Havana, New Year’s Eve 1957, a terrorist bomb rips through the Tropicana nightclub. King Bongo, a rogue Cuban-American, tortured by a mysterious past and possessed of a mythic musical talent, goes on the hunt for the culprits, and for his sister, Cuba’s most exotic showgirl, who disappeared in the explosion.
Navigating Havana’s maze of Colonial backstreets, red-light districts, swank country clubs, and opulent casinos, Bongo encounters an outrageous cast of characters—American hit men, decadent movie stars, prophetic shoeshine boys, and a beautiful American socialite. At the center of the mystery is a sinister secret police operative with whom Bongo is destined to have a lethal showdown.
About the Author
Thomas Sanchez lived for many years in Key West, Mallorca, and Paris, where the French Republic awarded him the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. He currently resides in Key West. He is the author of King Bongo, Mile Zero, Day of the Bees, Zoot-Suit Murders and Rabbit Boss, which was named by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the most important books of the twentieth century.
Read an Excerpt
1. White Spider Dancing
King Bongo drove along the Malecón. All his troubles slid right off his shoulders and out over the ocean. The canvas top of his Oldsmobile Rocket 88 convertible was down and oversized fuzzy dice hung from the chrome stub of the rearview mirror, swaying to a rumba throbbing from the radio. He loved this drive out of Havana headed for the Tropicana, past the centuries-old mansions facing the sea; fanciful three-story palaces with gaily colored facades of pillars and balconies, cheek by cheek with each other, like old tarts posing for a group reunion shot in the glare of tropical sunlight, shining with a glamour that refused to fade away. One after another these gaudy palaces preened along the curve of the Malecón, with its high stone seawall backing down the ocean that lapped against it. Perched on the seawall were perennial lovebirds, men and women, boys and girls, lovers all, sitting and swooning, holding hands, faces nuzzling necks, shoulders being caressed, lips kissing, and all the while waves crashing below. The moon shone down and the stars led the way along the Malecón as the road curved. The grand old mansions gave way to modern high-rise apartments, hotel towers, and sprawling shopping galleries. Bongo loved it all, old gods and new money, yesterday’s dreams rubbing shoulders with tomorrow’s promises.
The radio blasted out a hot new tune. Bongo beat its rhythm on the steering wheel as he picked up on the lyric and sang along. “Lazarus rose from the dead and walked the dog. Do your hips shake when our lips kiss?” He gunned the engine and the Rocket flew along the edge of the ocean.
Yes, old Saint Lazarus walked the dead walk with his ghost dog, leading the way between two worlds. Bongo felt that his own spirit dog was running loose, luck was headed his way.
The palms swayed along the Malecón like soft skirts rustling in the breeze; horns honked hello from carloads of females passing by, the women leaning from windows, blowing kisses.
Bongo punched the car radio button and the music of a Miami station came on loud and clear: “I found my thriiilll on Blueberry Hiiilll.” He tapped out the beat with two fingers on the dashboard.
Tomorrow morning would be good for Bongo’s business, because tonight people having a good time would do bad things—crash cars, walk through plate-glass windows, fall into swimming pools and go to sleep underwater. Mistakes everywhere, blame to be assigned, value to be appraised, damages to be calculated, claims to be made, demands to be filed. All the things Bongo needed to make his up-and-coming one-man insurance office succeed. And that billboard looming ahead at the side of the road where the Malecón swooped in a ninety-degree left turn—BACARDI, THE FAMOUS RUM THAT MAKES THE WHOLE WORLD HAPPY—that billboard would one day be replaced with a new declaration: KING BONGO'S GREAT TROPICAL LIFE INSURANCE , WHERE EVERYONE IS ROYALTY.
Elvis Presley’s lip-lashed words jumped out of the radio speaker: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” Even Elvis across the water in America had his spirit dog, walking to hell and back, paradise and beyond. Bongo glanced up at the moon over Havana and a sky full of stars. Before him the fuzzy dice dangled from the rearview mirror, fate swinging in the balance, the fate of all lovers, politicians and assassins, puckered up and waiting for a lucky kiss at the stroke of midnight.
Martin Fox was a giant of a man and his Tropicana was a giant of a place. The nightclub was New York’s Cotton Club, Paris’s Folies Bergères, and Monte Carlo’s Grand Casino all rolled into one in a jungle on the outskirts of Havana, far enough out of the city so that the pleasures it offered didn’t offend the faint of heart. The idea of the Tropicana was that you might lose your money, but you’d do it in an exotic setting while rubbing elbows with the highest rollers and getting an eyeful of the world’s most beautiful showgirls. It was a world-class idea, and the world beat a path to Martin’s door.
