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Fidel's Last Days (Vintage Contemporaries)by Roland Merullo
Ernesto Salvador walked alone down an ink-dark street near the northern edge of Old Havana. In the right front pocket of his jeans was a single yellow cyanide tablet, half the size of his thumbnail, and when he saw the headlights wash across the buildings in front of him, and heard the bubbling sound of truck tires coming fast along the cobblestones, he found himself running his fingers along the outside of his pocket to make certain the pill was there. The truck was less than a hundred meters behind him. In as casual a way as he could, he turned right, down a narrow street, little more than an alley, where the darkness was almost unbroken. He looked for a doorway to duck into, a courtyard, a car bumper to hide behind, but the street was empty and the walls of the buildings offered him nothing but stone and darkness. He listened for the truck, hoping to hear it pass on. But then he saw the sweep of lights again as it made the corner, a flicker of National Police blue, and he heard the sound of the engine closing in, and the horrible squeal of brakes as the vehicle skidded to a stop next to him at the curb.
He reached the tips of his fingers into the pocket of his jeans and then abruptly changed his mind. He thought of his daughters, Margarita and Ester, and of his wife waiting for him now only a few blocks away. He told himself it was possible to be questioned, even to be arrested, and still survive.
The men were out of the truck before he could see the foolishness of this thought, and they came up from behind and roughly spun him around. There were three of them, none in uniform, bulging shoulders and square necks. “Salvador?” one of them said. “Ernesto?”
Ernesto shook his head. He could not seem to speak. He could not make his hand move farther into the pocket. His legs trembled so violently he thought he would fall down at the feet of the nearest man, but before he could accomplish even that, the man reached out and slapped him hard across the right ear, knocking him sideways. “No soy—” he started to say, but the other men were upon him now like heavy dogs, pinning his shoulders against the stone of the building, pressing the skin of his cheek into the grit. He felt someone bring his wrists together and hold them in a fierce grip, and then the sharp metal cuffs against his skin. His captors jerked upward on his arms. The pain shot through his shoulders, and he screamed, and while he was screaming the men were opening the back doors of the truck. They threw him in like a sack. He screamed again when his shoulder struck the floor. The doors slammed closed. In a moment the truck jolted forward and made a tight circle so that his body went skidding sideways across the corrugated metal, and the legs of a bench slammed against the middle of his back.
When the sharpest pain passed, when he could breathe in a more or less normal way again, when the truck was moving in a straight line, very fast now, the siren wailing like an urgent note sung out to his family six blocks away, Ernesto twisted his hips around so that he could get his right hand to the opening of his pants pocket. He bent his body and was able to get his fingers halfway down into the pocket, then farther. With the tip of his middle finger he could feel the yellow pill. He pushed farther, trapped the pill inside the first knuckle of that finger, and dragged it up the inside of his pocket. Margarita and Ester, he thought. He could see their faces, the innocence beaming from their eyes and mouths. Margarita and Ester.
Just as he had pulled the tablet up to the hem of the pocket, the truck’s brakes squealed and he went sliding forward, turning at the last moment so that he did not hit the front wall head-on but took the force of it against his side. He screamed out in pain again as the cuffs cut into the skin of his wrists. The sound of his voice echoed in the metal box around him like the sound of a condemned soul calling from another world. The doors opened. A harsh light flew into the body of the truck. He felt two of the men take hold of his feet and pull, as if he were an animal—worse than an animal—and as his face scraped along the corrugated metal he saw the tablet in the harsh light, half an arm’s length away, and then all chance for that was gone forever.
He was tall, trim, silver-haired, and most people called him by his last name—Volkes. He stood at the picture window of the presidential suite on the top floor of a famous Florida hotel and stared out at the sunny Atlantic. There were two other men in the room. After years of working with them, on what was probably the most delicate and most important project of his life, he had just a moment ago come to the certain conclusion that one of them was a betrayer. This was no ordinary betrayal, not merely a matter of money or power or sex; this would be a betrayal on the grand scale: of him personally, of the project, of the lives and hopes of millions of this man’s former countrymen, living now less than a hundred miles away, beneath the boot heel of an aging dictator.
When Volkes understood this—and though he’d had flashes of suspicion before, he saw it now beyond even the smallest doubt—he made himself turn away. He stood, fingertips on the yellow windowsill, leaning slightly forward, in the posture of a great man contemplating the deepest moral questions. Really, though, he had simply not wanted to reveal anything in the muscles of his face. Not surprise, not anger, not the fact that he had dealt with betrayers before and had always somehow managed to spin them around on their own sour axis. He studied the breakers near the golden strand of beach. He thought back over more than thirty-five years spent in the pursuit of a fairer, more prosperous world. The good lives that had been lost during those years. The billions of dollars that had been spent. The hours that had been passed as if in front of an enormous chessboard, figuring eight, ten, fifteen moves in advance. That ability to see far into the future and calculate what others would do—it was, he thought, his one great skill.
