“Slaughterhouse Blues,” the latest book in the “Love & Bullets” trilogy, is out this week (you can pick it up via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, etc.). To mark the release, here’s a short chapter taken from a particularly auspicious section of the novel: when Bill, one of our two anti-heroes, finds himself getting into some very deep trouble in Cuba. Will he survive?
Bill had his passport, his hotel key-card, and a hundred in Cuban pesos. The money would last him hardly any time at all on the street, unless he started pickpocketing tourists. There was also the Piaget Altiplano ticking on his wrist, but he would never part with his favorite timepiece. Not after all the blood and thunder he had endured to keep it.
Tucked in the cool, dark womb of El Floridita, he downed his third daiquiri and reviewed his options. The blonde lady beside him, dressed in denim shorts and a t-shirt with the Cuban flag on it, seemed like a convenient target: her leather bag hung from the back of her seat, unzipped.
At this early hour, only a few tourists occupied the round red tables along the wall. The crimson-vested bartender—distracted, tired, or maybe hungover—ran a rag along the lacquered shelf behind the bar. Nobody glanced at Bill as he leaned toward the bag, spying a folded wad of pesos and the shiny edge of a phone just inside the opening. Perfect. Go for the cash first.
Gesturing to the bartender for another drink, he pulled out his wallet—and promptly dropped it on the floor. Leaning over to retrieve it, he let his forearm brush the bag, his fingers darting inside. As he straightened, the pesos disappeared into his cupped palm.
The blonde lady, fixated on the life-size statue of Hemingway leaning on the far end of the bar, appeared none the wiser. Hells bells, Bill thought. I guess I haven’t lost my skills after all. After transferring the stolen money to his jacket pocket, he turned to his freshened daiquiri and puzzled over his crisis.
He couldn’t go back to the hotel right now. The lobby of the Meliá Cohíba offered visitors a wide selection of couches and chairs, most with excellent views of the doors, front desk, and elevators. The creepy couple, in their fashion-forward tourist gear, could haunt there forever without anyone bothering them.
And who’s to say they didn’t have his room number already? They could wait for a maid to open the door and walk in as if they belonged there, ambush Bill whenever he entered.
With a little more money, he could take a chance on the airport, buy a flight to somewhere less heavy. That would mean abandoning everything in his room: the suits, the cash, his phone, Fiona’s luggage…
He pictured his phone tucked in his bag beside the bed, ringing nonstop, his girlfriend panicking on the other end. Why hadn’t he brought it with him, or at least checked for messages before walking out the door? He knew the answer: their last fight had left him in a mood.
When the blonde lady turned to him, he tensed, ready for the accusation. Instead she smiled, flashing rows of perfect teeth, and his guts unclenched a little. She was young, maybe early twenties, her unlined face suggesting a lifetime of only trivial worries.
“Hey,” she said, slurring a little. “I’m Marnie.”
“Steve.” He made no move to shake her hand.
Marnie leaned into him. “Where you from, Steve?”
He placed her accent in the Midwest somewhere, the vowels flat as Kansas. “Arkansas. How about you?”
She dodged the question. “We’re here on educational exchange. Part of a graduate program thing.” Her voice dipped to a confidential timbre. “I know they say it’s dangerous to leave the group, because of crime? But I had to get a drink. Our professor’s been driving us just that crazy.”
“Sounds like you’re having a heck of a morning.”
She laughed. “Could be worse, I guess. Can I ask you something weird?”
She nodded at the statue. “That’s Ernest Hemingway, right?”
“Uh, yeah.” Bill jabbed a finger at the wall behind the bronze figure. “See that photo above his head, to the left a bit? That’s Hemingway and Castro. He used to live down here. As a kid I used to read all his stuff, loved it. Even ‘To Have and Have Not,’ although I think I’m the only one who does. Have you read it?”
“No, he’s too macho for my taste.” Her face scrunched, in the way of drunk people trying to concentrate on reality, and she gestured at Bill’s raised hand. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t ask, but how did you lose…”
He turned his wrist, giving her a better view of the index finger, which ended in a scarred stump at the second knuckle. “A crooked cop chopped it off because I wouldn’t tell him where the money was.”
