Idlewild Airport, New York City
The red jacketed barkeep in the cocktail lounge is giving me the same sort of less than friendly look-over that I got from the airline’s ticket clerk, pert and pretty in her blue uniform and cute little cap. But here in the cocktail lounge, just like at the ticket counter, money talks, so my cash for a first class ticket and a big tip for my tumbler of Chivas scotch—neat—put those nasty look-overs back into their eye sockets. It didn’t hurt my feelings much that the pretty ticket clerk still didn’t like me, still cringed at the sight of a dame in a gentleman’s suit. And I don’t care that the barkeep isn’t any chummier when he pours me another, even takes his time wiping the spillover on the bar. The clerk gave me my plane ticket and checked my luggage, and the barkeep pours my scotch, and that’s all I give a damn about right now. The two of them can enjoy their contempt in peace. I didn’t give any lip to the ticket clerk and I won’t slap the barkeep around. I won’t do anything that would cause a scene, disturb the other patrons in the cocktail lounge, and bring a bouncer—or worse, a cop—my way and jeopardize my getting on the midnight plane to Havana.
I’ve got an envelope stuffed with cash in my inside jacket pocket, the kind of cash I’ll need to open tight lips. The cash is comforting, though not as comforting as a photo I pull from that same pocket, look at it while I quietly sip my scotch. The photo came from my office, where it sat in the safe for over three years because it hurt too much to keep it on my desk and see it every day. It’s a picture of happiness, of two people in love. The beautiful woman with long, dark, tousled hair and zest in her eyes is Sophie de la Luna y Sol, my Sophie of the Moon and the Sun. The grinning idiot next to her is me.
I’ve never loved anyone like I love Sophie, will always love her. From our very first night together to our very last morning six months later, my heart, my soul, were hers. I’d even considered giving up my racket—I steal art and other treasures and smuggle them into the Port of New York—if that’s what Sophie wanted. If she’d wanted a country cottage with a white picket fence, I’d have chucked my big city ways and lived a peasant’s life in the sticks. If she’d wanted a palace or a Park Avenue penthouse, I’d have given her those, too. Hell, I would’ve climbed the Empire State Building to grab the stars right out of the sky, used them as jewels for her sparkling crown.
I’ve waited a long time for this night, three and a half years of hope and misery, of false leads and no leads, since the night Sophie was grabbed off the street and forced onto a flesh boat that took her away. Years of lousy sleep and empty days, full of rage for what she’s been forced to do, forced to be, and me helpless to do anything about it.
Until today. Until I finally got the goods on that flesh boat and where it went.
Three and a half cold years. That’s how long I waited for Sig Loreale to make good on a promise he never kept, a promise to get a line on that boat and where it took Sophie, because if anyone could get the story, it would be Sig. His underworld web stretches from the docks of New York to the docks of California and beyond. And besides, he owed me a couple of favors. Big favors. Favors he welched on.
So when a deal for the information on Sophie’s whereabouts showed up at my door, I jumped at the chance to pay the high price of ten grand to get it. A business deal is more reliable than a favor anyway, a lesson I learned long ago from the tough old lady who came to my door today wearing mink and sensible shoes, sat her ample body down in a big chair in my living room, and gave me the name of the boat—the Belle Caribe—and where it took Sophie. That old lady is Esther “Mom” Sheinbaum, the Lower East Side’s Empress of Crime, for over fifty years the city’s top fence of stolen swag, often including mine. Mom’s got her own contacts on the docks and in the precincts, maybe not as wide afield as Sig’s but enough to learn that the boat sailed to Havana. But that’s all Mom had. Just the town. Not the street. Not the house. But I’ll find it. I’ll pay off or kill off whoever I need to if it helps me find Sophie.
Another scotch eases these thoughts, helps squelch my rage so I can think clearly about what to do when I get to Havana. The first thing I’ll do is go see a guy I telegrammed on my way to the airport, a guy who’s moved goods for me—
“Forget about your drink, Gold,” comes a gruff voice from a bulldog-faced lug in a big gray overcoat and low slung fedora who’s suddenly on one side of me, taking my coat from the next barstool and shoving it at me. On the other side of me, a potato-faced lug in another big coat and a hat pulled low says, “Put your coat on. Mr. Loreale wants to see ya.”
I slip the photo back into my pocket. It’s not for these mugs’ cheapjack eyes. “Why am I not surprised you boys are here,” I say, once again face-to-face with the fact that there’s nothing on this earth Sig Loreale doesn’t know. His tipsters, killers, flunkies, and thugs keep him up to date on everything that goes on in the underworld, and since I’m part of that world, it’s a sure bet he knows what goes on with me.
