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Havana: Killing Castro [MultiFormat]
eBook by David Pereda

eBook Category: Politics/Government/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: When an old fisherman is gunned down on a Mexican beach, prominent Miami surgeon Raymond Peters becomes the prime suspect. The dead fisherman is believed to be Fidel Castro, whom Peters helped disguise through clandestine plastic surgery on a trip to Cuba two years earlier. In order to save his own life, the beleaguered doctor must find the killers and retrieve a mysterious journal while outwitting a ruthless woman assassin named Marcela, sent by Castro's brother Raul.

eBook Publisher: Eternal Press/Damnation Books LLC/Eternal Press, Published: 2010, 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: January 2010




Havana ~ Killing Castro

* * * *

Puerto Progreso Beach, Mexico

Late Spring

Pepe Orozco woke up at six in the morning--naked, shivering, and hungover. He had left his bedroom window open, and the temperature had dropped during the night. Lately, weather conditions in Yucatan resembled his life of the past couple of years--a damn yo-yo. He never knew what to expect--cold, rain, fog, wind, or hurricanes.

What a difference from what he was told when he moved to Puerto Progreso Beach. He had been assured then that the weather would be sunny and hot all the time, like in Cuba, and that he could go surf fishing each morning. Typical habanero shit talk, he thought as he rubbed his arms for warmth.

The unpredictable weather had become his constant gripe at Rosa's Bar, his favorite watering hole down the beach. He spent most nights there, drinking mojitos and talking to Rosa and her girls. My, how his life had changed. Now his complaining was relegated to a brothel. And to what end? Big, fat Rosa just shrugged, rolled her piggy eyes, and grumbled in that tequila-cured voice of hers, "If you don't like the weather, guey, have another Corona and wait. It will change."

Pepe hopped on the cold wooden floor and kicked the bed. Fuck Rosa, and fuck this shitty country, and fuck this freezing weather, too.

His head throbbed, feeling like a balloon about to explode. He padded to the window and looked outside. Waves crashed on the beach, spraying thick clots of foam over the soggy sand. He hoped the sun would finally come out today. He hadn't been able to go fishing all week because of the rain. Damn weather.

Pepe slammed the window shut.

Stumbling about the bungalow, his head pulsating like a strobe light, he searched for his shorts and T-shirt. Finally, he found them in the bathroom, wedged next to the toilet. They reeked of mojitos and cheap perfume. He scratched his head.

Was there a woman with me last night?

Pepe vaguely remembered a curvaceous female with high cheekbones and plump lips...and, oh yes, tits the size of small cantaloupes. How could he forget that? He was better at remembering tits than faces. The women's faces at Rosa's all tended to look alike: hard and heavily made-up, with crimson lips, absent eyes, and vapid smiles. The tits, however, all had individuality and character. They could be round and rough, like small coconuts; or pointed and sweet, like ripe Filipino mangoes. Some nipples stood erect, like tiny penises; others collapsed inward, like broken dreams.

The woman from last night had elegant tits, the nipples pert and haughty. Although Pepe couldn't remember her clearly, he knew she was a real looker with a lithe body, not the type he usually found at Rosa's. She wasn't Mexican. She had a different accent. Cuban or Venezuelan, maybe? Whatever. She was way too refined for that dump. Pepe didn't recall having sex with her. He didn't remember much of anything, really. If they did have sex, Pepe hoped he had used a condom. He didn't want to come down with a venereal disease...or worse. He shuddered at the thought of AIDS. That was all he needed now.

He bent down to pick up his clothes, and pain shot through his skull. What a royal headache. It felt like all the blood in his body had gathered behind his eyes. Maybe he needed to check his blood pressure; he wasn't a young chicken anymore. Gasping, he pulled up his shorts without bothering to put on underwear first. The soiled T-shirt stank so much, he slung it over his shoulder to let it breathe a while; he'd put it on later. With the window closed, he wasn't that cold.

Crimson streaked the horizon, creeping into the dense gunmetal expanse of sky. A new--and clear--day was arriving. What a pleasant surprise. Time to hurry. The sun would be out soon. Then the heat would come, and the fish knew better than to stick around the shallow waters in the boiling temperature and become a living bouillabaisse.

Grabbing his tackle box, a cooler filled with beer, and his fishing pole, Pepe staggered outside to dump them in the soft sand as close to the water as possible. Then he went back and dragged his sun-bleached wooden chair from the porch and sat down, breathing hard. Good thing the bungalow was right on the beach. He couldn't have walked another step.

He set the bait, cast his line into the unruly sea, and twisted open a bottle of Corona. Two Coronas on an empty stomach would make his headache disappear. And if not, at least he wouldn't care so much.

He was on his fourth Corona and feeling better when he heard distant noises carried by the wind. He cracked an eye open. Two runners in hooded jogging suits were coming around the bend, fighting the strong headwind. One of the men was tall, the other small. Two fucking gringos on vacation. Mexicans never went out jogging so early.

Pepe shut his eyes again.

As the men got closer, Pepe raised his head. Scratching his unkempt gray beard, he watched their feet slap the hard-packed sand and splash in the rolling waves. Something about the pair seemed familiar.