So he would have to deal with this fellow now, this Oleg, this man he’d thought of as a friend. But he would have to deal with him in such a way that the friend, the betrayer, believed he was winning, believed he was winning, believed he had won . . . right up until the instant that he lost. Otherwise they would have no chance against him, no chance to defeat the organization that employed him.
It made Carlos Arroyo Gutierrez ill to ride in the back seat of moving vehicles. So, as always, when the black Volga pulled up in front of his house on the northeast side of Havana, he opened the front passenger door, not the back, and climbed in.
“Buenos días,” his driver, Jose, said. Jose had not shaved this morning.
“Out all night again?” Carlos chided him.
Jose pulled into the road and slid his tired eyes sideways so that they almost met his boss’s. “I never stay all night at a woman’s place, Ministro,” he said. “On principle.” And then, when they’d driven half a block, “I found an hour’s sleep somewhere.”
“You are haunting the tourist hotels again?”
“Some very beautiful foreign women visit here, Ministro.”
“You are using protection?”
“I am well protected, Ministro. Against diseases, against my enemies, against despair. Only not against a lack of sleep.”
“Let us hope, then, that today you aren’t called upon for some difficult duty.”
“I already have been.”
Carlos heard the tiny catch in his friend’s voice. Ya me lo ha encar—gado. He had made a career of hearing such things. Amid the vicious infighting of Castro’s inner circle, careful listening had saved his career, perhaps his life, many times. “Meaning?”
“Meaning.” Jose paused and glanced over at him. “Meaning I received a call this morning, five minutes before I left, directing me to take you to see the Dentist.”
“Ah,” Carlos said quietly. And then, once he’d let the words digest: “Why didn’t he call me himself?”
“An important question, Ministro, no?” Una pregunta importante.
They went along through the fragrant morning, out of the Siboney neighborhood where the military officers, cabinet members, and supreme court justices lived, and immediately into the slum that was La Vivora. Already at this hour small barefoot children ran on the broken pavement, waving their brown arms and screeching, watched by stick-thin abuelitas on stoops. Above and around them the buildings were crumbling. Each day more pieces of pastel stucco flaked off the walls; each day Carlos expected to see another ochre-colored, overcrowded apartment house that had stood for a hundred years, lying on the ground in ruins. It would be a building that had lived through hurricanes and revolutions, through the salacious gleam of festivals and the dull half shadow of depression. And then, one day it would have had enough, its strength would have finally abandoned it, and in one moment what had seemed cracked and troubled but whole would be lying in a pile of stones, dust, and death.
“Nervous?” Jose asked him nervously.
“My conscience is clean,” Carlos said.
“Still. The Dentist.”
“The Dentist is not a sane man. Everyone knows that.”
“Almost everyone, sí.”
“Did he call you himself?”
“A good sign.”
“Yes. Perhaps.” Jose sank a bit lower in his seat, the curved scar on his chin twitching, the wrinkled brown sport jacket hanging from his huge shoulders like a bedsheet draped across two corners of a stone wall. He was brave and wise, educated far beyond his station in life, and Carlos considered him a friend. Six months earlier, Jose’s wife had left him for another man—even the Revolution couldn’t prevent such misfortunes—and his revenge had been to go on a kind of march of seduction, sleeping with as many women as time and energy allowed. Even with his privileged position—driver and bodyguard for the minister of health—it was dangerous for him to be seen in the hard-currency hotels where foreign tourists stayed. Those hotels were his favorite hunting grounds. It occurred to Carlos, really for the first time, that in Jose’s case there were extra risks involved in such recklessness. He wouldn’t have behaved that way without the sense that he was protected. But on that warm morning, he was ferrying the man who was his protection to the Montefiore prison. Otherwise known as the Torture House.
Carlos had been there numerous times—for health inspections—though he had never, of course, participated in the torture of anyone, and he had never been summoned in quite this abrupt a manner. Early on, he had spent countless hours with the Dentist, otherwise known as Colonel Felix Olochon Marlos, and had learned to despise him. Olochon, now head of the dreaded D-7, had been with Fidel from the start, had grown up, like so many of Fidel’s followers (though not Fidel himself), in the humiliation of the most extreme poverty, his father a cane field worker, a campesino, a machetero, the lowest of the low, and his mother little more than the town whore. Harvest by harvest, beating by beating at the hands of the foreman and slightly more fortunate children, a kind of monumental anger had been planted and nourished in Olochon, a fury the size and depth of an ocean. When the first whispers of Fidel’s campaign had reached the little town that housed the Olochons, Felix—then only seventeen—had required about three minutes to put what he owned into a burlap sack and run off to the mountains to join the great cause. His anger had been like an ugly brother to Fidel’s, his ego like a twisted reflection of a twisted reflection. He had been merciless, hacking to pieces the bodies of the batistianos, grinning his toothy teenaged grin, spreading a rumor of terror that flowed down toward the capital like a mountain river before the hurricane has quite arrived. There were those who claimed Batista had fled the country, not because of Castro or the sentiments of the Cuban people, but because of the boy who enjoyed killing. Olochon.
