13

YOU want to know why I am here, said Julio Ramirez, aka Rafael Canero. He said it to Claudia Wing, aka Snake, and also known as his onetime lover as they sat in the dark on the porch of the Southern Manor.

I am here because I am a man of passion, that’s why. You know me, Snake. Passion rules me, I am passion’s little plaything. Passion pulls my strings like a master puppeteer, and when passion pulls I caper and leap. I am a slave to passion, I admit it.

You smile. Why? Do you think that I use the word in its limited, sexual sense? Well, we were lovers once, and so you know that I am a passionate man in that area, but I am also much more than that. Mine is a passion for all of life, an overwhelming need to chew life like an apple and spit out the core. My passion is to risk, to dare, to fence with fate, and that is why I am here.

It began when I was ordered back to Havana from the U.N., after we said goodbye to each other. On my first day home I reported to my team leader for my next assignment, and I was told to see Patr?cio Chavez over at the Directi?n General de Inteligencia, which didn’t please me at all. This Chavez is what your outfit calls the DDO, he runs all the operations, and he is not one of my favorite people. He’s a mean, narrow-minded son of a bitch, and he is also one of the trickiest bastards that you’ll ever meet on the face of the earth. I tell you, he’s slick as oil, everything he says has three or four meanings, and you never really know what he’s getting at. He was trained by the Jesuits before the revolution, the same school in Santiago where Fidel was trained, and maybe that’s where he gets it from. There was one stunt that he pulled in Angola that cost us some very good people just because he outsmarted himself, and ever since then he hasn’t rated very high with our aces. Not that there’s anything we can do about it. We’re in the same boat as you are. The CIA runs your Center, the DGI runs ours, and that’s the way the world spins. So I wasn’t very happy when I was told to report to Chavez; first because I loathe the little prick, and second because why would the DDO himself be giving me my next assignment? I always got my orders from my team leader, not from some normal, but, what the hell, there was nothing I could do about it. I went in to see him, and there he was sitting behind a desk as big as a tank in a tailor-made uniform that must have cost him a month’s pay, no faded fatigues for this guy, and he told me that I was going straight back to the States.

“Don’t bother unpacking,” he said, “you’re going to Miami. I’m putting you in with Mendoza and Fitch.”

Now this came as no big surprise. This was duty that I was due for in the normal rotation of things. But I’d better tell you first about Mendoza and Fitch, and I don’t give a damn if I’m talking out of turn. I meant it when I said that I’m out of it, out of it for good. So if you want to give this to your people at Langley, go right ahead. I don’t care. It’s not that I’m switching sides, it’s just that I’m out of it.

Mendoza and Fitch is a stock brokerage house in Miami, a covert operation of the DGI. The DGI owns it, runs it, and staffs it with their agents. They’ve been in business for years, and most of their clients are Cuban expatriates. Cute, huh? The DGI making money off the exiles, but there’s more to it than that, a lot more. The name of the game for Mendoza and Fitch is hard currency, something that Cuba is dying for. They can’t trade with the United States, the peso is worthless off the island, and so they don’t see much of anything hard. They’re constantly strapped for convertible currency, so Patr?cio Chavez with that Jesuit mind of his comes up with the idea of planting legitimate businesses in the States as a way of funneling cash back to Cuba. This was years ago. I don’t know how many covert ops he established, maybe a dozen, and all of them in south Florida where the DGI agents could blend in with the exile population. There was a trucking company, an outfit that made aluminum siding, a cigar factory, and some others that I never got close to. Some of them made good, some of them didn’t, but they all had one main purpose, and that was to send dollars back to Cuba. Mendoza and Fitch is by far the most successful. As a stock broker and a financial consultant, Mendy services the cream of the expatriate community in south Florida, the families of all those fat cats who grabbed their cash and ran when Fidel came in. Mendy is good. Mendy makes money for its clients, it makes money for the house, and it makes money for Cuba. Chavez is very proud of the Mendy operation, not only for the money but because of the other function it performs. You see, there is always at least one sensitive working out of the Mendy office in Miami, dealing with the customers, and look who those customers are. The financiers, the bankers, the politicians, the high rollers in the exile community all use Mendoza and Fitch, and there’s always a sensitive in the office to tap their heads. There’s always a sensitive to sit in on the board meetings, the planning sessions, the late-night get-togethers when the movers and shakers make the decisions. You know what that means? It means that nothing goes on in the Cuban exile community that Mendoza and Fitch doesn’t know about, and if Mendy knows, then Chavez knows, and if Chavez knows, then Fidel knows. He thinks of the exiles as his deadliest enemies, and he wants to know what they’re thinking and planning. And he does, every minute of the day, thanks to Mendoza and Fitch.

