فصل 02

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فصل 02

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CHAPTER TWO

Whispers and echoes

I experienced Havana through your eyes. No, that doesn’t express it properly. It wasn’t an intellectual thing at all. I didn’t think, ‘Mark would have liked this,’ or, ‘Mark would have done that.’ It was more as if I became you. As if your spirit possessed me in some strange way, making me respond to my surroundings the way you would.

The dilapidated Havana streets are alive with shady characters. Especially Old Havana, or Habana Vieja, as it’s called in Spanish. The streets of Habana Vieja are no place for a foreign woman to walk alone after dark, I can tell you. Or probably even during the day for that matter. But the very first night I was in Havana, I left the normal tourist routes far behind and wandered past the near-ruined houses along dark streets, and I wasn’t afraid. I walked tall with my shoulders back, all my senses working overtime as they absorbed the unique mixture of sights and sounds that is a real Havana night.

Tourists mostly experience a Cuba with its Sunday-best clothes on. A poor but cheerful country where everybody smiles constantly and tries their very best to please you. In a country where a tour guide earns more than a doctor, I suppose this isn’t very surprising. Certainly, behind every smiled welcome there’s a hunger. They want your money, but they’re very polite about it. It’s not the same as when we went on holiday to India and we had crowds of beggars running after us.

No, Cuban people are prepared to be nice to you in order to get their hands on your dollars. It’s only when you examine those smiles a little more closely that you begin to see how false they are. Really they’re jealous of you, with your expensive watch, designer sunglasses and, above all, your passport and freedom to travel. In a country where the supermarket shelves are often almost empty, a tourist is like a precious jewel in a pile of dusty stones.

The real Havana is a city of whispers and echoes. You’d love it, you really would. Lovers kiss in dark passages while music drifts in the humid winds. Paint peels from the front of once-grand buildings and men sit in doorways smoking cigars and drinking rum. And of course there are all the wonderful old cars left over from the days when Hollywood stars visited the city in the 1950s before the Revolution. Cadillac cars sail along the streets, curiosities from another time, polluting the atmosphere as they go. Money that could be spent on clothes or food is spent on cars by people with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Havana is a city populated by people waiting for something to happen.

And, as I walked along the dark streets of Habana Vieja, carrying the spirit of you inside me, many of the people sitting in doorways decided that I might be what they were waiting for. An opportunity.

They used the traditional Cuban way to attract my attention: by making a sound that isn’t quite a whistle or a shout, but a strange hiss like a water bird on a lake. And some of the younger men found the energy to get up from their steps to follow me, bringing the smell of cigars and rum along with them.

‘Hey, senorita! Where are you going? Senorita! You are very beautiful!’ And somehow, perhaps because I was away from the regular tourist routes, their smiles seemed more genuine than usual.

Was I in danger? I honestly don’t know. I’m not even sure I cared very much. Oh, I suppose I didn’t really want any actual harm to come to me, but since losing you I have been very aware of how unpredictable life can be. Of how at risk and vulnerable we are all the time. The dark streets of Habana Vieja just didn’t seem any more or less dangerous than anywhere else, that’s all.

Anyway, I was alone in those unpredictable Havana streets for a reason. Alec Cartwright was renting a room somewhere near to where I was; I had his address in my pocket, written by Diane on a piece of expensive notepaper. But it would be no use going straight round there to challenge him. After all, what would I say? What would I do? No, I needed time to observe him, time to find out about his habits and his way of life. That way I could identify any weak spots which could form the basis of my revenge plans. (You see, I wasn’t thinking of murder then, only of some sort of simple revenge.) But in order to study Alec Cartwright, I needed to find myself a base. Somewhere close to where he lived.

Fortunately, luck was on my side. Suddenly, in the dull light from an antique streetlamp, I saw a card in the front window of a tired-looking house. The card was stained brown by age or damp or possibly both. Of course it was written in Spanish, but it was simple Spanish, and my command of the language was sufficient to understand it. ‘Room to rent. Apply Bar Escorpion.’

I found the bar right at the end of the street. If I tell you it matched the houses around it, then you’ll probably guess that the paint on the walls was faded and peeling and that the metal sign was rusty. It certainly seemed highly unlikely that any tourists had ever passed through its doors before, but I didn’t care. I walked in, and I wasn’t even put off when a quick glance around the dark interior of the bar revealed territory that was strictly male.

