing. Isabel was particularly curious when Landa moved quietly to the rocking chair and gazed distractedly at the old, glass-fronted china cabinet.

“Is one of the boys sick, Ariel?”

Landa emerged from his meditation. “No; Carla wants me to take them out this afternoon so she can go to The Newlyweds with her boyfriend. She’s getting married next Saturday.”

“Getting married?”

“That’s what she said.”

“What a shame,” Isabel said, her day ruined.

Landa left his brother’s home at 11 and walked to a nearby pizza parlor. A fifty-minute wait for his order made him late picking up the kids. His previous home, a two-bedroom apartment, was on the third floor of a building on Infanta Street. Carla didn’t quite succeed at hiding her impatience. Landa thought that her fiancé’s display of affection for the kids, as he saw them off, seemed a bit forced.

Nine-year-old Ariel hoped to become a deep-sea diver and wanted to visit the Aquarium yet again. His seven-year-old brother, Daniel, dreamed of becoming a famous baseball player and asked to be taken to the Saturday night game at Latin American Stadium.

Landa repressed yawns as he watched the sharks, eels and turtles he had seen eight or nine times before. By 6 they were munching pizzas at the corner of First Avenue and Forty-second. Two pay phones failed to produce a dial tone, so they left for the stadium without being able to warn Carla they would be late. Landa again tried to call her during the game, but three pay phones were jammed and two others had been vandalized.

Making the most of the guilt complex common among divorced fathers, Daniel refused to leave before the end of the game. During the bus trip back, he carefully spelled out to his old man that when Daddy Gustavo—his mother’s husband-to-be and state-designated owner of a Russian car—took them out, they never had to wait an hour for a public bus. So why didn’t his real daddy buy a car too? When they rang the apartment’s doorbell at 1:19 a.m. Carla gave vent to her wrath while the doctor made a vain attempt to calm her down.

At noon on Sunday, several minutes before completing the list of publications he would need to properly reinsert himself in the world of sweeteners, Landa’s nephew called him to the phone. He strode past his brother, Carlos, who sat on the tiles of the living room floor cleaning his shoes and humming along with the tunes emanating from a portable radio. To Carlos’ right, its surface smudged brown and black, a half-full glass of rum contributed to the shoe shiner’s merriment.

“Hello.”

“A little bird told me the Little Rabbit serves very tasty snacks,” whispered a suggestive female voice.

Landa’s sexuality awoke immediately. A pleasurable sensation spread through his organs and catalyzed their complex reactions.

“Oh, yeah? Well, to tell you the truth, I’m so hungry I feel like a huge meal.”

“Maybe a juicy warm brunch will make you agree to just a snack for supper.”

“Maybe.”

They sat at her kitchen table at 5:35 p.m., after exhausting sex and a restorative nap. She wore his beige parka over her panties; Landa wore only his boxers. A roasted chicken, a loaf of bread and a stick of butter were washed down with four ice-cold beers.

Cristina Torricelli, a thirty-three-year-old dentist, hoped to become the American continent’s foremost periodontal expert by the first decade of the twenty-first century. From dawn to late evening she divided her time between patients, meetings and classes that she taught at University of Havana’s Department of Odontology. She also attended every scientific conference she could.

In 1982 Cristina had married a government bureaucrat with plenty of spare time and a taste for extramarital sex. She was so much the professional that it took her a year and a half to find out that her husband was cuckolding her. Acknowledging that she was partly to blame, pride prevented her from forgiving and forgetting. An only child, she had never felt the sting of jealousy; but from then on the feeling marked her. Divorced and childless, Cristina concluded that no husband could tolerate the life she wanted to live.

She had short, light-brown hair, high cheekbones, lips bent slightly downwards at the corners and dark eyes where intelligence glittered. Five foot three, her breasts were small and her hips narrow. Her love-making was innovative, unhurried, silent and multi-postured.

Cristina had checked her current lover’s bleeding gums for the first time fourteen months earlier, while on night duty at the clinic. When the patient shut his brown eyes before the lamp’s blinding glare, she had allowed herself a head-to-toes appraisal. Long eyelashes, bushy eyebrows, full lips, coffee-colored hair parted on the left; maybe six feet tall, thirty-seven or thirty-eight, mildly suntanned, permissible roll of fat around his waist, no wedding ring. Cristina liked what she saw, except for the gum disease. She hadn’t had sex for months, so she set up an appointment for the following week.

