God's Favorite: A Novelby Lawrence Wright
It is Christmas 1989, and Tony Noriega's demons are finally beginning to catch up with him. A former friend of President Bush, Fidel
In this fascinating work of historical fiction, award-winning author Lawrence Wright captures all the gripping drama and black humor of Panama during the final, nerve-racking days of its legendary dictator, Manuel Antonio Noriega.
It is Christmas 1989, and Tony Noriega's demons are finally beginning to catch up with him. A former friend of President Bush, Fidel Castro, and Oliver North, this universally reviled strongman is on the run from the U.S. Congress, the Justice Department, the Colombian mob, and a host of political rivals. In his desperation, Tony Noriega seeks salvation from any and all quarters -- God, Satan, a voodoo priest, even the spirits of his murdered enemies. But with a million-dollar price on his head and 20,000 American soldiers on his trail, Noriega is fast running out of options.
Drawn from a historical record more dramatic than even the most artful spy novel. God's Favorite is a riveting and darkly comic fictional account of the events that occurred in Panama from 1985 to the dictator's capture in 1989. With a journalist's eye for detail, Lawrence Wright leads the reader toward a dramatic face-off in the Vatican embassy, where Noriega confronts his psychological match in the Papal Nuncio.
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For twenty minutes the policeman sat with the villagers watching the golden frog. As long as the frog did not move, the Indians from the village did not move, and therefore the policeman waited, knowing that there was no need to hurry. If he broke the frog's spell it might be seen as a bad omen, and so he rested on his haunches, as he remembered doing in his own village many years before.
The frog seemed to be growing ever more powerful as it defended the little patch of sunlight that squeezed through the guayacan trees in the ravine. Its ancient wedge-shaped face pointed directly at the policeman, as if he knew that the matter now rested between them. But the frog was in no hurry, either. He was in a paradise of flies. He was sleepy from eating, and the lids bobbed on his gold-slitted black eyes, but he gripped the sides of the large canvas mailbag like a miser clutching his purse. Two human feet protruded from the mailbag.
"And who discovered this?" the policeman said in a low voice.
After a pause the oldest of the men responded, "The boy. He came to fish in the river."
The policeman saw a child half-hidden behind his mother's dress.
"At what time of day?"
"It was evening."
The policeman absorbed the fact that a night and part of the morning had passed before anyone had come to El Roblito to notify him. Perhaps they wanted to own this mystery for a while, before giving it to him. Certainly the frog had not been sitting here all that time.
The policeman glanced at his camera and thought about taking photographs of the scene, but then he saw the villagers shift like grass stirring in the slightest breeze, and so he relaxed again into mindlessness. He was scarcely aware of how much time passed before a cloud shadowed the mailbag and the frog leapt into the ferns, but when the villagers abruptly rose to their feet, he understood that he could now go about his work.
The policeman unrolled a yellow tape that he tied to bushes and trees in a rough square around the crime scene. This was what the villagers expected, and they nodded approvingly, having seen such actions on television. The policeman took his time. He was alone in this outpost, and he did not feel that he had the authority to order the villagers to leave. Also, he enjoyed making a show of professionalism. He put on rubber gloves and took out a plastic bag from his kit, along with a pair of tweezers. There was a gum wrapper on the ground that he picked up and examined.
"Has anyone been down here?" he asked in general.
The Indians looked at one another, and the same old man responded, "No."
The policeman took photographs of the footprints on the edge of the ravine, then walked down to the riverbank to get water for the plaster casts. He knew what the villagers were waiting for, but he also knew that their anticipation was worth savoring. They would not hurry him.
He could tell from the tire tracks that the body had been dumped out of a truck with double tires on the back, and already that worried him, because the only such trucks he knew of in the area belonged to the Panama Defense Forces. He did not want to find one of their victims. It was also obvious that the body was meant to be found. There were hundreds of square miles of jungle around them, places few humans had ever passed through, but this village was just across the border of Costa Rica, along a road everyone used. It appeared that the body had been driven across the river and dumped in the nearest ravine. Done quickly but carelessly. With arrogance. This also worried him.
