Philip Kerr delivers a novel with the noir sensibility of Raymond Chandler, the realpolitik of vintage John le Carré, and the dark moral vision of Graham Greene.
"Bernie Gunther is the most antiheroic of antiheroes in this gripping, offbeat thriller. It's the story of his struggle to preserve what's left of his humanity, and his life, in a world where the moral bandwidth is narrow, satanic evil at one end, cynical expediency at the other."
-Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War
"A thriller that will challenge preconceptions and stimulate the little grey cells."
-The Times (London), selecting Field Gray as a Thriller of the Year
"Part of the allure of these novels is that Bernie is such an interesting creation, a Chandleresque knight errant caught in insane historical surroundings. Bernie walks down streets so mean that nobody can stay alive and remain truly clean."
-John Powers, Fresh Air (NPR)
Bernie on Bernie: I didn't like Bernhard Gunther very much. He was cynical and world-weary and hardly had a good word to say about anyone, least of all himself. He'd had a pretty tough war . . . and done quite a few things of which he wasn't proud. . . . It had been no picnic for him since then either; it didn't seem to matter where he spread life's tartan rug, there was always a turd on the grass.
Striding across Europe through the killing fields of three decades-from riot-torn Berlin in 1931 to Adenauer's Germany in 1954, awash in duplicitous "allies" busily undermining one another-Field Gray reveals a world based on expediency, where the ends justify the means and no one can be trusted. It brings us a hero who is sardonic, tough- talking, and cynical, but who does have a rough sense of humor and a rougher sense of right and wrong. He's Bernie Gunther. He drinks too much and smokes excessively and is somewhat overweight (but a Russian prisoner-of-war camp will take care of those bad habits). He's Bernie Gunther-a brave man, because when there is nothing left to lose, honor rules.
That Englishman with Ernestina," she said, looking down at the luxuriously appointed public room. "He reminds me of you, Señor Hausner."
Doña Marina knew me as well as anyone in Cuba, possibly better, since our acquaintance was founded on something stronger than mere friendship: Doña Marina owned the largest and best brothel in Havana.
The Englishman was tall and round-shouldered, with pale blue eyes and a lugubrious expression. He wore a blue linen short-sleeved shirt, gray cotton trousers, and well-polished black shoes. I had an idea I'd seen him before, in the Floridita Bar or perhaps the lobby of the National Hotel, but I was hardly looking at him. I was paying more attention to the new and near-naked chica who was sitting on the Englishman's lap and helping herself to puffs from the cigarette in his mouth while he amused himself by weighing her enormous breasts in his hands, like someone judging the ripeness of two grapefruits.
"In what way?" I asked, and quickly glanced at myself in the big mirror that hung on the wall, wondering if there really was some point of similarity between us other than our appreciation of Ernestina's breasts and the huge dark nipples that adorned them like mountainous limpets.
The face that stared back at me was heavier than the Englishman's, with a little more hair on top but similarly fiftyish and cross-hatched with living. Perhaps Doña Marina thought it was more than just living that was dry-etched on our two facesthe chiaroscuro of conscience and complicity perhaps, as if neither of us had done what ought to have been done or, worse, as if each of us lived with some guilty secret.
"You have the same eyes," said Doña Marina.
"Oh, you mean they're blue," I said, knowing that this probably wasn't what she meant at all.
"No, it's not that. It's just that you and Señor Greene look at people in a certain way. As if you're trying to look inside them. Like a spiritualist. Or perhaps like a policeman. You both have very searching eyes that seem to look straight through a person. It's really most intimidating."
It was hard to imagine Doña Marina being intimidated by anything or anyone. She was always as relaxed as an iguana on a sunwarmed rock.
"Señor Greene, eh?" I wasn't in the least bit surprised that Doña Marina had used his name. The Casa Marina was not the kind of place where you felt obliged to use a false one. You needed a reference just to get through the front door. "Perhaps he is a policeman. With feet as big as his, I wouldn't be at all surprised."
"He's a writer."
"What kind of a writer?"
"Novels. Westerns, I think. He told me he writes under the name of Buck Dexter."
"Never heard of him. Does he live in Cuba?"
"No, he lives in London. But he always visits us when he's in Havana."
"A traveler, eh?"
"Yes. Apparently he's on his way to Haiti this time." She smiled. "You don't see the likeness now?"
