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When Fidel Castro died, the Cuban government cremated his body, which some Cubans believed was a foolish waste of money, considering his final destination. Ricardo Paz, one of Castro's bodyguards, felt this way, but he was smart enough to keep it to himself. Most of the time. One evening, after drinking a bottle of Havana Club rum, he made the mistake of sharing his true feelings with a voluptuous member of the Policia Nacional Revolucionaria. Unfortunately for Paz, the young lady was a firm believer in Article 64 of the Cuban Constitution, which clearly states that "Defense of the socialist motherland is every Cuban's greatest honor and highest duty."
Before Poor Richard could whistle La Bayamesa, he found himself under interrogation in Valle Grande prison, twenty-two miles south of the capital. The interrogator, a disagreeable fellow from the Department of the Interior, advised Comrade Paz to reconsider his imperialist opinion and suggested that he do so upon his arrival in Norteamérica.
Paz was tempted to lodge a protest, but then he remembered the old axiom, that a person could say anything he wanted in Cuba –– once. He also remembered el paredón, the wall, where thousands of "troublemakers" had faced the firing squad. A one- way ticket to Miami sealed the deal, and two weeks after Castro's ashes were buried in Santiago, Ricardo Paz became a proud, undocumented alien.
Three months later, he was caught in an INS raid, but then a very strange thing happened. Instead of detaining him indefinitely, ICE agents ushered him through the immigrant visa process and then hauled his butt before an immigration judge. The judge was pleasant and polite, and lo and behold, an affidavit of support was produced, signed by an anonymous sponsor.
Even stranger, Paz was promised that a green card would soon be on its way.
What a way to run a country, Paz thought. They made it so easy to enter.
On second thought, it was too easy.
Gringos were not known for their hospitality. So why the welcome mat?
After further consideration, Paz concluded that he was about to be recruited by the CIA. There was no other explanation. The cloak-and-dagger boys were going to pump him for information, hoping that he would spill the frijoles about the dearly departed dictator. A bodyguard could tell them plenty. He might even know where the bodies were buried, so to speak.
If this was the case, the Yanquis were in for a shock. Had the poor bastards done their homework, they would have discovered that their new recruit had been a bodyguard for less than a month, and during that time he was more of a nurse than a guard. Prior to babysitting el presidente, Paz had worked as a night watchman in a dormant sugar refinery in Camilo Cienfuegos, a small town on Cuba's northern coast. Before the revolution, the town was named Hershey in honor of the chocolate baron who owned and operated the refinery –– the most productive factory in the country, if not in all of Latin America.
In 1959, the refinery was nationalized, courtesy of the Castro brothers, renamed Camilo Cienfuegos –– after one of Fidel's commanders –– and placed under the control of socialist bureaucrats. The shift in ownership, along with the United State's embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to a shutdown and the end of the good life.
By coincidence, Fidel Castro's father, Angel Castro y Argiz, had become wealthy by growing sugarcane in Oriente Province, so the dictator had a warm spot in his heart for anybody connected to its production. Paz fell into that category, which is why he was brought to Havana and given an opportunity to better himself.
In a perfect world, Paz thought, sitting in the judge's chamber, he would tell the CIA what he knew and they would reward him with citizenship. Maybe that was the plan. Maybe, if he played his cards right, they would take care of him. A tiny smile appeared on his face. Ay, caramba! This could be my ticket out of el barrio.
A minute later, the door opened, and Paz turned around to see who was there. A man stood in the doorway, fanning himself with a manila folder and studying him with an appraising look. He was a large, heavily built man, well-dressed and reeking of cologne. A slick strand of black hair hung over his right ear and curled around the collar of a monogrammed shirt. He stepped inside, closed the door, and walked across the room to the judge's desk. He stood there for a few seconds before opening the folder and reading to himself. "My name is Nick Russo," he said matter- of-factly, without looking up. "I'm your sponsor. The guy that saved you from detention." He sighed deeply and turned his wrist a little so he could see his Rolex watch. Nine on the nose. "You speak English, right?"
Paz sat motionless for a moment, then said, "I speak four languages."
Russo dismissed this with a wave of his hand. "You're in America. Habla inglés."
Paz smiled mischievously. "No problema."
Russo slid the folder across the desk to him. As he turned over the photographs it contained, he recited from his notes. "Ricardo Paz. Former bodyguard. Thirtytwo years old. Five foot seven, one hundred and fifty pounds. Brown hair. Brown eyes. No scars, no tattoos." He gave Paz a long and piercing look. A smile tickled the corners of his mouth, and then he closed the folder. "Did I miss anything?"
Paz thought of several sarcastic replies, but just said, "I've got a mole on my back."
Russo, not ruffled in the slightest, said, "Moles can be dangerous. You need to watch them closely. Remove the ones that cause problems." He smiled without a hint of humor. "I've had a few on my hands. I got rid of them right away."
Paz maintained a show of indifference, but inside he was worried, unable to shake the notion that somehow Russo was referring to him. "I'll try to remember that."