Finally the policeman moved through the electric curtain of flies. He looked closely at the weave of the mailbag. There was some printing on the underside that he could just see, so now he touched the bag and felt the sodden heaviness. It took real force to turn the bag to one side, so that the twisted, naked knees of the corpse inside were now pointing upward, and the bare, exposed feet were hanging in the air. U.S. MAIL, it said on the bag. The policeman lowered the bag into its original position and sat back on the ferns.
Presently, he stood and began to tug roughly at the bag, but the body was stiff and ungainly and did not come loose willingly. He had to grasp one of the legs to work the knees through the opening. He did not like to touch the dead, and he could sense the villagers withdrawing a bit into their own reluctance. It was not like anything else. The hardness of the limbs felt wrong and alien. The hair on the dead man's legs was repulsive to him, but he could not stop until he had gotten the body out of the bag. His audience was quietly insistent on this.
Now that the bloody legs were out, the policeman pulled again on the corners of the mailbag, and he felt the canvas surrender its cargo. He heard the villagers gasp, and one of the women screamed, but his own thoughts had not yet focused on what he was actually seeing. The wrongness was blinding his senses. And then he understood that the corpse's head was gone.
He did not mean to vomit, it just came out of him, perfectly naturally and spontaneously. He stood gaping in surprise at the sight and at his own violent reaction. Then he came to himself and began to do the things he knew he was expected to do. He took pictures. It helped to see the corpse through the lens; it was as if he were viewing something in another element, underwater, as it were.
The body was covered with purple contusions and deep wounds that were not meant to kill. The genitals were swollen to the size of mangoes. The policeman did not want to think about what the man had endured before death spared him. He knew that he was going to become very drunk tonight.
When he had taken enough photos of the front, he took a breath, then heaved the body over. Now he saw something else that he didn't want to see: F-8 was crudely carved into the dead man's back.
The policeman stood. He reached into his evidence bag and took out the gum wrapper, which he dropped back onto the ground. There would be no further investigation.
The library of the papal nunciature was a pleasantly formal room, and although the building lacked the most basic tropical appliances -- central air-conditioning and a dehumidifier -- the library itself remained remarkably cool and free of mildew, a sanctuary from the steam-bath climate and the unnerving, noisy vitality of Panama City. The library floors were made of Italian marble, and the walls of thick limestone bricks in the classic colonial style. Here is where Monseñor Henri-Auguste Morette, the official representative of the Vatican, spent most of his working days. Morette was seventy-one years old, and although he was still hearty and erect, lately he had begun to bend and shrink with age, so that his hatchet nose and great Gallic ears appeared to have been borrowed from a much larger man. His skin -- so unsuited to the tropics -- was starkly pale and marbled with blue veins, and his thin, white hair lay close to his skull. All this pallor was in shocking contrast to his shining dark eyes and his riotous, exclamatory black eyebrows, which gave him a look of predatory ferocity.
Many vanquished opponents had underestimated Morette's cunning and resourcefulness. His native talent for intrigue had been sharpened to a fine edge by twelve years of Vatican politics. Within this intimate arena, Archbishop Morette had been a figure of speculation and controversy. His excoriating intelligence and snapping wit set him apart from the bureaucratic herd, and his linguistic skills -- he was fluent in five languages -- made him indispensable within the Vatican Secretariat of State. Even his most jealous colleagues had marked him as a future member of the College of Cardinals, while conspiring to limit his influence.
In the end, however, it was Morette who brought himself down, through a turn of events that would otherwise have seemed like a great advance. He gained an appointment to the powerful -- and much feared -- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which at that time was conducting a purge of freethinking theologians, particularly Latin American liberationists. It was a job he attacked with characteristic vigor. At his hand, many of the finest priests in the church were expelled or humiliated into submission. Morette personally took no position on the great doctrinal battle in which he played one of the leading roles. It was not his task to debate theology, only to implement policy. Gradually, however, he began to notice the change in the expressions of his colleagues when he entered a room or sat at the table with them for dinner. They were afraid of him. Some hated him. He could see them struggling to be civil.