“Nope.” He wiggled the stump. “Don’t worry, though. Once I broke free, I shot him.”
Her smile died. “No, tell me you’re kidding.”
“Nope. I got the drop on him because he slipped on my severed finger. I’m in Cuba because I’m a wanted man back in the States.”
Her hands flattened on the bar, her legs stiffening. She was about to leave, and that was a problem, because he needed her phone if he wanted to stay alive. Working every ounce of warmth he could into a broad grin, he said: “Got you.”
Marnie’s lips twitched upwards. “Really?”
“Yeah. Severed in a car accident. No big deal. I mean, it was a big deal at the time, don’t get me wrong, but I’m sort of used to it now.”
She relaxed into her seat. “You’re weird.”
He saluted her with his glass. “What’d you expect in a bar at this hour?”
“No, not weird in a bad way. Just different.” She skimmed a strand of hair away from her face. “So you’re a tourist? You here alone?”
Bill took the opportunity to bend closer, his hand on the back of her chair. He could smell the rum and lime on her breath. “I’m on a Hemingway tour. Told you I was a fan, remember? We see his house, pet the cats, all that jazz.”
“Petting the cats sounds macho.” She gestured at her empty glass. “I think I need another drink. I can’t face the idea of heading back to the hotel quite yet.”
“I’ll get it.” Bill’s hand disappeared into his jacket.
“Thanks.” Marnie stood, slinging her bag onto her shoulder. “And I have to hit the loo. Be right back.”
Once she disappeared around the corner, Bill leaned back in his seat, flexing his fingers like a pianist after a long concert. Always a little paranoid about his health, he wondered if the ache in his bones was the first sign of arthritis. Her stolen phone sat heavy in his jacket pocket, beside her cash.
You’re slick, boy! Still got it!
Slipping another few pesos onto the bar, he stood and headed for the door, his feet only a little unsteady. You want another sign you’re ancient? When you can’t down copious amounts of alcohol with no ill effects. I got to retire, he thought.
The bright Havana sun smacked him full in the face. Pausing at the curb to allow a few bright junkers to cruise past, he pulled out Marnie’s phone and flicked the power button. The device ran an older version of Android he could crack, provided he had enough time. Pocketing it again, he crossed the road, intending to disappear into Havana’s grungy Chinatown for a few hours.
Marnie shouted behind him.
So much for being slick. She must have wanted to check her Facebook in the bathroom, or something.
Bill forced himself to walk at a normal pace. Find a cab, get the hell out of here. A half-block away, a pair of teenagers tucked beneath the open hood of a cherry-red Ford, banging on the engine with a wrench wrapped in tape. When one of them paused and turned around, Bill caught his eye and raised his hands to grip an invisible wheel.
The kid started to nod, only to jolt upright and tap his friend’s shoulder. They slammed the hood and ducked into the car, which squealed away from the curb fast enough to leave a black comma of burnt rubber behind.
That was odd. Who around here turned down a chance at cold, hard cash?
Bill risked a glance behind him.
A cop stood in front of the bar, a hand on his sidearm. Marnie gripped his elbow while spinning a tale of deception and thievery in what sounded like pitch-perfect Spanish. The cop asked a question, and she waved an arm at Bill.
While dressing that morning, Bill had selected a pair of Berluti calfskin loafers, hand-stitched and sleek and totally unfit for running. The slick soles squeaked on the pavement as he sprinted through the crowds, praying that the law would hesitate at the prospect of tackling a tourist long enough to give him even the most pathetic head-start. His beautiful hat flew off, disappearing into a gap between two parked cars. In the reflection of a startled bystander’s sunglasses he saw the distorted shape of the policeman in pursuit, firearm free of its holster, Marnie hard on his heels. Ankles already screaming in pain, Bill tried to accelerate, his panicked breath loud in his ears.
(And if you haven’t picked it up yet, “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps,” the first book in the trilogy, is only $0.99 on Amazon Kindle throughout February — an easy way to get caught up on the full plot.)