Or maybe Mom Sheinbaum tipped him off. Who the hell knows? True, she’s no fan of Sig’s, wasn’t crazy about it when her daughter, Opal, took up with him instead of some square jawed American dreamboat Mom groomed her for. And when Opal was killed, Mom never forgave Sig for dragging her precious American-born bundle of joy back into the crime world and to her death. But Mom does what’s best for Mom, and now that my ten Gs are tucked away in her handbag, if chummy-ing up to New York’s most powerful crime lord has something in it for her, she wouldn’t bat an eye to betray me. She might even tell him I’ve stopped waiting for him to make good on his broken promise to help find Sophie. It wouldn’t be the first time Mom’s betrayed me, business deal or no business deal.
Or maybe it wasn’t Mom at all. I’m in a tough racket, and there’s no end of louses who’d sell me out for a buck, a bribe, or just the sheer hell of it.
But it’s Sig’s thugs I’m faced with now. “Listen, fellas, I’ve got a plane to catch. Tell Sig I’m not missing my flight just to go all the way back to the city to chitchat with him. Tell him I’ll call him from Havana. He can say whatever he has to say to me over the phone.”
The bulldog-faced lug on my right says, “You ain’t goin’ to his place. You’re just goin’ outside to the curb.” The next thing I know, the guy grabs my coat from my hands, throws it around my shoulders, and says through an ugly sneer across his big, tobacco stained teeth, “It’s cold outside. Wouldn’t want you to catch the sniffles.” He has all the sincerity of someone who wouldn’t mind if I died of plague.
I’ve suddenly got a hammy hand under each arm and I’m lifted off my barstool.
The barkeep grins, enjoying what he’s sure is my comeuppance. For the first time tonight I really do wish I could slap him around, because even if I flashed hundred-dollar bills at him, it wouldn’t wipe that smug smile off his face.
I tell the lugs on either side of me, “Thanks anyway, but I can get outside on my own. I don’t need training wheels.”
But they don’t let go. I’m sure Sig told them not to. So they pull me across the cocktail lounge, to the bewilderment of the other patrons, ladies and gentlemen on sofas and at little tables, everyone smart enough to look away and just keep sipping their martinis.
Outside, Sig’s big black Cadillac idles at the curb, the polished body and heavy chrome reflecting the thugs dragging me out of the terminal. The car’s curves contort the three of us into shapes I used to laugh at in the fun house mirrors of my Coney Island childhood. But what’s waiting for me inside that car is no fun house.
One of the thugs opens the rear door. The other guy pushes me into the back seat.
It’s warm inside the car, and dark except for a small overhead light that shines on the black homburg shadowing the fleshy face of the man in a big black coat seated next to me.
“Cantor,” he says, accenting each syllable in that slow, threatening way of his. Sig’s carefully articulated speech has been giving me the heebie-jeebies since I was a tomboy kid and Sig was muscling his way into the Coney Island rackets. I’ve learned to control my urge to cringe whenever he opens his mouth. It’s safer. “It was not necessary to sneak out of town,” he says with as much threat between the words as in the words themselves. “I would not have stopped you from going.”
“What do you call this curbside kidnap? Bon voyage and drop me a postcard?”
That actually gets a small laugh from the guy, if you can call that creepy, open-mouthed-but-silent chuckle a laugh. “Don’t worry, Cantor,” he says after the laugh. “You will not miss your plane.” He says it with such certainty, I get the feeling he’s already made arrangements with the tower to hold the flight. He can do it. He’s got the airport officials and the unions that run the place by the throat. “I want you on that plane, Cantor. Now that you’ve decided to go to Havana—”
“No thanks to you,” I say. “You made a promise to me, Sig. You knew you owed me a favor, a helluva big favor—two, as a matter of fact, for finding the person responsible for Opal’s death, and handing you a work of art which should have gone to someone else—and in return you were going to get a line on the flesh boat that took Sophie. But you lied.” By throwing his lies at him I’ve just dropped my life into his cold lap. But years of pent-up fury is finally oozing out, and I can’t stop it even if I want to. And I don’t want to. “The world was too big to find one little boat, you said. Well, what you couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do in all that time, it seems Mom took care of with a few hours’ worth of phone calls. So I don’t owe you any favors, Sig. Not anymore. Now if you don’t mind, I really dohave a plane to catch.” I move to get out of the car, but the lug outside has other ideas and keeps his meaty hand against the door. I’m not going anywhere until Sig says so.