There was a penalty to be paid for serving his office so efficiently. Morette recognized the forces that were being arrayed against him, and recognized that his own position was becoming increasingly hopeless. He would be sacrificed. Like a marauding knight on a chessboard, he had accomplished his mission. Now he would be taken. In the larger game it was a tactical necessity.
The attack came in the form of a whispering campaign. His faith was called into question. This did not surprise him. He had never been pious. He quickly made a confession of his loss of faith and was sent to a kind of spiritual rehabilitation center on the southern coast of Sicily. When he returned to Rome six months later, his standing was so reduced that he was transferred back to the Secretariat of State, which banished him from the center of power to this remote, rather disgraceful posting.
Much like a prisoner facing a lengthy sentence, the Nuncio had arrived in Panama with a crate of books and crossword puzzles in various languages, which he hoped would occupy his years of exile. Included in the crate were thirty-seven volumes of Aquinas. He had told himself that Aquinas was going to be his great pursuit; he had remembered the Summa theologica as his passion in seminary; but after forcing himself through four hundred pages of commentaries, he put the books back on the shelves. In a subversive frame of mind, he then thought of writing his long-postponed, definitive treatise on the history of appearances by the Virgin, but he discovered that he somehow had lost interest in the Marian cult as well. The artifacts of belief seemed only curiosities now; there was nothing vital there to grip his interest. For long stretches of time, the Nuncio confined himself to his study, watching Mexican soap operas and playing bridge by correspondence.
By nature, however, the Nuncio was not a hermit. He was a man of the world. He enjoyed good wine and lively talk. To his surprise and immense pleasure he soon awakened to the fact that both were readily available in this amusing little country to which he had been pocketed. Panamanians rarely took themselves seriously -- a delightful quality. They were dedicated to pleasure and business and the multilayered intimacy of society. The entire country was Rome all over again, the Nuncio thought, soft and shallow but also beautiful and dear.
In his brief time here, the Nuncio had come to realize that there were really two Panamas, one of appearances and the other an underworld of secrets. There was, for instance, the nominal Catholicism that most of the country adhered to, and yet behind that mask of orthodoxy there was a primitive and highly inventive spiritualism, which was everywhere -- the country was steeped in it. The Nuncio could stand on his balcony and see the hand-painted buses rushing past with their vivid depictions of Indian legends and tribal gods. Nearly everyone he met in the country consulted a spiritual guide of some sort -- an astrologer, a fortune-teller, a voodoo priest. He even knew some nuns who wore amulets around their necks, a practice he tried in vain to stamp out. The Nuncio had the feeling that modernity was a transitory condition in Panama, and that the country's magical past, like the jungle, was chewing at the margins, always threatening to break through and reclaim the vulnerable campsite of civilization.
From his balcony the Nuncio could also see the heavy freighters chesting through the Bay of Panama toward the canal. One could follow their wakes as they wobbled shoreward, until the waves crashed against the seawall at the foot of the towering financial district. This was one economy, built on shipping, import-export, duty-free shops, tourism, bananas, and the mighty American military presence. Behind the façade of legitimacy was another, much larger economy, one of numbered bank accounts and laundered drug profits. Smugglers and arms dealers swaggered through the hotel lobbies. Pilots for the drug cartels paraded through the jewelry stores on Via España buying gaudy trinkets with great green rolls of Yanqui dollars. Guerrillas who were engaged in one revolution or another sat at the same gaming tables with Middle Eastern weapons merchants and CIA officers and Colombian cocaine dealers. Like peacock tails, extraordinary fortunes opened themselves for display in the form of fantastic seaside palaces and country retreats. One took care not to inquire too closely about the sources of wealth or to comment on a sudden improvement in a person's financial status. In such an intimate nation, people tended to be complexly related by blood or marriage or both, so it was easy to give offense even to the most decent citizens.
