Submission Details

Her Man in Havana
Her Man in Havana
Fran Connor
Romantic Thriller
Yes - full manuscript is available


Her Man In Havana. Synopsis. Harry Williams arrives in Havana to buy rum for Waitburys supermarkets. Alone in his hotel bar, hes approached by a beautiful woman, Maria. He hires her as an interpreter to help him with the rum purchase. A gangster, Menendez, forces Harry to buy stolen rum from him and pay in the Caymans. If he doesnt, Menendez will have him killed. Harrys firm will not send the money to the Caymans. Maria comes up with an alternative. She says she knows someone who knows someone in Miami who will buy the stolen rum and pay Menendez in the Caymans. Harry offers this deal to Menendez, who accepts. Maria is a secret policewoman and has set Harry up so her boss, Jiminez, can capture Menendez and his contact in the state rum company in the act. Jiminez pretends hes the Miami contact. In a sting at the rum hand over in the dockyard, Jiminez arrests Menendez and Harry. Its only now Harry realises Maria duped him. Harry faces twenty years in jail for the rum job. Jiminez offers him a way out. Assassinate a traitor in the Cuban government for passing information to the USA. Maria persuades him to agree. Harry does, hoping to find a way out before he has to do it. Harry discovers that Maria has been acting under duress from Jiminez. She is in as much danger as he is. She tells Harry that Jiminez has a driving ambition to reach the top in the Security Service by nefarious means. Harry and Maria join forces to thwart him. They escape by killing the guards. They fall in love. Eventually, they fall into the hands of Jiminez. The traitor story is a ruse to protect Jiminezs real plan from exposure. Only Jiminez and his henchman know the real plan. Jiminez puts Harry on a rooftop with a sniper rifle. El Presidente comes past in his motorcade. Jiminez moves in with the police and arrests Harry, making it look as if the secret policeman has saved the president. Evidence showing a UK/Canadian/CIA plot to kill the Cuban president is planted on Harry. Jiminez wants to wreck rapprochement between Cuba and the West. In a new Cuba, there will be no need for Jiminez and his ilk. Harry is in a derelict jail and expects a bullet in the back of the head. Jiminez and his henchman have Maria at a hacienda in the countryside. They intend to kill her. Harry discovers his well-hidden courage. He escapes, finds Jiminez and his henchman, overpowers them and rescues Maria. They prove Jiminezs plot. Harry and Maria marry. They open a beachside hotel in Cuba with permission from a grateful and changing government.

Chapters one two and three

Her Man in Havana
First three chapters of a 55k novel by
Fran Connor
Fran Connor
Liot
Mongaudon
82190 St Nazaire de Valentane
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Tel (international) +33 563945788
Email: francis.connor@wanadoo.frChapter One
I walked out of the Saratoga Hotel and turned right towards the Capitolli—a big, white replica of the Capitol in Washington—or was the Capitol in Washington a replica of this one in Havana? I had a spring in my step. Why wouldn’t I be happy? Here I was on expenses with only a couple of business meetings and the rest of the week mine to explore this fascinating island.
Overhead, the sun beat down on the broken pavement, making me glad for my Panama to keep the burning rays from my thinning pate. I don’t know why I’d decided to keep my linen jacket on in this heat. According to the receptionist at the hotel the temperature was unusual for February and forecast to stay high, very high. Global warming in action. I wasn’t complaining. It meant the women walked around dressed to cope. I’m no voyeur, but I can’t help my eyes wandering. Perhaps I thought I was the man shades, smart jacket and a pocket full of Cuban CUC$. It all said 'look at the tourist’. That was only half right. Yes, Harry Williams was a tourist but only because I’d extended my business trip here. If I knew then what I know now would I have been on the first plane home? I don’t think so. With blissful ignorance, I carried on towards the park where the American cars hung out. I wanted to do the tour.
A couple of kids sat on the steps outside the basketball arena, their ice cream melting faster than they could eat it.
An old man leant on the wall of a crumbling building, offering tubes of peanuts for sale. His face looked like a map of the island, with all its rivulets and gorges sculpted in. I gave him two CUC$ for a tube.
A crocodile of school kids, about five years old and dressed in wine-coloured skirts or short pants and light-blue shirts, traipsed along the uneven pavement under the watchful eye of a friendly looking woman.
The air hung heavy with traffic fumes. A cacophony of car horns beat hard on my eardrums.
A long, yellow bus with one of those concertinas in the centre pulled up to a stop where a crowd stood on the pavement. The concept of a queue seemed foreign. The melee climbed aboard and off went the bus. I didn’t fancy travelling by that means. I had nothing against buses, but being pressed up hard against humanity in an overcrowded, hot and sticky one was not high on my agenda. That said, there were a couple of passengers I wouldn’t have minded getting close to. That’s what I do like about Havana. The women come in all shapes and sizes, as in any other city, except here they have an abundance of the size and shape that appeal to me.
This was Havana. Hot, humid, loud, semi-derelict and enigmatic. No wonder Hemingway and Greene found material for their novels here. What I didn’t know was that I was heading for a starring role in what could have been one of their books. The fish out of water. The dumb tourist. Yes—looking back now—the ignorance was bliss.
As I strolled past a ruined edifice that would once have been a jewel in this city of a thousand mysteries, a flock of pigeons took to the skies from the hollows of its skull-like recesses. I couldn’t see what spooked them. That’s my problem. I don’t sense the hidden dangers as pigeons do. I walk slap bang into them.
Since I’d come out of the Saratoga I’d been aware of a swarthy young guy wearing white jeans and a white T-shirt not far behind me. He hadn’t passed when I stopped for the peanuts. He was still behind me. I wondered if he intended to roll me for cash. I’ve been to a fair few cities in the world where it is not uncommon for tourists to be targeted. I’d been told Havana was a safe city, but every place has its criminal element.
Only this guy didn’t look like a crook. Not that I have any idea what a criminal is supposed to look like. But I was becoming unnerved. At least he wouldn’t try anything in broad daylight on this street with so many people around.
Straight ahead was what I was looking for. A row of about fifteen American automobiles backed up to the kerb.
'Try the pink one,’ said a voice behind me.
I turned to see the guy in the white pants and T-shirt.
'The pink one is good. I recommend it. Thirty-five CUC$.’
I relaxed. Yes I was being targeted, but only by a tout for the cars, and I wanted a ride in an American car.
The pink car he pointed out was a ’54 Chevrolet convertible with white seats. Yes, this was the one I wanted. Not that pink is my colour. It just stood out from all the others. And I’m a fifties aficionado. I love that period with its big cars, full-bodied women and music. Coming to Havana was like stepping back in time. Back to the fifties. I was in my heaven.
A black guy in a white T-shirt and orange shorts held a map in a plastic cover as he came over. 'You want ride in car? Take tour. Thirty-five CUC$,’ he said, running his hand across the map as if I could see the route.
'He wants the pink one,’ said my new, white-dressed friend.
A bunch of guys stood around smoking and shooting the breeze on the far side of the cars.
One young man stood separate from the others, leaning on a tree, tapping something into a mobile phone—probably playing one of those stupid games. It seemed he wasn’t with the others.
'Miguel!’ The black guy called over to the one on his own.
He sauntered over. Dead cool, as if he was some A-list celeb instead of a tourist jockey. He stood about five ten and probably worked out. I had two inches on him but he had the muscle and let’s just say I didn’t. He wore a pair of Ray-Bans, a black T-shirt and black shorts. Around his neck hung a heavy, gold-coloured necklace but I don’t know if it was real gold. He had a matching ear stud. He nodded to my new friend who smiled and wandered off. No doubt he was looking for another tourist to bring here. I had no idea how the system worked. Perhaps the touts received a percentage.
'You want the tour, Señor? Thirty-five CUC$. We do the Malecón and the jungle in the middle of the city and all the other main sites,’ said Miguel. He had a slight accent, but his English was pretty good.
'Yeah, that’s what I want.’
I crossed the road, watching for the bicycle rickshaws that silently crept up and down the streets.
Miguel opened the driver’s door and lifted forward the front seat. I climbed into the back, onto a long, white, plastic bench that looked original on close inspection. The same kind of car I’d seen in the old films with couples making out at the drive-in movies. I wished I’d had one of these Yankee gas guzzlers when I was using cars to pull the birds. My Ford Fiesta was no babe magnet.
The other drivers looked at me sullenly. I didn’t know what Miguel had done to upset them or if I had somehow made a mistake in the local etiquette, but there was no doubt that my chauffeur was not high on their popularity list. Perhaps I was supposed to go in the first car in the line.