On his second visit the patient was intrigued by various subtle signals. Was his doctor’s smile slightly seductive? He asked her out on a date when he rose from her chair following his third appointment, certain that he was not imagining things.

Cristina delayed the first date until lab results verified that Ariel Landa was HIV-negative. She decided to play her hand as best she could: sexually close, emotionally remote. On their third date she put her cards on the table.

“Yeah, let’s go to my place. I live alone. My parents have been working in Nicaro for the last seven years; they come home on vacation. But let me be very candid: No obligations. I can’t make—or take—three phone calls a day, nor can I go out every night, even if I wanted to. I get home late, dead tired, and then have to start preparing dinner for myself, grading exams, getting ready for the next day. We’ll go out when both have a free evening. You live your life, I live mine. Are you okay with that?”

She deliberately postponed their fourth date twenty-one days, the fifth nineteen, the sixth sixteen and then asked him out twelve days after their fourth sexcapade. Just to see what would happen, Landa turned down her invitation pretending to have a cold. The following week he was thirty minutes late for his dental appointment. Cristina was a top-class specialist, not an actress, and couldn’t properly mask her annoyance. She suggested dinner at The Emperor next Saturday; Landa countered that he lacked the connections necessary to secure a reservation, which was true. The dentist said she could arrange it; the restaurant’s chef was a patient of her.

With harmony restored, subsequent dates began moving closer together. Eventually, an agreement was reached. They would get together on Saturdays; if for some reason one had to cancel, they would spend Sunday together instead. Ariel felt like a successful horse-breaker. Cristina admitted to herself Ariel was not a tame dove. Neither was aware that their increasingly pleasurable lovemaking was the consequence of feelings in bloom.

Oddly enough, they wouldn’t go out before exhausting themselves in bed. Her apartment, on the fifth floor of a building erected in 1958 on the corner of Seventeenth and K Streets, was fairly close to several nightclubs, restaurants, movie houses and theaters. On the evening of Sunday, January 17, they found an open table in the Little Rabbit’s dimly lit lounge. Over mojitos Landa told Cristina of his transfer to a corporation in the same detached manner he had used with colleagues at the Institute. Overjoyed, she wanted to hear every single detail. His elusiveness annoyed her. In the ensuing silence, she gulped down her first drink.

Landa ordered a second round and, holding her hand, shared amusing boyhood stories until she cracked a smile. He reserved the funniest anecdote for the end and she roared with laughter; other patrons stared.

Her third mojito brought a small dose of melancholy to the surface. She complained about her parents’ forthcoming retirement, their return to Havana and the inevitable loss of personal freedom she would have to endure.

“Didn’t you say there’s one more year to go?” he asked.

“Time flies.”

“A year from now you won’t remember my name,” Ariel said, wishing to be proclaimed irreplaceable.

Cristina lifted her gaze from the glass and fixed it on the man’s smiling, expectant face. Her sincerity was replaced by the hard sheen of suppressed annoyance. “How very true. Well, there’ll be a substitute, right? Or several, just like in the Army: First Substitute, Second Substitute… Where shall I fuck your substitutes if, like you, they don’t even own a room?”

Trying to recover from the shock, Landa forced a smile. His gaze roved around the lounge before he took a sip of his rum. “Choose them well. You should move ahead in life.”

“Let’s go. I start operating at 8 in the morning.”

A frigid wall of silence stood between them on the way back, two blocks covered in haste with long strides. She said good-night at the entrance to her building, but he had left his parka inside and they took the elevator together. Landa grabbed his coat and headed for the doorway, hoping she would stop him. His hand had closed around the door knob when she spoke.

“Ariel.”

They embraced gently. Cristina reclined her head on his chest, watery eyes closed, hands on his back. His chin rested on her head and he stared at a Mariano painting hanging on the opposite wall, above a black couch. Their bond was silently acknowledged in ten magical seconds. Then Landa let her go, passed through the door, and closed it softly behind him. Cristina Torricelli asked herself if she was falling in love with a fool.

CHAPTER 3


In the small servant’s bedroom remodeled as an office stood a three-drawer desk, a reclining typist’s chair on wheels and a low table with folded-down leaves, all in different shades of gray. An Olivetti manual typewriter rested on the table. Two cheap red-plastic armchairs were intended to serve the occasional visitors; the only other objects in the room were an oscillating electric fan and a green wastebasket. The walls had been recently painted light blue; on the ceiling, a circular, 32-watt fluorescent lamp mounted on an aluminum base. A small window looked out over the huge back patio of an adjacent mansion; anyone reaching out could touch the leaves of a luxuriant mango tree.