Real political life had been smothered by two decades of military dictatorship, which hid behind a counterfeit democracy. There was a congress and a president who came to power through graft and fraud. Indeed, that was the whole point of political office. Most Panamanians accepted this with a shrug or a wink, as if the concept of government was a kind of genial farce, not to be taken seriously. The Nuncio supposed that this fatalism must be a predictable consequence of the artificiality of Panama's creation. The country had never had the opportunity to fight for its independence; it had simply been snatched away from Colombia by the Americans and fashioned into a surprised and awkward and wholly unprepared republic.
It was no accident that General Noriega had been chief of military intelligence before he made his grab for power. Intelligence was the one commodity everyone traded in this two-faced commonwealth. The Americans had listening posts burrowed into the green volcanic hills above the city, from which they could overhear conversations all over Latin America. Satellites and high-flying aircraft with high-speed lenses patrolled the skies. Antennae studded the mountains like the spines of a hedgehog. But the Americans were by no means the only spies in Panama. The Japanese and the Taiwanese depended on the canal as a lifeline to Europe, so they monitored every political development, spending millions each year to keep their interests alive and their paid lackeys in office. No one could even guess how many Cuban agents and informers there were in the country, not to mention the Mexicans and Colombians and Israelis and Russians and even South Africans. The entire country was like an espionage trade fair.
And the Nuncio loved it. He adored the secrecy, the scheming and plotting, the intricate connivings, the hidden meanings that made life in Panama a study in human duplicity. In this, his Vatican training served him well. After ten years in Panama, he had become the most recognized and trusted diplomat in the city, gaining a reputation for his craftiness and his access to juicy intelligence -- qualities deeply prized in a country that dines on gossip. Many of the Nuncio's sources were reporters, dissidents, or fallen political figures who had, at various times, come knocking at the back door of the old stone mansion at the corner of Avenida Balboa and Via Italia, where they might wait out the latest government purge. At this very moment the Nuncio was harboring at Vatican expense a columnist for La Prensa as well as two former members of the cabinet who had been there for nearly seven months, draining the wine cellar of many of its finest labels.
Aside from his network of political refugees and the deeply guarded but sometimes surprisingly useful information garnered from the confession box, the Nuncio had trained his staff to cultivate sources. Even the nuns brought in useful bits from time to time, rumors picked up from the schoolchildren -- it was surprising what you could learn about a country by listening to its children -- or complaints in the marketplace. But the Nuncio's prize student in the art of espionage was Father Jorge Ugarte, a handsome young Salvadoran whose talents reminded the Nuncio of himself nearly fifty years ago -- cool, intelligent, and dispassionate. With training and encouragement, Father Jorge might attain the offices that the Nuncio himself had once aspired to. In fact, it was Father Jorge's step that the Nuncio recognized echoing in the marble hallway, and presently the handsome priest entered the room and shut the pocket doors behind him.
"It's raining," Father Jorge announced superfluously. He was drenched. "Just the walk from the bus stop." Without asking, he took a seat in the silver brocatelle wing-back chair opposite the desk.
The Nuncio started to protest, but thought better of it. He knew he had a reputation for being finicky; and besides, his affection for the young man inclined him to forgiveness. He thought Father Jorge one of the most interesting, attractive, and original young men he had ever met. Father Jorge had been orphaned in El Salvador during the cruelest civil war in Central America and had taken refuge in a Catholic orphanage. The nuns, seeing his extraordinary promise and his natural piety, had arranged to send him to Madrid for schooling, where he was Europeanized and fashioned into an intellectual. A mestizo with dark Indian skin and liquid black eyes, which he hid behind round tortoiseshell glasses, Father Jorge still bore a slight trace of Castilian accent, which somehow added to his charm without making him appear at all pretentious.
"You've heard the news, of course."
The Nuncio nodded. That very morning the city had been electrified by the report that Panama's most famous revolutionary, Dr. Hugo Spadafora, had been murdered.
"He was on his way to the capital to make charges against Noriega," said Father Jorge. "Everybody knew that he had been promising to reveal the connections between the General and the narcotraffickers."
"Yes, I heard him on the radio last week. He said he had a briefcase full of evidence. What do you know about it?"