"How's the fishing?" the tall one yelled to Pepe when he was about twenty yards away. "They hittin' today?"

Pepe didn't answer. He rose from his chair, perplexed. He knew that voice. The joggers sprinted toward him and stopped, breathing hard from the exertion. The tall man lowered his hood, revealing his face.

Pepe's eyes widened. Son of a bitch. He flipped open his cooler, shoved his hand inside, and grappled frantically for his .38.

The tall man was faster. He reached behind his back and pulled a .22 from his waistband. Pepe hurdled over his chair. He tripped over the tackle box, regained his footing, and staggered across the hard-packed sand. He heard a muted pop and felt a sharp pain in the back of his head, as if someone had hit him with a small hammer. He tried to turn around, but his body went limp. He stumbled in slow motion and crashed to his knees; then his entire body pitched forward, half in the sand and half in the shallow water.

"Cabron!" he heard the tall man say. "Dead at last."

I'm not dead, maricon. Pepe tried to say the words aloud, but he couldn't move his lips. A wave rolled salty water into his nostrils, and he couldn't breathe.

I need to get up, he thought. Or I'm going to drown.

"Check the cooler," the tall man was saying now, far away. "Let's see what he was in such a hurry to get. I'm sure it was not a beer."

You're damn right it wasn't, motherfucker!

The wave moved back out into the sea, and Pepe breathed again. He heard the stirring of the ice, the sloshing of the water, and then a snort that must have come from the short man.

"Look at the present Santa brought--a .38 revolver." The voice was higher than the tall man's. He recognized the twang.

"He was always a tricky one. You find anything else?"

"No."

"Must be in the house then," the tall man said.

Oh no, not the journal. Blood was trickling out of his nose and seeping into the wet sand. How did the motherfuckers know about that? Then a suspicious thought flashed in his mind. The woman? Did I talk too much last night?

Pepe tried to get up to charge the men but couldn't. He felt so tired, so groggy. He gave up the effort and concentrated on gulping all the air he could.

"The son of a bitch is twitching," the short man said.

Another wave filled Pepe's nose with salty water. When it went back out to the sea, it lingered over his body. He realized the hand caught under his body was clutching his genitals. His balls felt silky and warm, like the mysterious woman's tits.

Those were top-of-the-line tits, no question about it. Who cared if he had used a condom or not to have sex with her? He wished with all his might that he'd had wild and wicked sex with that woman. He hoped all her orifices were throbbing with pain today. Damn bitch.

Pepe summoned all his strength and tried again to rise. But all he managed to do was flutter an eyelash and shift his head a fraction of an inch.

"Hurry up and finish him off," the tall man scolded his partner. "We don't have much time. And we still have to check the house."

Fuck you, you groveling, shit-eating servant of the Imperialism! He shut his eyes tighter to shield them from the glare of the rising sun on the water. He concentrated on his balls, trying to recreate the feel of the woman's tits.

"You're damn right I'm going to shoot him," the shorter man said, coming closer to Pepe and waving a .357 Magnum revolver at him. "I've waited a long time for this moment."

"Hurry up then. We have to go."

"You sure he's Castro? His face looks so different. He--"

"I'm sure," the tall man growled. "Shoot the son of a bitch!"

Pepe struggled to get up, but his body wouldn't cooperate. Shit! He gave up and wracked his brain for a happy memory to leave the world with. He visualized Cuban Intelligence operatives hunting down these two motherfuckers and the mystery woman, hurting them bad, and then squashing them like cockroaches. Oh, yeah. He braced himself for the shot.

Pepe heard the ominous click of the gun followed by a deafening explosion. For one infinitesimal instant, he felt his head dissolve into shards of blinding red light. They prickled his body like a myriad of sharp knives, urging him to open his hand and let go of his balls and the feel of the woman's tits.

And he did.

* * * *

Chapter One

* * * *

Miami, Florida

Two Months Later

Dr. Raymond Peters awoke with a jolt. The numbers on his bedside clock glowed 1:42 a.m. Why was the doorbell chiming? Careful not to disturb his wife Sonia, curled up to his side like a cat, he slithered free and slipped out of bed. Grumbling under his breath, he cracked the condo door open. He was relieved to see his driver, Mauricio, in the lighted hallway but unnerved by the gaudily attired short, fat man standing next to him. The jowly character wore Bermuda shorts and a crimson T-shirt with the words Born to be Wild printed in purple letters across the chest. A reddish mustache--probably fake, Raymond thought--partially covered thin lips. Dark aviator sunglasses and a Chicago White Sox cap concealed eyes and head.

What the hell was this? And now the jerk was smiling at him.

"What's this all about, Mauricio?" Raymond grumbled. "It's almost two in the morning."

Mauricio wagged a stubby finger at the mystery man. "I told him it was too late, Dr. Peters, but he insisted. He said he needed to see you now."

The intruder's smile broadened.

Raymond could see the reflection of his scowl in the man's sunglasses. "Can I help you?"

"Hormigas!" the stranger screeched. "Remember? What's the matter, Raymond? You don't recognize me?"