I guess he really does want me on that plane, because I’m still alive despite my little outburst. After a silence that feels longer than a prison stretch but shorter than death, he says, “I did not lie to you, Cantor. I wanted to get you more accurate information, not just the name of the town. And now you’re going to Havana”—there’s a subtle sneer on his fleshy lips, barely visible in the shadowy light of the car but razor sharp with ridicule—“where you’ll have to pull back the covers of every bed in every brothel, with many dangerous people trying to stop you. You should have waited for me, Cantor. I wanted to make it easier for you, but you have no patience. In all these years, since you were a kid doing mischief under the boardwalk, I have not been able to teach you patience.”
I can do without the lecture. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind, Sig.”
He reaches into his inside pocket, pulls out a sealed envelope. His movements, as slow and deliberate as the way he speaks, have the tempo of a dirge. “I want you to give this to someone.”
“Why don’t you just call them on the telephone? They’ll get the information faster. You don’t need me to run your errands.”
“You should know better, Cantor,” he says like he’s scolding a kid who doesn’t listen. “Telephones can be bugged. I do not trust the telephone lines in Havana at this time. And there is violence brewing all over Cuba. The Havana men doing our business down there are having difficulty keeping certain factions under control.” He hands me the envelope but keeps his fingers on it. “It is understood you are not to open this.”
I give him a nod, the kind that lets him know I’m not stupid.
He finally releases the envelope. “The man you are to give this to lives in a penthouse suite on the eighth floor at the Hotel Nacional. He is expecting you. And he can be of help to you, too, Cantor. He knows quite a bit about what goes on in Havana.”
That’s the first helpful thing Sig’s said to me in years.
He turns off the overhead light, a signal for his thug to open my door. In near darkness, with just the light of the terminal seeping into the Caddy, he says, “I believe you have a plane to catch, Cantor.”
The Hotel Nacional is a landmark spot—in more ways than one—above Havana’s seaside promenade, the Malecón. But I’m checked in to another joint, a little less flashy but a lot more convenient, at least for what I came here to do. I’m in the Plaza Hotel in the Habana Vieja neighborhood, Old Havana. The Plaza’s a nice place, lots of history, with that wedding cake Baroque architecture the colonial Spanish brought with them. The architecture’s pretty, but it’s the location I’m crazy about, convenient to Havana’s Colón Quarter and its red-light district. I’ll prowl the Colón’s every house and room, from the fancy to the fleabag if I have to, to find Sophie. And if some pimp or madam or whoever’s got her tries to stop me, I’ll kill them.
But maybe Sig’s Cuban Señor Big Shot at the Hotel Nacional can help me cut through all that. So after a shower to wash off the staleness of five hours on a plane, a change of clothes into a linen suit of eggshell white and a crisp panama hat—the necessary duds for Cuba’s tropical climate, even in January—a bite of breakfast, and strong Cuban coffee, I’m in a cab on my way to the other side of town. Sig’s envelope is in my inside jacket pocket. So is the envelope of cash. So is the photograph of Sophie and me.
Depending on how you live life, Havana in the early morning is either a sweetly scented princess just waking, or a fleshy, perfumed harlot staggering home after a long night. It’s been ten years since I was last here, during the wild smuggling days early in the Second World War, but the town still seems to have those two personalities, their aromas—one delicate as fresh flowers, the other heavy as overripe fruit—alternating on the breeze through the open windows of the cab.
The city’s seaside boulevard hasn’t changed much, at least where it runs along the edge of Central Havana, except there are fewer American sailors stumbling around after all night wartime binges. It’s mostly Habaneros out here this morning, sleepy men and women on their way to work, shopkeepers getting ready to open, and a good number of local shufflers still getting over the night before. It’s a crowd whose skins tell Cuba’s history; the brown of the native Taino; the white of the Spanish conquistadors and their plantation owning descendants; the black of the slave trade; and all the tones resulting from all the couplings across the centuries. The morning sun seems to adore every one of them.
The morning sun still loves the sea and the street, too. The light on the Caribbean waters is the same pink it was ten years ago. The reflection throws a fairy-tale glow on the pretty if a bit tawdry little buildings lining this end of the Malecón, which has always reminded me of a movie set ready for Rudolph Valentino’s Latin Lover period. But the old Malecón changes the closer we get to the Hotel Nacional in the Vedado district, one of Havana’s moneyed parts of town. There’s a lot less peeling paint.
The Nacional sits on a bluff overlooking the sea on one side and the villas and grand apartment houses of the Vedado on the other. My cabbie swings us off the Malecón and up the bluff to the hotel’s entry drive, a two lane affair with a line of tall palm trees down the center, their fronds swaying like tropical traffic cops directing all the comings and goings. The hotel’s arched entry and two arched and red-tiled towers give the place the feel of a gigantic Renaissance villa, the perfect touch of class to satisfy the hotel’s champagne cocktail clientele. But like most classy things, there’s darkness at its core, giving the hotel’s polished reputation a smokier patina.