So, Mendoza and Fitch is an intelligence gold mine… right? Wrong. In theory, that’s the way it should be, but in practice it’s virtually worthless. Why? Because, as the old proverb goes, you can’t make chicken salad out of chickenshit, and you can’t gather intelligence when there’s no intelligence to gather. You think those high-powered expatriates, those captains of industry sit around all day plotting how they’re going to overthrow Fidel and take back Cuba? You think they’re busy hiring assassination teams to hit the Maximum Leader, slip him an explosive cigar? You think they’re dreaming about another Bay of Pigs, only better? Forget it, that was yesterday. You know what they think about now? First they think about money, how to get it and how to keep it. Then they think about power, how to get it and how to use it. After that, the men think about women, the women think about men, and they both think about their kids, their education, the future, the marriage. They think about clothes, about food, about the weather, about the Dolphins, and all the way down at the bottom of the list they think about Cuba. Alg?n d?a, they think. One of these days we’ll be able to go back to Cuba. You see what I’m getting at? I’m not saying that these people aren’t sincere, it’s just that they have other things to think about. American things, because they’re Americans now. So, alg?n d?a, but that’s tomorrow, and this is today.

So, for a sensitive, tapping the elite of the exile community is about as valuable, in an intelligence sense, as tapping a Rotary luncheon or a meeting of the Elks. But Fidel wants it, and Fidel gets it. I know, I did the job for almost a year. I sat in on those board meetings as Mendy’s rep, I went to all the cocktail parties, I sat in the luxury boxes at the Dolphins games, I mingled with the crema de la crema, and I passed along every juicy little item I uncovered. But, believe me, it wasn’t worth chickenshit.

But I wasn’t thinking about that when Patr?cio Chavez told me that I was going right back to the states. A tour of duty in Miami sounded like heaven to me, because like any other Cuban you’ll ever meet I start to shiver when the temperature drops below seventy-five, but I still didn’t understand why it was Chavez, himself, who was giving me my orders. He was all geniality. He sat me down, offered me a cup of coffee with the usual five sugars in it just to let me know that I was back in Cuba for the moment, and asked me what I knew about the chain of command at Mendoza and Fitch.

“Only what I’ve been told,” I said.

“Let me hear it.”

The way I understood it, the entire operation was under the control of Jaime Figueroa, a DGI agent who functioned as managing director, and who supervised the herd of brokers who serviced the customers’ accounts. Like many other houses, Mendy also traded on its own account, but that’s where the comparison with a normal brokerage operation stopped. There were four house accounts, and they were designated as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.

The Alpha account belonged to the Communist Party of Cuba, it was run by a representative of the PPC, and its take was thirty-five percent of Mendy’s net profit.

The Beta account was the Army’s plum, run by a top colonel, and its take was also thirty-five percent.

The Gamma account, with fifteen percent, was somewhat different from the others in that it was under the direction of a senior official from the Ministry of Sugar, and was used to help influence prices on the world sugar market.

The Delta account, with fifteen percent, was the property of the DGI, and was always run by a sensitive. That was my next assignment. I stopped talking, and looked at Chavez expectantly.

“What about the bank accounts?” he asked.

“Each division has its own numbered bank account in Switzerland, and all monies are channeled there first for transfer to Cuba.

I must have been smiling, for he said, “You find this amusing?”

“Somewhat. Don’t you?”

“Not at all.”

“The Communist Party of Cuba is trading on the New York Stock Exchange, and you don’t find that at least… ironic?”

The geniality vanished, and he turned cold: cold eyes, cold thin lips, cold fingers that formed a steeple in front of his face. “If Jesus Christ were alive today, he’d be a member of the Communist Party. Jesus said, ‘Give up your property, and follow me.’ Fidel says, ‘Give your property to the revolution, and then follow me.’ Now, that’s irony. What you’re talking about is economic reality. Do you understand the difference?”

“Yes, compa?ero.” It was that Jesuit training of his. “We haven’t discussed the Tau account yet.”

His eyes narrowed. “What do you know about the Tau?”

“The way I understand it, nine percent of the DGI money in the Delta account is rolled over into a separate and a distinct account, the Tau, for use in special operations overseas. Do you have any instructions for me on that?”

“The Tau account is no concern of yours.”

That confused me. “If I’m handling Delta, don’t I have to know about Tau?”

“Someone in Geneva handles Tau. Forget about it.”

“That’s contrary to procedure,” I protested. “If I’m going to have the responsibility, I have to have control.”

He shook his head.

I didn’t like it. My ass was on the line if something happened to that money. I said stiffly, “I must ask why.”

“Why? You ask a lot of questions.”