"No, not really," I said firmly, and was pleased when she seemed to change the subject.
"How was it with Omara today?"
I nodded. "Good."
"You like her, yes?"
"She's from Santiago," said Doña Marina, as if this explained everything. "All of my best girls come from Santiago. They're the most African-looking girls in Cuba. Men seem to like that."
"I know I do."
"I think it has something to do with the fact that unlike white women, black women have a pelvis that's almost as big as a man's. An anthropoid pelvis. And before you ask me how I know that, it's because I used to be a nurse."
I wasn't surprised to learn this. Doña Marina put a premium on sexual health and hygiene and the staff at her house on Malecón included two nurses who were trained to deal with everything from a dose of jelly to a massive heart attack. I'd heard it said that you had a better chance of surviving cardiac arrest at Casa Marina than you did at the University of Havana Medical School.
"Santiago's a real melting pot," she continued. "Jamaicans, Haitians, Dominicans, Bahamiansit's Cuba's most Caribbean city. And its most rebellious, of course. All of our revolutions start in Santiago. I think it's because all of the people who live there are related in one way or another."
She twisted a cigarette into a little amber holder and lit it with a handsome silver Tallboy.
"For example, did you know that Omara is related to the man who looks after your boat in Santiago?"
I was beginning to see that there was some purpose behind Doña Marina's conversation, because it was not just Mr. Greene who was going to Haiti, it was me, too, only my trip was supposed to be a secret.
"No, I didn't." I glanced at my watch, but before I could make my excuses and leave, Doña Marina had ushered me into her private drawing room and was offering me a drink. And thinking that perhaps it was best that I listen to what she had to say, in view of her mentioning my boat, I replied that I'd take an añejo.
She fetched a bottle-aged rum and poured me a large one.
"Mr. Greene is also very fond of our Havana rum," she said.
"I think you'd better come to the point now," I said. "Don't you?"
And so she did.
Which is how it was that I came to have a girl in the passenger seat of my Chevy as, about a week later, I drove southwest along Cuba's central highway to Santiago, at the opposite end of the island. The irony of this experience did not escape me; in seeking to escape from being blackmailed by a secret policeman, I had managed to put myself in a position where a brothel madam who was much too clever to threaten me openly felt able to ask a favor that I hardly wanted to grant: to take a chica from another Havana casa with me on my "fishing trip" to Haiti. It was almost certain that Doña Marina knew Lieutenant Quevedo and knew he would have held a very dim view of my taking any kind of a boat trip; but I rather doubted she knew he had threatened to have me deported back to Germany, where I was wanted for murder, unless I agreed to spy on Meyer Lansky, the underworld boss, who was my employer. Either way, I had little choice but to accede to her request, although I could have felt a lot happier about my passenger. Melba Marrero was being sought by the police in connection with the murder of a police captain from the Ninth Precinct, and there were friends of Doña Marina who wanted Melba off the island of Cuba as quickly as possible.
Melba Marrero was in her early twenties, although she hardly liked anyone to know that. I suppose she wanted people to take her seriously and it's possible that this is why she had shot Captain Balart. But it's more likely that she had shot him because she was connected with Castro's communist rebels. She was coffee-colored with a fine gamine face, a belligerent chin, and a stormy-weather look in her dark eyes. Her hair was cut after the Italian fashionshort, layered locks with a few wispy curls combed forward across her face. She wore a plain white blouse, a pair of tight fawn trousers, a tan leather belt, and matching gloves. She looked like she was going riding on a horse that was probably looking forward to it.
"Why didn't you buy a convertible?" she asked when we were still a way short of Santa Clara, which was to be our first stop. "A convertible is better in Cuba."
"I don't like convertibles. People look at you more when you're driving a convertible. And I don't much like being looked at."
"So are you the shy type? Or are you just guilty about something?"
"Neither. Just private."
"Got a smoke?"
"There's a packet in the glove box."
She stabbed the lock on the lid with a finger and let it fall open in front of her.
"Old Gold. I don't like Old Gold."
"You don't like my car. You don't like my cigarettes. What do you like?"
"It doesn't matter."
I took a sideways glance at her. Her mouth always seemed to be on the edge of a snarl, an impression that was enhanced by the strong white teeth that filled it. Hard as I tried, I couldn't imagine anyone touching her without losing a finger. She sighed and, clasping her hands tightly, pushed them between her knees.