The darkness in the Nacional’s story is an epic that stamped the place as a gangster landmark. During Christmas week of 1946, the American Mob’s biggest big shots assembled here to divvy up Cuba’s moneymaking activities for their own profit, with the support of a Cuban government whose higher-ups would take their own cut. With the war over and plenty of tourist money flowing again, the plan went into full swing. These days, the Mob’s hired hands shuffle the decks at the newer casinos, choreograph the splashy shows at the nightspots, carve the roast beef at the restaurants, pour the rum at the cafés and saloons, and host the tourists and junketeers at the hotels they’ve either built or are taking over. The boys are muscling in on a country. What they’re planning is a Caribbean empire, one island at a time. And Sig’s fingerprints are among the other big shots’ whose thumbs are all over it, as surely as his fingerprints are on his envelope in my pocket.
Of the two penthouse suites on the eighth floor, I don’t have to guess which door leads to the suite where I’m expected. As soon as I step off the elevator, I see two tough customers—why do these guys always come in pairs?—standing guard on either side of a door at one end of the hall. These two aren’t as thuggish as Sig’s airport lugs. They seem more stony than meaty. The guy on the left could pass as the hotel’s house detective, leather-faced and cold-eyed, but the house dick would probably be wearing a wrinkled suit and scuffed shoes, not a natty pale green double-breasted number and brown-and-white wingtips. The guy on the right looks like a politician’s bodyguard, his conservative beige suit keeping him low key in a Havana crowd, his hard gray eyes alert for trouble.
I take off my panama as a show of courtesy, run my hand through my always unruly crop of short brown hair—it’s been compared to everything from an old broom to a tangled mop, but Sophie loved it, said it made me look charmingly naughty—and say, “Buenos días, señores. Me llamo Cantor Gold,” trotting out my limited Spanish.
The gray-eyed, beige-suited guy on the right says, “And my name’s Santa Claus,” in an accent right out of Flatbush. “Whaddya want?”
Actually, I want to thank the guy for relieving me of any lingo gymnastics, but he doesn’t seem like the joking type, so all I say is, “I’m expected.”
Both boys look me over as if I’m a disease carrying insect they’d like to step on.
I’ve seen that look so many times in my life—y’know, the go-put-a-skirt-on look, most recently back at Idlewild Airport—it’s getting boring. Last night it was annoying. Today I simply sigh at the unoriginality of humankind.
“Look,” I say, “I have something for your Señor Big Shot, something that came all the way from the big shot in New York.”
Snappy Dresser in Wingtips extends his hand, says, “Give it to me. I’ll deliver it.”
“Nope. The envelope’s sealed, the contents confidential. I’m not about it give it to any old Ike and Mike.”
Now it’s Politician’s Bodyguard who pipes up. “Yeah? On whose say-so?”
There are names that earn smiles, names that get you a good table at a restaurant or front row seats at the theater, but mention Sig’s name and even tough guys suddenly get polite.
Snappy Dresser turns to the door, raises his hand to knock, but stops and says to me over his shoulder, “What you say your name was again?”
He knocks, and when the door opens partway, he says to someone I can’t see, “Got a—I’m not sure what the hell she is, but says her name is Cantor Gold and that she’s here from Loreale in New York.”
The guy I can’t see says, “Yeah, let her in. She’s expected.”
I give the boys a smile as I walk past them and into the suite’s vestibule. “I’ll put in a good word for you with your señor,” I say, “tell him you were on the job.”
The boys aren’t amused.
The guy I couldn’t see turns out to be another well-dressed Yank, this one in a gray sharkskin suit with a small white carnation in his lapel. His dark hair’s barbered to perfection, his blue eyes set in a chiseled face that’s Hollywood handsome with an expression that tells me he’s in love with himself.
He says through a smile full of his inevitably perfect white teeth, “I’ll have to take your piece.”
“I’m not carrying,” I say and open my suit jacket to prove it.
I take out my keys, spare change, and a small penknife from my pants pockets, but Mr. Hollywood’s not satisfied. He makes a move to search my inside jacket pockets, but my hands are up fast, push his well-manicured paws away. “Keep your hands to yourself, bucko. I said I’m not carrying and I meant it.”
“That penknife could do some damage.”
“Only if your boss tries to use it as a toothpick. Listen, Loreale sent me here to do business with your Señor Big Shot, and I’m not stupid enough to cross either of them. Are you?”
That stops him, though he’s not happy about it. The graceful mouth tightens into a childish pucker, the dreamboat blue eyes narrow in a bully’s defeat, but he nods that I can put my stuff away. As I start to walk out of the vestibule, he grabs my arm, taking one more shot at being the ape in charge. “Pants cuffs, lift ’em.”