The man's squeaky voice and the Spanish word for ants...Raymond held his breath as he slipped back in time to a torrid afternoon in Cuba. He was standing at the door of a makeshift military hospital in Matanzas, staring at the freckles on the ruddy face of another unexpected visitor who had just arrived escorted by heavily armed soldiers.

The man's freckles looked like ants.

Raymond's heart thumped.

With a flourish, the intruder removed his hat and sunglasses, cackling with laughter.

Raymond stared. The hair and the salt-and-pepper mustache had been dyed red, but there was no mistaking the man behind the tacky disguise.

"Raul?" Raymond's lips felt dry.

The visitor nodded his head toward the room behind Raymond. "Can I come in?"

Raymond felt a paralyzing coldness rip through his body. The last time Raul Castro had shown up without warning, Raymond had just finished performing plastic surgery on his brother, Fidel, and had been plunged up to his latex-gloved hands in trouble.

Raul's question made him replay the scene in his mind. Screeching tires and blaring sirens resonated inside Raymond's head. Automobile doors slammed shut on the street outside, and hurried steps approached the building. Then the clinic's front door was flung open, and bearded men in olive-green military uniforms poured inside, carrying weapons. One of the men stepped toward Raymond. He was short and chubby, with pink skin under an unruly mustache sprinkled generously with gray....Oh, God, no!

"Where's my brother?" Raul Castro demanded. "I want to see him at once!"

Without waiting for an answer, he charged toward the closed door of the operating room. Raymond blocked his path.

"Sorry, you can't go in!" Raymond said with authority, although his knees were weak. "Fidel Castro is under sedation. He can't be disturbed."

Raul's face turned redder. Two large brown freckles alongside his nose caught Raymond's attention. They reminded him of ants. Hormigas!

"Who are you?" Raul roared.

"I'm Fidel's doctor."

"And you know who I am? You know who you're talking to?"

Raul's face became so distorted with rage, a deep crimson color drowned the ants. From behind him, two large, bearded soldiers stepped forward and surrounded Raymond. They smelled of sun and sweat and anger.

"Certainly," Raymond answered. "You are Raul Castro. And I'm sure you don't want anything bad to happen to your brother Fidel--or do you?"

The question took Raul by surprise. He fumbled for a reply.

"Of course not," he answered, finally. "I want the best for my brother."

"Then you shouldn't go in," Raymond said, pressing his advantage. "First of all, you could give him an infection. Second, he's still out under the effects of anesthesia. He just underwent a lengthy and traumatic surgical procedure, and he's lost a lot of blood. If you want to add a post-traumatic incident to the surgery, go ahead! He's your brother. However, I wouldn't recommend it, and, furthermore, I won't be responsible."

Raul Castro looked at him, dumbfounded. Obviously, no one in Cuba talked to him like that. He scratched his face precisely at the spot where the two freckles had been.

"Understand," Raul said in a different tone of voice. "I'm worried about my brother. How is he, Doctor?"

"He's going to be fine," Raymond said, flashing a relieved smile at hearing the word "doctor."

It had been a tension-filled and scary encounter, one of several involving Raul during Raymond's harrowing trip to Cuba.

As Raymond stepped aside now to let Raul enter, he hoped Castro's visit didn't lead to another confrontation. What did Raul want, anyway? What could he possibly be doing in Miami?

"This is quite a surprise; please come in," Raymond said calmly while a voice inside his head screamed, Go away!

Mauricio remained in the hallway, his compact, powerful body rigid.

"You want to come in, too?" Raymond asked.

"That's all right," Raul said from the living room. "He doesn't need to."

"I don't mind staying," Mauricio said.

Raul ignored him and plopped down on one of the comfortable brown leather chairs in front of the sliding glass doors overlooking Biscayne Bay.

What insolence, Raymond thought as he watched his uninvited guest make himself at home--all in an attempt to show off his power. Raymond felt a visceral urge to strangle Raul. Take the pre-emptive strike. Why was Raul here?

"I'll call you if I need you," Raymond said softly to Mauricio, then closed the door and reluctantly walked into the living room, his heartbeat racing.

"Nice place you got here," Raul said.

"Thank you."

Raymond could tell Raul was scrutinizing the antique Oriental carpets and Louis Philippe furniture as he walked toward the sliding glass doors and peered at the dark waters of the bay thirty-four floors below. Raul seemed momentarily mesmerized by the lights of passing boats glittering in the rain. Raymond was impatient but knew better than to rush Raul. Finally, Fidel's brother turned to Raymond and nodded his approval.

"Very nice." He smiled. "You and Sonia have good taste." And then, as he gestured to the couch, his voice took on a more serious tone. "Sit down, Raymond. We have a lot to talk about."

Apprehensively, Raymond settled on the leather sofa opposite Raul. Scenes from the past, fragmented images of Fidel, Pepe, Sonia, Mon and Raul, flitted through Raymond's mind like a blurred film in fast-forward. Almost two years to the day, Pepe Orozco, his childhood friend, had reappeared in his life with shocking news: unbeknownst to Raymond, Sonia had been pregnant when he'd left Cuba thirty years ago, and she had given birth to his son.

"I want you to come to Cuba with me," Pepe had said.

At first Raymond had thought his friend was joking. "Why would I go to Cuba, Pepe? I have no family there anymore."