Miguel slipped into the driver’s seat, turned the key and the engine sputtered into action. Away we went with a cloud of black smoke billowing from the exhaust.
'This is Chinatown,’ he said as we joined a queue of traffic being held up by a horse and buggy.
I looked over at an arch similar to the one in London’s Chinatown.
'I can’t see any Chinese people,’ I said, searching the faces of the pedestrians.
'No, they all left after the Revolution, Señor.’
Looking at the state of the buildings in this city, I reckoned they had made a wise move. I hadn’t got to know Havana or the rest of Cuba yet. I hadn’t yet fallen in love with the place or its people. I had not yet fallen in love with her.
'So how do you keep this old engine going, Miguel?’ I said as we sped along the Malecón, the esplanade that runs seven miles along Havana’s seafront. A trail of black smoke followed us.
The sea, churned up by a north-westerly, thundered over the protective wall in places, sending tourists and locals scattering out of the way. The same winds had brought the conquistadors to these shores five hundred years ago. I’ll say one thing for the Spanish: they know how to build cities. It’s a crying shame that this one was falling apart from neglect.
'Well, Señor, I don’t usually tell anyone but it’s a Mitsubishi engine.’ He laughed.
So did I. This big Yankee gas guzzler had a Japanese engine under the bonnet. I wondered if it was as old as the original.
I’ve seen the old photos of the seafront in its heyday of the thirties, forties and fifties. One hot destination was Havana. It isn’t difficult to imagine the Mafiosi coming over from Miami in their droves. The stars like Sinatra flocked here too. There could have been a connection in this playground of the rich. It all disappeared under the yoke of Revolution, or the release from servitude for the masses, depending on your politics. My politics were relatively neutral. Don’t get involved, was my mantra. It served me well on business trips to some of the less stable countries where we bought our liquor.
The last thing going through my mind as I sat like royalty in the back of this huge, pink car, waving at the tourists and the kids, was that the Mafiosi was still active in Cuba. I knew they were still in the States. But in Cuba? No.
'What brings you to Cuba, Señor? Business or pleasure?’ said Miguel.
'Both,’ I said.
'Really, Señor? What’s your business?’
Miguel seemed a decent sort of guy. No point in being cagey. He was just friendly, I thought.
Maybe that’s where my tendency to exaggerate lit the fuse, or one of the fuses. 'I’m the international representative of a major British importer. I’m here to buy rum and cigars. Cuba’s finest.’ It sounded cooler than, 'I’m a buyer for a supermarket chain.’
'Si, Señor. You will find the finest rum and cigars here in Havana.’
'I hope so. That’s why I came.’
'And the pleasure? You like our Cuban women? I know some girls who would like to get to know you, Señor.’
'I’m going to do some touring. Yes, I like your women but I’m not looking for one. Thanks but no thanks, Miguel.’ I like female company but not the sort you pay for.
'As you please, Señor.’
We arrived back at the American car parking lot. I handed over thirty-five CUC$, the Cuban tourist dollar, plus a tip of ten.
'Thanks, Señor. Good luck with your business.’
He shook my hand and seemed sincere. I guess he was a good actor.
***
I took a stroll down Obispo—what passes for the high street in downtown Havana—past the Floridita that Papa Hemingway said had the best daiquiris. I checked my watch: nearly two o’clock. Time for some lunch. I found a pavement restaurant overlooking a small square park with stalls around the edges selling books.
I wasn’t sure: a guy in a grey suit, shades and a brown Trilby with a white band could have been tailing me since I passed the Floridita. But he may have just been going the same way as me. I work for a supermarket chain, not MI6. Why would he be following me? He took a seat in the same café and opened a newspaper. If he was touting for custom for taxis, women or whatever, then why wasn’t he approaching me and making a pitch?
I had no idea, but here in the restaurant, with a lot of people around, I was safe. I watched a pretty policewoman stroll up Obispo. She wore an extremely short grey skirt that showed off her patterned tights or stockings. Tights I reckoned as the stocking tops would have been on display. I would not have minded. There’s something about stocking tops that gets most guys, and I’m no exception. She had a happy smile and a big gun on her belt. The locals smiled at her. If this was a police state, then they knew how to select their police.
She looked over at Trilby sitting in the café. She seemed to recognise him and smiled. Perhaps he was a villain. He didn’t respond to her smile. Or perhaps he was the secret police.
I sipped a mojito as I checked out the menu with the occasional furtive look over the top at the guy in the trilby. The lobster tail sounded good, so I ordered it with another mojito. It didn’t live up to its billing: overcooked and dry. I ate it and just picked at the rice and peas. Everything comes with rice and peas in Cuba.
I reckoned I had some jet lag. I’d arrived the previous evening and the time difference of six hours was taking its toll. The flight had been a nightmare. I hadn’t slept a wink. It wasn’t the young mother’s fault, but a two-year-old on a ten-hour flight is not a happy combination.
I walked back up Obispo, avoiding the broken cobbles. A trio belted out a salsa in one of those open-fronted cafés. A blonde woman with a figure to die for—and most of it on view in her short, white skirt and tight, white T-shirt—danced with a cool guy in a blue jacket and greased hair that hung down to his shoulders.
As I watched them, I stole a glance down the road. Trilby was looking into a shop window. I went into the café and sat down. The waiter brought me a mojito. I sipped it while I watched the floor show. They were good. I could just about manage a waltz when I had a partner who knew what she was doing. I kept my eyes open for Trilby, but he seemed to have disappeared.
I came up through the park. A few men were sitting around smoking cigars and discussing something serious, by the intonation of their voices.
I crossed the road between a Yankee gas guzzler and a horse-drawn tourist carriage and came to the colonnades of the Saratoga, my hotel. A huge Cuban flag flew over the entrance. A thick-set guy opened the door for me.
The air was cool inside. The noise from the traffic and horns was reduced, but still there in the background. The concierge and two receptionists were behind their desks tapping away on their computers. A feeling of quiet calm pervaded the entrance hall. I hoped it wasn’t a lull before a storm.
Just in case, I hung around the foyer. I wanted to see if I’d shaken off Trilby. My stomach turned oily and I needed a pee when I saw him stroll by the hotel. Stroll was the word. He didn’t look into the hotel—not even a sideways glance. He kept going. The guy was following me. Why? I was getting spooked.
It was four hundred CUC$ per night at the hotel. I figured the security would be up to keeping out any local villains. But suppose Trilby wasn’t a villain looking to roll a tourist? Then who was he? I had no idea but I felt relatively safe in the hotel. I’d have felt safer if I’d known where he’d gone and why he was following me. He didn’t look as if he were a tout for the American cars or other legitimate enterprises in a city of tourists. No, this guy could have had a starring role in a James Cagney movie. That’s another of my failings. I’m a thirties and forties film-noir fan, but I now keep that to myself since the few women I had dated tended to take the piss when they found out.
***
It was a toss-up between getting my head down for a couple of hours and going up to the eighth floor to the roof-top swimming pool. I rode the elevator up to the seventh and went into my room. The air con made it comfortable. I picked a Kristal beer from the minibar and sat at the polished, wooden desk while I skipped through the paperwork I needed for the business meeting the next day. It seemed straightforward. We wanted fifty thousand bottles in total, thirty thousand of the three-year-old and twenty thousand of the seven-year-old. Back home, they were pushing rum for next Christmas. That’s the trouble with this business: sitting in ninety degrees during a freak heatwave, buying in for the festive season. They wanted a whole pile of cigars too, but I had to make the arrangements for that myself as we had no contacts.
Reception had given me a local telephone directory and a list of cigar dealers, together with sound advice not to buy any cigars from the street vendors. They sold inferior tobacco. As I was in the market for around ten thousand cigars, I reckoned the street vendors would not be in the running.
I decided to fix up a trip to one of the factories where they make the cigars. I knew the stories of dusky maidens rolling the cigars on their thighs were a myth . . . but then I thought it would be good to confirm that. I was a big time buyer. They would treat me as if I was 'the man’ with such a large order. And I might even pull a dusky maiden.
I stretched out on the double bed and soon drifted off, thinking about thighs and cigars.
When I woke—chilled by the air con—I felt lousy. It had turned dark outside. I checked my watch. I must have slept for four hours. So I took a shower. It dragged me back to feeling half sensible. The lobster hung heavy in my stomach. I didn’t fancy another meal. I decided to go downstairs and get a drink to pass the time. I should have stayed in my room. No, I shouldn’t. If I had, I would not have met her.