I do it with a smile, showing off that I don’t have a gun strapped to my ankle or a shiv tucked into my sock.
It’s a good thing there’s no mirror in the vestibule; the way the guy’s rubbery sneer uglies up his pretty face he’d probably faint. The idea strikes me so funny I have to squelch a laugh as I walk into the living room.
The living room’s big, bright, with a couch and chairs covered in palm-frond-patterned upholstery and tropical lemony peach walls hung with decent Cuban landscape paintings. But the only thing grabbing my attention is the well-groomed middle-aged man eating breakfast at a white-cloth’d table near the open sliding door to the terrace, the gentle breeze barely disturbing his brown hair, well-trimmed and combed back. His cream colored suit is impeccably tailored, his powder-blue tie with a cream pinstripe knotted perfectly against a crisp white shirt. He’s not a Cuban Señor Big Shot. He’s an American New York Big Shot. He’s not tall—he’s actually rather short, which got him the nickname Little Man. But there’s enough power and influence in that small package to make governments tremble. At least, the Cuban government does. And from time to time, so has Uncle Sam.
He sees me, waves me over to the table, greeting me with a disconcertingly impish smile, eyes crinkled, mouth curving into a V in a face right out of the Lower East Side. It’s leathery and tough with bushy brows over almond shaped eyes alert to everything, curious about everyone, and with a glimmer of humor peeking through their ice-cold assessment of it all.
“Have some breakfast?” he says through that smile, sweeping his hand across the spread of fruit, eggs, toast, and a silver pot of coffee. He nods for me to take the chair opposite his.
I toss my hat on the couch on my way to the table. “No, thanks, I’ve had my breakfast,” I say, sitting down. I’ve just said no to a legend, to the man who set up that mobster gathering in ’46, the man who’s the brains behind the takeover of every cash operation in Cuba. I’ve just said no to Meyer Lansky.
“So, Cantor—you don’t mind if I call you Cantor?”
“Not at all, just as long as I can keep calling you Mr. Lansky.”
His smile, less impish—though the humor’s not altogether gone—is comfortably grateful, the smile of someone accustomed to respect, expects it, but isn’t puffed up by it and is even appreciative of those who give it. Whatever power and danger are in the man—and there’s plenty, as much or more as Sig’s—the threat is blunted by the charm of that smile.
“Cantor,” he says, as if examining the syllables. “Interesting name.” He says it like he’s inviting me to eat a slice of cake at his kid’s Bar Mitzvah.
But after he takes a sip of coffee his smile fades. It doesn’t go away, it just has less sparkle. It’s the kind of smile that announces it’s time to get down to business. “I believe you have something for me from our mutual friend in New York?”
I take the envelope from my jacket pocket, hand it across the table to Lansky. He opens it, takes a folded letter out, and as he reads, he purses his lips slightly, nods with what seems to be approval, then gives the whole thing a Lower East Side shrug, full of acceptance of life’s fate.
He folds the letter back into the envelope and places it on the table. He’s smiling again. I get the feeling he enjoys smiling. Well, I guess there’s no law that says a big shot gangster can’t have fun. They don’t all have to be as cold as Sig.
“So, what brings you to Havana?” he says. “I’m sure you didn’t come all this way just to deliver my mail.”
I thought he’d never ask.
I take the photo of Sophie and me from my jacket pocket, look at it a moment, remember the morning it was taken when we were silly with love and lusty as wild animals after our first night together, before I turn the picture around and show it to Lansky. “The woman with me was nabbed off the street in New York in March of ’48. She was forced onto a flesh boat, the Belle Caribe. I found out just yesterday that it sailed here. I’m looking for this woman.”
Lansky takes the photo, his eyebrows subtly rising as he absorbs the relationship between Sophie and me. I’m not crazy about the picture being out of my hands, but I’m not about to tell the most powerful guy in Havana, a guy who has a bodyguard in the vestibule and two more lugs outside the door, to give it back or else. Sure, Lansky likes to smile a lot, even seems to be a personable guy, but getting on his bad side is a lousy idea. Just ask the ghost of Bugsy Siegel.
“You look happy in this photograph, Cantor. So does the woman,” he says, handing the picture back to me. “You know, I’ve never understood your kind, how you can do what you do. The faygelehboys, or the bulls like you. It makes no sense to me. I don’t think it’s”—he wrinkles his nose as if he’s just smelled something rotten—“kosher. But who am I to judge?” he adds with a shrug, the look on his face easygoing again. “There are plenty of people who don’t like me and my kind, either. When they couldn’t send us back to the shtetl, they tried sending us to the ovens. But the hell with them, right?” The sparkle, the dangerous fun, is back in his eyes.