Russo stared at him, amusement in his wide, somewhat protuberant eyes. "So you got kicked out of Cuba, huh?"
Paz went silent while he considered this. "More or less," he said finally. "I was ready to leave."
"Yeah, I bet you were. Why'd you get the boot?"
"I pissed somebody off."
"Some bastardo from the government."
"I said the wrong thing about the wrong person."
"Friggin' commies. They have no sense of humor." After fishing out a cigarette and lighting it, Russo exhaled a cloud of smoke and said, "Their loss is our gain. You know what I mean?"
"I'm your new patron. You're gonna work for me. I want you to be part of our agency. We could use a guy like you." He folded his arms across his chest and nodded. "You've got the right stuff."
"The right stuff for what?"
"A successful career."
"You think so?"
"I know so. I can spot a good recruit a mile away, and you're one of the best I've seen in a long time." A boyish grin crept across his face. "You can be a heavy hitter. All you need is some training."
"How much training?"
"Six months to a year. If you're a fast learner, you'll be handling your own contracts in three months."
"Sure. In this business, the sky's the limit. If you target the right people you'll make a killing."
For a brief moment Russo and Paz locked eyes. It was Paz who looked away. "You make it sound so ... easy."
"Nobody said it would be easy. You'll have to put in some long hours and do some studying. There's also a test at the end, but we can provide a tutor. Once you pass the test, you'll be on your way. The agency will supply most of your leads, but you can freelance on your own time." He tapped the cigarette gently on the side of an ashtray and then said very slowly, "I know it's a big commitment, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
For a moment Paz said nothing, just stroked his chin. Finally, a thin smile crossed his face, as if he found irony in Russo's statement. "What choice do I have?"
Russo's voice became tense, a mixture of anger and incredulity. "Hey, nobody's gonna force you to do anything you don't want to do. There are plenty of guys who would give their right arms for this opportunity. If you want to go back to the detention center, just say the word. You can file for asylum and spend the next few years waiting for a hearing." He shook his head and made a sympathetic face. "Your call, amigo."
Paz stared coldly at him, a sudden anger narrowing his eyes. And then his expression cleared. He looked at Russo and then at the floor. "You're right," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm being stupid. I should be grateful." He sat back. "When do we start?"
"Did you eat breakfast?"
"Me neither. I could use a cup of coffee." He jammed the cigarette into the ashtray. "Why don't we grab a bite?"
Paz gave him a cautious look. "Are you sure we can leave?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." He placed a hand on Paz's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "I went through a lot of trouble to make this right, but now you're a free man. You can go wherever you want."
Russo smiled, showing most of his smoke-stained teeth. "I'll show you sweet. I know a place in West Miami that makes the best churros in Florida." He gestured toward the door. "Let's take a ride."
The distance between the Miami Immigration Court and La Palma Cuban Cafeteria was less than ten miles, but during peak tourism season –– November to April –– the trip often took over an hour. Today was no exception. Still, it was not an uneventful ride. When they turned onto State Road 836, Russo asked Paz to reach into the glovebox and find his sunglasses. Paz was happy to oblige, but when he opened the glovebox an automatic pistol fell onto his lap.
Paz muttered something, shifted position, and was still again. There was sweat standing out in beads on his forehead. "Jesucristo," he whispered. "You expecting trouble?"
Russo looked at him wide-eyed, mildly startled. "Be careful with that thing. It's cocked locked and ready to rock."
Paz took a closer look at the weapon. "Nice pistola."
".45 Colt Automatic."
Russo lit a cigarette, then shook the match out and looked at his passenger through the haze of drifting white smoke. "What did you carry in Cuba?"
"A Makarov. 9mm."
"Never heard of that one."
After gently placing the Colt in the glovebox, Paz told him that the Makarov was a Russian-made pistol, the standard sidearm of the Soviet Union's military and police from 1951 to 1991. After being replaced by the Yarygin pistol in 2003, functioning Makarovs were sent to Cuba, where they were still in use. "We get a lot of Russian hand-me-downs. I'd much rather have a Colt."
Russo leaned over, and with a suave smile said, "Your wish is my command."
"The gun is yours."
"A gift from me to you."
"Yeah, you can have it. I'll buy another one. Just make sure you keep it out of sight for a while. You won't be able to get a concealed weapon permit until you become a permanent resident alien or a citizen."
Paz shook his head as if trying to free a jumbled thought. "Gracias, amigo. You're very kind. I don't know what to say."
"Well, whatever you come up with, say it in English. You need to practice your language skills, and you need to lose that Ricky Ricardo accent as soon as possible." He glanced over at Paz briefly and cracked a small smile. "You catch my drift?"
Paz nodded, but he was actually thinking about his new toy. Back in Cuba, guns were strictly controlled, and if you were caught with one in your possession –– and you were not on active military duty, a policeman, or a member of the secret service –– you would go to prison for a very long time. The regime frowned upon private gun ownership, and there was no such thing as a simple hunting license or a gun collector.