“I’ve only asked one.”

“Sometimes one is one too many.”

“I still have to ask it.”

He looked amused. “Are you familiar with the teachings of Saint Augustine?”

“No.”

“I thought not. Let me tell you a little story about him. It seems that a group of theologians once approached that holy man, who was then the bishop of Hippo, and asked him a question that had been bothering them. What, they asked, had God been thinking about just before he created the heavens and the earth. The good bishop reflected, and do you know what he said?”

“No, compa?ero.”

” Saint Augustine said that God was thinking about making a hell for people who ask such questions.” He smiled faintly. “Now, is there anything else that you’d like to ask?”

I shook my head. If any man could make a hell for me, it was Patr?cio Chavez.

“Good. Now, you may have wondered why I wanted to give you this assignment personally.” I nodded. “Have you also wondered why the head of the Delta division is always a sensitive?”

The question confused me. “I assumed that it was for intelligence-gathering purposes. Our particular… talents.”

Chavez frowned. “Please, between ourselves, we can dispense with that fiction. We both know how little true intelligence is gathered in Miami.” I kept a straight face. He was as much as saying that we did it just to keep the boss happy. He could say it, but I couldn’t. “Don’t misunderstand,” he went on, “I want you to keep on doing your little tricks over there. Exercise your particular talent, as you put it, and send me all the juicy gossip you dig up, but remember to keep your priorities straight. Your main job is to keep an eye on Jaime Figueroa. The son of a bitch has been stealing us blind.”

“Figueroa? The managing director?” I didn’t know what to say. “But he’s one of ours. He’s DGI.”

“That doesn’t make him an angel, does it?” Chavez was back in his genial mode, treating me as a confidant. “By now you should have learned that in this business you trust nobody. Figueroa is a thief, I’m convinced of it. He’s skimming money off the top of the operation.”

“A serious charge.”

“The man is a master at making money disappear. That’s why I always have a sensitive there, to get into his head and see what he’s doing.”

“Have you caught him in anything?”

Chavez shook his head angrily. “Not yet. He’s a clever devil. Even with a tap on his head, he’s getting away with it. I would have gotten rid of him long ago, but the man has friends, important friends. I need proof, and the day I get that proof Jaime Figueroa goes to the wall.” He pointed a finger at me. “Get me that proof and you can name your next assignment. I can be generous to those who work with me.”

“This man is stealing from the state,” I said, and my voice must have shown how shocked I was.

Chavez nodded his approval of my indignation. “That is exactly what he is doing, and I want you to help me to prove it.”

I sat there, stunned. This may sound naive to you, Snake, but the idea sickened me. Figueroa was stealing money from Cuba. You knew me back then, I was never much of a flag waver, but at that point in my life I was a lot less cynical than I am now. I was still in love with my country then, because… Let me tell you something about Cuba.

You want to tell me that Cuba is a police-state dictatorship? You’re right. You want to tell me that life in Cuba is oppressive, with no free press and no dissent? You’re right. You want to tell me that my own outfit, the DGI, was controlled from Moscow by the KGB? Right again.

But if you want to tell me that the average Cuban isn’t better off today than he was before the revolution, then you’re wrong. Dead wrong. I’m talking about medical services, I’m talking about education, I’m talking about job security. Much better off, and I know what I’m talking about. After all, I’m what they used to call a true son of the revolution, because I was born on the first of January, 1959. The date doesn’t mean anything to you? Okay, Yankee, a little history lesson. On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro toppled the government of the dictator Batista, and rolled into Havana at the head of a rag-tag army at the precise moment when, some fifty miles to the east in the province of Matanzas, my mother grunted, groaned, and gave me birth.

The precise moment? Maybe not, but close enough so that from my earliest days I was called a true son of the revolution. Everyone who was born on that day was called a true son or daughter of the revolution, and you want to hear something else? I was born in a log cabin. How about that for proletarian roots? If I had been born in America that would have insured my future as a politician, but to tell you the truth, where I came from every raggedy-assed kid was born in a bohio, the Cuban version of a log cabin. Trees for the framework, strips of palm for the sides, fronds to thatch the roof, two rooms inside and the kitchen out back. That was your standard working-model bohio: no running water, no electricity, beans and rice at noontime, rice and beans at night. That’s how this son of the revolution was raised, along with three brothers and two sisters, by a mother who slaved for us and a father who cut cane in the fields. I tried to live up to my name. I joined the UJC, and later the Young Pioneers. I listened carefully when my teachers explained the revolution to us, listened to the leaders from the CDR, listened to the torrents of words that poured out of the radio whenever Fidel decided to stage one of those mind-numbing four-hour extravaganzas. I marched in all the demonstrations and parades, I banged on the drum, I waved the banner, and I shouted “Venceremos” until my throat went sore. And while I was doing that, my father cut cane in the fields.