“You like it?” Arenas asked. The assistant manager, recently shaved and sporting a charcoal-gray safari suit, left a trail of perfume behind him.

“It’s perfect, Maximino.”

“You think you need anything else?” Arenas insisted while dangling a key ring with the keys to the door and desk.

“Well…,” hesitatingly, as he took the ring. “I brought twenty floppy disks back from England, with London, New York and Paris price statistics, forecasting programs and charts, plus an experimental program of my own. I need to update the statistics, and if there’s a computer available I’d like to spend a couple of hours on it each day.”

“You want one?”

“You mean…?”

“What’s your favorite Japanese brand?”

Two hours and ten minutes after Arenas had left Landa with a personnel form to complete; two men laboriously ascended the narrow staircase carrying six cardboard boxes containing a state-of-the art NEC APC IV desktop, its high-resolution monitor, a twenty Megabyte hard drive, a printer, a keyboard and sixty five-and-a-quarter-inch Maxell floppy disks. The typewriter disappeared downstairs to an uncertain future in the arms of the guy that Landa thought of as The Muscle. The Brains, a younger man, arranged the new system’s components on the desk and auxiliary table before making the required hookups. He then plugged into twin power outlets and pressed the start-up button. With quiet buzzing and occasional crackling, the monster awoke.

The analyst reflected on his new situation while staring fixedly at a mango tree.  In developing countries, what he had just witnessed only happened in powerful, efficient, solvent organizations—usually subsidiaries of multinationals. His recollection of Arenas as a wild kid and daring soldier was receding quickly as the new, prominent-executive image gained ground. Lack of resources did not appear to be a limitation at Agile.

Feeling hungry, he took the stairs down and knocked on the door of Arenas’ secretary.

“Come in.”

“Hi. What’s your name?” Landa inquired from the door frame.

“Everybody calls me Tinti. What can I do for you?”

“Where I can get some computer printing forms? Also, where can I grab a bite?”

“I’ll send up the forms with the messenger. You can have a snack in the pantry.  Through the hallway, door to the left, next to the conference room. Tell Enriqueta you’re the new man I told her about.”

“Thanks, Tinti.”

Enriqueta turned out to be a prematurely aged fiftyish woman who, like most cooks, loved their patrons’ flattery. Landa had a cheese sandwich, two scrambled eggs and a demitasse of espresso. He praised the eggs and the coffee, then returned to his office. In the afternoon he studied the manuals for the new equipment. His English needed upgrading but was still functional.

The following morning he brought his own floppy disks and fed them to the hard drive. He was working on a two-hour refresher on Turbo Pascal when an assistant came in with two new cardboard boxes; one contained bond paper, the other was full of daily, weekly, biweekly and monthly printed matter dealing with sugar news in November 1985. All bore the MINCEX library’s rubber-stamping seal. Arenas had to have called in some favors to secure the loan, Landa suspected as he sorted them out methodically, pondering which publication he should start working with. He chose Cubazúcar’s daily report, a hectograph-duplicated single sheet on cheap paper with the closing price of raw and white sugar contracts in New York, London, and Paris. He pulled the Clover file up on his New York subdirectory and started feeding numbers to the computer.

At half past two, Enriqueta’s unannounced entrance brought him back to the present. She said something about the dangers of skipping meals and handed him a tray with a mortadella-and-cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. Somewhat embarrassed at having made the woman climb the stairs, Landa apologized before wolfing down the snack and returning to an interesting article in Sugar y Azúcar. He left at 7, feeling happier than he had since returning to Cuba.

Wednesday and Thursday were tiresome twelve-hour workdays spent scaling the paper mountain. Landa gleaned market trends with an expert’s familiarity, imagining the expectations and reactions of people and firms he had known, including Gwen. The events reported were significant, figures made sense most of the time. Occasionally he reflected on the probable impact of a Reuters dispatch in London’s sugar circles, always cautious to react fearing that New York—the dominant market—might respond differently.

On Friday afternoon Landa was given a cardboard box with information from December 1985. He was fully engrossed in an encouraging development when somebody knocked on his door. Landa’s watch read 7:46 p.m. Enriqueta? No, she usually left around 4. It was probably the night watchman, always eager to exchange a few words with workaholics.

“Come in.”