"These remarks come to me privately, but they are not under seal," Father Jorge said, betraying no emotion behind the shiny, round lenses. "Let us say they are observations of one who was intimate with a certain lieutenant."
The Nuncio had given his secretary permission to spend part of each week ministering to the poor in El Chorrillo, a vast slum in the center of town that surrounded the Panamanian military headquarters. He thought it might add to his protégé's portfolio when the Holy See began looking for prospects. Happily, there was an unexpected dividend in this part-time assignment: many soldiers came to the Chorrillo parish to pray, as did their women -- the wives and girlfriends and mistresses who were such invaluable sources of intelligence, especially for Father Jorge, whose dark good looks and scrupulous chastity made him a sought-after curiosity in female society.
"As we know, Hugo left Costa Rica on Friday, the thirteenth," Father Jorge continued. "He took a taxi across the border and had a serving of rabbit stew in a small cantina. Then he boarded a minibus for the capital. It appears that he got as far as Concepción. He was taken off the bus by a PDF officer and escorted to military headquarters. That is the last sighting of the living Hugo Spadafora. Three days later his headless corpse was discovered in a U.S. mailbag on the Costa Rican border."
"Exactly, dumped on a riverbank, obviously meant to be found. By the way, I have secured the coroner's report," said Father Jorge, trying to suppress the note of triumph in his voice as he passed the photocopied document to the Nuncio, who eagerly snatched it up. "As you can see, he was quite extensively tortured."
"And raped, I see," the Nuncio said as he examined the report, which was slightly damp from Father Jorge's clothing.
"Yes, apparently they severed his hamstrings so he couldn't resist. And when they finished they drove a stake up his ass."
The Nuncio cast an uncritical but surprised look at his secretary, who never, in the Nuncio's memory, had ventured anything like a vulgarity. The impassiveness of the young priest's expression assured the Nuncio that he was merely speaking clinically, with his usual harrowing exactitude.
"At the end, a PDF cook cut off his head," Father Jorge added.
"Are we to make anything of that?" asked the Nuncio.
"What do you mean?"
"The entire country is in love with witchcraft. No doubt they believe that there is some juju to be gotten from such practices."
"I think it's just a show to terrify the masses."
"Perhaps," said the Nuncio, "but before the drug money came to Panama, Noriega would never have stooped to this. This is not his style." He reached for one of Sister Sarita's sugar wafers and held it in front of him, as if it contained some vital mystery.
"But as long as he is out of the country, he can maintain that he knew nothing about the assassination."
"I doubt that will help him." The Nuncio placed the coroner's report in a slender drawer in the center of his desk, which he locked with a key he kept in the pocket of his cassock. "The great Hugo Spadafora," he said meditatively. "You know, this time I think the little general has gone too far."
Three frightened men entered the driveway of a handsome villa in Fort Amador, a former American military base that had been turned over to the Panama Defense Forces. A high stone wall topped with shards of colored glass surrounded the grounds. As the car approached, the iron gate opened to receive it, then abruptly shut behind it with a clang of doom.
The door chime played "Lara's Song" from Doctor Zhivago. Presently a shirtless butler in Bermuda shorts opened the door. "Mr. Escobar is expecting you," he said with pity in his voice.
The three men -- César Rodríguez, Floyd Carlton, and Kiki Pretelt -- exchanged desperate glances, then followed the butler through the living room to the private office of Pablo Escobar, the chief of security for the Medellín cartel.
The office was tasteful but surprisingly modest for a man of Escobar's wealth and resources. House-decorating magazines covered the coffee table. The shelves were bookless, lined instead with eight-track tapes and exotic Oriental vases. The centerpiece of the room, Escobar's desk, was an elegant sheet of black slate. A paused Pac-Man game blinked on the computer screen. Behind the desk was a picture window opening on a resplendent garden. Hummingbirds dodged frantically through the blossoms.