You’d have loved it, I’m sure, because it was straight out of one of those cowboy films you’ve got such a passion for. I don’t know why, they all seem the same to me. Or at least, they all start the same way: a stranger arrives in a sleepy town, gets off his horse, beats the dust from his clothes with his hat and walks into the bar. As the doors close behind him, everyone stops talking…

Well, I didn’t have a horse and my clothes weren’t dusty, but just like in those films, all conversation stopped when I walked in. But I just gave a general smile around the room at everybody, then I went up to the bar and ordered a beer. By the time I’d been served and had settled myself at an empty table in a corner, the conversations had started up again. I guessed that most people were probably talking about me, but I simply chose not to be concerned about it. I didn’t care. It wasn’t important.

I suppose my desire for revenge had given me a real sense of purpose. But, looking back, I think at that moment in time, I actually felt quite relaxed. After a while I intended to ask about the room, but there was no hurry. There was plenty of time to just sit and drink my beer. Who knew? Perhaps Alec Cartwright himself would come in for a neighbourly chat before supper.

But when the doors did open a few minutes later, it was to admit a man who was the very opposite in looks to the grey-bearded fifty-year-old in the photograph Diane had lent me before I left England. The man filling the doorway had skin like milk chocolate and a smile that spread sunshine to all who received it. And it was only a matter of seconds before I was on the receiving end of some of that warming sunshine.

Luis - for I soon discovered that was his name - walked straight up to my table and sat himself down in the empty seat opposite me. For a while he said absolutely nothing, just looked at me, studying every millimetre of my face. Then a glass of rum arrived as if by magic on the table in front of him. He put his head on one side and picked the drink up.

‘I am a reader of faces,’ he stated grandly. ‘Do you want me to tell you what your face says to me?’

‘Well,’ I said, impressed by the standard of his English, ‘it appears to tell you my nationality anyway.’

Instantly he smiled, and I noticed there was a gap between his front teeth. ‘No, your guidebook told me that,’ he said, his eyes sparkling, and I smiled back at him, remembering that my Rough Guide to Cuba was sticking out of the top of my shoulder bag, which I’d hung from my chair.

‘You are English,’ he went on, still looking carefully at my face, ‘and you have only been in Cuba for a few days.’

‘Because I haven’t got a suntan, right?’ I guessed, and once again that gap-toothed smile shone out at me.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘Because your skin is still pale.’

By now I was enjoying myself. I’d almost forgotten about Alec Cartwright and the true reason I was here.

‘Tell me something a little less obvious,’ I encouraged him, but immediately regretted it when his face grew more thoughtful.

‘You’re looking for something or someone,’ he said slowly, and suddenly it wasn’t a game any longer. ‘It’s very important that you find him,’ he said. ‘A person’s life depends on it…’

The room seemed suddenly cold despite the humid air drifting in through the open windows, and I shivered, avoiding his eyes.

Of course he noticed my tension. ‘Am I right?’ he asked casually, and I remember how exposed I felt. My new confidence had abandoned me.

But with a huge effort I managed to keep my feelings from my face, or at least I think I did. ‘There’s an element of truth in that statement,’ I said, but if I’d hoped to confuse Luis by using long words, then I was quickly disappointed. His command of the English language was astonishingly good.

‘Why don’t you tell me all about it?’ he suggested.

Of course I wasn’t about to betray my plans to a total stranger, even one as attractive and friendly as Luis. Not that I had a plan, beyond finding Alec Cartwright and making him sweat. You see, even then I didn’t know just what I was capable of. I suspected I was capable of blackmail, and of inflicting emotional pain, perhaps even severe emotional pain. But I had no suspicion of that potential for violence living just beneath my skin. A potential that was swelling and increasing every second, like undiscovered cancer cells.

‘I’m here to do a favour for a friend,’ I said. ‘She wants me to find a missing reptile.’

For the first time Luis’s mind didn’t quite connect with the meaning of my words. ‘Has your friend lost a snake in Havana?’ he asked, and I laughed out loud.

Luis looked slightly offended, so I quickly apologised. ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘you’re almost right. She’s lost her husband, and I gather he is something of a snake.’

‘I see,’ Luis said. ‘And what is his name, this snake husband of your friend?’

‘Alec,’ I told him. ‘Alec Cartwright.’

And then suddenly it was Luis’s turn to laugh.

‘What?’ I asked him, curious. ‘What’s so amusing?’

‘Alec Cartwright is my neighbour,’ he explained finally. And that’s when I came to the conclusion that fate must be on my side. It wasn’t coincidence that had brought me into this bar at the same time as Alec Cartwright’s neighbour, it was fate.

Someone somewhere intended me to get my revenge. It was almost as if I was an actress in a play, speaking the lines of a writer’s plot. The situation was out of my control. And every bit as inevitable as night following day.

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