Book Extracts
  • Havana Blue by Leonardo Padura
  • Havana Blue |  Leonardo Padura
Havana Blue by Leonardo Padura

I don’t have to think to know the most difficult step would be opening my eyes. If the morning sun, glinting brightly on the windowpanes, bathing the whole room in glorious light, struck them and sparked off the vital act of raising my eyelids, the slippery dough settling in my skull would be set to start a painful dance at the least movement of my body. To sleep, perchance to dream, he told himself, revisiting a phrase that had buzzed in his brain five hours earlier, when he had fallen on his bed and breathed in the deep dark aroma of solitude. In distant shadows he saw himself as a guilty penitent, kneeling before the pan, unloading wave after wave of apparently endless bitter amber vomit. But the telephone persisted, its machine-gun ring-rings drilling his eardrums and lashing a brain tortured by its exquisitely cyclical, clinical brutality. He dared to. Slightly raised his eyelids, which he then shut immediately: the pain entered via his pupils and he simply felt like dying, although grimly aware such a desire would go unfulfilled. He felt very weak, with no strength to lift his arms, support his forehead and exorcize the explosion each malign ring-ring made imminent, until he finally decided to confront the pain, raised an arm, opened a hand and grabbed the receiver, slipping it from its cradle in order to regain the state of grace that is silence. 

That victory made him want to laugh, but he couldn’t. He tried to persuade himself he was awake, but he wasn’t at all convinced. His arm dangled down one side of the bed like a severed branch, and he knew the dynamite lodged in his brain was fizzing furiously, threatening to explode at any moment. He was afraid, an all too familiar fear, although one he always quickly forgot. He also tried to complain, but his tongue had dissolved down the back of his mouth by the time the telephone mounted its second offensive. Go away, fuck you! All right, all right, he groaned, forcing his hand to grip the receiver, and lurching like a rusty crane, his arm lifted it to his ear and lodged it there.

First there was silence: oh, blessed silence. Then came the voice, a thick resonant voice he found awesome.

“Hey, hey, you hearing me?” it seemed to say. “Mario, hello, Mario, can you hear me?” And he hadn’t the courage to say no, no, he couldn’t or didn’t want to hear or, simply, that it was a wrong number.

“Yes, Chief,” he finally whispered, but only after he’d taken a breath, filled his lungs with air, set his arms to work around his head, his hands spread, pressing down on his temples trying to curb the dizzy merry-goround unleashed in his brain.

“Hey, what’s up with you? What the hell is up with you?” retorted not a voice but an unholy bellow.

He took one more deep breath and tried to spit. Then felt his tongue had swollen or no longer belonged to him.

“Nothing really, Chief, a spot of migraine. Or high blood pressure, I’m . . .”

“Hey, Mario, don’t try that line again. I’m the one with the high blood pressure, and don’t keep calling me Chief. What’s up?”

“What I said, Chief, a spot of headache.”

“So you’ve woken up after the party, I suppose? Well, get this: your holidays are over.”

Not even daring to contemplate such a thing, he opened his eyes. As he’d imagined, the sunlight was flooding in through the big windows, and everything around him was bright and warm. Perhaps the cold had retreated outside and it might be a beautiful morning, but he felt like crying or something of that nature.

“No, Boss, hell, don’t do that to me. It’s my weekend.

That’s what you said. You forgotten?”

“It was your weekend, my boy, it was. No one pressganged you into the police.”

“But, Boss, why does it have to be me? You’ve got loads of people,” he protested as he tried to sit up. The errant weight of his brain crashed against his forehead, and he had to close his eyes again. The nausea in his gut surged up; his bladder felt about to burst. He gritted his teeth and groped after the cigarettes on his bedside table.

“Hey, Mario, I don’t intend putting it to a vote. Do you know why it’s your turn? Because that’s what I damn well want. So shake a leg: get out of bed.”

“You’re not joking, are you?”

“Mario, that’s enough . . . I’m already at work, get me?” the voice warned, and Mario understood he was really at work. “Listen: on Thursday they informed us that a chief executive in the Ministry for Industry had

disappeared, you hearing me?”

“I want to. I swear I do.”

“Well, want on and don’t swear in vain. His wife made a statement at nine that night, but the guy’s still not put in an appearance: we’ve alerted the whole country. I reckon it stinks. You know that chief executives at vice-ministerial rank don’t go missing like that in Cuba,” continued the Boss, making sure his voice communicated his concern. Finally seated on the edge of his bed, the other man tried to relieve the tension.

“And he’s not in my trouser pocket. Cross my heart.”

“Mario, Mario, you can cut the backchat right away,” and he switched to another tone now. “The case is down to us, and I want you here in an hour. If you’ve got high blood pressure, give yourself a fix, then get here quick!”

He found the packet of cigarettes on the floor. It was the first pleasant thing to happen that morning. The packet was grimy and had been trampled on, but he gazed at it optimistically. Slid off the edge of the mattress and sat on the floor. Put two fingers in the packet, and the saddest of cigarettes seemed like a reward for his titanic effort.

“Got any matches, Boss?” he asked down the telephone.

“Why you asking, Mario?”

“Nothing really. What’s your smoke of the day?”

“You’ll never guess,” and his voice sounded pleasantly viscous. “A Davidoff, a New Year’s Eve present from my son-in-law.”

He could imagine the rest: the Boss gazing at his cigar’s ultra-smooth skin, exhaling a slender thread of smoke and trying to sustain the half-inch of ash that made it the perfect smoke. Just as well, he thought.

“Keep one for me, right?”

“Hey, you don’t smoke cigars. Buy some Populares on the street corner and get your body here.”

“Yes, I’ve got you . . . Hey, what’s the man’s name?”

“Wait a minute . . . Here it is. Rafael Morín Rodríguez, head of the Wholesale Import and Export Division within the Ministry for Industry.”

“Hold on there,” begged Mario as he watched his cigarette wilt. It was shaking between his fingers, although the cause was possibly not alcoholic. “I don’t think I heard you properly, Rafael what did you say?”

“Rafael Morín Rodríguez. Did it register this time? Well, now you’ve got fifty-five minutes to get to headquarters,” said the Boss before he slammed the phone down.

The belch crept up on him like his nausea: a taste of steaming fermented alcohol hit Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde’s mouth. He saw his shirt on the ground next to his underpants. Kneeled slowly down and crawled over till he reached a sleeve. Smiled. Found matches in the pocket and finally lit the cigarette that had gone moist between his lips. The smoke invaded his body, and after the redeeming recovery of the mangled cigarette, it became the second pleasant sensation of a day that had begun with machine-gun blasts, the Boss’s voice and a name he’d almost forgotten. Rafael Morín Rodríguez, he pondered. He leaned on his bed, pulled himself up and en route his eyes stared at the morning energy of Rufino on his bookcase, his fighting fish racing round the endless circle of his goldfish bowl. “What happened, Rufo?” he whispered as he contemplated the spectacle of his latest shipwreck. He wondered whether he should pick up his underpants, hang up his shirt, iron his old blue jeans or turn out his jacket sleeves. Later. He trod all over his trousers when he walked towards the bathroom after recalling he’d been close to pissing himself for ages. Standing in front of the bowl he contemplated the spurt creating fresh beer foam at the bottom of the pan, though it was nothing of the sort, since it stank, and the rotten stench from his offload reached even his benumbed nose. He watched the last drops of relief splash on the glaze, and his arms and legs felt weak like a broken puppet’s longing for a quiet corner. To sleep, perchance to dream, if only.

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  • Havana BlueLeonardo Padura