Escobar was sitting on his Exercycle with a towel around his neck, watching CNN. He did not seem to notice the men when they came in. They stood nervously aside and listened to the reporter describing Panama as a drug haven and a sanctuary for internationally known mobsters, such as the Ochoa brothers and Pablo Escobar. "Unlike many people here, Dr. Spadafora had the courage to speak out against the criminal element of Panamanian society," the reporter continued. "His death could mean the end of popular resistance to the Noriega regime, but judging from the reaction to his death, it is only the beginning."
Escobar stopped pedaling.
"What do you want to drink?" he asked. "Strychnine or cyanide?"
Kiki collapsed, banging his head on the slate desk as he fell.
"Get him off my rug," Escobar ordered. "He's bleeding on my fucking Karistan."
Floyd and César pulled Kiki to his feet. His eyes rolled slowly back into focus.
"It was a joke," said Escobar. "Ha, you should see your faces. You must have a very bad conscience to react in this manner."
Kiki tried to speak, but his lips seemed to be glued together.
"Low blood sugar, Mr. Escobar," said Floyd. "I think he missed breakfast."
Escobar gave them all a look of such disdain that Kiki began to wobble again. Floyd and César held him up.
"The Bible says a man cannot serve two masters," said Escobar, "but you work for me and you work for Noriega. The time has come to choose."
"Mr. Escobar, there is no choice. You know our first loyalty is to you," said César as the others nodded.
"'Loyalty' -- this is an interesting word," Escobar said as he toweled off. He was a pudgy man with a frowning mustache. "Perhaps it means something different in Panama. In Colombia, when we pay a man for his cooperation, we get his cooperation. If he doesn't wish to work with us -- okay! He doesn't take our money. But this! I give Noriega five million dollars. I entrust it to you. You tell me he appreciates it."
"He was very grateful. I am sure of this," César said.
"Yes, he even sends me this vase," said Escobar, indicating a delicate blue ceramic, which resonated in a pleasing low hum as he traced his finger around its rim. "It's Ming, you know, one of the finest pieces in my collection. Very rare, a genuine treasure."
"It's exquisite," Kiki said in a hoarse whisper.
"This is true. He also rents me this villa, but he charges me so much I wonder if I can afford his generosity. Now I learn that he has closed down our new processing lab -- a world-class facility, the finest I have ever seen, a work of great genius. Twenty-three of my workers captured -- highly skilled men, men with families -- taken off to jail. As if they had no protection. As if they had no assurance from me of their safety."
"This is wrong," said César indignantly. "Most definitely a very wrong thing."
"Yes, it is. And now I want that you deliver a message to the General," said Escobar, his face turning black with fury. "You tell that little wart he's going to die! Right here! I'll rip out his balls! I'll feed his liver to the house cat! Do you think he can understand that? This is business!" With that, Pablo Escobar hurled his prized Ming vase through the picture window, sending shards of glass into the hibiscus and scattering hummingbirds into the sky.
Dr. Jürgen Spracht, the world-famous Swiss dermatologist, carefully unwrapped the gauze from the face of one of his most difficult cases -- M.N., as he was known in the medical literature, a middle-aged Latin man badly scarred by multiple lesions of acne vulgaris that continued to erupt long after adolescence. It was a challenging case, one that Spracht had been working on for nearly a dozen years with admittedly modest success.
"Ja," he said as the gauze lifted to reveal a raw red scab covering the patient's entire face. "It's clearing, it's definitely clearing."
The patient started to smile, but the scab cracked like a boiled egg. M.N.'s eyes registered a bolt of pain.
"Not moving ist best," advised Dr. Spracht. "No expression. Even talking ist nicht so gut."
The patient grunted in response.
"Now the nuss will apply special ointment, and we will bandage all over again. Agweed? No movement."
As a blond nurse in a gratifyingly tight lab coat leaned over and began to swab a stinging green unguent on the throbbing wound, ignoring the muzzled cries of pain, the door opened, and a very alarmed receptionist stuck her head in. "There's an emergency call for General Noriega!" she announced.
"I am busy," the patient said through clenched teeth.
"It's the president of Panama," the receptionist exclaimed in an awed voice.