King Bongo hoped to meet the giant Martin and sell him some insurance. Even though Martin was already hooked up with the orchestrators of the biggest protection racket in Havana, Bongo figured he offered something more legit—real payoffs for real losses. There were things that even the world’s biggest bad boys couldn’t protect you from. Acts of God, for example. Just thirteen years ago, in 1944, the Tropicana’s roofless paradise got smacked by a hurricane that tore through banyan trees, uprooted palms, and stripped the earth down to its red dirt hide. Who better to pay off and help rebuild after that than those who had been hit by it too? Great Tropical Life was a homegrown company backed by local agricultural banks, eager to prime the pump of the economy in order to save their own financial skins. As Great Tropical Life’s only insurance agent in Havana, King Bongo knew he was a little man, but he had a big plan. Tonight his plan was to finally get Martin to sign a multimillion- dollar policy insuring the world’s most beautiful nightclub against any and all tragedies that could possibly befall it.
King Bongo aimed his speeding convertible at a concrete arch spanning the entrance of a long drive. Colorful blinking neon lights on the arch spelled out TROPICANA. Driving through the arch always gave Bongo a jump of anticipation, the excitement of entering a jungle governed by different rules. He drove up the road lined with royal palms, their silver trunks shimmering in the car’s headlights. Suddenly the road cut through a thicket of ferns and vines intertwined in a green mesh through which he could glimpse eight voluptuous bodies in a tropical mist. The famous Tropicana muses. The life-sized marble nymphs were circled around a fountain; colored lights shooting up through a watery spray animated their frolic.
Bongo drove past the fountain and pulled to a stop underneath a swooping fan-shaped canopy dominating the entrance to the Tropicana. Other cars were arriving and being greeted by uniformed attendants. Bongo loved this social dance, the attendants helping elegant ladies in cocktail dresses out of their cars, then handing them off to a tuxedoed escort; a guy who might be a politician, a high-stakes poker player, a made man from Chicago, or just a regular Joe who had saved it all up to make the show, play the role, and wearing the best damn shoes money could buy.
“Hey, man! Love those kickers!” The parking attendant whistled, looking down at Bongo’s black-and-white patent leather shoes as he stepped out of the Rocket.
Bongo reached into the inside pocket of his wide-lapeled powder-blue tuxedo, pulled out a folded peso note, and slipped it to the attendant with a wink. “These are the same kind of shoes Carlos Guardel danced in. Handmade in Argentina.”
“You don’t say! Guardel, the greatest tango man of all!” The attendant peered closely at Bongo. “You look like Guardel. Same killer Latin-lover looks. Hey, maybe you are him. All the big stars come out to play at the Tropicana.”
“Especially the dead ones.” Bongo winked, and walked through the double glass doors swung open by two doormen who saluted his entrance into the foyer as if he were a true king.
If a man can be judged by the way he walks, then maybe Bongo was a king. He walked to the beat, not arrogant, not strutting, not threatening. He had a natural rhythm drumming in his blood. People noticed his walk because he always seemed balanced, like a guy poised high up on a tightrope while the earth spun out of control below.
Coming across the red carpet, beneath the sparkling overhead chandeliers, was a seven-foot-tall man with muscles bulging beneath his suit. His shaved head glistened, his mouth was a huge gash beneath a once bulbous nose flattened by battles both in and out of the boxing ring.
“Do you have a ticket to tonight’s show?” the man demanded. He stared hard at Bongo, then laughed and threw his arms around him in a bear hug, lifting him off the ground and giving him a swift kiss on each cheek. “Bongo, my brother! The first show is already over. Why so late?”
“I took the scenic route. I drove along the Malecón.” Bongo smiled. “Let me down, Fido.”
Fido lowered Bongo to the ground. Then, like a gorilla with the nimble feet of a ballerina, he did a dance as he sang a mock tune. “Fido, let me down, I drove along the Malecón. Got my pay today, hoping tonight to get some play.”
“I wouldn’t mind getting lucky.”
“Lucky! What luck do you need? You’ve got the moves. You could steal the nipples off a nun while she said her rosary.”
“Yeah, I could add that to my collection.”
“Collection? You call that parade of puff and powder that goes through your bedroom a collection? That’s a harem.”
“I gave up the harem. Got a steady girl now. Say, is the Giant here?”
“You mean me? Of course I’m here. I’m always here.”
“I mean Martin.”
“Around somewhere. You know, keeps the roulette wheels greased and the dancers’ G-strings in the right crease. We’re sold out tonight.”
“The most beautiful girls.”
“And the highest gambling stakes.”
“Forget the dough, the girls are the highest stakes.”
“Is she here?”
Fido’s enormous mouth opened in a grin that exposed a mouthful of gold-capped teeth large as piano keys. “She’s here. When she came out of her tree earlier the joint went wild. There was such a roar that even the five-thousand-dollar-ante gamblers in the private poker room upstairs stopped playing.”
