Read Powder Burn Online

Authors: Carl Hiaasen

Powder Burn (5 page)

“Thanks. And listen, Tommy, tell the boys to check under the hood before they move it. There might be a bomb.”

Chapter 3

ONCE, WHEN MEN
were young and home was Cuba, the
lector
sat in a place of honor above the long rows of wooden benches. He did not look at the artisans or they, gracefully building rich men’s toys with flashing fingers, pungent leaf and wicked blade, at him.

In the mornings the
lector
exhausted the newspapers. Slowly, clearly, loud enough for the most junior apprentice to hear him, the
lector
would read all the local newspapers: the news, the editorials, the sports, the comics. In four hours of spoken lullaby each
tabaquero
would make one hundred cigars.

The long hot afternoons were a more contemplative time. The
lector
read novels of history and romance in the afternoons. Another four hours, another one hundred cigars.

The
lectores
were gone now, obsolete as lamplighters, vanquished by radio. In Miami today the
tabaquero
radios play loudly: saucy Latin music, mournful laments for a lost homeland, blatant come-ons to a consumer society. In the afternoons, soap operas.

The hands that caress the velvet leaf are the same. They are still quick, still supple, as loving as ever. It is the ears of the
tabaqueros
that are not what they once were. They have survived the
lectores,
but they will not survive the century. And there are none to follow them, not in Miami. Young Cubans in Miami drive trucks, teach school, run banks, smuggle dope. They do not roll cigars.

It is the old men who come to work in Miami’s storefront cigar factories, old men steeped in tradition, patience and pride. Three old men came to work most mornings at the Matanzas cigar factory in a quiet side street near the Orange Bowl. For a long time it had been four, until Pepín died. Now it was only three. Elberto could have come if he had wanted to, Elberto whose cunning hands had made cigars for princes and presidents in Cuba. But Elberto was lazy. He had always been lazy.
Cabrón.
Now he played dominoes day and night, useless, like an old woman. Elberto liked to tease his friends who still went to work every morning.

“Fools,” he would cry as he passed the bench where they waited for the bus. “You need not work. Let your Tío Sam pay for your
frijoles.
You have worked long enough. Don’t you know where they pay Social Security? Come, I will show you.”

Fools? It was Elberto who was the fool, thought Jesús. One day he would learn how important it was to make cigars at the Matanzas factory. One day he would watch with envy while all of Little Havana crowded around the Matanzas
tabaqueros
to shake their hands and slap their backs. Then Elberto would see who had been the fool.

It was Jesús who opened the rickety front door each morning, who made the
cafecitos
and laid out the savory tobacco leaves to be worked. The leaves came from the Dominican Republic now, and the wrapper from Cameroon, but the tobacco had been grown from seeds smuggled out of Cuba. It was better than ever, better even than the tobacco other Cuban exiles now grew in Honduras and the Canary Islands. Was it as good as Cuban tobacco
?
Ni
hablar.
Of course it was better. Jesús had never met a Communist who could grow tobacco, much less roll a good cigar.

It was Jesús who fed the chickens in the small plot of green behind the shop and who turned on the radio that was the pallid North American substitute for the
lector.
Pedro and Raúl teased Jesús that he must do all the housekeeping work because he was the baby of the shop. Jesús knew they expected him to do all the work because he was a natural leader, and he appreciated that. Jesús was seventy-four.

It was Jesús, too, who emptied the ashtray and dusted and switched on the air-conditioning in the small private office at the rear of the shop. The office was soundproofed, paneled richly in wood. It held a modern desk and a swivel chair and a telephone with many buttons. It looked a century newer than the rest of the shop, and it was the real reason the three old men came each morning to make cigars. The brave man who worked in that office would one day lead them all back to Cuba. And that was a secret that stupid Elberto and his almighty dominoes would never know.
Cabrón.

The old men always listened to the same Cuban exile radio station, and it was the talk shows they liked best. They sat, like a family for dinner, around the scarred
tambol,
gleaming
chavetas
cutting and shaping the cigars, the gray heads nodding agreement with each new forecast of disaster for
el tirano.
Castro.
El verdugo.
Pig.