Chapter Two
Sitting in the hotel bar, with its glass roof and long counter, I opened the book I’d started on the plane over, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. I wasn’t actually reading it and I hadn’t read much on the plane with the screaming kid behind me. The book was a good cover for me to people watch: that sad pastime of people stuck in a foreign city—alone—with time to kill.
A table over to the left of the bar held a bunch of Americans or Canadians in loud conversation. Two German guys and their Frauen sat on the opposite side. My table stood between. One of the Germans smoked an enormous cigar. The dusky maiden who rolled that would have one hell of a thigh. That’s another thing different in Cuba: you can smoke indoors.
A man in a grey suit sat on his own in the corner reading a newspaper. I couldn’t tell from looking at him what his nationality was, but he could have been local. I had to tell myself to stop imagining things. This guy was probably just a guest, same as me. I was getting like the pigeons. Maybe, in this strange city, my usual inability to spot the bleedin’ obvious had developed into a sixth sense. I was picking up vibes, but were they for real?
A baby grand stood on the balcony with a grey-haired pianist in a tuxedo playing some ballads that I’m not old enough to have heard the first time around but uncool enough to like.
The waiter brought over my mojito. 'Gracias.’
He nodded and returned to his post.
Looking back now, I’m not sure what I first noticed about her. Certainly her long legs in those black tights under a very short black skirt as she walked towards the bar with her back to me: that must have been pretty close to my first impression. The way her chassis swung with her high-heeled steps may have been up there too. With her black hair tied up tightly in a bun, she could have been a ballerina or a flamenco dancer. She had the hip movement.
She stood taller than most of the women I’d seen here, about five eleven. I still do imperial for heights. Three inches of that were her heels. I prefer my women shorter than me. Okay, to be honest I’m grateful to any woman who is willing to date me, whether she’s five six or six five. It’s a bonus if I’m taller. She took a bar stool at the counter and ordered a daiquiri in a deep, throaty voice.
Her reflection in the mirror behind the bar revealed a face sculpted from three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe. Classy. I guessed her age at about thirty, maybe thirty-five. It didn’t matter. She was one beautiful woman, with just a hint of Penelope Cruz about her. She exuded something more than just sex appeal. This woman would turn heads in a bordello or at the Royal Opera House.
She caught me looking at her reflection, took a sip of her daiquiri, swivelled off her seat and strolled over to me.
'Hi.’
'Hi.’ I put my book front cover down. I wasn’t sure how cool Graham Greene was in Havana.
'May I join you?’
I saw the guy with the cigar looking at me. I’m sure whatever the German is for 'you lucky bastard’ was going through his head.
'Maria Gonzalez.’
'Harry Williams. Pleased to meet you.’
I stood to shake hands but caught my knee under the table, sending my mojito into free flight. I tried to grab it but just caught a handful of thin air.
'Er . . . sorry about that. Yes, please; take a seat.’
The waiter came over with a towel and an inscrutable expression.
I looked over at the German guy. A smirk spread all over his face and he was probably thinking, 'Dummkopf’.
She sat on one of the dry seats and put her handbag on the floor beside her. It seemed heavy from the clunk it made. That’s the thing about women’s handbags: they fill them up with so much junk, half of which they probably never use. That’s not true in my mother’s case, though. She usually has a couple of bottles of gin in hers. This was Cuba, so I reckoned it was probably rum in this woman’s bag.
I sat down carefully. I’d made a prat of myself already, knocking over my drink. I didn’t want to spill hers.
The waiter brought me a refill.
'So what brings you to Havana?’ she said.
Just the way she said it with that sexy accent had me drooling. She looked at my left hand. Was she checking to see if I wore a wedding ring? I checked hers. Her perfectly manicured hands, with a subtle pink paint on her fingernails, were ring free.
'Business. I’m the international representative of a major import firm in the UK.’ I could get an honorary degree in bullshit.
'How interesting! What do you import?’
There was no secret about that, so I told her. 'Rum and cigars.’
'You can get plenty of those here.’ She crossed her legs, giving me a flash of thigh.
'What do you do?’ I had a very good idea what she did. A beautiful woman comes into a posh hotel bar alone and sits down at a table with a guy on his own. I’d seen it all before when buying wine in France, Spain, Italy and South America. I’d never succumbed to these professional women, and I wasn’t going to on this occasion. Not that I had anyone back home to be faithful to: Kathy had dumped me six months previously, and I hadn’t found a replacement. I didn’t want a replacement, yet. I was lonely in this city, though, and wanted someone to talk to. It had to be better than reading Graham Greene. She was stunning, but I wasn’t going down the paying road. I just wanted to talk for a while with an attractive woman.
Oh, yeah, and I couldn’t afford her. I’d never get what I thought she would cost on expenses.
'What do I do? I’m a translator and a guide.’
'Really?’ I tried not to sound insincere. 'Your English is excellent.’
'I speak Spanish, naturally, and German, French, Italian and Russian.’
'I’m afraid I’m a typical Brit. I only speak English.’
'How are you going to buy your rum and cigars if you don’t speak Spanish?’
'My rum appointments are with people who I’m told speak English. I haven’t sorted out who I’m going to buy the cigars from. I’ll find one who speaks English.’
'Yes, but that’s not always advisable. I mean, sometimes here people claim to speak English but their understanding is weak, and it leads to confusion.’
I saw she’d finished her daiquiri. I called over the waiter and ordered her another and myself a mojito.
I could tell the German had gone back to 'you lucky bastard’.
'Where have you been in Havana?’ she asked.
'I’ve done the American car tour of the city. I’ve been down the Obispo, but that’s about all. I only arrived last night.’
'There’s much more to see. How long are you here for?’
'I fly back in seven, no, six days.’
The waiter brought our drinks and a bowl of peanuts.
I did my peanut flick into the air, catching it in my mouth. It’s real cool, my party trick. This one stuck in the back of my throat and I started coughing. She slapped me on the back, propelling the offending nut out of my mouth to bounce off the table and disappear under the chairs of the next empty table.
The German had gone back to 'Dummkopf’.
Her perfume drifted across to me. I couldn’t place it, but I never was any good at recognising scent. If I had been, I would have known Kathy only wore the expensive one when she was supposed to be meeting her girlfriends but was really meeting him.
Her white blouse strained at her breasts, creating a slight gap between the buttons. I could see her white bra with a flower pattern. She saw me looking but didn’t seem to take offence. She merely straightened up, and the gap disappeared.
There was something about her eyes. The eyebrows were thin and pencilled. The lashes bore just a hint of mascara. But her dark brown eyes in the brilliant whites seemed to look into my soul. I felt as though she was telepathically interrogating me, while at the same time arousing my natural manly response to her proximity.
I looked at my mojito. The glass was empty save for the ice and mint. I called over the waiter.
'Another?’ I asked Maria.
'Why not?’
'A daiquiri and a mojito please.’
'Si, Señor. Would you like some more nuts?’
'I don’t think so. We haven’t finished these yet.’
Sarcastic sod!
'Are you thinking of going anywhere else in Cuba?’ She smoothed an invisible fault from the tights on her thigh.
'Haven’t decided yet. I’d like to see more of the island while I’m here, but getting around isn’t easy.’
'You’re right. Are you going to hire a car?’
'I may hire a car with a driver.’
'I know some taxi drivers who could help you out.’
I thought, I bet she does. They probably bring her punters.
'What about the coast? Is that on your visit list?’
'I think so. It’d be a shame to come all this way and not spend some beach time.’
'I can recommend some beach resorts.’
That didn’t surprise me. I reckoned she probably worked the expensive, all inclusives on the coast. I felt a little annoyed with her. She had so much to offer, yet here she was, selling herself to a stranger. And this stranger wasn’t buying; at least that was my intention at first. My resolve was as weak as my capacity for bullshit was strong.
The piano in the background, the mojitos, the scent, the presence of this beautiful woman and the jet lag overcame me. I wouldn’t be taking advantage of her since she was clearly a volunteer at her chosen profession and not trafficked or coerced. Well, that’s my feeble excuse for what I did next.
'Can I ask you a personal question?’
'Depends,’ she said.
'How much do you charge?’
'What for?’ She gave me a wicked smile; even her teeth were perfect.
She uncrossed her legs and re-crossed them the other way.
'You know. For your services?’