A bad business, cutting cane. The old man was up with the sun to wait for the workers’ bus that took the cutters to a different field every day, and those fields were hot and smoky, burned over the night before so that the earth was steamy underneath your feet and your body turned black from the soot. Heavy work with the machete in the heat and smoke. One slash to cut down the stalk, slash, slash to take off the leaves, and three quick chops to cut the cane into even pieces, each about a meter long. By the end of the day the old man was covered with soot, exhausted, and when he got home he had just enough energy left to clean himself, eat his meal, and smoke a cigarette before going to sleep. Sometimes he smoked that cigarette, or two, or three, sitting outside in front of the bohio with his children gathered around him, and often he would talk to us about sugar. He was a simple man, unschooled, and sugar was all that he knew.

“After the revolution,” he would tell us, “Fidel said that it was the sugar that kept our people poor, and that we would have to raise other crops. Well, they tried them, many of them, but always they had to come back to the sugar. Because of the money it can bring, you see? It’s a bad thing to be so dependent on a single crop, but that’s the way it is. Sugar is Cuba ‘s blessing, and Cuba ‘s curse, but let me tell you something, children. It’s a hard life cutting cane, but as hard as it is, it was worse before the revolution. We don’t have much now, but back then a man like me had nothing.”

More than anything else, my father hoped that his sons would not have to work in the fields, that the revolution would bring us something else to do, but it didn’t happen that way. One by one, my three older brothers went to cut cane, and for a very short time so did I. Only when they discovered that I was a sensitive was I saved from a life in the fields, although I like to think that I would have found something better than field work in any event. But who knows about those things? So I was eleven years old when I worked in the fields along with my father and brothers, and that was the year that Fidel decreed a ten-million-ton zafra. That was 1970, and in the years before that the sugar crop had never come close to that figure. Five million, six million tons was the absolute top, but in 1969 Fidel announced that the goal for 1970 would be ten, and if you weren’t living in Cuba at that time you have no idea how that plan turned the country inside out. More land was cleared, more cane was planted, and people from all over the island were drafted to help in the effort. The goal became a national obsession, I mean there were billboards all over that said, ‘What Are You Doing for the Ten Million?’ Once the harvest started there was a steady parade of the big shots who came out to the fields to lend a hand, with the TV and the newspaper cameras following them around. I remember Marshal Grechko, the Soviet Minister of Defense, cutting cane, and there were groups from North Vietnam and East Germany. Fidel came, of course, slashing away with his machete for the cameras, but let me tell you this: after the cameras were finished he stayed and cut cane for the rest of the day. It was a magnificent effort, but in the end it failed. There was no ten-million-ton zafra that year, not even nine. Eight and a half was the final figure, and the failure wrecked the country for years to come. But I wasn’t around to see the end of it. All I saw was the beginning.

Like I said, it was a national obsession, and I had to be a part of it. I was only eleven, but in Cuba that’s close to being a man, and I had been swinging a machete for years. I worked every day in the steamy, sooty fields alongside my father and my brothers, and I was proud to be a part of it. Then, one day in the fields I began to hear the voices, and after that I was crazy for a while.

You know how it is, it’s the same with all of us, the voices in your head when you’re about eleven, and then the craziness. I stopped being crazy when they took me to the Center in Havana and explained the facts of life to me. The facts of a sensitive’s life. They told me what I was, and what I could be, and after that I didn’t have to worry about cutting cane. But I never forgot what the fields were like, and I never forgot the stories that my father told us about how it had been before the revolution. The revolution didn’t make him rich, but it brought him more than he had ever had before. And now, according to Chavez, someone was stealing it from him. The way I saw it, if Jaime Figueroa was stealing from the state, then he was stealing from my father, and that made me sick.

It also made me boiling mad. It made my face flush and my ears burn; it made me sweat. My passion, you see, my inability to do things by halves. For just that moment I was out of my head with indignation, and if Jaime Figueroa had been standing there before me I would have cut his throat without a quiver.

But it was Patr?cio Chavez who stood before me, not the other, and again he nodded his approval of my indignation. “Get me the proof,” he said again, “and I’ll put that thief up against the wall.”

“You can count on it,” I told him, my voice trembling with emotion, for I was blinded by this passion of mine.

Yes, blinded. So blinded that I forgot for the moment what a devious bastard this Chavez was. So blinded that I did not stop to question what he said. So blinded that I did not bother to tap him.