"So what's your story, Señor Hausner?"
"I don't have one."
She shrugged. "It's seven hundred miles to Santiago."
"Try reading a book." I knew she had one.
"Maybe I will." She opened her handbag and took out a pair of glasses and a book and started to read.
After a while, I managed to sneak a look at the title. She was reading How the Steel Was Tempered, by Nikolai Ostrovsky. I tried not to smile, but it was no good.
I nodded at the book on her lap. "I wouldn't have thought so."
"It's about someone who participated in the Russian Revolution."
"That's what I thought."
"So, what do you believe in?"
"That's not going to help anyone."
"As if that matters."
"In my book, the party of not much beats the party of brotherly love every time. The people and the proletariat don't need anyone's help. Certainly not yours or mine."
"I don't believe that."
"Oh, I'm sure. But it's funny, don't you think? Both of us running away to Haiti like this. You because you believe in something, and me because I believe in nothing at all."
"First it was not much you believed in. Now it's nothing at all. Marx and Engels were correct. The bourgeoisie does produce its own grave diggers."
"Well, we've established something," she said. "That you are running away."
"Yes. That's my story. If you're really interested, it's the same story as always. The Flying Dutchman. The Wandering Jew. There's been quite a bit of travel involved, one way or the other. I thought I was safe here in Cuba."
"No one is safe in Cuba," she said. "Not anymore."
"I was safe," I said, ignoring her. "Until I tried to play the hero. Only I forgot. I'm not the stuff of which heroes are made. Never was. Besides, the world doesn't want heroes. They're out of fashion, like last year's hemlines. What is now required are freedom fighters and informers. Well, I'm too old for the one and too scrupulous for the other."
"Some obnoxious lieutenant of military intelligence wanted to make me his spy, only there was something about it I didn't like."
"Then you're doing the right thing," said Melba. "There's no disgrace in not wanting to be a police spy."
"You almost make it sound like I'm doing something noble. It isn't that way at all."
"What way is it?"
"I don't want to be the coin in anyone's pocket. I had enough of that during the war. I prefer to roll around on my own. But that's just part of the reason. Spying is dangerous. It's especially dangerous when there's a good chance of being caught. But I daresay you know that by now."
"What did Marina tell you about me?"
"All she needed to. I kind of stopped listening after she said that you shot a cop. That pretty much brings the curtain down on the movie. My movie, anyway."
"You speak like you don't approve."
"Cops are the same as anyone else," I said. "Some good and some bad. I was a cop like that myself once. A long time ago."
"I did it for the Revolution," she said.
"I didn't imagine you did it for a coconut."
"He was a bastard and he had it coming, and I did it for"
"I know, you did it for the Revolution."
"Don't you think Cuba needs a revolution?"
"I won't deny that things could be better. But every revolution smokes well before it turns to ash. Yours will be like all the others that went before. I guarantee it."
Melba was shaking her pretty head, but warming to my subject, I kept on going: "Because when someone talks about building a better society, you can bet he's planning to use a couple of sticks of dynamite."
After that she remained silent and so did I.
We stopped for a while in Santa Clara. About 180 miles east of Havana, it was a picturesque, unremarkable little town with a central park faced by several old buildings and hotels. Melba went off by herself. I sat outside the Central Hotel and had lunch on my own, which suited me fine. When she reappeared, we set off again.
In the early evening we reached Camagüey, which was full of triangular houses and large earthenware jars filled with flowers. I didn't know why and it never occurred to me to ask. Parallel to the highway, a goods train moving in the opposite direction was loaded with timber cut from the region's many forests.
"We're stopping here," I announced.
"Surely it would be better to keep going."
"Can you drive?"
"Neither can I. Not anymore. I'm beat. It's another two hundred miles to Santiago, and if we don't stop soon we'll both wake up in the morgue."
Near a breweryone of the few on the islandwe passed a police car, which got me thinking again about Melba and the crime she had committed.
"If you shot a cop, then they must want you bad," I said.
"Very bad. They bombed the casa where I was working. Several other girls were killed or seriously injured."
"Which is why Doña Marina agreed to help get you out of Havana?" I nodded. "Yes, it makes sense now. When one casa gets bombed, it's bad for all of them. In which case it will be safer if we share a room. I'll say you're my wife. That way you won't have to show them your identity card."