'Oh, I see what you mean. Glad we can get down to business. I like a man who is direct. Well, what do you want? It’s three hundred CUC$ per day. I usually don’t do it for more than eight hours per day but on special occasions, if you want me again in the evenings, it’s forty CUC$ per hour.’
I did a quick currency conversion in my head. That was about the same in US dollars and euros, and three hundred CUC$ were in the region of two hundred British pounds. That’s reasonable, I thought. I hadn’t paid for it before, but I know guys who have and I had expected her to charge at least three times as much. I couldn’t get it on expenses, but I had money in the bank.
I was reasonably fit, though I reckoned I wouldn’t be capable of anything in the evenings after eight hours in the day.
'Done. If you want paying in advance, I’ll have to change some money at the desk. Or do you take British pounds?’
'I’ll take pounds. But you don’t have to pay me until after. I won’t charge unless you are completely satisfied.’ She gave me that wicked smile again.
'Splendid!’ I said, standing up on my feet and somewhere else, being very careful not to disturb the table. 'Time for bed.’
'You’re the client. I thought you may want a couple more drinks before going up as it’s only nine. But then you must be tired with the jet lag.’
'I think I’ve had enough and I want to keep a clear head. But if you would like another.’
'No, thank you. You can never perform at your best when you’ve had too much.’
'That’s right. And I wouldn’t want to let the side down either.’
'I’m sure you won’t. You seem like the type of man who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to take it. I’m looking forward to working with you. It should be an interesting experience for both of us.’
'I think interesting is not the right word for it.’
'Oh! Sorry. My English is good but I do not always choose the correct word. What word would you use?’
'Exciting? Exhilarating, perhaps? I don’t know. Perhaps no word can cover it. The word doesn’t really matter, just the actions.’
'Indeed so.’ She stood and picked up her handbag from the floor. 'What time would you like to me come here tomorrow?’
'What?’
'What time is your meeting with the people you are dealing with tomorrow?’
'What?’
'The rum people: for me to translate for you. I’m so glad you hired me. I have to admit I need the money. I’m looking forward to having an exciting or exhilarating meeting with you and the rum company.’
'Er . . . come round about ten.’
I watched her walk, no, glide down the marble steps to the foyer and out the door.
The German’s smirk said, 'Dummkopf!’
I rode the elevator up to my empty, seventh-floor room, closed the door, pulled a whisky miniature from the minibar and cringed.
***
I could hear the phone ringing from the shower. I pushed open the glass door, wrapped a thick, white towel around my waist and headed for the bedroom, leaving wet footprints on the tiles.
'Hello?’ I said.
'Señor Williams?’
'Yes.’
'Bueno. The meeting . . . er today . . . the meeting for the rum, Señor.’
'Yes, ten o’clock. I have the address.’
'Problemo . . . Señor. We ’ave zee builders. We need other place to meet, Señor.’
'You can come here, to my hotel, the Saratoga.’
'Gracias, Señor. But we ’ave, what you say, zee alternative. Will send taxi collect you at ten of the clock, Señor. Okay, Señor?’
'Okay.’
I cradled the phone and looked at my watch. Eight o’clock. Would Maria be here by ten? I told her to come about ten. At least I thought I did. My brain had given in to another part of my body, letting it do the thinking last night. The guy on the phone didn’t sound as though he spoke good English. Maria would be an asset. Perhaps I could square some of her fee with accounts back home. Kathy ran the accounts department. I hoped it would make her jealous if she found out I was in Cuba with a Latin beauty. I thought of sending her a photo with the invoice, and then I remembered. Kathy couldn’t care less if I was in a harem full of beauties as long as I didn’t bother her.
I made my way back to the bathroom, avoiding slipping on the wet tiles.
The BBC World Service on the TV gave the weather forecast. Ninety-five degrees or thirty-five Celsius. Either way, it was hot. I didn’t fancy wearing my business suit, so I slipped on a pair of beige chinos and a white polo shirt. It may be a business meeting, but I was buying, not selling, so I didn’t have to impress. Then I thought of Maria. I wanted to impress her. I changed again into a pair of pressed, light-blue pants and a smart, darker-blue shirt. I didn’t do up the top buttons. Some of my hairy chest was on display as I looked in the full-length mirror. The gold medallion round my neck looked stupid, so I slipped it off and put it in the safe. I buttoned the shirt up one level.
A quick check in the mirror again and I realised the chinos and polo shirt looked better.
Finally I was happy with my appearance, picked up the paperwork from the desk and stuffed it into a leather carrying case with my iPad.
I rode the elevator, eager to see Maria again.
It stopped on the fifth floor and an attractive if somewhat underdressed and over-made-up young blonde woman got in. Her perfume was so strong I nearly gagged.
It stopped on the fourth floor and an old couple stepped in.
Then it stopped at the third floor and a very large Canadian chap got in. And I mean large. He must have gone well over twenty-five stone. The blonde was pushed up against me. She didn’t seem to mind. I’m not one for feeling up women in elevators or on the Tube. With her pressing her bust into my chest and my hand down at my side holding my carrying case, I couldn’t help that hand touching her thigh. She must have felt it because she gave me a look that seemed to say 'later’. I didn’t dare move my hand in case she thought I was trying to grope her.
Then we stopped at the second floor where two elderly women got in.
Now I was pressed even harder against the mirror at the back of the elevator, almost having sex with the blonde. Her very red and luscious lips opened and her tongue perambulated the circumference.
The doors opened in the foyer and everyone piled out, leaving me at the back with the blonde still pressing against me. She didn’t move.
'Deirdre!’ a man’s voice shouted.
I looked over her shoulder to see a red-haired man in an Irish Rugby Union shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal tattooed arms and a look on his face that suggested I was about to get a pasting.
'Deirdre’ pulled away and slapped me across the face before she marched out of the elevator.
The tattooed man looked at me as if he was about to pull off my arms and legs. I hit a button and the elevator lifted me out of the problem.
I waited on the fourth floor for ten minutes, and then went back down in the elevator, hoping he and she were gone. Okay, I’m not the brave type. I can run fast.
***
The cigar-smoking German was leafing through some tourist pamphlets as the elevator doors opened. I looked for the blonde and her beau. They’d gone, thank goodness.
'Guten Morgen,’ said the German with a supercilious smile.
'Good morning,’ I said, refusing to be ruffled.
The clock said five minutes to ten. I hung around and then there she was, coming through the door like a vision. Her hair, last night imprisoned in a bun, hung freely down to her shoulders and shimmered with vitality in the morning light. She wore a loose, white skirt that came halfway down to her knees, no tights, a light-pink blouse, and around her neck a pink, gossamer scarf.
She carried a bigger handbag than last night slung over her delightful shoulder.
'Hi,’ she said when she saw me pretending not to notice her entrance while everyone else—the concierge, the doorman, the German and a couple of waiters—feasted their eyes.
She kissed me on both cheeks. I felt her breasts rub against my chest. At least there was no Irish rugby fan this time to take offence.
'Hi,’ I said. I glanced at the German. He wasn’t smiling now.
'So, how are we getting there? Have you ordered a taxi?’
'They’re sending one for us,’ I said. 'Would you like coffee or something?’
'I don’t think so, thank you.’ She sniffed the air. 'That’s a strong perfume you are wearing.’
I could smell it too. Blondie! How did I explain that? 'Er . . . a woman in the elevator had an accident with her perfume.’
Maria raised one eyebrow.
Through the hotel windows at the front I watched a Neanderthal get out of the front passenger seat of a black, fifties Cadillac with white-walled tyres. It looked in superb condition and so did the Cadillac. He came to the door and said something to the doorman.
The doorman nodded in my direction. The Neanderthal came over. 'Señor Williams?’
'Yes.’
'Come.’
I gently held Maria’s elbow and guided her ahead of me. I thought that is what a gentleman would do.
'Who’s the woman?’ said the Neanderthal, and not pleasantly.
'My interpreter.’
'I was supposed to collect one person.’
Maria rattled off something in Spanish to him. He shrugged his shoulders and walked ahead.
Out of the air con the air was hot, humid and full of traffic fumes.
The Neanderthal ignored us and climbed into the front passenger seat alongside a wiry, short driver with a magnificent moustache and a black chauffeur’s suit and cap.
I opened the rear door of the Cadillac and handed in Maria. As a gentleman, I averted my eyes as she slipped her legs in a ladylike manoeuvre into the car. I crossed behind the car and climbed in the other side.
Maria dipped her hand into her bag and then withdrew it, empty.
After half an hour I began to wonder where we were going as we drove through the countryside, past carts pulled by oxen and the odd tractor belching out black smoke in the cane fields. Maria also looked worried.