Fidel had used him, of course. Brilliantly. And once the Revolution had achieved its aim, there was another use for him. Now the dissidents knew him, intimately. The traitors to the Revolution knew him. The little girl and boy whores of the slums knew him. The sound of his name, merely the sound of his name, ran in cold spirals around the backbone of anyone—even those with the clearest of consciences—who’d ever had a negative thought about the Revolution or its creator. For true conspirators and traitors, for the likes of him now, Carlos thought, the name was a sharp hot spike through the groin.
There was nothing the Dentist would not do, nothing. He was not bound by the thinnest filament of moral compunction, and there was not a soul in the government, perhaps in all of Cuba, who failed to understand that. Carlos had long ago formed the notion that on the day Fidel died, he himself would go to Olochon’s office with a pistol and shoot him through the forehead so that he would not become the successor. For the sake of the future of Cuba, even if it meant sacrificing his own life, he would do that.
Beside him, as they rode through the streets and into the heart of the capital, he could feel the apprehension emanating from Jose like a bad smell. In the cool morning, the steering wheel was as slick as if it had been oiled. “Not to worry, my friend,” he said, and to his own surprise the words came out with a calm force.
“I’ll accompany you inside if you want,” Jose offered.
“For what? To make Olochon think we have something to worry about? Wait for me outside, as always. The Revolution is a severe mother, but even severe mothers don’t pull out the teeth of their loyal children. Even the Dentist needs his minister of health.”
“Absolutely,” Jose said, but the tiredness in his voice had been replaced by something else.
Carlos trotted up the stained steps of the prison’s entrance, and, on the broad landing, paused to tug the cuffs of his shirt down from the sleeves of his suit jacket. On either side of the door, muscular, iron-faced guards—D-7 through and through—saluted him. The guards just inside the entrance were creatures of a different sort, just peasant boys, as simpleminded as they were loyal. He’d spent years working among such people, treating their wounds, delivering their wives’ babies. They were here because they had been given a clean uniform, promised three meals a day, and told that Olochon himself would come find them if they deserted. There were more salutes. “Olochon,” Carlos said confidently, and the guard shouted twice into a half-broken microphone and then pretended to busy himself with the papers on his desk. In ten seconds another guard came into the foyer, saluted Carlos yet again, and gestured for him to step first through the heavy glass and metal-barred doors and into the prison.
It was as it had always been there. Damp concrete walls, the smell of feces, blood, and terror, the sounds of clanging metal echoing down the corridors; cells with lice-infested shadows sleeping in them, and from the upper floors—where the political prisoners were housed—the sounds of screaming and moaning, men and a few women driven insane by hunger, vermin, rotting skin and various unspeakable tortures, wailing out hopelessly toward the vacuum at the center of the universe. To Carlos, this was nothing less than a vision of hell six feet from his face. As he walked he felt an electric anger in his fingers. Those men and those few women had committed such horrible crimes, hadn’t they? Maligning the great leader in print, or too often in the street; making one of the wry political jokes Cubans had thrived on before Castro; trying to fly out of the country, or float away from it, or not reporting someone else, a sister or father, who had gone north. Compared to the crime in his brain now, Carlos thought, already in place in his interior world, these transgressions were nothing . . . and look at the penalty. He tried not to think about what they would do to him if the plan failed, but one thin line of fear ran straight up the bones of his back. He lifted his chin and marched on.
“The elevator is broken,” his escort informed him at the end of the corridor, and they turned toward the steps. An old woman in a black dress was mopping them. At the sound of the guard’s boots on the stone, she cowered against the wall, turning her face down and away. For Carlos, this small gesture was worse even than the screams. Afterward, he told himself, after this thing is finished, there will be no old women cringing in a place like this. Whatever had been done to her would no longer be done to human beings in the nation of Cuba. He vowed that on the souls of his parents and his late wife.
He and his escort climbed the three flights side by side. Though he had turned sixty the previous October, Carlos kept himself in good condition, and at the top he was breathing no harder than the young guard. They went along another dank corridor, to a door near the end on the right. The guard rapped hard, twice, and waited to hear the Dentist’s voice before he saluted yet again and marched away.
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