“Hi, Lizard,” said Arenas upon entering the room. He wore a light-blue shirt, Navy-blue trousers and a pair of hand-made Florsheim loafers. His right held a white windbreaker with plastic zippers; his left clutched a Manila envelope.

“Hi, pal,” Landa said, uncoiling himself from the chair.

“Haven’t seen you since Monday.”

“‘Been working my ass off. Here,” presenting the envelope to Landa.

“I’ve still got four packs left,” after taking a peek inside.

“Keep it. Shit, I’m dead tired.” Arenas hitched up his crotch and plopped down on a red armchair. He stretched pointedly, fists up and around his ears, elbows jutting straight out. Then he crossed his legs and rubbed his eyelids. Dark crescents under his eyes reflected a measure of exhaustion. Landa returned to his seat.

“How are things, Ariel?”

With some self-satisfaction Landa brought up columns of figures and charts on the screen, explained their meaning, then guessed he might be caught up and ready to roll in ten weeks. Arenas listened attentively for nine minutes, looking pleased, before tossing his second question.

“How the hell did you get into this?”

Surprised, Landa blinked. “Well…, you remember Captain Martínez? Used to scold us for being blockheads who’d never finish college?”

“I took law, you chose economics.”

“Just to get him off my back. By the time I completed my tour I was in my senior year and got sent to Cubazúcar. Imagine. I was an expert in socialist economic theory; they never taught us a damn thing about stock exchanges, bonds, mortgages, insurance, money markets, nothing. How could they? Even our professors didn’t know the first thing about modern capitalist economics.”

Arenas nodded and smiled. “And now the Soviets are considering a Moscow stock exchange.”

“It’s why forecasters need all the compassion they can get. I knew nothing about commodity markets. Luckily, I bumped into a well of experience. He’d been sidelined on account he’d worked at Galbán Lobo before the Revolution and joined the militia late, in ’65: Germán Piloto was his name. He retired in 1980; died in ’86. We kinda liked each other and eventually became friends, close friends, you know? Drinking on pay day, swapping funny stories and shitting on the same sons of bitches—which was pretty strange, considering the age difference. Man didn’t keep aces up his sleeve. It was more fun than work. I stayed after hours, asked a lot of questions, did what I was told. I liked the uncertainty of the whole thing. I was doing okay and they transferred me to forecasting. Six out of ten times, prices actually fell within the ranges I had predicted.”

“Then you were sent to London, right?”

“Right.”

“Why didn’t you take Carla with you?”

“She was expecting Daniel, didn’t feel well. Arielito was eighteen months old and caught a cold every coupla weeks. She thought London’s climate would make it worse.”

“Well, nobody knows what’s best. Where you live now?”

“At my brother’s. Lamparilla between Cuba and San Ignacio.”

Arenas yawned and closed his eyes. “Let’s call it a day. C’mon. I’ll give you a lift.”

The car, a light-gray Lada 2107 had some customized features: Tinted windows, telephone, cassette player, genuine-leather seats, two antennas. A Marlboro dangling from his lips, Arenas turned left onto Fifth Avenue, crossed the tunnel under the river, then sped along the six-lane blacktop bordering the seawall protecting Havana’s coastline. A red light at Malecón and the base of Twenty-Third Street made him stop. He flipped the butt out his window, stuck a cassette into the tape deck. The controlled voice of Roberto Carlos intoned a Brazilian love song. To their left, flashes from Morro Castle’s lighthouse skidded over the dark, calm sea. Stars twinkled in a cloudless sky.

“I’m flying to Panamá City next Tuesday. Would you do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Take care of the car for me.”

Landa hesitated, lines of worry on his forehead. “Listen, if I have an accident, I got no pull at body shops.”

“Drive carefully then. It’s insured. Besides, cars are like whores, they keep in better shape working regularly. C’mon, buddy. Take me to the airport and pick me up when I get back, okay?”

“Okay.”

The green light turned on and Arenas stepped on the gas. A couple of minutes later the Lada took Avenida del Puerto and turned right on Lamparilla.

“Pull over here. Thanks for the lift,” Landa said after a few blocks.

“Don’t mention it. See you on Monday.”

“Sure. Take care.

—0—

So that the bride and groom could enjoy their honeymoon in the picturesque town of Trinidad, both boys would be spending an entire week at Carla’s brother’s home. Feeling it his duty to lend a hand to his ex-brother-in-law, Landa devoted the weekend following the wedding to his sons. He phoned Cristina to let her know the change of plans, but she was out. After the wedding father and sons headed out to the zoo and an amusement park. On Sunday he took them to the Palace of the Captain Generals, the cathedral square, and a children’s movie theater. On Monday morning, as he approached Agile with long strides, Landa wondered why he was feeling more like a good actor than a good father.