If the car had air con, it wasn’t working. All the windows were open but couldn’t cope with the heat.
'How much further?’ I said to the driver.
The Neanderthal turned and looked at me. Then he looked down at Maria’s legs.
She tried to pull her skirt down a little.
'Nearly there, Señor.’
Just as he said it, the driver pulled over to the right, down a track.
Maria’s hand went into her bag and stayed there.
The track was uneven. Maria’s shoulder bumped against me. Her hand, on the other side, remained in the bag.
After about five minutes of this rough ride, the car came to a set of iron gates in a wall that stood about eight feet high. A uniformed security guard with a submachine gun slung over his shoulder, opened the gates. We drove through.
Ahead was a single-storey, yellow hacienda with a red-tiled roof and a wooden veranda.
The driver pulled up to the centre of the building where steps led to the veranda and a massive wooden door.
'Out,’ said the Neanderthal.
Maria looked at me. I shrugged. I had no idea if the way we were being treated was normal or if we were in severe danger. I couldn’t tell what Maria was thinking.
I got out of the car and went round to Maria’s door and opened it.
The house door opened and a sixtyish, white-suited, fat, short guy with grey hair came out.
'Welcome, Señor Williams, and your charming companion. Do please come in.’
I gave an audible sigh of relief.
I took Maria’s arm as we climbed the steps. She still had one hand in her bag and I wondered if she had a gun in there. She didn’t come across as a gun-toting girl, but I didn’t know the culture of this place.
The white-suited guy held out his hand. 'Señor Julio Andres Menendez at your service.’
He wasn’t the man I had spoken to on the telephone. His English was much better.
I shook his hand. It felt flabby and wet.
'I was supposed to be meeting a Señor Diego Garcia.’
'Si, Señor Williams. Unfortunately, he is unable to join us but I am acting for him. Please, come in.’
I had an uneasy feeling.
***
A long corridor ran down the centre of the hacienda; a terracotta tiled floor and three doors each side. We followed Señor Menendez into the second room on the right. It felt cool and it was a relief to be out of the stifling heat.
The view looked out onto a terrace and beyond to cane fields.
I suppose the furnishing was late Wild West; expensive rustic with Indian-patterned covers over wooden chairs and a settee. A pair of cow horns hung on the chimney breast above a wide, empty fireplace. It could have been Arizona.
Neanderthal and two other gorillas followed us in. The bulges under their grey suit jackets advertised their roles. What the hell had I walked into? I took a quick, worried look at Maria. She seemed composed, but I didn’t know if underneath she was doing the swan act, like me.
'Check them for wires,’ said Menendez.’
One of the grey suits stepped towards me. I held out my arms dutifully. I couldn’t see the point of arguing with these guys.
He sniffed the air around me, turned to Menendez and said something in Spanish.
'What did he say?’ I asked Maria.
'He said he doesn’t like your perfume.’
The other suit came towards Maria. The tirade of Spanish she came out with was unintelligible to me, but I got the gist from her expression and her fingers flashing ready like the claws of a cornered cat.
The suit backed off, probably concerned for his eyesight.
'Get Cristina,’ said Menendez while my searcher frisked me all over.
The Neanderthal lumbered off and came back with a slim, no, emaciated woman who had probably come over with Christopher Columbus.
'Check her for a wire,’ said Menendez.
The crone’s bony fingers explored where mine longed to go. Maria didn’t resist.
We both passed the test.
Maria’s handbag lay on the floor by her feet. Menendez picked it up and stuck his hand inside. It came out holding the butt of a pistol. I know nothing about guns. All I could tell was that this was some sort of black automatic, and it looked dangerous.
'What’s this for?’ said Menendez, holding it as if it stank.
'I get some clients who don’t fully understand the terms of my translator’s contract.’
'Russian,’ he said, looking at something written on the side too small for me to see.
'Yes, they’re cheap and there’s plenty around.’
He fished around some more and pulled out an ID card. I could see the photo; it was her, but it didn’t do her justice.
'Says here you are a guide and a translator,’ said Menendez, fixing Maria with a stare.
'That’s because that’s what I am. Now may I ask what the hell you think you are doing? My client is here to negotiate the sale of rum.’
'We can’t be too careful. Take a seat.’ He waved us towards the settee, handing the pistol to the crone and ushering her and his goons out of the room. 'My apologies, Señor Williams, and to you too, Señorita Gonzalez.’
Maria sat down and I took the place alongside her. Menendez sat on a chair opposite. A coffee table lay between us. A humidor stood on the table. Menendez opened it and took out a cigar, offering it to me.
'I don’t smoke.’
'Pity,’ he said. 'These are the finest.’ He clipped the end, stuck it in his mouth and took his time lighting it with a silver table lighter.
'This isn’t the way we do things in Britain,’ I said.
'You’re not in Britain,’ he said, blowing smoke towards me.
'No, you’re right, I’m not. And what’s more, I’m not doing business with you. I have no idea what all this is about, but I can assure you my firm will not be trading with you.’ I was shocked that I had the balls to say what I did. I stood up and looked at Maria.
She shook her head and patted the seat for me to sit down again.
I did. My balls were shrinking. I was beginning to suspect that Maria may be involved with these guys, and the shenanigans with the search were all for show. That’s another of my failings: I jump to conclusions too hastily.
Menendez and Maria exchanged words in Spanish. Quite a few words and I understood none of them except the occasional 'Si’.
Then she turned to me. 'Harry.’ It was the first time she’d called me Harry. 'Señor Menendez has an offer to make that I think you should not refuse.’
Jesus Christ, I thought, I’ve walked onto The Godfather set. 'What sort of offer?’
'According to the information he has, you are seeking thirty-thousand three-year-old bottles and twenty-thousand seven-year-old bottles.’
'That’s right.’
'He will supply them at four CUC$ each for the three-year-old and six CUC$ for the seven-year-old.’
'Yeah, so what’s the big deal? That’s the amount we agreed in advance. I’m just here to confirm it and check on the merchandise before we transfer the money. All this bullshit about wires and guys wandering around like refugees from a bad film set in Sicily? For Christ’s sake . . . Sorry, are you Catholic?’
'Harry, the bottles he is supplying are stolen.’
'What?’
'They’re stolen. Or should I say, will be stolen to order.’
'Why the hell should I get involved in this when I can buy them at the same price legit?’
'Because he will have you killed if you do not deal with him.’
I stared at Menendez. He smiled and blew smoke in my face.
'You can’t do this. I’m British.’
'Señor Williams, I’m a very reasonable man. There will be a little, how do you say, sweetener in it for you: five thousand CUC$. You get your bottles and five grand in your pocket. Now isn’t that reasonable?’
I looked at Maria, still trying to figure whether she was part of this scam. 'Can I discuss this with my translator?’
'I’m not sure there is anything to discuss. But as I said, I’m a reasonable man. Go ahead.’
He stood up, waddled over to the door and went out, closing it behind him.
'I need some answers and straight ones, quick. Are you involved in this?’
'Harry, how could you accuse me? I didn’t know we were coming here. I don’t think it is a good idea to turn on me. I may be the only friend you have who can get you out of this mess.’
'How?’
'Play along for now. You may have to go through with the deal.’
I didn’t trust her, but I was in deep shit. She looked like my only chance. She also looked like a million dollars and I’m such a moron I would do anything for her.
'Yeah. I’ll do that.’ And I’d go straight to the police when I was back in Havana, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.
'And Harry, don’t go to the police. These guys will have some cops in their pocket, and you’ll come unstuck.’
Was this woman a mind reader or what?
Menendez came in with a brown envelope in his pudgy fingers.
'Well?’ he said, sitting down in the same seat and still puffing on the cigar.
'Seems I don’t have much choice, and there is the five grand I’m going to make.’
'Bueno. I’ll have you taken back to Havana to make the necessary arrangements.’
He pushed the brown envelope across the table to me. I lifted it and checked inside. I wasn’t going to count it in front of him, but it looked like a lot of CUC$.
Menendez took out a card from his jacket’s inside pocket and handed it to me.
It bore bank details but not in Cuba; in the Cayman Islands. 'I’ll have trouble explaining to my people why we are transferring the money to the Caymans instead of Cuba.’ Kathy would give me the third degree and then refuse in the hope of getting me fired.
'I’m sure you’ll think of something.’
He may have been sure. I sure as hell, wasn’t.