It was the old men’s pride that they understood so much more than the exiles who needed the radio for their news. The man who worked in the back would always know first when there was news. A crop failure. A plane crash. Important sabotage. Defections. He always knew, and he would always tell the
tabaqueros
who screened for him and protected his lair.

Never any details, mind you. Details were secret. They could be dangerous. There were many spies in
el barrio.
A nod. A smile of victory. Thumbs up. A shrug. They were enough; the old men understood. It was a difficult struggle.

When the man came that morning, he was impassive. It was not hard to explain: The radio spoke of a new Cuban victory in Africa. How that must have hurt. He touched Jesús lightly on the shoulder, took a Churchill from Raúl’s rack and disappeared without a word into the office.…

He made two phone calls that morning. The first was to an office in a skyscraper overlooking Biscayne Bay.

“Law office.”

“Mr. Redbirt, please.” The English was flawless.

“Who is calling, please?”

“My name is Jones, Morgan Jones.”

“I’ll connect you now.”

“Good morning,” he said, “I understand there are problems.”

“Jesus Christ, it’s about time you called. The whole goddamn thing is unraveling. I don’t know what to do.”

“Tell me.”

“The shipments are all cockeyed. One week we can’t find an ounce. The next week I’m up to my ass in the shit. There’s cops and Colombians all over town. We can’t tell who to buy from. We don’t know what stuff is good. People are getting ripped off. Everybody’s nervous, and the customers are getting restless.”

“It is only a temporary problem. It will be resolved. You may reassure the customers from me that the problems will be resolved.”

“Reassure them from you? I don’t even know who the hell you are! How long do you expect me to run this kind of operation with a phone call every couple of months from somebody I don’t know?”!

“As long as I tell you to. That is how we have operated in the past. And that is how we will continue to operate.”

“No way. Things are very complicated; people are getting killed. We have to meet.”

“No, my friend, we will not meet. You will do as you are told.”

“I can’t. I—”

“Would you rather go back to chasing ambulances? Or perhaps you would like the police to learn about how you are a criminal lawyer in every sense of the word.”

“Now look, I didn’t mean…”

“Order will be restored.”

“How long, for God’s sake?”

“A month, perhaps a little longer. I count on you to keep peace until then. Supplies may be tight.”

He hung up and painstakingly lit the fresh cigar. Then he made the second call. It was to Bogotá, Colombia. He dialed direct, station to station, and this time he spoke Spanish.

“Juan? This is Ignacio.”

“How can I serve you?” There was sarcasm in the smooth, liquid Spanish that was the only thing about Colombia he admired.

“Let us not play games. These are serious times.”

“Of course they are serious. Your animals shoot my people in the streets. They kill
gringos.
They rob my ships; they kidnap my mules. That is not just serious. That is madness.”

“I know, I know. But you must understand that it is not my people who do these things. It is what the
gringos
call the freelancers. They are everywhere; children. Anyone who can drive a boat or fly a plane. They are like swarming ants. I cannot respond for them.”

“Which is why I put my own people in Miami. I must know who I am dealing with. I will not treat with children.”

“That is something we can work out. There is plenty of room for both of us—you there, me here.”

“I am not sure that I need you at all, Ignacio. I have the goods here. We are the factory—without us you cannot live.”

“And without the distributors you cannot live. Your people come here like farmers, with cowshit between their toes. They do not speak English. They do not understand
gringos.
They do not even know how to make elevators work. All they know how to do is to steal and shoot.”

“In time they will learn.”

“In time the police and the customs and the DEA will be on every street corner with big deals and bad money. It will be impossible to sell anything.”

From Bogotá came only static.

“Look,” he continued, “we can work together. If you need a few people here to make sure things go well, that some merchandise is shipped north, that is no problem. It is only Miami that I care about.”

It was a major concession, and he heard the man in Bogotá expel a long sigh. Relief? He pressed.

“We need to dry up the freelancers and to arrange territories between us. It should not be hard if we are sensible.”

“Very well. We can talk at least. Where shall we meet?”

“I prefer somewhere neutral. Panama. I know someone there you would like. She is very special, very young.”

“You certainly know how to tempt an old man, don’t you? Let me see…”

He could almost see the manicured fingers ruffling the pages of a parchment diary. The man would be in his study at the desk of eighteenth-century teak. Under the Goya a fire would be burning, for in Bogotá it is always damp and the man was old.