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the Panther stalks tonight,” sang Bongo.
“She sure does. She caused such a commotion I’m sure it could be heard even by those bearded rebels hiding out in the mountains, jerking off their rifles instead of enjoying the Havana high life.”
“If the Panther is ready, so am I.”
Fido led the way across the red-carpeted lobby, past open doorways leading to gaming rooms where the excited talk from people crowded around the tables rose in a crescendo that gave way only to the deeper throb of music coming from the cavernous cabaret ahead.
The entrance to the cabaret was blocked by a velvet rope and guarded by a stiff man in a tuxedo standing behind an imposing wooden podium. He had all the good humor of a judge about to hand down a life sentence, which was why everyone called him the Judge.
When Bongo and Fido stopped in front of the Judge, he didn’t crack a smile, nor did he take down the velvet rope. He ran his finger across names written on a list. “You’re not here,” he told Bongo without looking up. “No reservation, no entrance.”
Fido placed his huge paw over the list of names and glared into the Judge’s face. “Let him in. You know who he is.”
“He’s the king . . . King of the Bongo,” the Judge replied sarcastically. “But as an insurance man, he’s a big nothing. I filed a claim on that fender bender I was involved in last year. The grille of my Chevy Bel Air was punched out. Do you think I heard from the King here? Do you think he went down to the police station to explain on my behalf that I was not over the center line when that collision happened? Do you think he called to tell me my claim had been accepted? Do you think he raced over to my house with the check I was entitled to? That’s what a good insurance agent would do. That’s what an agent from an American company would do. I’m telling you, Cuban insurance is worthless. The phone company is just as bad. You might as well go up to your rooftop and shout out your message instead of trying to get a telephone connection in this town.”
Bongo smiled. “That’s why you didn’t hear from me. I was phoning all the time. As usual, no ring.”
The Judge tightened the velvet rope closing off the cabaret entrance. “No ring, no admittance.”
Bongo reached into his tuxedo pocket and pulled out a pen and checkbook. He filled in a check as he spoke. “Here’s the money, your claim is paid in full. You didn’t get paid earlier because of the holidays. You know how it is, the mail is slower than usual.”
The Judge took the check and shoved it into his pocket. “That’s another thing. Mail doesn’t move, water doesn’t flow. Cuba is getting to be a banana republic.”
“I wrote the check for more money than what you claimed your losses were,” Bongo said. “A holiday bonus.”
The Judge grudgingly unhooked the velvet rope. “I still wouldn’t buy insurance from you again, even if you unzipped my pants and smoked my cigar.”
“Keep your pants zipped.” Bongo winked. “There’s only a few puffs left on your tiny cigarillo. You don’t want to deny your wife her once-a-year smoke.”
Bongo stepped past the podium and into a vast amphitheater magically illuminated by colored lights in towering trees. With no roof overhead, it was a paradise under the stars. Down in front, on a raised dance floor, festive revelers shook their hips to the blasting rhythm of a twenty-five-piece band perched high above in a giant bamboo cage.
Bongo felt the beat pulsing up through the soles of his feet. His two-toned shoes kept time to the music. He strode past tables of excited people. The blue mist of cigarette and cigar smoke made the women’s clinging dresses sparkle and the men’s white dinner jackets shine. The moon overhead beamed down.
“Hey, Bongo, Happy New Year!”
Bongo heard the words shouted as he glided onto the dance floor and into the gyrating crowd.
A young woman danced up next to him, her hips swinging in rhythm with his. The sweat on her face made her glow, as if she were one of the muses from the fountain outside, miraculously come to life. Her satin dress was as slick as her skin.
“Mercedes!” Bongo took her by the waist and floated with her across the dance floor through waves of dancers. Together they were a ship at sea, bow and stern taking the swells of syncopated notes.
“Lose yourself, Bongo! Go, King!”
Bongo felt the beat, felt it the way he had as a boy, standing naked before his father, his head shaved, while his father slapped his skull with his open palms, slapping the beat into him, tattooing his memory.
“Hey, King!” came a shout from the bandstand. “Come on up and join us!”
Bongo danced up to the bandstand with Mercedes at his side and they shimmied through the wide bamboo bars into the cage. The band members grinned with expectation. One of them stood, and over the heads of the others tossed a set of bongos. Bongo caught the drums and ran his hands over their skintight heads, taking the beat. His sound soared across the crowded dance floor and swirled up into the night sky, punctuating a note for every star above.
The band stopped; they knew Bongo was sailing. The dancers stopped; they knew Bongo was in orbit. His solo had everyone gasping, his lightning moves had the monkeys chattering, his beat had the saints smiling and the dead dogs walking.