Yes, we have the same rules that you have. It is forbidden to tap an officer of the DGI without written authorization, but you know how often that rule is broken. We all do it, regularly and without qualms, but this time I didn’t. Blinded by my passion, I accepted what he said, and went to prepare for my new assignment.

I should have tapped. If I had, I would have saved myself time and trouble. There was only one thief involved in the operation, and the thief was Patr?cio Chavez. So I should have tapped, but on the other hand, even if I had tapped him I never would have dreamed that by the end of the year I would have stolen more money from Mendoza and Fitch than Chavez ever had dreamed of.

Crickets chirped as Rafael Canero, aka Julio Ramirez, fell silent. Far away, trucks rumbled over the Interstate, and a faint breeze rattled palm fronds.

Snake said softly, “You bastard.”

From the darkness, a surprised Julio asked, “Me?”

“How long were you in Cuba?”

“When?”

“You know when. Then.”

“A week, maybe ten days. Just long enough to learn my new cover and get fitted out with new ID.”

“And then you went to Miami as Julio Ramirez.”

“No, my new name was Jorge Guardado. Julio Ramirez came later.”

Snake brushed that aside as unimportant. “But ten days after we played that farewell scene in New York you were back in the States.”

“Yes.”

“And you never once got in touch with me. Not a note, not a telephone call. Nothing.”

“Snake, be reasonable. It’s the way that we live. How could I?”

Snake thought about it, and decided to be reasonable. “You couldn’t,” she admitted. And then, after a moment, “Did you want to?”

“You know the answer to that.”

She decided not to press it. “So you turned into a thief.”

“In a sense.”

“And now you’re on the run.”

“In a sense. It was a little more complicated than that.”

I started work at Mendoza and Fitch in December of 1986, and I was there until October of the following year, which, if you’re quick with dates, tells you why I eventually left. I started there just before the new year, and I learned a few things quickly.

I learned, as I had expected, that the intelligence to be gathered from Miami ‘s exile community was minimal. It was gossip, nothing more; juicy gossip that I faithfully forwarded to Havana every month. If Fidel enjoyed the reports, they at least had entertainment value.

I learned, contrary to what I had expected, that the people who dealt with Mendoza and Fitch were not only the fat cats and the power brokers of the exile community. They were, for the most part, middle-class Cubans with modest accounts who were trying to inch their way up the American ladder.

I learned that there was nothing to pin on Jaime Figueroa. I tapped the man every day for a week, and found nothing. After the first couple of taps I spoke to Pablo Obreg?n about it. Pablo was the ace I was replacing, and he had stayed on for a two-week transition period, filling me in on office routine, and introducing me to the heavy players on the Delta account. When I asked him about Figueroa, he made a face of disgust.

“A waste of time,” he said. “I’ve been into his head for a year now, and I haven’t found a thing. If he’s a thief, then I’m the bishop of Santiago.”

“But Chavez said…”

“Look, I got the same pep talk before I came here.” He spoke in Chavez’s icy voice. “Get me the proof and I’ll put that thief up against the wall.” His voice returned to normal. “It just isn’t there, believe me. If the man is stealing, he isn’t thinking about it, and that’s next to impossible.”

“I don’t get it. Chavez is so sure.”

Pablo shrugged. “Chavez gets what Chavez wants. Keep working on it. You’ll waste a lot of time, just as I did, but maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“Any other advice? What about the Tau account?”

He frowned. “The less you have to do with that, the better. Just make sure that the money gets there. Nine percent of the Delta take gets transferred there on the twentieth of every month, rain or shine, no excuses accepted. If you’re one day late, you’ll hear from Samantha.”

“Who’s that?”

“Samantha Curbelo. She’s in charge of the Tau account in Geneva.”

“One of us?”

“No, she’s a normal, but don’t underestimate her. Don’t mess with her, and don’t ever cross her. She’s a tiger, that one, and she’s close to Chavez.” He held up two fingers pressed together. “That close.”

“Besides being a tiger, what’s she like?”

“I’ve never met her, but from what I hear…” Pablo kissed his fingers. “But private property, you understand? Strictly for Chavez.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“But you didn’t,” said Snake.

“Hey, who’s telling this story?”

“Come on, cut to the chase, I can see what’s coming. Your trouble is, you’re trying to be too dramatic. It’s obvious.”

“What is?”

“What you’re getting at. You tell me that Chavez was stealing, and you tell me that he was joined at the hip with this Samantha woman, so he had to be stealing from the Tau account, and she was in it with him. Right?”

Out of the darkness came a reluctant, “Yeah, that’s about the way it was.”

“How did you find out?”

“How else? I tapped her.”

“I thought she was in Geneva.”

“She was, but she had to come to Miami once, and I tapped her then.”