Cristina had called on Saturday and Sunday, only to hear Isabel brusquely saying that Ariel was out. The dentist left no message because Isabel didn’t know when he would be back. On Monday night, Cristina’s phone had no dial tone. By Tuesday she was in a terrible mood. Ariel hadn’t called, thereby giving her a taste of her own medicine. In the aftermath of the squabble, she had forgotten to ask him for Agile’s number—Havana’s nine-year-old phone directory had been printed long before the corporation came into existence. Too proud to wait for him outside his workplace, she feared he was having a new affair. Adding insult to injury, she had been temporarily forced to endure a lazy, incompetent nurse because her regular assistant was on vacation.

Cristina left the clinic at dusk feeling tired and annoyed. As she walked to the bus stop, a car crept by Eighteenth Street, its driver emitting lustful hissing sounds. She adopted a solemn expression, clung tightly to her purse and hurried along. One of her favorite songs, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, came from the vehicle. When she crossed Seventeenth, an unrecognizable voice called after her: “Dr.Torriceeeelli.” Cristina turned her head, ready to tongue-lash the Don Juan, if necessary. She split her sides for the first time in several days.

“Did you steal that, Ariel?” she was finally able to say.

Three hours later, after showers and lovemaking at her place, they dined at Los Siboneyes, a remote roadhouse restaurant inaccessible to car-bereft people, where they feasted on enough fried pork to shrink their wider arteries by a millimeter. They moved to the bar and sipped dark rum and chatted ignoring the repertoire of a congenial—though slightly off-key—trio. Soft lighting, the night’s cool stillness and the scent of dewdrops on grass and nearby fruit trees conspired toward candid intimacy. It was a long exchange and no topic lasted more than ten minutes, as if they had a million things to tell each other.

“…like an uncle. I pick them up, take them places, but there’s no daily life; I never scold them if they misbehave…”

“…and the Director said: ‘I can’t fire her, Cristina. Labor laws protect her; she’s never late, attends political meetings and does volunteer work.’  So, just in case he didn’t get it right the first time, I insisted. ‘But, doctor, she’s incompetent…'”

“…what worries me is how close it is to the South African border. Logistics must be child’s play for them, a nightmare for us. The war in Angola will be decided at Cuito Cuanavale…”

“…thirty-five pesos. As if they were pennies! I have to spend two full mornings at the clinic, see maybe forty patients, to make that much, goddammit! Thirty-five for a bottle of shampoo, two hundred fifty for a pair of Levi’s, twenty-eight for a pound of coffee…”

“…place is a little ostentatious. The whole atmosphere is foreign. There’s everything, from top-of-the-line telephones to expensive carpets. People dress fashionably, smoke these. I don’t know. There’s an air of superiority…”

“…no one, Ariel, absolutely no one who out of the blue has been handed a two-story, twelve-room house, three cars, and five air conditioners, can expect me to accept that my own personal sacrifice for the Revolution consists in lacking that which he enjoys…”

They coasted along on the way back as Marco Antonio Muñiz adorned the midnight with soothing boleros. Full sensual satisfaction drew them both into deep slumber.

The week was perfect because mutual yearning fused with opportunity. Landa left work around 7 or 7:30 in the evening, then drove to his brother’s apartment, showered, shaved, changed into fresh clothing and picked up Cristina. Movies, plays, a visit to the Fine Arts museum, drinks at the Floridita, dinner at The Tower. And even though a cold front kept them out of the beach, they visited Guanabo on Sunday to eat marinated sawfish on saltines downed with cold beer. That same evening, on their way back to Havana, Cristina pressed the stop button to cut Julio Iglesias short in mid-song.

“I felt nice this week,” she said.

“So did I.”

“We won’t be able to see each other on a daily basis when your boss comes back.”

“Nope.”

“I wonder if you’d like to… extend this awhile. You could come to my place after work. We could grab a bite, watch a little TV… If you feel like it, stay the night. If you don’t, go back to Carlos.”

Landa kept his eyes on the road. The offer took him by surprise, simultaneously pleasing him and making him feel uneasy.

“Well?”

“I don’t want to interfere in your life.”

“Really? That’s funny. Excluding Dad and my ex-husband, you’re the guy who has most interfered with my life. Lucky me you don’t want to.”