“Look, Mr. Lansky, I’ll come right out with it. I’d like any help you can give me in finding Sophie. That’s her name, Sophie de la Luna y Sol. You’re the guy who knows everybody and everything in Havana.”
He leans back in his chair, pours himself a fresh cup of coffee, takes a sip, then says, “You think she’s still alive?”
It’s the question I wish he hadn’t asked. I’ve never dared touch that question, never let myself get anywhere near it. “I’m counting on it,” is all I say.
Lansky keeps his eyes on me. “And you think she’s still in one of the brothels?”
“Mm-hm,” comes out more grunt than sound, my throat suddenly dry as dead wood.
He says, “You know, locating her might not be as easy for me as you obviously think, Cantor. Many of the cathouses here are either controlled by local Havana gangs or paid to protect them. And the gangs are currently at war with each other. Not just over women, either.”
“Yeah, the island used to be a port in the bootleg liquor trade.”
“Gun running, too. Still is, but instead of bootleg booze, now it’s narcotics,” he says. “These local boys are playing a big game. Getting the gangs to give up their secrets is no easy matter. And their shoot-’em-ups all over the streets are causing us all kinds of problems. All that violence scares the tourists away, which is bad for our current hotel and casino business and our future plans. On top of that, there’s trouble brewing among certain disgruntled members of the population. I don’t think it will amount to much,” he adds with a nonchalant shrug and a dismissive smile, “and my friends in the government assure me the army has everything under control. But these rebels are getting guns from the gangs and making trouble all over Cuba. They hide in the hillsides like rats. I’m telling you, Cantor, between the gangs and these radical troublemakers, poking around in the wrong places can be very dangerous.”
“From what I hear, a little danger never stood in your way.”
“I don’t go out and meet it, either. Remember, I have a wife and children in New York. They would prefer that I do not die. But I tell you what. I’ll make a deal with you. I hear from Mr. Loreale that you’re in the art game. You move art from one place to another? One owner to another? It just so happens I want to acquire a painting.”
“So buy one. I’m happy to advise you on a—”
“The painting I have in mind is not for sale. Not for any price.”
“The owner doesn’t want to sell? I’m sure you can, uh, convince him.”
“Cantor, you’ve got me all wrong. I am not a violent man. Never liked violence,” he says, crinkling his nose again and adding a shake of his head. “It brings unwanted attention, so I do my best to avoid it. And besides, if I use local talent to lift the painting, I’d have to pay them. But with you, well, we can do each other a favor. I look into your problem, you handle mine.”
This time, his smile is full of the take-it-or-leave-it cheeriness of a man whose options always leave him with the winning hand. If I don’t do his favor, for a few bucks he can line up a dozen local light-fingers who’d gladly take the job. Sure, he’d rather keep his money in his pocket, but he didn’t get where he is by being stingy. He pays if he has to, trades deals if he can. Today, I’m the deal he can trade on.
So if stealing a painting is the price for his help in finding Sophie, I’ll steal a painting. Hell, I’d steal a whole museum. “What am I looking for and where can I find it?”
He takes a pen and small pad from his jacket pocket, writes a few lines, tears off the sheet, and hands it to me.
What’s written there is the name of a painting by a Cuban modernist I’ve admired, Carlos Enriquez. “You have good taste, but this painting is in the States,” I say. “I saw it in a show of avant-garde Cuban stuff at the Museum of Modern Art back in ’44, and now it’s in a private collection of an anonymous buyer. I suppose I could get information on who—”
“That private collection is here in a villa in Havana,” Lansky says with a dismissive wave of his hand. “The painting won’t be hard to spot. It’s in the owner’s living room. Señor Estrada likes to show it off.”
“Estrada? Pete Estrada?”
“You know him?”
“I wish I didn’t.”
Nilo Anaya, happily married father of three daughters, is one of the world’s great middlemen. Deals between Those Who Have and Those Who Want slide through his fingers like water through a sieve for a clientele stretching from North America to South. He could easily afford a villa in the Vedado, but that isn’t Nilo’s style. He lives with his family in a tiny street in a tangled section of Old Havana, an alley, really, of modest pastel-painted stucco houses nearly hidden by the broad fronds of enormous palm trees, a street of shadows and secrets.
Ten years ago, the last time I was at Nilo’s place, he was merely a father of one, Maricela, a sweet little girl four years old. Nilo’s wife, the warm and charming Isabel, was pregnant with their second. Isabel, as wonderful a wife as anyone could wish for, was a terrible cook, but Nilo, as I recall, is a terrific cook, so the couple is very happy.