His furious drumming stormed to a climax. Thunderous applause washed over him.
He rested his hands on the bongos and looked out into the crowd, searching for one special face, gazing into all eyes, trying to find his father. Daddy, did you hear that? I got the beat you pounded into my head! Damn you and praise you for beating me into deliverance!
“You’re soaking wet!”
Bongo glanced up, still in a daze.
Mercedes wiped the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.
The band blasted into a new dance tune. Bongo smiled at Mercedes. “Would you like a rum and Coke?”
“Yes,” she sang back to him, “rum and Coca-Cola!”
Bongo made his way to a palm-thatched bar. Revelers patted him on the back, congratulating him on his playing, shouting above the music to buy him drinks. Cold glasses of rum and Coke were shoved at him and he grabbed as many as he could.
Mercedes sat calmly at a table on the edge of the dance floor. Her black hair was piled atop her head in an elaborate braid that made her appear to be crowned royalty. Laced through the braid were bright stars of jasmine blossoms. She took the drink offered by Bongo, then waved to three young women at another table. The women giggled and waved back. They were thrilled that one of their own had snagged Bongo. They had all seen him dance or play the bongos in clubs around town. He was a hard one to catch, half Cuban and half American. Just when a girl thought she understood him, had him nailed to the floor with a wedding ring ready to be slipped onto her finger, one half of Bongo would escape. A girl couldn’t chase him because she wasn’t sure which half to chase. He was fifty percent enigma, a man who knew the darkest secrets of the seedy back streets of Old Havana yet also knew the swankiest people in the country clubs. A girl had to accept that Bongo was black and white, yes and no, tonight but not tomorrow. All of this made him more attractive, the handsome fox, the swift fish, the drum-playing, dancing fanatic with a great grin, ready to defy the odds and stay single. And tonight one of their own had triumphed. Mercedes was next to Bongo, coolly sipping a rum and Coke as people cleared the dance floor for the next fabulous cabaret extravaganza.
Bongo slipped his arm around Mercedes’ bare shoulders and embraced her affectionately.
The lights went out. The crowd hushed. Everything was black.
A voice boomed from the darkness with the melodrama of Moses coming down from the mountain.
“Laaadieees and Gentlemeeen, the most famous cabaret in the world offers the fiesta of women, the show of shows, a true paradise under the stars!”
A spotlight pierced down from above, illuminating on a vast stage a master of ceremonies in a white tuxedo.
“Behold now, the Queen of the Jungle, the black pearl of the Antilles, le chat noir, the rarest of the rare, the seldom seen, the one and only . . . Cuuubaaan PANTHER!”
The master of ceremonies disappeared in a swirl of mist.
The crowd gasped in a collective “aaahhhhh!”
From the lush jungle backdrop, six-foot-tall female bird creatures magically appeared in the trees, slowly spreading their wings to reveal nearly naked bodies. Glittering bits of jeweled costumes clung to their breasts and formed tiny strategic triangles between long legs and the thrust of buttocks. Iridescent feathered headdresses adorned the fabulous birds of paradise. They stood poised, wings outspread, ready to soar over the audience.
The sound of a single drum rose up.
All eyes were fixed on the stage. Shafts of blue, red, and yellow light shot through the slowly dissipating mist, revealing at the back of the stage the skeletal steel form of a monstrous white spider. From behind the spider, a dark creature slithered down the thick trunk of a banyan tree to the beat of the drum. In syncopated movements, the creature made its way from the base of the banyan into the maze of the giant spider. The spider’s spiny steel skeleton lit up in a gaudy flash of lights.
The deep voice of the master of ceremonies breathed from hidden loudspeakers: “The Panther.”
A shudder went through the crowd.
The Panther leapt from the steel spider. On all fours, she arched her glistening back, her satiny black skin shining. She shook her head as if trying to free herself from a leash tight around her neck. She strained against the force, digging the red claws of her fingernails into the floor.
The cheering audience stood up from their tables and threw white gardenias onto the stage.
The band blasted into a conga that raked the cat’s back. She prowled to the fierce rhythm. On her black feet were strapped gold high-heeled shoes. She rose, a glorious Panther, naked as the day God made her. Her feline body vibrated with menacing sensuality. The thunderous conga shook her world. The audience screamed, caught in the titillation of the prey being set upon by the predator.
The muscles in the Panther’s sleek shoulders twitched. A melodious, murderous purr ripped from her throat, joining the howl of up-tempo music.
The tall birds of paradise descended from high in the trees and surrounded the Panther in a pulsating swirl of flesh and feathers. The Panther burst through the birds and for the first time showed her face. It was black, and her short hair was white: God’s panther angel on the prowl. From her lips flamed a volcanic tirade.