"Look, Señor Hausner, I am grateful to you for taking me with you to Haiti. But there's one thing you should know. I only volunteered to play the part of a chica to get close to Captain Balart."
"I was wondering about that."
"I did it for the"
"The Revolution. I know. Listen, Melba, your virtue, if there is anything left of it, it's safe with me. I told you. I'm tired. I could sleep on a bonfire. But I'll settle for a chair or a sofa and you can have the bed."
She nodded. "Thank you, señor."
"And stop calling me that. My name is Carlos. Call me that. I'm supposed to be your husband, remember?"
We checked into the Gran Hotel in the center of town and went up to the room. I crawled straight to bed, which is to say I slept on the floor. During the summer of 1941 some of the floors that I slept on in Russia were the most comfortable beds I ever had, only this wasn't as comfortable. Then again, I wasn't nearly as exhausted as I'd been back then. About two o'clock in the morning I awoke to find her wrapped in a sheet and kneeling beside me.
"What is it?" I sat up and groaned with pain.
"I'm so scared," she said.
"What are you scared about?"
"You know what they'll do to me if they find me?"
Her nodding turned into a shiver.
"So what do you want from me? A bedtime story? Listen, Melba. In the morning I'll drive you to Santiago and we'll get on my boat, and by tomorrow night you'll be safely off in Haiti, all right? But now I'm trying to sleep. Only the mattress is a little too soft for me. So if you don't mind."
"Strangely enough," she said, "I don't mind. The bed is quite comfortable. And there's room for two."
This was certainly true. The bed was as big as a small farm with one goat. I was pretty sure about the goat because of the way she took me by the hand and led me over to the bed. There was something erotic and alluring about that; or maybe it was just the fact that she left the sheet on the floor. It was a hot night, of course, but that didn't bother me. I do some of my best thinking when I'm as naked as she was. I tried to picture myself asleep in that bed, only it didn't work because by now I'd seen what she had displayed in the window and I was about ready to press my nose up against the glass and take a better look. It wasn't that she wanted me. I can never figure why a woman wants a man at allnot when women look the way they do. It was just that she was young and scared and lonely and wanted someoneanyone would have done, probablyto hold her and make her feel like the world cared about her. I get like that myself sometimes: You're born alone and you die alone, and the rest of the time you're on your own.
By the time we got to Santiago the next day, the dark orchid of her head had been resting on my shoulder almost a hundred miles. We were behaving like any young courting couple when one of them happens to be more than twice as old as the other, who also happens to be a murderer. Perhaps that's a little unfair. Melba wasn't the only one of us who'd pulled the trigger on someone. I had some experience of murder myself. Quite a lot of experience, as it happens, only I hardly wanted to tell her about that. I was trying to keep my thoughts on what lay ahead of us. Sometimes the future seems a little dark and frightening, but the past is even worse. My past most of all. But now it was the very present danger of the Santiago police I was worried about. They had a reputation for brutality that was probably well deserved and easily explained by the truth of Doña Marina's remark that all of Cuba's revolutions got started in Santiago. It was impossible to imagine much else that got started there. A start implied some activity, movement, or even work, and there wasn't much sign of any of these tiring nouns on the sleepy streets of Santiago. Ladders stood around idle and alone, wheelbarrows sat unattended, horses kicked their heels, boats bobbed in the harbor, and fishing nets lay drying in the sun. About the only people who appeared to be working were the cops, if you could call it work. Parked up in the shade of the city's pastel-colored buildings, they sat smoking cigarettes and waiting for things to cool down or warm up, depending on how you looked at it. Probably it was too hot and sunny for trouble. The sky was too blue and the cars were too shiny; the sea was too much like glass and the banana leaves were too glossy; the statues were too white and the shadows too short. Even the coconuts were wearing sunglasses.
After a couple of wrong turns I spotted the coaling station of Cincoreales that was a landmark for finding my way around the shantytown of boatyards, booms, quays, pontoons, dry docks, and slipways that serviced the flotilla of boats in Santiago Bay. I pointed the car down a steep, cobbled hill and along a narrow street. Heavy brackets for trams that were no longer running hung over our heads like the rigging of a schooner that had long ago sailed without it. I steered onto the sidewalk in front of an open set of double doors and peered down into a boatyard.
