Killing CastroLawrence Block
A NEW AFTERWORD BY THE AUTHOR
A BIOGRAPHY OF LAWRENCE BLOCK
The taxi, one headlight out and one fender crimped, cut through downtown Tampa and headed into Ybor City. Turner sat in the back seat with his eyes half closed. He was a tall, thin ramrod of a man who was never tense and yet never entirely relaxed. His hair was the color of damp sand, his eyes steel gray. His lips were thin and he rarely smiled. He was not smiling now.
The stub of a cigarette burned between the second and third fingers of his right hand. The fingers were yellow-brown from the thousands and thousands of cigarettes which had curled their tar-laden smoke around them. He looked at the cigarette, raised it to his lips for a final drag. The smoke was strong. He rolled down the window and flipped the butt into the street.
Night. The street lights were on in Ybor City, Tampa’s Latin quarter. Taverns winked seductively in red and green neon. Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Negroes walked the streets, congregated around pool halls and small bars. Here and there butt-twitching hustlers were rushing the season, looking to catch an early trick before the competition got stiff. Turner watched all this through the taxi window, his thin lips not smiling, not frowning. He had bigger things on his mind than corner loungers or early-bird whores.
He was thirty-four years old, and he was wanted for murder.
Thirty-four years old, a man who had done everything and nothing, a man who had been almost everywhere but a man who had never put down roots anywhere. His jobs were a man’s jobs—long-haul trucking, where you pushed a heavy load all night long and poured the coffee down your throat to keep your eyes open. Construction work, heavy girders and beams, a pneumatic hammer that churned up the concrete and set your whole body shaking. Merchant seaman hitches, signing on in one port as a deckhand, crawling to another port, maybe making the return trip if you weren’t too drunk to find your ship again.
He was thirty-four years old, with no home, no ties. He had been born in Savannah but his father went chasing a better job and they moved north to Philly. Then his father went chasing a better woman and he and his mother were left alone. They kept moving, never staying anywhere too long, never getting attached to a person or a place. It was a pattern he knew well by now. When his mother found a man to marry it wasn’t hard for him to move along on his own, find another town, hunt up a job.
Trucking, shipping, wrecking, construction. Drinking hard, loving hard, earning decent dough and spending it as fast as it came in. Savings banks were for married men.
The murder had happened in Charleston. It had happened two months ago, over a girl, and he had been drunk at the time. He closed his eyes and let the scene flash through his memory …
Home again, home from two weeks on a freighter coming up from Galveston, home and off the boat and stopping in a bar for a few quick ones, raw liquor going down fast and hard on an empty stomach. Then the phone, and dialing the girl’s number, and no answer. So a few more, a handful of shots chased down the hatch by a handful of beers. And then back home, back to the north side railroad flat to wait for the girl. His key in the lock, turning, the door opening silently.
And then the scene. The girl, his girl, the one who was supposed to be waiting for him, lying flat on her back with her thighs apart and her hips pumping like primed pistons. And the man, fat and swart, between those thighs.
Then madness. He had killed them both, had left them lying nude and dead and bloody. He used the knife he always carried, the small and beautiful knife with the Solingen steel blade. It wasn’t a switchblade but if you knew what you were doing you could flip it open quickly, with one hand. He kept it sharp, kept it well oiled. And he had flipped it neatly, expertly.
Then he had cut their throats …
He dug the pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his flannel shirt, popped one between his lips and scratched a match to light it. He sucked smoke in, shook the match out. A thin jet of smoke trailed out from between his thin lips.
The cabbie was a Cuban. He said no, it wasn’t much further. Turner nodded to himself and sat back in his seat …
Double murder. He hadn’t even attempted to disguise it, had closed the bloody knife, dropped it in his pocket, and had gone off to get drunk. He got very drunk. He spent two days drinking, and he woke up on the edge of a marsh south of Charleston. His shoes were gone and his wallet was gone and his watch was gone. The little knife, strangely enough, was still in his pocket.