“You remain free, live alone, have no obligations. It appears to me you need to protect your independence. Visiting every night—”

“Let’s give it a try, my love, please,” Cristina interrupted.

It was the first time she used “my love” outside a purely sexual context. Landa felt comfortable in the net. “If you want to,” he agreed.

The dark-green ’52 Chevrolet that had been following them everywhere for the last five days chugged behind, unnoticed.

CHAPTER 4


The cool, cloudy  Tuesday afternoon was fading into dark-bluish hues when Maximiliano Arenas, in a well-tailored three-piece suit, descended from a Cubana TU-134 turbojet and crossed the tarmac headed for the terminal. Tinti had warned Landa that their boss was invariably one of the first passengers to clear Customs and the analyst waited patiently by the exit gate for international passengers. At 7:15 the assistant manager came out pushing a cart with two new suitcases, the old one and his attaché case. They shook hands, then marched to the parking lot; the baggage was distributed between the trunk and back seat. Arenas snatched the car keys from Landa and slid behind the wheel. The analyst plopped on the passenger seat.

“How did it go?” Landa asked politely once they left the parking lot.

“No problem.”

“How’re things in Panamá?”

“Hot. There’s a tremendous smear campaign against Noriega.”

“Granma says he’s being accused of drug-trafficking.”

Arenas shook his head in resignation. “Imperialists, they never give up, do they? Noriega is Torrijos’ heir, a nationalist, anti-imperialist leader they want to discredit at all cost. I know a few Panamanian army officers; all are seething. They say this propaganda offensive is the same as if somebody in the nineteenth century charged Bolívar with being a Hispanophile, or accused Juárez of supporting the French.”

“Reagan isn’t Carter,” Landa commented. “If he can roll back the Canal treaties, he will.”

“They’re the worst kind of bastards. Now we are being accused of dealing with Colombian drug lords.”

“Us?”

“Yeah. They bribed a Panamanian government official, Blandón. The bastard swears on his mother’s grave that he came to Cuba to fix the crossing of cocaine shipments.”

“Sonafabitch! I haven’t read that in the paper.”

Back in the city, Arenas turned right on Ayestarán Street, headed to Carlos’ apartment. Out of a deeply ingrained habit of protecting his privacy, the analyst didn’t  disclose that he had moved to Cristina’s the day before; in any event, the detour provided a good opportunity to pick up a few  remaining personal belongings. The conversation moved to baseball, but as the car took Amargura Street, Arenas changed the subject once again.

“I had a meeting with the guy interested in sugar futures. Wants to talk feasibility on April first. Step on it—your updating I mean—see if we can have the full project ready by mid-March, then take it up to the general manager.”

“Mid-March knocks two weeks off my schedule.”

“We’ll brainstorm prior to making any decision. I gotta phone the guy on the twentieth to find out if he’s coming over here or if we’ll be going there.”

“I’ll do everything I can. Maybe we can even touch base before completing the update.”

“Fine. I brought a couple of sweatshirts for your kids. How are they?”

“All right. Carla got married ten days ago.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah. To an MD, an angiologist. Thanks for everything, Snot. The car loan and all the rest.”

“Thank you for looking after my mount.”

—0—

Soon after Landa moved in with Cristina their lifestyles started changing for the better.

For him it meant breaking away from a family unit in which he had tried to pass unnoticed and pairing up with a human being who needed him a lot more than she was willing to admit to herself. He evolved from passive to active agent, from receiving to transmitting hope and warmth, from absorbing kindness to bestowing it.

The light burden of spontaneously chosen responsibilities didn’t bother Cristina. Instead of mumbling to herself fearing that she was going crazy, she could now complain loudly about every inconvenience, frustration or setback in her daily life. For all practical purposes, cooking for two added little to her usual chores. Cleaning and laundering were eased a bit by Ariel’s amateurish, and not quite thorough, attempts at collaboration. She secretly felt relieved when at the end of her day she took the two-career-woman armor off, sprawled on the couch facing the TV and curled up on the man’s lap like a helpless, forlorn teenager.

As days slipped by, they suspected that the quiet, mature evolution of their relationship would loose momentum at certain stage before giving way to regular life in all of its crudeness. Both were used to keeping their internal processes to themselves and never discussed the relationship. Sometimes one discovered a perplexed stare in the other; then confused smiles surfaced before each turned back to the chores in progress.