A bearded, weather-beaten man wearing shorts and sandals was maneuvering a boat that hung from an ancient-looking crane. I didn't mind when the boat clunked against the harbor wall and then hit the water like a bar of soap. But then, it wasn't my boat.
We got out of the Chevy. I fetched Melba's suitcase from the trunk and carried it into the yard, stepping carefully around or over tins of paint, buckets, lengths of rope and hose line, pieces of wood, old tires, and oil cans. The office in a little wooden hut at the back was no less of a shambles than the yard. Mendy wasn't about to win the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval anytime soon, but he knew boats, and since I knew them hardly at all, this was just as well.
Once, a long time ago, Mendy had been white. But a lifetime on and by the sea had turned the part of his face that wasn't covered by a salt-and-pepper beard to the color and texture of an old baseball mitt. He belonged in a hammock on some pirate ship bound for Hispaniola, with a hornpipe in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other. He finished what he was doing and didn't seem to notice me until the crane was out of the way, and even then all he said was "Señor Hausner."
I nodded back at him. "Mendy."
He fetched a half-smoked cigar from the breast pocket of his grubby shirt and plugged it into a space between his beard and his mustache and spent the next few minutes while we talked patting himself down for a light.
"Mendy, this is Señorita Otero. She's coming on the boat with me. I told her it was just a crummy fishing boatonly she and her suitcase appear to be under the illusion that we're going sailing on the Queen Mary."
Mendy's eyes flicked between Melba and me as if he had been watching a game of table tennis. Then he smiled at her and said, "But the senõrita is absolutely right, Señor Hausner. The first rule of going to sea is to be prepared for absolutely anything."
"Thank you," said Melba. "That's what I said."
Mendy looked at me and shook his head. "Clearly, you know nothing about women, senõr," he said.
"About as much as I know about boats," I said.
Mendy chuckled. "For your sake, I hope it's a little more than that."
He led the way out of the boatyard and down to the L-shaped pontoon, where a wooden launch was moored. We stepped aboard and sat down. Mendy tugged a motor into life and then steered us out into the bay. Five minutes later, we were tying up alongside a thirty-five-foot wooden sport fishing boat.
La Guajaba was narrow, with a broad stern, a bridge, and three compartments. There were two Chrysler engines, each producing about ninety horsepower, giving the boat a top speed of about nine knots. And that was more or less everything I knew about her other than where I kept the brandy and the glasses. I'd won the boat in a game of backgammon from an American who owned the Bimini Bar on Obispo Street. With a full tank of fuel La Guajaba had a range of about five hundred miles, and it was less than half that to Port-au-Prince. I'd used the boat about three times in as many years, and what I didn't know about boats would have filled several nautical almanacs, possibly all of them. But I knew how to use a compass, and I figured all I needed to do was point the bow east and then, according to the Thor Heyerdahl principle of navigation, keep going until we hit something. I couldn't see how what we hit wouldn't be the island of Hispaniola; after all, there were thirty thousand square miles of it to aim at.
I handed Mendy a fistful of cash and my car keys and then climbed aboard. I'd thought about mentioning Omara and how it might have been better for me if he had kept his mouth shut, only there didn't seem to be much point. It would have risked incurring some of the brutal candor for which Cubans are justly famous, and doubtless he would have told me that I was just another gringo with too much money and unworthy of the boat I owned, which would have been true: If you make yourself like sugar, the ants will eat you.
As soon as we were under way, Melba went below and put on a two-piece swimsuit with a leopard-skin print that would have made a mackerel whistle. That's the nice thing about boats and warm weather. They bring out the best in people. Beneath the battlements of Morro Castle, which stands on the summit of a two-hundred-foot-high rock promontory, the harbor entrance is almost as wide. A long flight of crumbling steps, hewn out of the rock, leads up from the water's edge to the castle, and I almost made the boat try to climb them. Two hundred feet of open sea to aim at and I still managed to nearly put us on the rocks. So long as I was looking at Melba, it wasn't looking good for our chances of hitting Haiti.
"I wish you'd put some clothes on," I said.
"Don't you like my bikini?"
"I like it fine. But there's a good reason Columbus didn't take women with him on the Santa Maria. When they're wearing bikinis they affect the ship's steering. With you around, they'd probably have discovered Tasmania."