He ran south. He went through Georgia and Florida, and he wondered how far they were from catching him. They had an old photo of him that they printed in the newspapers, had his fingerprints on file, and it was only a matter of time before they caught him. Sooner or later they would get him. Then they would take him back, put him in jail, try him, convict him, hang him. Justice came quickly in South Carolina.
So he had to get out of the country. If he stayed in the States he was a goner—at thirty-four. That was too young to die. He had to get out of the country, had to get down to South America. You could do that, if you had the money. You could buy new citizenship, set yourself up in business, carve out a neat little niche for yourself. But it took money.
He grinned. It was a brief grin, an almost imperceptible upward curving of the thin lips. It was gone almost instantly.
They were going to give him the money. They were going to give him twenty thousand beautiful dollars—twenty thousand goddamn beautiful dollars. Enough to get him out of the States, enough to put him in Brazil, to buy him Brazilian citizenship, to set him up neatly and permanently. Twenty thousand beautiful goddamn dollars and they were going to hand it to him.
The cab pulled to a halt and the Cuban driver turned to look at Turner. The Cuban smiled easily. “We are here, mister.”
Turner nodded. The meter read a dollar and a half. He gave the cabbie two dollars and told him to keep the change. The driver smiled again, showing bad yellow teeth. He asked Turner if he wanted to find a girl, a pretty girl. Turner stepped up onto the sidewalk and told the cabbie to get lost. He waited until the cab pulled away, then walked into the restaurant.
It wasn’t much of a place. It had a sign in front supplied by Coca-Cola. It had cracked linoleum on the floor and an ancient Puerto Rican hag behind the counter. The windows looked as though they had never been washed. The clock said it was twenty minutes to nine. Turner was early. He took a stool at the far end of the counter and turned so he could watch the entrance out of the corner of his eye. He ordered black coffee and a plate of rolls. The waitress brought him a basket of sesame seed rolls and a cup of coffee. It was hot, bitter and strong. He ate two of the rolls and drank some of the coffee.
Twenty thousand dollars and they were giving it to him.
He lit another cigarette. It wasn’t that simple, he thought. First he had to commit a murder. One murder to make up for the other murders, one planned killing to get him out of the jam that a double unplanned killing had placed him in. Only there was a difference, because that double murder had involved people who didn’t matter. A cheap waterfront slut and a fat, dark dock-walloper. No one important.
This planned murder, this twenty-grand homicide, this was different. He wasn’t going to knock off just anyone.
He was going to murder Fidel Castro.
Hiraldo came into the restaurant at four minutes to nine. Turner saw him out of the corner of his eye but did not turn around. He picked
up another roll and took a bite of it, then washed it down with more coffee. He was working on his second cup.
He waited while Hiraldo made his way to the back of the restaurant and took the stool beside him. Hiraldo was a short man, fat-bellied, mostly bald. He smiled easily, showing a great many gold fillings. He looked soft and foolish. Turner knew better.
“You have been waiting long?”
“Not long,” Turner said.
“The others have arrived. They are in the apartment of a friend, a sympathizer. We will join them.”
“You’re calling the shots.”
“Finish your coffee,” Hiraldo said. “There is no hurry.”
Turner ate another roll and finished his coffee. He put money on the counter. He got up and let the fat little Cuban lead him out of the restaurant. Hiraldo’s car, a three-year-old Chevrolet, was parked around the corner. They went to it. Hiraldo drove. He took several turns, and Turner decided that he did this to keep him from knowing where they were. It didn’t work. Turner knew exactly where they were. He sat with his hand in his pocket, his fingers closed around the little knife with the Solingen steel blade.
Hiraldo said: “This is very important, Señor Turner. This lunatic Castro is a bad smell in the noses of all Cubans. You will be performing a service.”
Turner said nothing.