With a hint of laughter in her voice, Snake asked, “Was she standing up at the time?”

“Not exactly.”

“Were you?”

“Not exactly.”

“I figured.”

“Well, you know how it is.”

“Sure I do. You and your passionate nature. So you tapped her in bed.”

“Yes.”

“And that’s how you got into the thievery business.”

“No. You’re not as smart as you think you are. It wasn’t like that at all.”

I had been at Mendoza and Fitch for three months when Samantha flew into Miami to give me new instructions on the Tau account. I had been dealing with her in Geneva by telephone, telex, and fax, regularly diverting nine percent of the Delta take to Tau, but the new word was that Chavez wanted the split increased to eleven. This was the sort of instruction that had to be given face-to-face, and so she came to Miami to give it to me personally. She was supposed to stay for only a day, but one thing led to another, she stayed for three, and by the time she left I had the whole story straight from her head.

Chavez was using the Tau account as his personal retirement fund.

Figueroa was clean, a diversion to keep me occupied.

Why, then, risk putting a sensitive in at Mendoza and Fitch? Because Fidel had to have his Miami gossip, and only an ace could get it for him.

I got this all in one tap from Samantha, which tells you something about the way people think, or don’t think, about sensitives. I mean, here is a serving officer of the DGI who should know what an ace can do, and yet she walks right into my range and lets me pick her brains. Go figure it out, maybe they don’t have any brains to pick. It’s as if they don’t want to believe that we can do these things.

But we can, and I did, and once I knew what the score was, I had to decide what to do about it. My first instinct was to blow the whistle on Chavez by going straight to the top. You see, I was sure that Fidel knew nothing about what was going on, and that if he ever found out it would be Chavez up against the wall for sure. Yes, perhaps it’s a sign of my political naivet? that I still thought of Fidel as the revolutionary purist, the idealist who would never tolerate corruption in any form, but that’s the way I felt. And I’ll tell you something else. I still feel that way. I’m out of it now, I don’t care anymore, but I prefer to think that Fidel, over all these years, has never compromised his principles.

But how I felt then was unimportant, because I knew that there was no way that someone like me could ever get to the Maximum Leader. Chavez had too many friends in the highest of places, and I would have been blocked before I got started. No, if I blew the whistle the only thing I would accomplish was my own destruction. I was sure of it, and so, in the end, I did nothing. Not very valiant, I know. I had been passionately committed to nailing Figueroa when there was no risk to me involved, but I retreated from the thought of going up against Chavez. Retreated, hell, I caved in completely. The man scared me out of my wits. I wasn’t very pleased with myself, but that’s what I did. Nothing. On the twentieth of every month I continued to forward eleven percent of the Delta trading profit to the Tau account in Geneva, and I tried very hard not to think about it.

But life at Mendoza and Fitch went on, and since I no longer had to concentrate on tapping Figueroa, I was able to devote my time to my monthly gossip reports, and, more important, to the nuts and bolts of my daily work as a broker and financial consultant. I took pleasure in the work. It was, after all, what I had been trained for, and I enjoyed working with most of my clients: not the heavy hitters, but the average investors who were urgently trying to build for the future. Many of them were older people, and the future they were building was not for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren. There was a clique of them that hung around the office every day watching the Quotr?n, drinking strong, sweet Cuban coffee, and bragging about their adventures in the market the way younger men might have bragged about women. They were a good bunch of guys, about a dozen in all, and I got to know them well. In time I learned all about them, their work, their families, and where they had come from in Cuba. They were all so much older than I was, but they accepted me, not only as a broker, but as a friend. My cover story was that I had come over with the marielitos in 1980, and since most of them had been out of Cuba for twenty-five years, I was sort of a tie to the homeland for them. I’d like to think that after a while they looked upon me as something close to family. I certainly felt that way about them, which is why I tried to steer their investment programs into safe and conservative channels. But these were old men in a hurry to build, and, being Cuban, they were born gamblers. Their tastes in investments ran to the exotic, to the daring, and there were times when they came close to driving me crazy with the chances they took. Most of them were involved in a program of sophisticated, but risky, option plays that had done very nicely for them so far. They were making money, all right, but it wasn’t the smartest strategy for people of that age. I tried to tell them that, but they wouldn’t listen. The Dow was up over 2700, more than eight hundred points for the year, and they were on a roll. They were betting on the continued rise, and the way things were going they figured that they couldn’t lose. I kept warning them to watch for a correction, but they didn’t hear me. All they could hear was the jingle. They never had it so good.

“Stop,” said Snake. “I’ve got it.”

“I doubt it, but go ahead.”

“You gave me the clue yourself. You said that you left Mendoza and Fitch in October of 1987. That was when the market crashed, wasn’t it?”