Raymond would never forget the ponderous words uttered by Pepe, nor the overwhelming feeling of guilt and helplessness that overcame him when he heard them.

"To see your son. He's dying of cancer and wants to meet you before he dies."

Lies, lies, lies. Yes, Raymond had a son. But he had not been dying of cancer, thank God. And that had not been the real reason for the trip, anyway. Raymond had been lured to Cuba to perform plastic surgery on Fidel Castro and Pepe, and thus switch their respective identities. El Comandante himself had forced Raymond to do the surgery. Raymond would never forget that encounter in a private suite at the Habana Libre Hotel, with Fidel making mojitos and chattering nonstop.

"This is sheer lunacy," Raymond remembered saying to Castro. "You're a public figure, for Christ's sake. You can't disappear from view just like that."

"Watch me," Fidel Castro had said.

Raymond had been a reluctant pawn in a conspiracy of far-reaching political implications. There had been only one good thing to come out of that trip--and that made all the pain and suffering worthwhile: he had been reunited again with his long-lost love, Sonia, and with his son, Mon.

In the end, Raymond had been lucky, very lucky. He had been allowed to return to Miami and take Sonia and Mon with him. However, he had never been able to forget those dangerous weeks in Cuba. And now, when his nightmares had finally subsided and he was beginning to sleep nights again without awakening with cold sweats, Raul Castro had come to ruin it all. Lord, have mercy.

Raul started to talk, but his voice abruptly turned into a hard, raspy cough. He doubled over, his face turning purplish.

"What's the matter?" Raymond asked.

"The flu," Raul said. "Caught it in Mexico. Too cold there for me." He inhaled, gurgling with the effort.

Raymond didn't respond. He and Raul studied each other in silence, like two wary prizefighters.

"Can I offer you something to drink?" Raymond asked, hoping to prod Raul along.

"Not tonight, gracias. I'm not planning on staying that long. But I'll take a rain check."

"Deal." Raymond smiled tentatively, his mind registering with alarm the fact that there might be a next time. "How are things?"

"Bad. Lots of problems in Cuba," Raul said in a tinny voice. "Big problems."

Raymond nodded.

"Miami seems to agree with you, though." Raul's voice was more energetic now. He was winding up like a pitcher on a mound. "You're in the news often enough--the famous Dr. Peters, world-renowned plastic surgeon. The clinic you opened with Mon in Coral Gables is also a resounding success, I know. And you and Sonia and Mon appear on the social pages almost every week. I'm impressed. Who could have guessed when Pepe brought you to Cuba two years ago all that would happen? Unbelievable, no?"

"Unbelievable," Raymond agreed.

"I see your handiwork every day," Raul said. "No question about it, you are an outstanding plastic surgeon. I talk to Pepe, and I think I'm talking to Fidel. He even sounds like Fidel. I have to remind myself sometimes that he's not really my brother."

Raymond felt fear rising. He had often wondered why they were allowed to live. They were the only people in the world who knew Fidel Castro was now a retired fisherman in Mexico and that the person who actually appeared in public as the commander in chief of Cuba was an impersonator by the name of Pepe Orozco.

"What brings you to Miami, Raul?" Raymond asked. He was certain now that big trouble had arrived in his life again. "Must be something very important. Isn't it dangerous for you, if you get caught?"

"It is," Raul said and smiled. "But I've been doing it for years--and so has Fidel. It's all a simple illusion."

"How is Fidel?" Raymond asked. "Main reason I did the surgery was because Fidel had a bad heart and couldn't take the stress of running Cuba anymore. How is he enjoying his retirement? How is his health nowadays?"

Raul chewed on his lower lip as he studied Raymond a long moment before answering.

"Fidel is dead."

* * * *

Chapter Two

* * * *

Three hundred miles away, the curvaceous, yellow-eyed mulatto woman named Marcela knelt in front of a Santeria altar decorated in red and white and presented her daily offering of apples, green bananas, okra, and rum to her god.

"Cabio Sile," she saluted with a howl imitating thunder. "Chango!"

Marcela was proud of her altar. Covering an entire wall of her house, it represented her life's work, her true vocation. She had started building it shortly after she became an apprentice Santera at the age of thirteen. She had developed it, piece by piece, over the past twenty years to what it was now.

The imposing figures of Oshe and Shere, standing six feet tall at each end as Chango's bodyguards, had taken her nearly three years to carve from the hardest and darkest mahogany. They were so heavy, sometimes when there was bad weather and lightning struck nearby, they rattled on the mantel. Marcela was afraid they might tumble one day if she didn't reinforce the altar legs, but she simply hadn't had the time.

The unusual two-foot-tall statue in the center represented Chango, the warrior king. The artist had carved him in the shape of an ax--its two sharp steel blades growing out of Chango's head like a crown while Chango's body formed the ax handle itself. The antelope horns Marcela had brought from Africa sat to his left, symbolizing Oya, his wife. She had purchased the studded tiara to Chango's right, which represented Chango's older sister, Dada-Bayonni, in an antique shop in Amsterdam.