“You will be ridding Cuba of a menace, a despotic maniac. You will be striking a blow at the Communist world conspiracy. You will be—”
“Forget it,” Turner said.
The Cuban looked at him, smiled and showed his gold teeth. “I do not understand,” he said.
“The patriotic bit. Forget it.”
“You are not a patriot?”
“I’m not a patriot. I’m not a hero. I tried that once—they called it Korea and it was mud and Chinamen screaming and people dying. Men dying. Ever see a man die, Hiraldo?”
“Yeah. To hell with it. I don’t want to be a hero. You got a flag to wave, you can wave it at somebody else. It was Machado, then it was Batista, now it’s Castro. Every time anybody turns around you guys got another fat cat sitting on the top of the heap. They all stink.”
“Our country has problems.”
“Yeah. Problems. I got problems of my own. You understand my problems, Hiraldo?”
“Money,” Turner said. “Twenty thousand dollars. For twenty grand I’m your boy, you’re my boss, that’s all. I don’t care if I’m killing Castro or Batista. You understand?”
Hiraldo moistened his lips. “I understand.”
“Good,” Turner said.
They lapsed into silence. The Cuban parked the car in front of a small red-brick building which had seen better days. The brick was in need of repair and many of the windows were broken. Turner saw light around the edges of dark burlap curtains in a fourth-floor window. No other lights were on. They got out of the car and walked up an unlighted stairway to the fourth floor. Hiraldo knocked twice, paused, knocked three times, paused, knocked twice.
Oh, Christ, Turner thought. They’ve got signals. Straight out of a spy movie. The stupid bastards have got signals!
The door opened inward. They went inside, first Hiraldo, then Turner. There were six of them waiting. A thin Cuban with a pencil-line mustache leaned indolently against a far wall picking his teeth with a matchstick. His eyes were lazy. Another Cuban sat in an easy chair with his legs crossed at the knees. He was an older man, older than Hiraldo—in his fifties or maybe in his sixties. It was hard for Turner to tell.
There were four Americans. Turner glanced quickly at each of them, sized them up, then ignored them. A young kid, he couldn’t be more than twenty-three, probably closer to eighteen. Young, green, hardly old enough to shave. Skinny, too. Dark hair, a full mouth, a white sport shirt open at the neck. He sat in a bridge chair and didn’t look around.
Another, closer to Turner’s age, with a broad forehead and stevedore arms. Brawn, Turner thought. Muscle. Not much for thinking but hell in a back alley scramble. And that was fine, because it never hurt you to have a little muscle on your team.
A third, and this one looked like a goddamn accountant. Wire-rimmed glasses, a face as determinedly Anglo-Saxon as Yorkshire pudding. Wearing a pinstripe suit, yet, with a regimental-striped tie. What was he doing there?
The fourth. Turner studied him, then went over and sat next to him on the old sofa. This one, Turner thought, was the only one who counted. Maybe thirty-five, maybe forty-five, somewhere in the middle and it didn’t much matter. This one, this last one, was the one who would be running things. The others were jumping out of their skins but this one, with a strong chin and sharp eyes and wiry muscles, he was calm. Well, fine, Turner thought. This boy can take charge. I thought I was going to have to run things myself. But let him have the headaches.
Hiraldo took out a pack of Cuban cigarettes and began offering them around. The thin man with the glasses took one, accepted a light. The others passed them up. Hiraldo lit a cigarette of his own, shuffled around for a moment, then started to speak.
Introductions came first. Turner listened, learned everybody’s name. The young kid was Jim Hines, the muscle man was Matt Garth, the thin one with glasses was Earl Fenton, the take-charge type was Ray Garrison. Turner was introduced as Michael Turner. Mike for short, he thought. Except for a girl in Charleston, who used to call him Mickey. But that was before he cut her throat …
Fenton drew on the Cuban cigarette, inhaled the strong smoke. He almost coughed but he managed to control it, to blow out the smoke slowly and take a breath of air to clear his lungs. As much as they could be cleared, anyway, he thought. Smoking was a hell of a habit. Bad for you. Maybe if he had never started smoking—
He looked at Hiraldo. It was strange the way the man could not speak without moving his hands, without pacing the floor. Fenton dragged on the cigarette again and this time he did not choke on the tobacco smoke. He listened to the Cuban.