“It was.”

“So that was when you stole the money, right?”

“Right.” It was a grudging admission.

“And it had something to do with those old men of yours?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus.” A thought struck her. “Their savings, all their money… you didn’t…?”

“I didn’t. What do you know about the market?”

“Enough not to play it.”

“The Dow Jones average?”

“It goes up, and it goes down.”

“The American Stock Exchange’s Major Market Index?”

“My eyes are glazing.”

“I’ll try to keep it simple. The Major Market Index, the MMI, is an index of twenty stocks offered for futures contracts by the Chicago Board of Trade. It works like this. Say, back in September of 1987, a customer of mine sold fifty put options of what they call the ‘November 450’ contracts. This means that on the third Friday of November, whoever bought those options is entitled to be paid one hundred times any shortfall of the MMI below the 450 level. But if the MMI doesn’t go below 450 by that Friday, the buyer loses and my guy wins, he gets to keep what the buyer paid him. Say he sold fifty contracts at ten, then he gets to keep the 50,000. On the other hand, if the index does fall below 450, my guy takes a beating. How much of a beating depends on how low the index falls. Got it?”

“No. You said simple. That isn’t simple.”

Look, it’s like off-track betting, but the payoff can be terrific. Back in October of eighty-seven, the guys in my Cuban coffeeklatsch were all into playing the MMI, and they were all betting that the market would keep on rising. Alberto Nu?ez was a good example. Alberto was the patriarch of his family, he was in charge of investing not only his own money, but the savings of his sons and daughters, and a couple of cousins. He was doing good that year, betting on the rise, and he was the one who sold those fifty puts of “November 450.” It’s a simple bet. If the index stays over 450, he wins his 50K. If it drops a little below, he loses a little. But what happens if it drops a lot? What happens if it crashes? Alberto is in for one hundred times the shortfall, but Alberto doesn’t think about crashes. Who wants to think about crashes?

But that’s what happened. The market slipped on Friday, and crashed on Monday. Black Monday, and Alberto was in up to his neck. You wanted it simple, so I’ll keep it simple. Alberto sold his puts at ten, and by noon on Monday the price of the option was thirty-five. This means that if Alberto wants to get out, if he wants to close out his position, it will cost him 175K to buy the fifty puts that will balance out his original trade. On the other hand, if he wants to tough it out, keep his position and bet that the market goes up again, he’s facing a margin call of about 200K just to stay in the game. And that’s payable on the spot, the next morning.

That’s Alberto’s position, very simple. What isn’t simple is that Alberto doesn’t have any 200K to ante up, and even the 175K wipes him out. Him, and the rest of his family. So Alberto is screwed, and so are all his pals in the coffeeklatsch. They’ve all been playing the same game, and that Monday in Miami they were all staring at disaster.

Not that they were alone. Maybe you don’t know anything about the market, but you have to know what that day was like all over the country. You have to have read about it, or seen it on television. At the end of the day the Dow was down more than five hundred points; percentage wise that’s twice the loss of the crash of twenty-nine. At the end of the day more than six hundred million shares had been traded, twice as much as the previous record. At the end of the day people were busted, dead, and dented. It was the kind of day that I won’t try to describe except with one word: chaos. It was a kaleidoscope of chaos as we tried to trade our way out of a total collapse, and while our world was falling apart all around us, my little gang of Cuban senior citizens huddled in a corner near the coffee machine, fear frozen on their faces. Every once in a while, one of them would shuffle over to my desk to look at the Quotr?n, shake his head, and walk back to the corner to huddle again with the others. They were all in the same boat, and the boat was sinking. Not one of them had the capital to meet his margin call the next morning, and not one of them had enough to cancel his position. They were finished.

My mind was racing in different directions. I was working every phone on my desk, always with a heavy hitter on the line screaming instructions. I was in constant touch with our floor traders, or as constantly as the conditions allowed. I was juggling a dozen balls in the air as I tried to protect the Delta account, and at the same time I had to keep in mind that today was the nineteenth of the month, and that tomorrow, on the twentieth, I would have to make the transfer to the Tau account in Geneva. Rain or shine, no excuses accepted, that transfer had to be made.

Alberto Nu?ez came over to my desk, looked at the Quotr?n, looked at me, and tried to smile. He didn’t make it. He said, “Not so good, huh?”

“Not so good, Alberto. I’m sorry.”