On the other hand, gun crimes were virtually nonexistent in Cuba, and the murder rates well below those of most Latin America countries.
Paz had mixed feelings about gun control, but now that he was in Florida, he had nothing to worry about. The state currently had over 1.3 million concealed weapon permit holders –– nearly double that of the second state, which was Pennsylvania. He was amused by the fact that Florida had ten times more permit holders than Cuba had soldiers. No wonder his old employer was always so nervous.
Lost in thought, Paz didn't seem to notice –– or maybe he just didn't care –– that they were stuck in a traffic jam, surrounded by some of the world's most impatient drivers. Twenty minutes later, they turned onto SW 8th Street and pulled into the parking lot of La Palma Cafeteria. Before they got out, Russo checked himself in the rearview mirror, running a hand through his slick, black hair.
"Today's your lucky day," Russo said cheerfully. "I've got a little surprise for you."
Another one? Paz thought. He was still dealing with the gun. He rubbed one hand across his forehead as if he were tired, or getting a headache. "What's up?"
"You're about to meet Morella Perez."
"The hottest waitress in Miami-Dade County."
"I don't understand."
"How'd you like to take her out?"
Paz could hardly believe his ears. Did "take her out" mean date her or kill her? He was afraid to ask. He looked out the window across the parking lot and the restaurant beyond. I'm not ready for either, he thought, hiding a frown. Wisely, he swallowed his words without speaking them. He took a long, slow breath and released it. "I think we're moving too fast."
There was a half-second pause, then Russo replied, "Don't underestimate yourself. You're a born ladykiller."CHAPTER 2
In his darker moments, much more frequent of late, Paz often found himself wondering why he had gotten kicked out of Cuba, what he'd done to deserve such a harsh punishment. After all, he never said that Castro was going to hell, only that he might –– that there was a distinct possibility. The announcers on Radio Marti had said the same thing for years. They used to say that Castro would go to hell when he died, but at least all his friends would be there, too. He assumed they were joking, and so was he.
One foolish comment and out he went, and now he was being recruited by the CIA! To kill a damn waitress! Life was not fair. Not fair at all.
When Paz saw Morella Perez, his heart did a little flip in his chest, and for him it was love at first sight. Not so much for her. She stood over their table, crossed her arms, and gave him a flat look. "Que bola contigo?"
"Nada," Paz said. "No hay problema."
"Why are you staring at me?"
Paz opened his mouth, then closed it again, opting to keep it simple. "Sorry."
She looked at Russo. "What's wrong with your friend?"
Russo grinned. "I think he's in love."
"Your friend have a name?" "Ricardo."
"Why's he dressed like Tony Montana?"
"He just got off the boat."
"Does he speak English?"
"He's getting there."
"Let me know when he arrives."
Russo nudged Paz with his knee. "Say hello to Morella."
Heart racing, Paz said, "It's a pleasure to meet you."
She stared down at him, expressionless. "The pleasure's all yours."
Paz frowned, unsure how to take that. An uncomfortable silence fell between them. It was broken a few seconds later by the sound of rattling dishes. Another waitress walked by them, carrying a tray of coffee and pastries. Russo displayed the faintest trace of a smile and then placed his order –– two cups of coffee and a plate of churros. Chocolate sauce on the side.
When Perez walked away, Russo leaned in close and said, "How'd you like to get your hands on that papaya?"
Paz hesitated, at a loss for how to respond. He wondered if Russo knew that in Cuba the word papaya was slang for vagina. He made a show of deliberation, then said, "She's a very attractive woman."
Russo swiveled around in his chair, making a small, squeaking sound, and looked around the restaurant. Paz heard him mutter an obscenity under his breath, and he suspected it was aimed at him. "Attractive?" Russo whispered. "She's a total piece of ass. So what do you think? Would you like to take her out?"
Paz turned his head this way and that, trying to figure out what Russo meant by "take her out." He could see that Russo was serious and waiting for an answer. Jesus, the crazy bastard had a iron grin on his face, not a look of amusement or pleasure, but of something ominous. "Son of a bitch," he murmured. "I'm just not ready."
Russo frowned, confused. "You're not ready?"
"Not even close."
"Are you gay or something?"
"What are you afraid of?"
Paz slumped in his chair. Time to confess. "I was just a bodyguard. I never fired my gun. I've never killed anyone. How can you expect me to do such a thing?"
Russo shot him a sharp look, a blend of confusion and irritation. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Taking her out. I can't do it."
"Are you on drugs?"
"Look, I know what you're asking, but I can't do it. I just can't. I'm sorry." He forced himself to take a deep breath, and then another. The blood had drained from his face, and for a moment he looked like he was going to faint. "I'm not a murderer."
"No, just a babbling idiot. You better not be high." Russo fixed him with a flat disgusted look. "If you're wired, you're fired."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Capone Island"
Copyright © 2019 Stephen G. Yanoff.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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