I’ve done business with Nilo during these past ten years, but it’s been through intermediaries or, like last night, by telegram with coded information about something I want handled. But here I am at his doorstep, older, sadder, and when Nilo opens his door to my knock, we take our time before our hellos to survey the changes etched into our faces: a few new wrinkles on Nilo’s, a bunch of new scars on mine. Soon, though, a big smile spreads across Nilo’s face. With his full lips, deep set warm brown eyes that look at everyone as if he’s known them for years, the square jaw of an aristocrat but the well-muscled neck and body of a street fighter, Nilo Anaya has the slightly aging good looks of a shady nightclub crooner. Too bad the guy can’t carry a tune.
He finally spreads his arms in greeting, his shirt, a discreet pastel plaid, stretching across his chest. “Cantor,” he says, his accented English slightly rolling the final r, “Welcome to my house. It has been too long!”
“How’s everything, Nilo?” I say, taking off my hat and walking inside.
“Fine, fine. I am a happy man, Cantor, the father of three precious girls, the husband of a loving wife, and I make a lot of money.”
“Some of it mine.”
“Ah, sí, some of it yours. And with your money, Cantor, you will be happy to know I buy my wonderful Isabel the most beautiful jewels.”
“I don’t doubt the jewels are beautiful, Nilo, but I don’t believe for a minute that you buy them.”
With a shrug and a smile, he says, “But my Isabel looks beautiful in them anyway. And it is right that she should have them. She is from an old family, you know, very aristocratic. They say they have bloodlines all the way back to the native Taino before the Spanish arrived. But ah, all of this family business is not why you are here, Cantor. Please, come into my office. I have what you asked for in your telegram. And then we will go out to the veranda,” he says as I follow him through the airy house. “I made coffee, and Isabel is setting out merenguitos I bought in the market this morning. Believe me, those merenguitos, it is like eating sweet clouds.”
Nilo’s office is the domain of a contented man. The furniture is comfortably upholstered in pastels, bright-colored rugs are scattered on the blue-and-white zigzag tile floor, and pictures of his wife and daughters share space on his desk with newspapers, sports magazines, and an overflowing ashtray. But for all of its easygoing style, the office is also the room of a careful man. The venetian blinds are angled to allow in a bit of the midday sunlight but prevent prying eyes, and all of the desk drawers need keys to open them. Nilo pulls a ring of keys from his pocket, opens a drawer, and takes out a Smith & Wesson .38 and a shoulder rig, much like the gun and rig I left back in my apartment in New York. I could’ve tried bringing them in, or paid off a customs guy, but it’s been a while since I’ve been back to Cuba. Old arrangements may have changed, and I wanted to slip into Havana without notice. I don’t need any official curiosity following me around.
Nilo hands me the gun and rig. “Just as you asked,” he says.
I take five hundred bucks from my envelope of cash and hand it over in exchange for the gear. That’s high line for a basic handgun, but a small price for a clean gun that can’t be traced.
He also gives me a box of bullets, which I put into my trouser pocket after I load the gun’s chambers and shoulder the rig.
I pull out an extra two hundred from my envelope. “Can you change this into local lucre? I’d rather not leave my face and signature at a bank.”
He locks the gun drawer, unlocks a drawer below, and takes out a strongbox, also locked. Opening it, Nilo counts out a hefty handful of Cuban pesos. “A better rate than the bank,” he says with a smile.
“Better for who, you old thief.” But I chuckle when I say it. So does Nilo, taking care to lock the money box in the drawer before we leave the office.
Walking through the breezy living room on our way to the veranda, Nilo says, “You should compliment Isabel on her trees and flowers. It is a hobby she has taken up in the years since you were here, and she takes great pride in her plantings.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
Isabel Anaya may be a terrible cook, but she’s one helluva gardener. Colors bright as a carnival parade burst from clay pots and flower beds edging the veranda, their sweet floral scents perfuming the air. Bright green leaves curve like beckoning hands, tendrils coil like sleepy snakes. Fleshy petals of red, purple, pink, and yellow quiver as I walk by. I don’t know the names of most of the flowers—my acquaintance with nature is generally confined to Central Park or a weedy vacant lot—though here and there I recognize the pale blue of a jacaranda and the red of a hibiscus. Groups of big palms rise in all four corners of the veranda, their treetop fronds joining in a canopy lush as a jungle, keeping the tropical air cool, the midday sun soft, and conversation shielded from any neighborhood busybodies.