I tried to keep my feelings about these guys on a professional level. I told myself that they had had no business playing in such a risky market. I reminded myself of all the times I had tried to warn them off. I told myself that there are always losers as well as winners, but none of that helped. This wasn’t just about money, this was also about pride and humiliation. These men were the patriarchs of their families, their families had trusted them, and now that trust was broken. These weren’t the fat cats, these weren’t the parasites that Fidel cursed in his speeches, the bloodsuckers who had looted Cuba, and then had fled to Miami. These were Cubans who could have been my uncles, and as each hour went by they began to look, collectively, more and more like my father at the end of a long day of cutting cane. Weary, hopeless, defeated.

And meanwhile there was the Tau account to prepare for tomorrow, eleven percent of the Delta take for the month, close to one million five to be deposited into the retirement fund of Patr?cio Chavez. Chavez, the man who couldn’t be touched.

A million five. Just about enough to close out the positions of Alberto Nu?ez, and the others.

I don’t know when I decided to do it. I didn’t make a conscious decision. One moment I was sitting there staring at those huddled sheep in the corner, and the next moment I was on the phone with my trader placing orders.

Alberto Nu?ez, buy fifty MMI at thirty-five.

Juan Balat, buy thirty MMI at thirty-five.

Ignacio Br?, buy eighty MMI at thirty-six.

Te?filo C?spedes, buy…

I went down the list, all twelve of them, and in each case I bought what they had sold, enough to close out each position. And after each guy I executed an order to pay for the transaction. An order on the Delta account. The total was just under one million five. There was nothing left for the Tau account, but my uncles were out of it clean.

And I was out of it, too. I knew it in that moment. I knew that I was finished with the DGI, with Patr?cio Chavez, with Mendoza and Fitch, and with gathering gossip for Fidel. I was finished with all the high-class snooping. That’s all that it was. I was finished with everything I had been trained to do, right up to that moment. I was out of it.

I gathered up my transaction slips, and went to the cashier’s cage. There were half a dozen brokers in line, and they all looked shocked and shaky. They were drawing out cash, large chunks of it. There was no need for that, but they all wanted cash. That’s the way it was that day. The one in front of me turned around and offered to sell me his BMW. He had had it for less than a month.

“I paid sixty for it,” he said. “You can have it for forty. Cash, right now.”

“I have a car,” I told him.

“Not like this one. Thirty-five.”

“Take it easy.”

“Thirty.”

I shook him off. When it was my turn at the window, the cashier asked me how much I wanted. She assumed that, like everyone else, I wanted cash. I had about two hundred dollars in my wallet. I was going out, and I wanted to go clean, but there was no sense in being stupid about it.

“Five thousand,” I told her.

“That’s all?” she seemed surprised.

I nodded, and she counted out the bills. I gave her my transaction slips, and said, “You see those old guys standing around the coffee machine? These slips belong to them. Pass them around after I leave.”

“You going now?”

“There’s nothing more for me to do around here.”

I went to the garage and got my car. I didn’t go back to my apartment. I was safe for at least twelve hours, but it was time to move quickly. I started driving north, but not too far north. Just far enough for a Cuban. Around here seemed just right.

“And you’ve been here ever since?” asked Snake.

“It’s as good a place as any if you have to keep your head low.”

“Are they looking for you?”

“I screwed Patr?cio Chavez. I have to assume they are. At least, here I blend in with the Cuban community. Here I’m Julio Ramirez.”

“And what does Julio Ramirez do for a living?”

“A little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Mostly, I tell fortunes.”

Snake laughed. “That old dodge.”

“Sure, it’s the easiest way for an ace to make a few bucks. I’m very big with the Cuban ladies here, especially the old ones. I tap their heads, and tell them what they want to hear.”

“What a waste.”

“It’s reasonably honest work. That, and the frontons.”

“Jai alai?”

“A jai alai game that isn’t fixed is a very rare thing. I hang around the frontons, talk to the players, tap a few heads, make a few bets. Between that and the fortunetelling, I manage.”

“It’s still a waste. Have you ever thought of working for us?”

“I’m Cuban, Snake. If I worked for anybody, I’d work for Cuba, but I’m out of it.”

“You won’t stay out. No ace could. You’ll get back in.”

“I doubt it. Now it’s your turn. What are you doing here?”

“I didn’t make any deal with you. You wanted to tell me your story, and you did.”

“The story was straight. You were in my head, and you know that.”

“Yes.”

“So I’m asking. What’s a yankee ace doing in the middle of nowhere Florida?”

She did not hesitate. She had seen his head. He was really out of the game.

“It’a a weird one,” she said, and she told him. Not all of it, just her part of it. The arson part.

“It’s weird,” he agreed, “but there has to be more to it. Do I get to hear more?”

“No, that’s as far as I go. Sorry.”

He accepted that. He thought for a while. “Watching this place by yourself, that’s a lot for one person to handle. Do you want any help?”

“I was hoping you’d ask.”

Contents