“Ignacio,” the man in Bogotá said finally, “there is no way I can leave the country anytime soon. The Senate is in session; my coffee is almost ready for picking; there is a speech I must give; my favorite horse is running. One thing after another. You know how it is.”

“Ignacio” relit the Churchill and pulled deeply, letting the smoke pour into his mouth and tickle his gums. He tried to blow a smoke ring. He never could make them round. But he was good at negotiation.

“Yes, of course, I know how it is. My new boat is nearly finished, and I cannot wait. I am like a little boy. You must see her: long and white and sleek and new—like my friend in Panama.”

“Cartagena!” said the man in Bogotá. “In a couple of weeks I must go to Cartagena for a conference. We can meet there.”

Cartagena. Ancient, ribald, lawless Cartagena, a city for adventure. A great Caribbean port where less than half of what left and less of what came in ever appeared on anybody’s manifest. Every smuggler in the hemisphere loved Cartagena, and most of them had been swindled there. He could go to Cartagena inside a Patton tank and still be dead in six hours. The old man was teasing him.

“But of course, Cartagena is very hot at this time of the year, isn’t it?” said the man in Bogotá. “I’ll tell you what. Come here as my guest. My granddaughter is getting married. I’ll send you an invitation.”

“Well…” He let the word drag out until it was an acceptance and a refusal.

“Come here and come alone. I guarantee your safety,” said the man in Bogotá.

“Done,” he said.

“Vaya con Dios,
Ignacio.”

“Igualmente
,” he said, and hung up.

IT WAS AN IMPORTANT DAY
, a day of great events, Jesús could tell.

The man had gone into the office hunched and worried. When he emerged now, he seemed relaxed, almost expansive. He complimented Raúl on the Churchill and asked after Pedro’s family. He told Jesús sales were good and urged him to find another
tabaquero
to fill Pepín’s empty seat at the
tambol.

The
tabaqueros
waited. Would he give them some news of the cause, something to warm their bony chests and scarred hearts? They needed to know that the cause was advancing, that little by little, the way a good cigar accumulates ash, the circle was tightening on the killer in Havana.

“La lucha sigue,”
the man said at last, gently banging a fist against the old wooden table. The fight goes on.

The
tabaqueros
understood.

“Hasta mañana,
Don José,” the old men chorused. It was indeed an important day.

Chapter 4

THE EARLY-MORNING
light is Florida’s freshest face, flawless as crystal, fleeting as tropical twilight. Chris Meadows savored the morning solitude. He made coffee and sat on the porch, half reading the paper but engaged more by the dancing shadows that announced dawn’s eclipse by day.

Early rising was a legacy of the hospital, he supposed. He had been home a week now, and his leg had subsided into a manageable ache. He looked appraisingly through the line of royal palms at the pool. No swimming, the doctor had said, until the bandages were off.

Truth be told, Meadows didn’t want to swim. He didn’t feel like working either. It had been a lost week, a week of nothingness—two weeks if you counted the hospital time. Apathy was a stranger to Meadows, but he felt trapped in its cobwebs now and too mushy-headed to resist.

The day before, in a listless walk through the tropical acre that shielded his house from the road, Meadows had halfheartedly examined himself. Diagnosis: sorrow, anger and shock in about equal measure. So he was feeling sorry for himself. So what? He was entitled to it, wasn’t he?

It was not as though anybody else gave a damn. Arthur had come by with a book of chess problems and a pocketful of wisecracks, a few neighbors had made sympathetic cluckings and he had had to proclaim himself fully recovered to forestall a visit from his mother. Beyond that, Meadows mourned alone in a cocoon of privacy. Terry would have helped—she would have helped a great deal—but when Terry lifted her bulky cargo plane off the runway at Miami International and pointed south, only God knew where she would turn up next.

Other books

Princess at Sea by Dawn Cook
The Search Angel by Tish Cohen
Snowbound Seduction by Helen Brooks
Buffalo Jump Blues by Keith McCafferty
Lone Star Justice by Scott, Tori
The War of Odds by Linell Jeppsen
BornontheBayou by Lynne Connolly
Running with the Pack by Mark Rowlands