Her most prized possession, that which had taken her the longest to locate and was her favorite, she had found in Mexico on a visit to the Teotihuacan pyramids. She was convinced the jade miniature of twin little girls she had placed by Chango's feet had been a gift from him. She knew Chango especially protected twins with his big magic. So when two scrawny Indian children approached her as she came down the Pyramid of the Sun and offered to sell her the carving of the twins, she knew Chango had sent them. She didn't even haggle.

"How much?" was all she said.

Glancing approvingly at the altar, she poured rum from a bottle of Havana Club Anejo into an elaborately etched silver tumbler and drank. Despite a cool breeze coming from the ocean and the fact her skin was bare except for her red-and-white Chango collar, she felt the heat of the rum push beads of perspiration from her skin. She looked with longing toward the beach. She loved to plunge into the salty green waters and swim out to sea, feeling the occasional fish brush against her. Once she swam next to a shark that circled around her twice before Chango made him go away with his magic. Marcela was never scared because she knew Chango always protected her.

She would have to wait for her swim today, though. She was a professional. And for a professional, work came first. Later, she could go to the beach and linger in the refreshing waters ruled by Yemaya, maybe even reward herself for her hard work by playing with her engorged clitoris while lying on the sand, legs spread apart, in the hot sun. The thought gave her a secret thrill, and her body tingled with anticipation. But all that would come later. Now she needed her daily practice.

It was her job to kill people, and she prided herself on doing her job well. She was barely fifteen when she killed her first man with a knife in a duel for disrespecting her widowed mother. The man was much bigger and stronger and a more experienced fighter, but Marcela surprised him with a fake thrust to the genitals--men were so predictable--followed by a savage, and life-ending, slash of his jugular. The man crumpled to the ground, eyes bulging, spurting blood. Marcela stood over him, watching him bleed to death, breathing in the intoxicating blend of odors generated by gushing blood and fear.

From that moment on, that scent became her favorite aphrodisiac, and killing her addiction. Her reputation as a killer was made then. After that fight, whenever someone wanted to settle a score, Marcela would oblige...for a price, of course. In the beginning all her clients were women, but later, men started coming to her with assassination requests, too. Nowadays one man high up in the Cuban government accounted for all of her business. He knew she would do the job well, not only because she was talented and Chango made sure her hand didn't waver, but because of her strict preparation. Chango always helped those of his children who helped themselves.

Every day Marcela trained for at least four hours, two during the day and two at night. First she jogged and exercised, and then she trained with weapons. Bright sunlight tricked the naked eye as much as the shifting shadows of nighttime. Often she could only take one shot, and she had to make it count. On the wall next to the altar, she'd tacked a white sign bearing a motto she had copied in blood-red letters from a business book. She couldn't recall the name of the book any longer, nor who the author was, but the words were indelibly etched on her mind: "Success happens when preparation meets opportunity."

Opening a wooden drawer beneath the altar, she studied the twelve guns inside. She selected a Glock .40 caliber pistol, quick-draw holster, and gun belt. Beyond the house, on the soft sand, she set up six empty rum bottles on a wooden fence. Six was Chango's number, so she always used six bottles for her workouts.

She cocked the Glock, put it in the holster, and strapped the gun belt around her waist. Closing her eyes, feeling the smooth leather hugging her hips, she gave a silent prayer to Chango. Then, quickly and smoothly, she drew the gun and fired six swift shots.

All the bottles shattered.

She smiled, pleased. Chango had guided her hand again.

She realized her cell phone was ringing in the living room. Only one person knew that number: her employer, code-named El Jefe. And when he called, it usually meant trouble, and often death, for somebody.

Marcela had been expecting that call. Her Orisha had already alerted her it would come.

She holstered the gun, walked inside the house, and picked up the receiver. "Hola?"

"Are you training?" a man's gruff voice she didn't recognize said by way of greeting.

Marcela was instantly angry. "How did you get this number?"

"El Jefe asked me to call you," the voice said, uncertain. "He's out of town."

"What's your name?"

"He told me you would ask that. You know the rule."

Marcela breathed easier. They never used names on the phone--that was the rule. The voice on the phone had passed the initial test.

"What can I do for you?" she asked.

"El Jefe has a job for you. He wants you to come see him."

"When?"

The man cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. "Tomorrow, at the usual time."

"I'll be there."

Marcela hung up the phone and checked her gold wristwatch, a gift from El Jefe for doing a particularly difficult job. She still had half an hour of training time left before allowing herself to frolic on the beach. She reloaded the Glock, lined up six more bottles on the fence, and took a position forty paces away this time.

* * * *

Chapter Three

* * * *

"Dead?" Raymond was shaken. If Fidel was dead, his life might be in danger--and possibly the lives of Sonia, Mon and Mauricio, too. "When?"

"Two months ago," Raul said.

The wind whistled outside. The sliding glass doors rattled. It had been raining hard, too, the day he'd operated on Fidel and Pepe in Cuba.

"Where? In Cuba?"

Raul shook his head, his bulldog jowls jiggling. "Puerto Progreso Beach, Yucatan."

Raymond marveled that he was still alive. Raul was not the type to leave loose ends dangling in the wind. No doubt it was because of Pepe's oath: "I swear to you, Raymond, as long as I'm alive, nothing bad will happen to you or your loved ones."