"Nicky, what the fuck do you want?" the patient asked as Dr. Spracht held the phone to his ear.
On the other end of the line there was a brief transatlantic pause, then President Nicolás Ardito Barletta responded, "Tony, I have serious news. Something very important has come up. Incidentally, Roberto is also on the line."
"Hi, Tony!" said Roberto Díaz Herrera, the colonel who was second in command of the Panama Defense Forces.
"What is the problem?" Tony demanded.
"Hugo Spadafora has been murdered," Barletta said in a strangely neutral tone of voice.
"Good," said Tony. "This is good."
"Uh, yes, of course we agree, but the people are not taking it so well," Barletta continued. "I don't know if you can hear the honking outside. I'm holding the phone out the window for you."
Tony listened to the cacophonous traffic outside the presidential palace and the distant chanting of his name.
"There is great agitation," Roberto added unhelpfully. "The people hold you responsible."
"Listen, Nicky, I can't talk about this now," said Tony. "You should call me in New York next week."
"Next week!" said Barletta.
"Tony, what we're saying is that the situation in Panama is very unstable," said Roberto. "Maybe it is more important for you to be here than in Paris, or Switzerland, or New York, or whatever."
"We think either you should come home right away, or else..." Barletta's voice trailed away significantly.
"Or else?" The threat implicit in that phrase echoed in Tony's mind as his limo crawled through the Geneva traffic. What did they think of him -- that he would abdicate? Live the rest of his life in Switzerland? Who did they think they were dealing with? Did Nicky and Roberto imagine that they could run Panama without him? The thought would have made Tony laugh if the consequences weren't so painful.
His thoughts flew about in confusion. Hugo dead. Tony's nemesis gone. Out of his life. Out of life itself. It should be an occasion to rejoice. It was certainly an opportunity to reflect on the nature of divine justice. Hugo had been everything Tony was not: tall, handsome, rich, loved. And now dead, a nothing, his fame turned to vaporous memory. Delicious victory, especially after the noise that Hugo had made about Tony and the narcos, the threats he had made on the radio, the "proof" he had boasted about having in that little book of his.
But panic was banging on the door demanding to be admitted. Hugo -- dead! Everyone would blame Tony for it. They already were! Something enormous had shifted in Tony's universe, and only God knew how it would throw the planets out of alignment. A little change was containable. Too much change made everything crazy.
But in any case, he had a more pressing concern impatiently awaiting for him at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Tony glanced at his watch and shuddered.
Twenty minutes later, the limo came to a halt in front of BCCI's imposing Geneva headquarters, and Tony darted out, carrying a weighty valise.
Tony periscoped his head toward the sound of that stony-hearted voice. There she was, sitting on a divan, surrounded by shopping bags and stroking the head of the dead fox attached to the fur around her shoulders: Felicidad, his formidable wife, staring at him with the eyes of an assassin.
"You said to meet you here at four o'clock and you show up at ten to five!" Her voice echoed in the oddly rapt lobby.
"Sweetness, the traffic -- "
Felicidad made a clucking, dismissive sound that caused Tony's knees to go weak. "But I have arranged a surprise for you," he pleaded. "This is something I am sure you will appreciate."
"I've got a massage at six."
"Please, dearest, this is most important to our future, I swear it."
"This had better be worth it."
A few minutes later Tony and Felicidad were seated in a small but luxurious conference room in the high-security subbasement, decorated with investment-quality folk art and hand-painted Haitian furniture.
"Very tasteful," Felicidad decreed as she surveyed the room. "We should do this, Tony. We should do this in the den." She seemed to be mollified by the prospect of extensive redecoration.