Their already outstanding job performances improved noticeably. Landa made much more headway with the update, but as he crunched numbers and absorbed news, it dawned on him that he had overstated his case to Maximino. Perhaps a well-informed lone wolf could get by.

Cristina rearranged her schedule and fit the paperwork she used to take home into regular working hours. On Saturday mornings they went out together to buy off-ration products at stores and markets; in the afternoons he picked up his quota of rationed foodstuffs at Carlos’s, while Cristina cleaned and did laundry. On Sunday mornings he took the boys out while she slept in. At noon she prepared brunch and they spent the evening at the movies, dancing and sipping drinks at nightclubs or dining out.

The man in charge of Surveillance in her apartment building’s Committee for the Defense of the Revolution was waiting for Cristina when she entered the lobby on the evening of February 22, a Monday.”Cristina, excuse me, I need a word with you.”

“Sure, go ahead, Martin.”

The thin bald electrical engineer worked at the Zapata Street power substation. In his early fifties, he had an obese wife and two daughters in their late teens. Martin looked a little nervous, as if compelled to do something he wouldn’t enjoy in the least.

“First of all, I want you to understand this is an official, nationwide procedure, not something personal.”

“Hey, hey, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing is the matter. Nothing at all. It’s just that I’ve been told a comrade is living in your apartment and he has not been enrolled in our Register of Addresses. When people move, they have to fill out a form and give it to the comrade entrusted with Surveillance on the block they are moving away from. Their names are crossed off the Register of Addresses there and added to the Register at the new place of residence. The CDR has to oversee this, so if this comrade living with you plans to stay, I want you to tell him that―”

“I don’t know how long he’s gonna stay, Martin,” Cristina erupted. “He doesn’t know either, and it’s nobody’s business who the fuck lives at my place.”

“Take it easy, Cristina. Don’t lose your temper. We’ve never had an argument before and this―”

“He’s visiting, Martin, get it? Visiting. For as long as we both want to, and I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission to bring whoever I please to my place.”

“It’s not a matter of asking permission, it’s a mere formality.”

“Well, we won’t comply with that formality, okay? Tell that to whoever needs to know. Goodbye.”

Landa noticed her annoyance that evening but assumed that whatever was bothering her didn’t concern him; respecting her privacy, he asked no questions. The next morning, her anger having fizzled, Cristina wondered if perhaps the whole thing could be turned into something positive. For the last three weeks, watching Ariel more as a human being than as a man, she had found that he embraced a few old-fashioned beliefs she might be able to turn to her advantage. Cristina decided to present the matter to him as a shocking invasion of their privacy. Should he agree to observe the formality, she would suggest transferring his ration card as well. Should he decide to go back to his brother’s, she would point out the absurdity of drastically altering their way of life on account of a bureaucratic regulation.

“Didn’t you know?” he asked her as they were getting ready to go to bed on Tuesday, once she finished recounting the Monday evening exchange with Surveillance. Landa pulled back the bedspread and began folding it.

Cristina shook her head. “No. I mean, maybe I heard it mentioned in a conversation, a CDR meeting or a TV spot, but it didn’t register. I was fourteen when my parents moved here.”

“Your ex-husband must’ve completed the application when he moved out. Your parents too, when they relocated to Nicaro.”

“Never told me.”

“Well, I knew. I just thought they weren’t enforcing it any longer. Like with motorcycle helmets.”

“Motorcycles helmets? Never mind. I can’t believe this.”

“The rationale is that if a counterrevolutionary lands surreptitiously to plant a bomb, if a murderer gets away or a convict makes a break, they must find a place to stay. Usually their first choice is the home of a relative or a friend.”

“That’s childish!” Cristina interrupted. “A form isn’t going to stop a criminal. Besides, for each sob caught that way, there must be a hundred thousand outraged people. You know what I think? I think this kind of decree or order or whatever should take common people into account.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

“What are we gonna do?”

Landa sat on the edge of the bed and reflected for a few moments. “Listen. You’re a professional, also an assistant professor at the University. Defiance might harm your career. Best thing is for me to move back to Carlos.”

With two steps Cristina was at his side. Her hand cupped his chin and gently forced him to look into her eyes. “Let’s nurture our relationship, Ariel. Fill the damn form and let’s give it to that shit eater. Let’s make the bureaucrats happy.”

Landa shook his head. “You can’t make that decision; your parents own this place. You’d have to take it up with them.”