"Heart attack?"

"No."

Raymond frowned. "How did he die?"

"He was assassinated," Raul said deliberately. "Two bullets to the head one morning while fishing. Different calibers, so we suspect two shooters. A divorced American tourist on vacation with his teenage son found him and called the police."

Raymond swallowed hard. "My God."

Raul raised an eyebrow and studied him. "You didn't know?"

"No."

Raul chewed on a fingernail and inspected his curled fingers before glancing at Raymond again, eyebrows knitted.

"What about anything else?"

"Excuse me?" Raymond said.

"One of Fidel's items is missing."

"What 'item'? I don't know what you're talking about."

"A personal one."

"I assume it's not his toothbrush or underwear. You care to be more explicit?"

Raul shrugged. "If you don't know, it's not important. You sure you don't know, right?"

"No." Raymond barely managed to control his annoyance at Raul's reticence. "But now I get it. That's what you're really looking for, isn't it?"

"Don't forget Fidel's killers."

"You suspect they have this mysterious item you don't want to tell me about?"

"Who else?"

"Why investigate now?" Raymond said. "Why not two months ago, when the assassination happened?"

"We couldn't. The killers left no tracks, and we had to be careful. We couldn't tell the Mexican police who the dead fisherman really was."

"But eventually you found a way?"

"We told them we had been investigating Pepe Orozco ourselves, on suspicion of his being an underground businessman defrauding the Cuban economy. And that we suspected he had been killed by colleagues."

"And they believed you?"

"I don't know, but they cooperated with us. The thing is, we couldn't really push them. So the investigation went quite slow. The killers were definitely professionals. They left no fingerprints, shell casings, hairs, fibers, fingerprints, footprints, abandoned cars, nothing. We had no leads...until recently."

Raymond leaned forward and waited for Raul to continue.

Raul rubbed his chin, and his gaze fixed on Raymond. "You sure you didn't know my brother was dead? You knew he was in Mexico using Orozco's name. His death was reported in the Mexican newspapers."

"I don't read the Mexican newspapers."

"You didn't keep in touch with my brother at all?"

"Your brother and I were not friends."

"You were his plastic surgeon, Raymond. The man who gave him his new face. He never called you about any post-surgery problems?"

Where was Raul heading with this line of questioning? "No."

"Sure?"

Raymond ground his teeth with annoyance. He didn't like people doubting his word. He shook his head slowly.

Raul's gaze turned into a skeptical glare. "Maybe you are the best."

The temperature in the living room dropped several degrees. There was no mistaking the menacing note in Raul's voice. A plethora of conflicting emotions wracked Raymond's body: concern, fear, anger--mostly anger.

"You know, I don't know whether to be scared or to get pissed about all this," Raymond said. "You think I assassinated Fidel? I haven't been out of the country since I returned from Cuba two years ago. Go ahead and check. I couldn't have done it."

"But you could have masterminded the operation."

"Fuck you, Raul."

Castro's face broke into a wide smile. "This is the Raymond I remember. The one who refused to let me see Fidel in the recovery room and escaped Cuba on a high-speed motorboat. I was beginning to wonder about you. I thought a couple of years in Miami had made you soft. I see you haven't changed. You're as feisty as ever."

"Which part did you not understand--the 'fuck' or the 'you'?"

"Take it easy. I'm just doing my job."

"How can I take it easy? Next thing I know one of your henchmen could be knocking on my door to kill me."

"If I wanted you dead, I would have done it already."

Raymond leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands. "Why do you think I could be involved? I'm a doctor. I save lives, not murder people, remember?"

"Because you, more than anybody else I know--other than Fidel and me--wouldn't want the secret of what happened in Cuba to get out." Raul paused. "So tell me, my friend, what do you know that can help me investigate his death and clear you?"

"Nothing."

"Hmmm. Try thinking about it anyway. Information is like sperm. All you need is one lucky sperm to impregnate an egg, and, bingo, you have a baby. Tell me what you know, and--"

"And bingo, you'll have a baby, too?"

"Highly unlikely. But you could be in the clear. Think. Who could have killed my brother?"

"Ninety percent of the world?" Raymond shook his head. "I don't know."

"What about Teceira?" Raul said. "You think he could've done it?"

Teceira was Sonia's ex-husband, a military man trained in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat. Raymond could still recall the taste of his own blood when Teceira hit him in the mouth. Raymond had been imprisoned for treason and was destined to be shot by a firing squad the following morning. Raymond had outsmarted Teceira and escaped. The raging lunatic was angry enough with both Castro brothers to have done it.

"He certainly fits the profile..." Raymond started, when he heard a noise coming from the hallway.

"Who are you talking to, darling? Is that Mon? Is he back from dancing already?" Raymond and Raul turned their heads in unison. Sonia entered the living room, smiling graciously. The two men rose. She walked toward them like a model at a fashion show, body straight and green silk nightgown swishing. "Who fits what profile?"

Her smile froze, and her eyes widened at the sight of Raul.

"Raul?" Her voice was hoarse. "I can't believe it."

Raul extended his hand. "Hello, Sonia. You look as beautiful as always."