***
The ride back to Havana in the Cadillac was silent. I could see that Maria’s handbag was lighter than before. I reckoned Menendez had kept her gun. That was a good sign, but I still teetered between trusting her and suspecting her involvement.
The car dropped us at the Saratoga. We went in. I checked around for Blondie and Tattoos. Getting a thrashing from him would not help my image with Maria. But on the scale of things, a thrashing would be better than what Menendez would do to me if I couldn’t arrange the deal.
'Come up to my room. We need to talk,’ I said. We’d be safe there. Usually when a guy spins that line, he’s thinking of getting her in the sack. The threat of death had reduced my libido. I really meant we needed to talk.
The German and his Frau shared the ride up but exited on the fifth floor. We’d been away ages, but the perfume still lingered in the elevator; or was it on me?
I opened the bedroom door with the plastic key card and held it for Maria as she entered.
'Drink?’
'Yes, please. A daiquiri.’
I checked the minibar. No sign of a daiquiri. I’d have to order room service. We hadn’t eaten so I ordered some sandwiches too.
While we waited for the room service, I tried to interrogate her. 'Is this sort of thing normal here?’
'No. There’s very little crime on the island.’
'How the hell am I going to get out of this?’
'What do you mean “get out of this”? You can’t. You’ll have to do what they say.’
'I’ll never get away with it. My firm won’t pay someone in the Caymans for rum in Cuba. They’re bound to smell a rat. If I do succeed, how do I know I won’t get picked up by your police for handling stolen goods? I have to find a way out.’
A knock on the door nearly made me wet my pants.
'Room service,’ came a woman’s voice from the other side of the door.
I approached the door with as much caution as I would a rampant cobra—well, I wouldn’t go near a cobra, rampant or otherwise. I had a horrible feeling inside that turned my stomach into an oily, writhing mess. My bowels felt as if they were digesting a lamb tindaloo. The only good thing was that the toilet wasn’t far away. The way it was going I would need it pretty soon.
Maria was looking at me. She must have worked out already that cowardice ran in my blood. I took a deep breath and wrenched open the door expecting . . . I had no idea. A bullet, a whack from a sand-filled sock? Instead, a short, round woman in a black skirt and white apron held a tray that bore a daiquiri and some sandwiches. I’d forgotten to order a drink for myself, but that wasn’t exactly at the forefront of my mind.
I took the tray, thanked the waitress and closed the door.
Maria helped herself to her daiquiri and sandwiches. I took a Kristal beer from the minibar.
I couldn’t say that I had a plan. Rumbling around the panicked grey matter between my ears was an idea. Much as Maria was attractive and however much I would like to get her into bed, saving myself was paramount. I stood no chance romantically with her anyway. And she could be working for them. So I lied to her.
'I’ll make what arrangements I can to sort out the bank transfers.’
'I’d better come with you to translate.’
'No, it’s okay. I think I can manage it from here. I need to contact my head office and they need to make the arrangements to send the money to the Caymans. Come back tomorrow morning and you can arrange with the fat guy in the white suit for the rum to be . . . well, stolen, I suppose.’
'What about the cigars?’
'We’ll sort that out later. They didn’t say anything about the cigars and my brief from head office was to source them when I got here.’
'Would you like me to stay here with you?’ she said, looking at the double bed.
That was enough. She was being paid to keep an eye on me. I doubted, even looking like she did, that my libido could function with someone who would set me up to get killed, maimed or thrown in jail. I have to admit I did hesitate for a moment.
'Thanks, but I need to get on with this as soon as possible.’
She didn’t seem too happy about me turning her down. To be fair, now I look back, I may have been imagining that she was offering to go to bed with me. I was in one hell of a turmoil.
'Okay,’ she said. 'See you tomorrow. What time? About ten?’
I nodded.
'You’d better put that money in the safe,’ she said, looking at the brown envelope that was my 'sweetener’. 'And Harry.’
'Yes.’
'Whatever you do, do not spend that money. Do you understand? Do not spend that money.’
'I didn’t intend to, but what’s the problem?’
'It came from Menendez.’
'So?’
'Harry, it is unwise to spend money that a crook like Menendez gave you. It could have unforeseen complications.’
'Okay.’ I put the envelope in the safe, careful not to let her see the combination.
She swallowed the rest of her daiquiri and left.
My feeble brain turned over all the possibilities and came to the conclusion that getting the hell out of there would be beneficial to my health.

Chapter Three
I waited fifteen minutes, during which time I changed into my blue pants and shirt. I was sick of smelling like a tart. I put on my 'Chelsea’ baseball cap so the peak covered some of my face. Once I was happy that Maria would be gone from the building and reporting that I was working away in my room, I sneaked out and made my way down the stairs, all seven floors.
Maria was not in the foyer and neither was the Irishman or Blondie, but a stroke of luck was. A party of about fourteen Americans or Canadians, with their suitcases, was checking out and moving towards a bus parked in the street outside. I joined the line as far as the bus to blend in with them in case someone was watching the hotel. Then I ducked around the back and out into the square, heading for Obispo.
I’m not a religious man but by now I was praying to just about every deity that may exist to help me out.
Obispo teamed with people. Tourists, locals and, every hundred yards or so, a police officer. Some were women and looked friendly. The men looked mean. That may be my imagination, but that’s how I recall it.
The travel agent’s shop window only had holidays in Cuba, but I reckoned they would have contacts to get me on a flight home. I pushed open the door and went in. The air con wasn’t working if they had any. The room could have doubled as a sauna.
A young woman, about twenty-five, in a white blouse with an aeroplane logo on her not-insignificant-chest, sat at a table. A fan blew into her brown face, sending her black hair with blonde highlights trailing behind her. It looked as if she was sitting in a wind tunnel.
'Do you speak English?’
'Si, er, yes.’
'I need to get back home urgently. My mother is very ill.’
'I’m sorry to hear that, Señor. You are looking for a flight to where? London?’
'Yes, London, Paris, Rome anywhere.’
'Excuse me, Señor, but where is your mother?’
'Er, London.’
'Then don’t you think you should go to London?’
'Er, yes. Sorry. I’m worried. Of course.’
'There’s a flight tonight. I may be able to get you on it, but it will be expensive at this short notice.’
'Don’t worry. I’ll pay whatever it costs.’
She tapped something into a keyboard in front of her and looked at the monitor.
'Yes, last seat on a flight to London, tonight. I’m afraid it will cost you three thousand CUC$.’
'What? Is that business class?’
'Si, that’s all there is. As I said, it’s expensive travelling at the last minute.’
'Yeah, that’s fine.’
'Please, may I see your passport and exit visa?’
'Shit! Sorry! I’ve it left back at the hotel in the safe.’
'I can’t process your ticket without a passport and exit visa.’
'Can you reserve it? It’ll only take me a couple of minutes, fifteen at the most.’
'I’ll try.’
'Thanks.’
I dashed out of the travel agents and then slowed down. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. The crowd was thick in both directions. For once I was glad of so many people. It’s difficult to follow someone through a crowd. I took off my cap in case someone could see it and use it to home in on me if I had already been spotted. It wasn’t that I was paranoid. Someone really was out to get me.
***
Back at the square near the hotel I hung around, trying to see if I could pick up any surveillance. How the hell I would spot a surveillance team I had no idea, unless they all wore trilbies. The sweat ran down my back. My hair was soaked. I felt sick with fear. I was not having a good day.
It looked clear. I weaved through the bicycle rickshaws and narrowly avoided a big Yankee saloon. The doorman opened up for me. I went straight to the elevator and rode it up to the seventh floor.
As I came around the corner to my room, my heart went into my mouth. The door stood open. Shit! I thought. Who the hell is it? I could hear voices. One a woman’s and the other male. They spoke Spanish, so I couldn’t understand a word. I had to get to my safe for the passport or I wouldn’t get the plane. I dithered, as usual.
A chambermaid in a white overall came out of the room, followed by a man in a green one. He carried a tin box, the type you use to carry tools. They didn’t look like criminals. In fact, the man looked the other side of sixty and had a stoop.
'Is there a problem?’ I said.
I don’t know what he said back.
The chambermaid took me by the elbow and led me into my room and the bathroom. Through sign language, she told me I’d left the plug in the washbasin and the tap on. A face towel had blocked the overflow and flooded the room below. She was very cross with me.