Isabel herself, still elegant as ever if a little earthier after ten years and two more pregnancies, is setting plates and coffee cups on the table, the china making a delicate clatter on the tile tabletop. Streaks of sunlight through the palms slide along her hair, a glistening rust-black pulled into a loose bun at her neck. Seeing me, her dark brown eyes, warm and cozy as a quiet evening in an intimate library of rare books, crinkle above her smile. She spreads her arms in greeting, her motherly body in her sleeveless floral dress as welcoming as a treasured memory. Nilo is a lucky man.
Isabel’s “Cantor!” rolls like syrup off her tongue. “It is good to see you again,” she says, sliding me into a hug, that soft kind that comes from a woman’s happiness.
Oh yeah, Nilo is a verylucky man.
Still in Isabel’s embrace, I say, “It’s good to see you, too. And I see you’ve added gardening to your many talents.” I slide Nilo a wink. “Your veranda is as luscious as the Garden of Eden.”
Isabel releases me, but not all the way, taking my chin in her hand, her eyes roaming my face. “Well, I must do something with my time now that all three of my daughters spend their day at school. But look at you, querida. More scars. Too many. Cantor, your life is too dangerous.”
“The price of prosperity,” I tease.
“It is not a joke. You must be more careful, like my Nilo. But no more talk of danger. Come have coffee and merenguitos. They are especially sweet today. My daughters will be jealous they missed them.” She leads me to the table, where the three of us take our places on bright aqua-painted wooden chairs, the seats covered with yellow cushions.
Isabel pours the coffee. After a sip of the rich brew, I take the photo of Sophie and me from my jacket pocket and show it to Nilo and Isabel. “This is why I’ve come to Havana. I’m looking for this woman. She was kidnapped in New York three and a half years ago, forced onto a flesh boat called the Belle Caribe. I learned just yesterday that it sailed here. I need names, Nilo, and addresses.”
Isabel takes the picture from me, looks at it, then looks back at me. “You are in pain over this woman.”
Nilo says, “This will be difficult, Cantor. If she is in an especially rough house, it will be hard to get anyone to talk. The street gangs are hired guns for many of the houses, and they are at war with each other at the moment. Bodies turn up every day. Everyone is very nervous. But I will see what I can find out. How is she called?”
“Her name is Sophie de—”
“No, no,” Nilo says, “not her real name. She will have an el burdel name, a brothel name, you know, something alluring, like Dulce, or Lujuria—”
Isabel’s hand goes to her husband’s mouth, cutting him off after he gives me the Spanish for sweetand lust. “Stop it, Nilo. Cantor does not need more pain.” Taking her hand from Nilo’s lips and stroking my cheek instead, she says, “Where can we reach you?”
“The Plaza in Habana Vieja.”
There’s enough warmth in Isabel’s eyes to melt even the steeliest soul. “We will do what we can, Cantor. I promise.”
I’m no saint. I’m certainly no prude. I’ve been visiting cathouses—what the old-timers call notch joints back in the States—since I was a teenager and Sig owned a few houses back in our Coney Island days. The professional ladies of pleasure know what they’re doing, and sometimes, on my loneliest nights in my dangerous life, when I miss Sophie so much I’m dizzy with longing, it takes a professional to do what needs doing. And I have a soft spot for the ladies. They and I have something in common: we make our living outside the Law, because the Law dealt both of us rigged hands. The Law says I’m a criminal just because I romance women. And the Law says it’s a crime for the ladies to decide what to do with their own flesh and bones.
I can’t kid myself, though. I know that the life can be risky. It’s not unusual for a lady of pleasure to have the pleasure beaten out of her by rough trade or a vicious pimp who gets his kicks by using her as a slave. The only freedom she can hope for is to grow old, discarded, and die. The idea that Sophie, my Sophie, is caught in such a life scares me to death.
And then there’s the filthy horror that sends its stench through all those other horrors, a scenario twisting me up so bad I can barely breathe: the thought of Sophie pawed over by sweaty tourists and needy locals not only breaks my heart, it makes me sick.
Sure, add hypocrite to my list of sins.
I soothe myself a little by believing that whoever took her would realize Sophie is a class act and would stow her in one of the town’s fancier, ultra-discreet joints catering to the island’s secretive aristocrats and moneyed clientele, the kind of places where the women aren’t batted around, are even protected from violent clients.
It’s been a long time since I was last in Havana and availed myself of its erotic pleasures. Considering the current power shifts in the local underworld, and those gang wars Lansky and Nilo talked about, the who’s who of the cathouses is probably not the same who’s who I dealt with ten years ago. As far as I know, nobody in the fancier fleshpots owes me any favors, and without an invitation from a regular client or someone else well connected, I can’t get into those joints, and I don’t even know where they are. I can’t get information about those places without Lansky’s or Nilo’s help. But until that help comes, I’m on my own, with nowhere to look but the back rooms of bars, the fleabag hotels, and the streets.