Sonia's knees buckled. Raymond held her up.

"This is quite a surprise, Raul." Sonia extended her hand to shake his. "To see you here in my living room in Miami in the middle of the night, wearing orange shorts and a red mustache, it's...it's..."

"Shocking?" Raymond helped her sit down next to him on the couch.

Sonia nodded, studying Raul. "I don't believe I've ever seen you like this in all the years I worked for you in Cuba."

When Raymond had hooked up with Sonia again, she was director of the hospital network in the island, Mon was Fidel's personal cardiologist, and Major Teceira was the head of national security. All reported directly to Raul Castro. Talk about a tight little group at the highest political level.

"He's undercover," Raymond said.

"Undercover?" She looked from one man to the other, a glint in her eyes.

Raymond nodded. "I'll explain later," he said and then turned his attention back to Raul. "What are the leads that brought you to Miami?"

"Well, actually it's only one lead. We have information on the killers."

Sonia's cold fingers clasped Raymond's hand as thunder rumbled outside and lightning streaked over the bay.

"How many killers were there?" Raymond asked.

"We know there were two, for sure." Raul pinched the bridge of his nose. "But we suspect more people were involved."

"You know who the two are?"

"No."

"So what do you know?"

"We know the killers are in Miami--and that you might know them."

* * * *

Chapter Four

* * * *

For weeks Mon had been expecting the phone call. He had developed several detailed response scenarios, including alternative actions based on preceding events. He had set up specific trigger points to launch their implementation automatically--meaning without subjective interference or last-minute indecisiveness. In short, he was prepared.

Yet when his cell phone rang, and he saw who the caller was, the only thought that came to his mind was how odd it was to receive a call from Mauricio at two in the morning. And when he heard the somber tone of Mauricio's greeting, he worried immediately about something bad, like an automobile accident or a sudden illness, happening to his parents. It was only when Mauricio uttered the next two words that his heart started trip-hammering, and he realized this was the call he had been expecting.

"Big trouble," Mauricio said.

Mon felt a paralyzing chill rip his insides, but he tried hard not to show it. He listened attentively to the rest of Mauricio's message and hung up.

He was with Tula at the Cuba Libre, their favorite nightspot on Calle Ocho in a city loaded with clubs. The Cuba Libre was always crowded and noisy on Saturday nights, and tonight was no exception. People hunched around the too-small round tables illuminated by candles in red crystal holders that surrounded the rectangular dance floor of smooth parquet. A seven-piece band of Chicanos from California played "Silencio," trying hard to recreate the sound of Buena Vista Social Club. Mon wondered if Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo would have laughed or applauded the efforts of the paunchy male singer with the porn-star mustache and the purple-haired female vocalist with the punk hairdo. But whatever the singers lacked in technique, they--and the band--compensated with earsplitting energy. The dance floor was packed with couples of all ages.

Mon and Tula were dancing in one corner, holding each other tightly, barely swaying to the beat.

Tula must have sensed something was amiss, because she looked him in the eyes with concern. Her striking cheekbones caught the shifting colored lights, and, for a moment, her face looked like a Fauvist composition. She leaned on him, her full breasts burrowing into his chest, and his breath caught in his throat. She was so beautiful, so sensual. He was a lucky man.

"Problem?" she asked.

He debated whether to tell her or not just yet and decided against it. Why spoil her evening too?

He shrugged, trying to act nonchalant, even though his shoulder muscles had knotted with tension. "Nothing I can't handle."

She smiled with relief and--oblivious of the other dancers--kissed him hard on the mouth. His loins tingled.

She whispered hoarsely, "Let's go to my place."

He was tempted, but he needed to tell her about the call, and here was better than at her home. Once they got there, they would likely rip their clothes off in the living room and not even make it to the bedroom. Most of the time, they ended up on the couch or on the floor or even, once, on the living room center table. Tula was one hot number.

"Let's stay a little longer," he said.

She arched an eyebrow, asking for an explanation. He was confusing her, he realized. This wasn't like him. He was always a willing sex partner.

"Something wrong?"

"Naw." She watched him closely, and he felt his cheeks burning. He added, "I need to unwind a little."

She licked her lips. "I know the best way to unwind you."

"Really?" He cocked his head and gave her a crooked smile, trying to get into her game.

She giggled. "When you do that, you look like Brad Pitt."

Mon didn't quite know how to respond, so he exaggerated the gesture. Adolescent response 101.

She let out a loud, throaty laugh. "If you don't stop playing hard to get and take me home right now and make wild love to me, I swear I'm going to rape you in the middle of this dance floor."

He shrugged, trying to act cool. "They won't let us back in here again."

"I don't care."

The music stopped, but she didn't move. She held his head with both hands and gave him a long, lingering kiss, her tongue working hard inside his mouth. She tasted like raspberries and spice. His breathing quickened, and his heartbeat took off like a runaway locomotive.

When she came up for air again and he was able to catch his breath, he said, "You know, when you went away a couple of months ago..." His voice trailed off. He had to tell her, but didn't know exactly how to broach the subject. What was he going to say? That there were ruthless people looking for her? Why spoil her evening? He needed to organize his thoughts better.