I waited for her to go and then opened the safe. I lifted the envelope containing the five thousand CUC$ and slipped out my passport from underneath. I toyed with the idea of taking the CUC$ with me in case there was a problem getting the ticket, but I couldn’t see any reason why there should be. I had plenty of credit on my card. I left the envelope and closed the safe. Then I thought I’d better take it, opened the safe and emptied the notes into my back pocket. Perhaps Maria had told me not to spend the money because she was working for Menendez. I didn’t intend to spend it. I had it for insurance. I checked my cell phone. The battery was full and I had a signal. I put it in my back pocket.
Now I had to get out again without being seen. I changed clothes again to confuse the watchers if they were there; this time into a red polo shirt and beige chinos.
No checking out group this time. I’d have to take my chances in my 'Chelsea’ baseball cap and shades. I waited for an elderly couple I saw heading for the exit and tagged along with them until I was outside, followed the colonnaded front down to the corner and slipped across the road, heading back to Obispo. All the time I kept checking to see if they were following me. Who? Menendez or whoever the trilby guy belonged to. I couldn’t see anyone. That didn’t mean they were not there.
I checked my wristwatch. Five minutes past four. The plane left at seven-thirty. I’d have to get a move on. It didn’t take long before my change of clothes was wet through from the sweat.
The girl in the blouse smiled as I came back into the travel agent’s shop. It hadn’t cooled down.
Would my luck hold out? 'Is the seat still available?’
She tapped out some figures and letters on her keyboard. 'Si, Señor.’
I handed over my exit visa and passport.
She checked them over. 'Yes, that’s three thousand CUC$.’
I pulled out my wallet and gave her my credit card.
'It isn’t issued by an American bank is it?’
Then I remembered. You can’t use American-issued credit cards or debit cards in Cuba. But I was smiling. This was as British as fish ’n’ chips. I shook my head. She shoved the card into her machine and slipped it across the desk for me to put in my PIN. I did. I couldn’t understand what came up on the screen. I passed it back to her.
'I’m sorry, Señor, payment refused.’
'Why? I’ve more than enough credit to cover the three grand.’
'I don’t know, Señor. Sometimes they want to check that it’s genuine. They may call you on your mobile phone to verify. I’ve seen that happen before.’
I remembered. That had happened to me previously in France. I’d had trouble booking into a hotel. 'Yeah, it happens. Can we wait a minute in case they call?’
'Sure.’
I put my hand in my back pocket for my phone. 'Shit . . . sorry!’
'What, Señor?’
'I left my phone in my other trousers.’
'I’m sorry, sir. I don’t think I’ll be able to process your ticket without the money in advance.’
This was getting out of hand. My change of clothes was wringing wet from perspiration and soon it would look as if I’d peed on the floor. In fact, my waters felt decidedly dodgy. Fear does that to you. Well, it does it to me.
I felt the CUC$ in my pocket. Maria’s warning about not spending it worried me. I had intended leaving an envelope at the hotel reception with the money for the bad guys so they wouldn’t have yet another excuse to have me killed. But the priority was to get on the plane and away, so I took out the bundle and ignored Maria’s advice.
The woman’s eyes widened at the sight of my wad.
'I’ll pay cash. You do take cash?’
'Of course, Señor.’
I counted out three grand and handed it over.
The woman checked each fifty CUC$ note as if I were a forger or money launderer. It took her ages, but when she finished she looked up and smiled.
She tapped some keys, a printer behind her whirred and there was my E-ticket. I’d made it. I would be on a plane heading home soon, and in England I could explain to my boss and get the police involved. All I had to do now was check out of the hotel and get to the airport.
***
By the time I’d made it back to the hotel, I reckon I must have lost about four kilos from sweat and worry. Overhead the sky had turned dark and the air heavy. A storm was brewing. I’d heard about these tropical storms. They came down like the Wrath of God on Noah’s hometown.
I found my mobile in my other trousers where I’d stupidly left it. One missed call from my bank. Too late to do anything about that now.
I threw all my clothes and kit into my case, locked it and headed downstairs to check out. I wondered whether to leave the two thousand CUC$ I still had but decided against it. I was in deep shit already, and leaving them two grand instead of five could make them think I was taking the piss.
I sat at the reception desk while a woman in a smart, grey suit checked me out.
'There’s a message from Cuba Rum Company wondering why you missed a meeting this morning.’
'Thanks. I’ve dealt with it.’
'You are leaving early, Señor Williams.’
'I have to get home quickly. My mother is ill.’
'I’m sorry to hear that, Señor. Your room was paid in advance. I just have to ask you for two thousand CUC$.’
'Two thousand CUC$? I’ve only been here three nights and my firm paid in advance for seven nights.’
'The unused nights will be refunded to your company in due course. Unfortunately, I have to make a charge for the damage you caused to your room and the one below.’
'What damage?’
'You left the tap on in your washbasin and flooded your bathroom, the ceiling and the room below. We have estimated that damage at two thousand CUC$. If it is any more, we shall be in contact with you, Señor.’
I was past caring. I just wanted to get away. 'Here.’ I handed over my credit card.
She put it in her machine and then looked up at me. 'I’m sorry, Señor, your card is invalid.’
'Invalid?’ The penny dropped. 'Oh, I had some problem earlier. Can I pay cash?’
'Of course.’
I handed over the remaining two thousand CUC$ from the bad guys. I was already in deep trouble from spending the other three grand. It couldn’t get any worse. That’s another of my failings, thinking things can’t get any worse when they can.
She gave me a curious look, examined each fifty CUC$ note, hesitated and then gave me a receipt.
Now I had an invalid credit card and only a few CUC$, but I still had about four hundred British pounds that I hadn’t changed yet. That would see me home.
***
I needed a taxi to take me to the airport. Maybe someone was watching and I’d be set up with a dodgy taxi involved in the scam that threatened my life. My aching brain worked out that I should go for a random, passing one. That way I should be safe.
I reached the door of the hotel, pulling my case behind me.
'Taxi, Señor?’ said the doorman.
'No thanks.’
I headed down the street, watching the cars, buses and vans go by. I let three taxis pass and waved down the fourth. I checked my watch as I climbed into the rear of the car. Five thirty. Just over half an hour to the airport, leaving me two hours to check in. No problem.
'Airport, please.’
'Si, Señor.’
I gave the driver a long scrutiny in his mirror. There was nothing untoward. He looked like a regular guy, balding, a bit of a belly and suntanned. And the ID on his dashboard tallied with what I saw.
We hadn’t gone more than three hundred yards when the heavens opened. A tropical downpour soon filled the road to a depth of one foot, with the drains unable to take it away. Traffic came to a grinding halt. Surely the bad guys had no control over the weather, but by now I was so wired I began to suspect they did.
Everything was stacked against me getting away. What the hell would I do now? The minutes ticked by. The traffic stayed still. I checked my watch. Five forty.
'I have to get to the airport, urgent. What can you do?’
The driver shrugged.
I checked my pockets; I had seventy CUC$ and four hundred pounds. I knew the taxi fare should be around twenty-five CUC$. 'You speak English?’
'A little.’
'Seventy CUC$ and one hundred British pounds if you get me to the airport by six o’clock.’
A grin spread across his face and I was thrown back into the seat as the driver put the pedal to the metal. He swerved his Lada around the blockage and down a side street, sending spray ten feet into the air. He submarined the car at a junction where I was sure we would either drown or stall, but he’d taken on the mantle of whichever Formula One driver the Cubans followed.
He raced along back streets and came out on the main road, on the side of a hill. The rain eased.
At the airport he screeched to a halt. I checked my watch. Five fifty-nine. I handed over the agreed sum and dashed into the airport.
Safe at last. Hundreds of people milled about. 'They’ would lose me in the crowd if 'they’ were still following me. But with the drive that Alonso’s soul mate had just put in, I doubted anyone would have kept up. My heartbeat slowed to around a hundred.
My flight was up there in Hall H. Nearly there. Almost home free. All I had to do was check in. They couldn’t get me now.
That’s when I felt something hard in my ribs. I looked round. There was Neanderthal and one of the grey-suited guys. He held a gun against me, inside a newspaper. That old trick they did in the gangster films. It’s a cliché in the movies, but when it’s for real it isn’t funny.
I looked at the line of people in the queue ahead waiting to check in for my flight. Could I do anything? Could I make a scene? These guys wouldn’t shoot me here in broad daylight with so many witnesses. Or would they? Did I have the bottle to find out? I answered my own question when I walked submissively in the direction the gun was pushing me: away from my ride home. Away from safety and into God only knows what end. In my mind I went through my last will and testament. Most of what I had—which included a three-bedroom, terraced house in Fulham that only had a twenty per cent mortgage on it due to the rise in house prices, a Ford Mondeo and some cash—would all go to my mother.