Tony nodded agreeably, although the thought of turning his den into a replica of a Swiss bank office filled him with -- well, mixed feelings. On the one hand, how pathetic, how derivative, how frankly weird to come upon Caribbean handicrafts in this chilled subterranean Swiss vault; on the other hand, he had to admit, it looked better here, it looked like real art. A ghoulish frieze of skeletons tangoed on the painted tabletop. Life in death: it was so primitive, so unreconstructed, so strangely powerful now that Tony saw it out of context. Perhaps something in the cold Swiss soul longed for chaotic tropical vitality. Tony considered himself an expert on the Swiss, since he had been coming here annually for a decade now, both to do his banking and for the spa where Felicidad got massages and Tony received Dr. Spracht's savage facial treatments -- and also fetal-tissue injections that gave Tony a more or less continual erection. Of course, the Swiss claim they don't deal in voodoo, but Tony recognized magic when he saw it. He would have to get the recipe for those injections.
It occurred to him that there was a correspondence between his own radical Latin soul and the mountain-bound conservatism of these magical, cheese-eating blonds. Perhaps he should stay here after all, he reflected; life would not be so bad. Here, in frumpy Geneva, Tony could experience his own Swissness. He, too, had a longing for neutrality. He, too, yearned to step out of the arena of conflict, to achieve the spiritual contentment that seemed so native to the curtained horizons of Europe's dairyland. He supposed it was mere cultural difference that allowed this bank, which had been established for the sole purpose of hiding drug profits from Colombia and stashing away large portions of the Third World GNP in numbered accounts, to appear so respectable, so within the bounds, so spiritually untroubled. "Pecunia non olet," the bankers liked to say: money doesn't smell.
Presently the door opened and a nervous young teller appeared. Behind her was a bulky man in shirtsleeves and an apron who was pushing a heavy metal cart. The man in the apron took a quick glance at the General, then cast his eyes into middle space as he pushed the cart into the conference room. Tony waited until the bankers were gone, then he opened the valise and dumped $13 million on the table.
Felicidad looked at him with scorn. "Tony, did you think you could buy me off?"
That, of course, was exactly what he had thought. He took a key from his pocket and opened the vault on top of the cart. There were stacks of currency inside, mounds of it -- dollars, francs, yen, marks -- and a dozen shining gold ingots. Tony lifted one of the gold bars and pressed it over his head like a dumbbell. "Heavy," he said, noticing that the underside of the bar was stamped with a swastika.
Felicidad drew the fox close around her shoulders despite the thin bead of perspiration that had formed on her upper lip.
"Tony, what is this?"
"Money. Lots and lots of money." Tony casually began to stack the new currency into the vault.
"But where did it come from?" Felicidad asked hesitantly. Her breath was shallow and faint.
"Hard work. Investments. A few gifts. It's retirement benefits, mainly."
"They could hang you for this."
"I didn't steal it! People give me things -- it's part of my job to do favors, and in return, they give me little donations."
"Tony, this is a lot of favors."
"Many favors, many donations."
"I don't want to know the details," Felicidad said as she cautiously fanned through a bundle of thousand-yen notes. "And what do you expect from me, with all this?"
"Understanding. Patience. Perhaps a little forgiveness. A man like me, I am not so perfect, but you must admit there are compensations. Take that into account, that is what I am saying."
"Even so, Tony, the power, all this money -- it's not infinite, you know."
"Not infinite, but isn't it enough?"
"Tony, you ask for the forgiveness of a saint. I am not a saint. How many times you have wronged me! Did you expect to buy me, like one of your whores?"
"Fela, I ask you please to respect the fact that I have made you one of the richest women in the world. It is not so small a thing."
Felicidad looked at Tony and then at the mountain of cash and bullion. "You have been a good provider, this I agree. So I can tell you this much: what's in the past is past."
"That is all I ask," Tony said gratefully.
"But do not expect that this pardons even one more sin against me or your family!"
"No, of course..."
"You can ask this only once, Tony. The slate is clean. From now on, you must behave yourself. Do not try to find the end of my patience -- it is very near!"
Tony put his hand over his heart. "Fela, I swear to you, from this day forward, I am a new man."
Copyright © 2000 by Lawrence Wright
Meet the Author
Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law. The author of six works of nonfiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, he lives in Austin, Texas.
- Austin, Texas
- Date of Birth:
- August 2, 1947
- Place of Birth:
- Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- B.A., Tulane University, 1969; M.A. (Applied Linguistics), American University in Cairo, 1971
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