She was staring at him. "What? Finish the sentence, please. Drives me crazy when you do that."

He cleared his throat. "I missed you." What an inane comment.

"Bet you say that to all the girls. I was only gone three days."

"Seemed like an eternity." I'm on a roll now.

"Were you jealous?"

"I was worried." God, what a stupid thing to say.

"Everything worked out perfectly. Just like we planned it."

He nodded thoughtfully. He would never forgive himself if something happened to her.

She smiled. "You were a great help. I have a present for you from that trip, by the way."

"You do?"

"I've been saving it for your birthday."

"It's coming up." You can call me Dr. Banality.

"I know."

The band began playing, and they started swaying again. At least he could do that well--swaying. She rested her head on his shoulder, and he smelled her perfume. There was a buzzing in his ears. They danced in silence for a few moments. He held his breath, listening to his inner voice screaming at him to tell her now. He had to tell her, anyway. So why not now?

He took a deep breath and plunged ahead.

"You and the others did a great job," he said. "Some people might even say a great service to humanity. You took a great risk, though. You could--"

"Shh." She put a finger on his lips and squeezed her body tighter against his. "Not now. Let me enjoy this moment."

"But I need to--"

"Later. Just shut your eyes and dance with me now."

What could he do? He obliged. He shut his eyes and danced. The song ended, but they remained intertwined, silent and unmoving on the dance floor.

The silence became unbearable.

Mon said, "There's something I must tell you. Something important that can't wait."

"What?"

Her eyes sparkled with expectation. Her lips were moist and half open. Mon's back stiffened as if a current of electricity had shot through his vertebrae. He had trouble breathing. His heart felt as if it were being squeezed by a giant hand. His knees turned into whipped cream. Tula did that to him.

Mon tried hard to maintain his resolve, but he was fighting a losing battle.

Not now, he told himself. Definitely not now.

He murmured in her ear, and she moved her head back and stared at him in surprise. Slowly, a broad smile illuminated her face.

"I thought you wanted to stay a little longer," she said coyly.

"I lied."

Without speaking, she took his hand and yanked him away from the dance floor.

As they darted toward the front door, Mon rationalized there would be plenty of time later to let her know the granola had hit the fan and her life was in danger. Right now he had some serious unwinding to do.

* * * *

Chapter Five

* * * *

Marcela hastened up the dark Vedado street, slipping ghostlike in and out of crumbling buildings illuminated by naked bulbs. In honor of Chango, and out of respect for El Jefe, she had dressed all in white for the meeting.

Two men approaching in the opposite direction, arguing heatedly about baseball, fell silent when they saw her. They puffed their chests and sucked in their stomachs as they met, ogling her up and down.

"Oye, cosa linda," one of them said. "What's a beautiful woman like you doing alone at night? It's dangerous. Don't you want some company?"

Cuban men. Marcela didn't bother to answer them.

She heard them laughing as they continued down the street. "That mulata was a fox," the same one who had spoken to her said. "What culo!"

"What everything," his companion said. "I think she was scared of us."

If they only knew. A smile came to Marcela's lips. Men usually made the same mistake with her because she looked so feminine and so vulnerable. It was a look she cultivated. It gave her an edge in most situations when dealing with men, particularly macho men. She could have killed those two out-of-shape habaneros in less than ten seconds with her bare hands--she carried a razor-sharp stiletto of the finest Italian steel in a concealed pouch in her panties. And yet the poor souls thought she was scared.

Marcela considered most men useless, except for procreation. They were easily duped, smelled bad, and, for the most part, couldn't find the right spot on a clitoris with their tongue and ten fingers. That was probably one of the reasons she preferred women.

Behind her, waves crashed against the malecon rocks, spewing a fine mist impregnated with the strong odor of the sea. She inhaled deeply. Marcela loved that smell, a mixture of rot, salt, and predators feeding in the depths below. It was the scent of life...or death.

She spotted the building just ahead. Squat and bloated, it was a remnant from Spanish colonialism. Although well-known artists and so-called intellectuals regarded the structure an architectural gem, Marcela hated it. To her, its deteriorating columns and pockmarked stone walls meant less than nothing. They were decaying memories from a distant past before the revolucion, which she would happily expunge from history books if she could. Let flabby maricones fuss about flatulent architecture from another era while slobbering over melting chocolate ice cream at Coppelia. She liked the stark simplicity of the present--everything binary, either for or against the revolution. There might not be glittering parties and opulent banquets laden with exotic foods anymore, but who cared? There were no more social classes, either. In the past, those snooty bastards were always too ready to discriminate against the black, the poor, and the ignorant. Nowadays everybody was equal in Cuba, and that suited Marcela just fine.

The soldier guarding the entrance jumped when Marcela materialized from the shadows. Reflexively, he tried to move his AK-7 assault rifle into position, but Marcela moved faster. She clamped an iron hand on the soldier's arm and held the rifle motionless.

"It's me, companero," Marcela said.

"Oh." The soldier's eyes bulged. "You caught me by surprise."

Marcela smiled and released his arm. Men never liked it when they found out she was stronger than they were. "I'm here to see El Jefe."

"He's expecting you."


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