BILL BUTLER - THREE DAYS IN HAVANA
BILL BUTLER was born and raised in NYC and didn't leave until age seventeen when he joined the army. He returned to Manhattan years later and worked as a private detective while earning a few degrees. He eventually settled in Scottsdale, Arizona. He has been writing for several years. Nine of his sort stories have been published. One of his favorites is featured in the 2017 Desert Sleuths Anthology, SoWest: Killer Nights.
Three Days in Havana
The raven-haired, hotel clerk picked up my passport, and flipped it open. She glanced at the photo then back at my face, then at the Cuban Visa. The Visa was a removable paper on the second page. Convenient for me, a US citizen who’d entered the country, via Belize, without first getting permission from the State Department.
She tapped a few keys on her computer. “Your room is ready, Mr. Crain,” she said in English. “I see that you signed up for the five day scuba package. They meet at the dock behind the hotel at eight every morning.”
“Thank you. It’s late. I’m going to sleep right away. Can you give me a wakeup call at seven in the morning?”
I followed the bellman and my gym bag to my room on the first floor. Once inside, I handed him a US dollar. He seemed happy when he left, closing the door behind himself.
I dumped out my gym bag on the bed. Among the jumble of clothes were two small bottles. Two drops in one ear and a spray in my throat. In moments, my tongue burned. They said that if I repeated this daily, the tissue would become inflamed.
The next morning I walked out the hotel’s back door, across the wide sunlit lawn to the dock jutting into the sea. Seven people in shorts and T-shirts were already waiting. One with a black shirt on which ‘Dive Master’ was printed, smiled at my approach.
“Woke up with a sore throat,” I croaked out.
A middle-aged blond guy stepped forward and said in English, “I’m a physician. May I see?”
I opened wide.
One quick look, and he said, “You can’t dive today. Better see the hotel doctor.”
The dive master nodded. “Sorry, Sir. Maybe tomorrow.”
The doctor shook his head. “At least a week.”
The hotel doctor ushered me into her office just off the lobby. She looked into my ears and throat and nose with an Otoscope.
“Your throat and right ear are inflamed, possibly an allergy, or a virus.” She handed me a small box of pills. “Take one of these every four hours, and rest. Definitely, no diving. In three days if it isn’t any better, come back and see me.”
I went directly to the hotel Concierge and dropped my Cuban airlines ticket on his desk.
“I need to change this reservation. Can you get me on a flight to Belize tomorrow?” My voice cracked.
He was able to get me on a seat on the next day’s afternoon flight.
I had a smoothie for breakfast. The cold pureed fruit felt good on my raw throat. Then I went for a walk on the streets of Havana. It was fun strolling through this lovely old city, and the reconnoiter accomplished two tasks. I found locations with features, which would be useful later. Also, I got to watch the body language of Cubans in this city. Even from a distance, street vendors can identify a foreigner. The differences are subtle but real.
By the time I got back to my hotel, the sun had slid behind buildings and the city’s lights were coming on. I emptied the two bottles of irritant into the sink, washed them out, and lay on the bed. It seemed like moments later that the morning sun flooded the room. My throat and ear were almost healed and I was hungry.
I put on a dark blue, loose fitting long sleeve shirt and tan cotton trousers, and slipped on a battered pair of gray sneakers. Now, I was dressed like most men in Havana.
In moments, I was seated in the hotel cafeteria. It was almost empty except for a few tourists, recognisable by their plumpness as compared to most Cubans, and of course cameras dangling from straps around their necks.
A German couple and their two children were at the next table. When the waiter approached, I ordered what they were having. After a nice meal of coffee, scrambled eggs, two sausages and toast, I paid for the breakfast and went into the lobby and sat on a couch pretending to enjoy reading a paper I found there. My real goal was to detect if anyone had followed me. People came and went with no hangers on. While in Cuba, if you are an American, it’s reasonable to assume someone is always watching.
I ambled down a wide hall, and looked at paintings and photos displayed on the wall between the doors to the conference rooms. Two men were doing that same thing. They could be my tail. The hall, which I reconnoitred the day before, took a ninety-degree turn and a few feet further were the restrooms, and an unmarked door which lead to the outside loading dock.
A glance back, they hadn’t turned the corner yet, so I ducked out to the loading dock and walked down the street. To appear more like a local, my stride was shorter and I didn’t swivel my head, or swing my arms much.
Another block and I entered a narrow alley, and looked back. They didn’t seem to have followed. Two blocks later, I stopped at a three-story apartment house, went in, walked down a dark hall and knocked on a wood door.
Someone inside the apartment said in Spanish, “Who is there?”
“Manuel Garcia sent me,” I replied in Spanish.
A very old man, barely five feet tall, opened the door a crack. “My son sent you?”
In English I said, “He is my neighbour in Miami and a friend. He asked me to look you up when I got to Havana.”
His deeply wrinkled, ninety-seven year old face contorted into a lopsided smile. “Manuel is well?” he said in English. The door opened wider. “Please, come in.”
We sat across from each other at a ragged wicker table on which sat two glasses of tepid water. I’d already refused coffee. I noticed the fragrance of a cigar.
“Mr. Garcia, your son told me about your misfortune in 1958.”
“I have not spoken about that in sixty-years.”
Six months ago, over drinks in a Miami bar, his son told me that his father had been one of General Batista’s pilots. Everyone thought the pilot died when the plane disappeared over the Caribbean Sea. The plane sunk in three hundred feet of water. This man, wearing a cork and canvas life vest, barely made it to shore. Because the Communists put a price on his head, he hid in the jungle for ten years. Meanwhile, his wife and young son escaped to Miami.
I laid a dozen photos and a three-page letter on the table. “These are pictures of your son’s family. You have four grand children.”
The old man’s hands shook as he picked up the photos and held them close to his thick-lensed glasses. He wiped tears from his eyes and read the letter, then gently laid it down.
“They called me a counter-revolutionary criminal. Now I am so old, they leave me alone.”
I placed my cell phone on the table and touched an icon. The app would make electronic eavesdropping almost impossible.
“Mr. Garcia, your son told me there was valuable cargo on the crashed plane.”
“Did my wife have a good life? I know she passed away years ago.”
“Yes. She loved the grandchildren and your son’s spouse and they loved her. She went to God in her sleep at eighty years old.”
It’s uncomfortable to see an ancient man cry, but this was a special occasion.
“The cargo?” I said.
“Furniture and one hundred twenty-five kilos of gold bars,” he whispered. “I hoped my son could retrieve them someday.”
“His letter and photos are only part of why he asked me to visit you. He said you might have the coordinates to the location of the plane.”
He smiled. “Of course, I am a trained pilot and navigator.”
He pointed to a framed photograph of Fidel Castro hanging on the wall. “Bring that to me.”
When I handed it to him, he took the frame apart. On the back of the photograph were ten columns of hand written numbers.
He laughed softly. “The fifth column is the coordinate. The gold has waited there for General Batista since 1958. But he is gone now. It is fitting that my son has it.”
I went back to my hotel, and entered through the loading dock as I’d left. I’d been gone for less than an hour. While finishing coffee and apple pie in the cafeteria, I noticed the two guys who had followed me earlier. They probably thought I had never left the hotel. Time to go home.
On the flight back to Belize, a sunburned American sitting next to me said, “Pleasure Trip?”
“Yes. Scuba diving. In a few months, I’ll rent a boat and come back.”