Cristina sat by his side. “Just a moment. For the last seven years I’ve been living here on my own. I’ve paid the bills, painted the walls, overseen repairs, taken care of the place. I feel entitled to decide who I can share it with. Besides, my folks wouldn’t object.”

“How can you know?”

The matter was settled at 11:42 p.m., when Cristina’s parents, eight hundred kilometers east of Havana, in a state of perplexed somnolence agreed to their daughter’s request and even exchanged a few words with the unknown intruder in a scene worthy of a sitcom. Cristina hung up with a glorious smile, emotionally and sexually excited. Under her nightgown she felt familiar signs of arousal: nipples pushing out, skin tingling, a tickly clitoris. “Come, Ariel. I want you more than ever.”

—0—

Landa pulled the scuba mouthpiece out and slid his tongue over pained gums. He guessed that should anyone ask Cristina’s opinion, she would recommend an oral-nasal mask that didn’t torture sensitive tissues. Four yards ahead, on the coarse sand crossed by a band of seaweed and algae, his wet, black-rubber diving suit shining under the moonlight, Jorge Carrasco removed his fins, lifted the heavy waterproof bag, then trotted up to the edge of the wild coastal vegetation. Landa raised his mask to his forehead, took a few awkward steps forward, knelt behind Carrasco’s back and helped him unbuckle his steel tanks. It was 03:03 hours on Tuesday, March 8.

“Shit, I’m freezing,” whispered a trembling Carrasco. “Our lips must be blue.”

Landa shushed him as he tore his own underwater breathing equipment away from his back and slid it to the sand. “Get your canteen and two chocolate bars,” ordered the infiltration team’s leader as he removed fins from his feet.

After peering closely at the immediate surrounds, Landa unzipped his bag and produced a can of condensed milk which he punctured on opposite sides with the knife fastened to his right leg. Kneeling on the sand, buttocks over heels, each man ate a chocolate bar along with mouthfuls of the thick, sugary milk and gulps of water. Next they pulled out from their bags weapons and dummy charges as well as camouflage fatigues, black berets and paratrooper boots, changed, and packed away the underwater gear. Using collapsible combat shovels they buried both bags and the debris in the sand before marching east-southeast amid ephedra, coco palms, mangrove trees, fleeing crabs and scurrying rodents.

The operation had started at 23:00 hours. Divers hit the water approximately two miles offshore, at 02:07 hours. As the black power boat noiselessly withdrew into the open sea, the combat divers swam to a landing site two hundred yards west of the designated spot. In previous exercises Landa had been captured as a result of information supplied by “enemy” agents, so this time he warned the lieutenant of his plan and got an approving wink.

He led the way with the embarrassment shared by all those who must unwillingly play a role but lack the tiniest natural calling for acting. Fifteen years back he had felt like Carrasco: motivated, expectant, tense. But since seeing combat in Angola, maneuvers failed to make his suprarenals work overtime or worry that he would never again see the people he loved. Age aside, gaze distinguished veterans from rookies during drills: cool and unconcerned among those who had gone through the real thing; ardent and high-strung among those who hadn’t. Landing Battalion 7070 could, in fact, be split in two: 202 MININT Special Forces troopers still untested in the battlefield, and 236 reservists that had engaged in bloody conflicts in different corners of the world. Nearly all veterans were civilians called in for training twice a year; the rookies were professional soldiers in an admirable state of readiness.

After a few minutes hiking, wild grass became the dominant vegetation. The two-man team paused, mixed mud and spread it over their faces. Landa consulted a watch on his left wrist, a compass on his right, and surveyed the darkness ahead through the infrared scope of his AKM-74. He ordered Carrasco across the two-lane asphalt road twenty-five yards ahead, waited three full minutes, then joined the rookie. They progressed cautiously until just about bumping into a chain link fence topped with a barbed wire Y enclosing their destination—an Army compound on full military blackout where the “enemy” had a fuel depot and a communications center.

Landa kept watch, Carrasco dug below the fence. A few minutes later they slipped under on their bellies and crawled to a nearby barrack. Locating sentries with their scopes, gliding among shadows like elusive ghosts, they planted the dummy demolition charges and left undetected. At 04:54 hours, back at their landing point, they took a thirty-minute break before recovering the underwater gear. They waited three hours for the truck that picked them up.

Designated the Outstanding Team, they applauded themselves in the Russian tradition. The prize was a special meal: Succulent chicken with rice, accompanied by fried plantains, lettuce-and-tomato salad, grated coconut meat for dessert, espresso on top. That same night the reservists were sent back home.

Share/Save