She lit a cigarette and ignored me, and I did my best to ignore her back. I checked the tachometer, the oil level, the ammeter, and the motor temperature. Then I glanced out of the wheelhouse window. Smith Key, a small island once held by the British, lay ahead of us. It was home to many of Santiago's fishing folk and pilots, and its red-tiled houses and small ruined chapel made it look very picturesque. But it wasn't much next to the scene in Melba's bikini pants.
The sea was calm until we reached the mouth of the harbor, where the water started to swell a bit. I pushed the throttle forward and held the boat on a steady east-southeast course until Santiago was no longer visible. Behind us the boat's wake unzipped a great white scar in the ocean that was hundreds of feet long. Melba sat in the fisherman's chair and squealed with excitement as our speed increased.
"Can you believe it?" said Melba. "I live on an island and I've never been on a boat before."
"I'll be glad when we're off this tub," I said, and fetched a bottle of rum from the chart drawer.
After about three or four hours it got dark and I could see the lights of the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, twinkling on our port side. It was like staring at the ancient stars of some near galaxy that was at the same time a vision of the future in which American democracy ruled the world with a Colt in one hand and a stick of chewing gum in the other. Somewhere in the tropical darkness of that Yankee littoral thousands of men in white suits were engaged in the meaningless routines of their oceangoing, imperial service. In response to the cold imperative of new enemies and new victories they sat inside their floating, steel-gray cities of death, drinking Coca-Cola, smoking their Lucky Strikes, and preparing to free the rest of the world from its unreasonable desire to be different. Because Americans and not Germans were now the master race and Uncle Sam had replaced Hitler and Stalin as the face of the new empire.
Melba saw my lip curl and must have read my mind. "I hate them," she said.
"Who? The yanquis?"
"Who else? Our good neighbors have always wanted to make this island one of their United States. And but for them Batista could never have remained in power."
I couldn't argue with her. Especially now that we'd spent the night together. Especially now that I was planning to do the same again, just as soon as we were installed in a nice hotel. I'd heard that Le Refuge in the holiday resort of Kenscoff, six miles outside of Port-au-Prince, might be just the kind of place I was looking for. Kenscoff is four thousand feet above sea level and the climate there is fine all year round. Which is almost as long as I was planning to stay. Of course, Haiti had its problems, just like Cuba, but they weren't my problems. So what did I care? I had other things to worry about, such as what I was going to do when my Argentine passport expired. And now there was the small problem of taking a small boat safely through the Windward Passage. I probably shouldn't have been drinking, but even with La Guajaba's running lights there was something about driving a boat across the sea in darkness that I found unnerving. And fearing that we might hit somethinga reef, or a whaleI knew I wouldn't be able to relax until it was light again, by which time I hoped we would be halfway across the ocean to Hispaniola.
And then there was something more tangible to worry about. Another vessel was approaching quickly from the north. It was moving too fast to be a fishing boat, and the big searchlight picking us out of the darkness was too powerful for it to belong to anything but a U.S. Navy patrol boat.
"Who are they?" asked Melba.
"The American navy, I imagine."
Even above our twin Chrysler engines I heard Melba swallow. She still looked beautiful, only now she looked worried as well. She turned suddenly and stared at me with wide brown eyes.
"What are we going to do?"
"Nothing," I said. "That boat can probably outrun us and certainly outgun us. The best thing you can do is go below, climb into bed, and stay there. I'll handle things up here."
She shook her head. "I won't let them arrest me," she said. "They'd hand me over to the police and"
"No one's going to arrest you," I said, touching her cheek in an effort to reassure her. "My guess is that they're just going to look us over. So do as I say and we'll be okay."
I throttled back and put the gearshift in neutral. When I came out of the wheelhouse, the blinding searchlight was in my face. I felt like a giant gorilla on a skyscraper with the patrol boat circling
me at a distance. I went to the gently pitching stern, had another drink, and coolly awaited their pleasure.
A minute passed and then an officer wearing whites came to the starboard side of the gunboat with a bullhorn in his hand.
"We're looking for some sailors," he said, speaking to me in Spanish. "They stole a boat from the harbor at Caimanera. A boat like this one."
I threw my hands up and shook my head. "There are no American sailors on this boat."
"Mind if we come aboard and take a look for ourselves?"