I thought about what she would say when she heard I’d been shot dead in Cuba: 'Silly bugger. Always was a prat.’ Then she’d blow most of it at bingo.
***
The big Cadillac with white-walled tyres was parked up at the end of the airport building. The rear passenger door opened. Menendez in his white suit sat smoking a cigar. 'Señor Williams, is this how you deal with your business partners? Taking their money and running away?’
'I’ll give you your money back. Let me go. I’ll send it to you from England. I’ll add interest.’
He looked me straight in the eyes. My blood ran cold and I shivered from my thighs, up my back and into my shoulders. This was abject fear. I’d been scared many times. I get scared when the plane comes in to land and when it takes off. I get scared when guys look at me in a bar as if to say, 'Who are you looking at?’ Yes, I scare easily; but this was on a level so much higher than anything I had ever experienced. I wasn’t sure my bladder would hold out.
'Get in.’
I climbed into the back of the car and crossed my legs to stop myself from peeing my pants.
'Passport and exit visa.’
I handed over my passport and exit visa.
'You get them back when I get the money for our agreed shipment. Now, Señor Williams, shall we go back to your hotel?’
***
The Cadillac pulled up at the entrance to the Saratoga. The deluge had stopped and most of the rain had managed to get away, but drops still fell from the trees and from the hotel’s canopy. The Cuban flag hung limp and soaking, as if it were a metaphor for me.
'Señor Williams, you have my mobile phone number. Please keep me up to date with your movements and progress. Do not even think of trying to disappear, again. You are being watched. Good evening.’
I knew I was being watched, but I had no idea how they had arrived at the airport at the same time as me. Maybe the woman in the travel agent’s shop turned me in. How far did Menendez’s tentacles stretch? Of that I had no idea; or about what to do next. Maria couldn’t have dobbed me in. She didn’t know I was going to the airport.
I opened the car door. Neanderthal was already out and dropped my suitcase unceremoniously on the pavement.
I trundled my case into the Saratoga. The receptionist who had checked me out was still on duty.
'I missed my plane. Could I have my room back, please?’
'I’m sorry, Señor, due to the damage it is scheduled for repair tomorrow.’
'Then please give me another room.’
'I’m afraid we are full.’
'You must have one room!’
'No, Señor, this is the high season. We are fully booked.’
'Then where am I supposed to stay?’
'I can telephone a few hotels for you, to see if they have room. What is your budget?’
The shit had just become deeper. My credit card was useless until I squared it up with the bank. That was, of course, if I could from here. I had three hundred British pounds left which was about four hundred and fifty CUC$. The Saratoga was four hundred CUC$ a night. I had to eat.
'Er . . . it’s all right. I’ll try to make my own arrangements. May I sit in the foyer for a while until I get sorted out?’
She nodded.
I took a seat in a big black armchair with a glass coffee table in front of it.
I had nothing to lose. If Maria was working for the bad guys, then they would know my movements. But if she was innocent I would be putting her in danger. Though why should they hurt her if she was only acting as my interpreter and guide? How could I pay her? I’d get my bank to transfer some money to me, but I didn’t know how long that would take or if it would work. I had to make a decision.
I pressed her contact on my mobile. A sigh of relief escaped when she answered almost immediately. 'Maria?’
'Si, Harry. How are you doing? Have you sorted out the problem yet?’
'That’s why I’m phoning. I’m in deep sh . . . trouble. Could you come over to the Saratoga?’
'When?’
'Now.’
'Now?’
'I’m afraid so.’
'Is it that urgent?’
'Yes.’
'I’ll be with you in twenty minutes. Where will you be? In your room?’
'No, in the foyer.’
I thought about going up to the bar for a mojito or something stronger but then remembered my cash-flow problems.
***
Maria arrived in fifteen minutes. I watched her breeze through the door opened by an appreciative doorman. She looked gorgeous. Her hair hung loose and she wore a light-pink top and a darker-pink skirt, with three-inch heels on her white shoes and no tights. She carried her shoulder bag. It looked heavy. I wondered if she was packing a gun again.
I saw the surprise on her face when she saw me sitting in an armchair with my suitcase in front of me.
'Checking out?’
Did she know I’d been to the airport? How could I tell? I couldn’t. 'Can we talk?’
'Si. What would you like to talk about, Harry?’
I didn’t want to blow it if she was innocent. 'To tell the truth, Maria, I tried to get away back to England but they were at the airport and stopped me.’
'Who was?’
I could see what I had told her had come as a surprise and she seemed shocked.
'Menendez.’
A niggling doubt crept back into my mind when I saw her relax a fraction when I said 'Menendez’, but I had to trust her. I had no other option.
'So what now?’ she said.
'I’m in trouble. I have to do what Menendez demanded. My credit card is blocked and I don’t have much money left until I can sort something out with the bank.’
'Well, don’t use the five thousand he gave you. It’s probably counterfeit.’
'What?’
'There’s been a problem with counterfeiting. They reckon it’s American-backed Mafia trying to destabilise the country.’
'How do you know that?’
'It’s common knowledge. The notes are really good. They’d pass most examinations until they arrive at the State Bank. I doubt Menendez would have given you five thousand in genuine currency in case you tried to skip like you did.’
'Oh my God.’
'What?’
'I paid for my ticket with the money Menendez gave me and I paid my bill here with it too.’
'Harry! I told you to keep hold of the money and not spend it.’
'You didn’t say it was forged.’
'I didn’t think I had to. I didn’t think you would be so stupid!’
'If it’s traced back to me what am I going to do? If I say it was given to me by Menendez, he’ll deny it and I’d have to admit I was involved in the scam with him. I’m going to get arrested by the police or murdered by Menendez.’
'Come with me, Harry. We have to get you safe and sort all this out.’
'I can’t afford to pay you, Maria, until I get money from England. If I can get money from England.’
'Harry, I’m doing this for you, not for money.’
'For me? Why?’
'I like you, Harry, and I feel sorry for you.’
Now I was really confused. She fancied me? Or she pitied me? Or she was briefed to keep me in sight? I had nothing to make a beautiful woman like her fancy me. I wouldn’t be the next candidate to play James Bond. Mr Bean, perhaps, but not Mr Bond. I’d settle for the pity if she could get me out of this country alive. I didn’t want to admit to myself that she was working for Menendez.
***
I followed her out of the hotel and along the street towards the Capitolli building, still shrouded in scaffolding. She waved down a yellow taxi.
The driver, a black guy pushing fifty with grey hair, got out and put my suitcase in the boot. Maria jumped in the back of the cab and I climbed in alongside her.
She said something that sounded like an address to the driver and he drove off, narrowly missing a horse and buggy coming up on the outside. I didn’t understand the Spanish words the buggy driver shouted, but I reckoned they must have been expletives.
We rode for about fifteen minutes through several neighbourhoods, each with its particular architecture, ranging from derelict near the centre to quite nice as we moved further away.
Maria kept checking behind her. I reckoned she was looking to see if we were being followed. She seemed a pretty cool character and switched on. When she turned her head to look behind, her skirt rode up and I had difficulty keeping my eyes off her tanned and perfect thighs.
The taxi pulled over. We got out. Maria paid the driver after he put my suitcase on the pavement.
'I’ll pay you back later,’ I said.
'Don’t worry about it.’ She continued to look all around.
A yellow taxi came in the opposite direction. She flagged it down. This woman was good. We jumped in and more instructions were given to this driver, a young guy in a white shirt and with short, greased-back hair.
We headed back towards the centre but stopped after five minutes. She paid this driver too.
I stood on the pavement, wondering what the hell we were doing. She’d shaken off any surveillance we may have had, I hoped. Then I wondered if she’d been checking to make sure we were being followed.
I looked up at a modern apartment building with six floors. A glass door showed the inside hallway was marble and chrome. A bank of buttons in stainless steel and nameplates stood to the side of the door.
'Is this your place?’ I said.
'It belongs to someone I know.’
I hoped it wasn’t Menendez.
I dragged my suitcase to the door. She reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a bunch of keys, but not before I saw the handle of a gun.
The air con in the marble hall felt cool and helped calm me down. My heart slowed down from its hundred beats a minute.
We rode the elevator up to the fifth floor. A long corridor in beige tiles had beige walls and a beige ceiling. I would describe it as 'functional’. Several doors led off the corridor, each one a dark, varnished brown. We stopped outside number 503.
Maria opened the door and held it while I went in. She came in behind me.
This looked as good a place as any to die.
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