“Five men with a mission,” Hiraldo was saying. “Five men, five small men, but together you can tumble a colossus. This lunatic, this Fidel, he has set himself up as lord and master of the Cuban nation. He has betrayed a most vital revolution, has climbed upon Señor Batista’s throne and has stepped into Señor Batista’s bloody shoes. He has—”
Fenton stopped listening. A long-winded little man, he decided. One would think men of action had little time for speech-making. But evidently this Mr. Hiraldo was long on words and short on action.
Action! That was the point of it all, was it not? It had to be, Fenton thought. There came a time when it was no longer enough to vote, no longer enough to work from nine to five in the Metropolitan Bank of Lynbrook, no longer enough to come home, to eat a solitary meal, to watch a program on a television set, to go down to the corner tavern for a glass of beer and an hour or two of easy conversation. There came a time when time itself was ebbing, when the world was running away from you. When you had to act, and act fast, because there was little time.
So little time.
“I believe you are all acquainted with the terms,” Hiraldo said.
“Twenty grand,” Turner said shortly. Fenton looked at him, saw strength coupled with desperation. What was it that Thoreau had written? Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, something like that. A wealth of meaning in a few simple words.
“Twenty thousand dollars,” Hiraldo said. “For each of you. A total, in short, of one hundred thousand dollars, money put up by those men who love Cuba and wish to see her liberated. One hundred thousand dollars, a fit price for the head of Fidel Castro.”
“How do we get it?” It was that Matt Garth talking, the heavyset, muscular one. Fenton looked at him.
Hiraldo said: “It will be held for you.”
“And suppose you welsh?”
Hiraldo didn’t understand. Turner explained that Garth wanted a guarantee of payment.
“Like half in advance, half later,” Garth said.
Hiraldo would not go along with that. He explained another system, something involving the deposit of the funds in a bank account in some manner which would be a guarantee of good faith all around. Fenton did not bother listening to the explanation. The money hardly mattered. The money was unimportant, irrelevant, immaterial. Money was good only for what it would buy. The money would buy very little for Fenton. What he wanted had no price tag, was carried on the shelves of no department store.
No, the money was unimportant. Of course one could not help but wonder where it was coming from. A band of impoverished Cuban refugees would hardly be able to scrape together a round sum of one hundred thousand dollars. Who was financing the assassination? Tobacco and sugar planters? Oil refiners? Batista fascists hungry to regain power? Americans unwilling to tolerate a Communist nation ninety miles offshore?
Interesting questions, Fenton thought. Fascinating questions. But, like the money itself, irrelevant and immaterial as far as he himself was concerned. Just as irrelevant and immaterial as the money.
What mattered was the action, the purpose. No matter who his opponents and what their motives, this man called Fidel Castro was an evil force in the overall scheme of things, a dictator who had to be destroyed. And he, Earl Fenton, would be a contributor to his destruction. That mattered, that was important. That and little else.
Fenton lit another cigarette from the first. This new cigarette had a filter tip, and Fenton looked at it for a moment before putting it back in his mouth. Bad form, chain-smoking. Bad for your health. Even if they were filtered, cigarettes could hurt you. He sucked smoke into his lungs, winced, hoped no one had noticed the wince. So little time …
So little time to act, to exist. To kill, of course. He had time for that. Time to kill—that was what it was, what it all boiled down to, and the unintentional word play summed it all up. Time to kill.
Time to kill Castro. Because the man was rotten, the man deserved to die. All Fenton knew was what he read in the papers. Castro executed, and Castro dictated, and Castro was a despot, and Castro was probably power mad, and Castro had to die. That was all.