Minding very much, I told the American officer I didn't mind at all. There seemed to be little point in arguing. A sailor manning a fifty-caliber machine gun on the foredeck of the American boat had the best way of winning an argument I could think of. So I threw them a line, put out some fenders, and let them tie up alongside La Guajaba. The officer came aboard with one of his NCOs. There wasn't much you could say about either of them except that their shoes were black and they looked the way all men look when you take away most of their hair and their capacity for independent action. They were carrying side-arms, a couple of flashlights, and a vague smell of mint and tobacco, as if they'd just disposed of their gum and their cigarettes.
"Anyone else on board?"
"I have a lady friend in the forward cabin," I said. "She's asleep. On her own. The last American sailor we saw was Popeye."
The officer smiled a wry smile and bounced a little on the balls of his feet. "Mind if we take a look for ourselves?"
"I don't mind at all. But just let me see if my lady friend is dressed to receive visitors."
He nodded, and I went forward and below. The damp-smelling cabin had a closet, a little cabinet, and a double berth containing Melba with a blanket drawn up to her neck. Underneath she was still wearing the bikini, and I promised myself to drop anchor when the Amis were gone and help her take it off. There's nothing like sea air to give you an appetite.
"What's going on?" she asked fearfully. "What do they want?"
"Some American sailors stole a boat from Caimanera," I explained. "They're looking for them. I don't think there's anything really to worry about."
She rolled her eyes. "Caimanera. Yes, I can imagine what they were doing there, the pigs. Just about every hotel in Caimanera is a brothel. The casas even have patriotic American names, like the Roosevelt Hotel. The bastards."
I might have wondered how she knew this, but I was rather more concerned with satisfying their curiosity than the small matter of how they satisfied their sexual desires. "It's what Eisenhower calls the domino effect. When some guys lay one down they like to make a big show of it." I jabbed my thumb back at the cabin door. "Look, they're outside. They just want to check their men aren't hiding under the bed or anything. I said they could as soon as I checked you were decent."
"That's going to take a lot more time than might seem reasonable." She shrugged. "You'd better show them in anyway."
I went back up on deck and nodded them below.
They shuffled in through the cabin door, their faces pink with embarrassment when they saw Melba still in bed, and if I hadn't been enjoying that, I might not have noticed the NCO lay his eyes on her and then lay them on her again, only the second time wasn't for the obvious reason, that she belonged in a picture on a bulkhead above his hammock. These two had met before. I was sure of that and so was he, and when the Amis came back to the wheelhouse, the NCO drew his officer aside and said something quietly.
When their conversation became a little more urgent, I might have got involved but for the fact that the officer unbuttoned the holster of his sidearm, which prompted me to go to the stern and sit in the fisherman's chair. I think I even smiled at the man on the fifty-caliber, only the fisherman's chair looked and felt too much like an electric chair for my liking, so I moved again and sat down on the icebox, which had room for two thousand pounds of ice. I was trying to appear cool. If there had been any fish or any ice in the box, I might even have climbed in beside them. Instead, I took another bite from the bottle and did my best to keep a grip on the thin line holding my nerves. But it wasn't working. The Amis had a hook in my mouth, and I felt like jumping thirty feet into the air just to try and get it out.
When the officer came back to the stern he was carrying a Colt .45 automatic in his hand. It was cocked, too. It wasn't pointed at me yet. It was just there to help make a point: that there was no room on the boat for negotiation.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you both to accompany me back to Guantánamo, sir," he said politely, almost as if there wasn't a gun in his hand at all and like a true American.
I nodded slowly. "May I ask why?"
"It will all be explained when we get to Gitmo," he said.
"If you really think it's necessary."
He waved two sailors to come aboard my boat, and it was just as well he did, because both of them were between me and the machine gun when we heard a pistol shot from the forward compartment. I jumped up and then thought better of jumping any more.
"Watch him," yelled the officer, and went below to investigate, leaving me with two Colts pointed at my belly and the fifty-caliber pointed at my earlobe. I sat down again on the fisherman's chair, which creaked like a chain saw as I leaned all the way back and stared up at the stars. You didn't need to be Madame Blavatsky to see that they weren't looking good. Not for Melba. And probably not for me.
As things turned out, the stars weren't good for the American NCO either. He staggered up on deck looking like the ace of diamonds, or perhaps the ace of hearts. In the center of his white shirt was a small red stain that grew larger the longer you looked at it. For a moment he swayed drunkenly, and then dropped heavily onto his backside. In a way he looked the way I was feeling now.
"I'm shot," he said redundantly.
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