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


“And get here quick …!” he screamed at a sky that seemed languid and
becalmed, as if still painted from October’s deceptive palette of blue: he screamed, arms crossed, chest bare, bellowing a desperate plea with every ounce of strength his lungs could muster, so his voice would carry and also to check that his voice still existed after three days without uttering a single word.

Punished by cigarettes and alcohol, his throat at last felt the relief of creation, and his spirit thrived on this minimal declaration of freedom, soon to bubble up in an inner effervescence leading him to the brink of a second exclamation.

From the heights of his terrace roof, Mario Conde had surveyed a firmament devoid of breezes and clouds, like the lookout of a lost vessel, morbidly hoping his crow’s nest would allow him to glimpse, at the horizon’s end, two aggressive crosses he’d been tracking for several days as they journeyed across the weather maps, as they approached their prescribed destination: his city, his neighbourhood and that very terrace from which he was hailing them.

Initially it had been a distant, anonymous sign on the first plotting of a tropical depression, heading away from the coasts of Africa and gathering hot clouds before entering its dance of death; two days later it won promotion to the worrying category of cyclonic disturbance, and now was a poisoned arrow in the side of the mid-Atlantic, hurtling towards the Caribbean and arrogantly claiming its right to be baptized: Felix; yet, the previous night, swollen into a hurricane, it had appeared in a flux grotesquely poised over the archipelago of Guadalupe, which it crushed in a devastating, one hundred and seventy mile an hour embrace, advancing, intent on demolishing trees and houses, diverting the historical course of rivers and overturning millenary mountain peaks, killing animals and humans, like a curse descended from a sky as ominously languid and becalmed as ever, like a woman ready to betray.

But Mario Conde knew none of those incidents or illusions could change its destiny or mission: from the moment he saw it born to life on those maps, he felt a strange affinity with that freak of a hurricane: the bastard’s coming, he told himself, as he saw it advance and swell, because something in the atmosphere outside or in his own inner depression – cirrus, nimbus, stratus and cumulus rent by lightning, though still unable to transform themselves into a hurricane – had warned him of the real needs of that mass of rain and rabid winds the destiny of the cosmos had created specifically to cross that particular city and bring a long anticipated, necessary cleansing.

But that afternoon, tired of his passive vigil, the Count had opted to issue verbal summons. Shirtless, his trousers barely secure, with a skinful of alcohol fuelling his most hidden energies, he clambered out of a window on to the terrace and encountered an autumnal, pleasantly warm twilight, where, however much he tried, he couldn’t detect the slightest trace of a lurking cyclone. Beneath that cheating sky, and momentarily oblivious to its designs, the Count began to observe the topography of his neighbourhood, populated by aerials, pigeon-lofts, washing-lines and water tanks reflecting simple, rustic routines from which he, however, seemed to be excluded. On the only hill in the area, as always, he espied the red-tiled turret of that fake English castle his grandfather Rufino Conde had laboured to construct almost a century ago. He thought how the stubborn permanence of certain works that outlived their creators and resisted passing hurricanes, storms, cyclones, typhoons, tornadoes or even whirlwinds seemed the only valid reason to exist. And what would remain of him if he threw himself into the air there and then like the pigeon he had once imagined. Infinite oblivion, he must have reflected, a rampant emptiness as lived by all those anodyne individuals weaving along the black snake of the Calzada, weighed down by their bundles or hopes, or empty-handed, minds a mess of uncertainties, probably unaware of the inexorable approach of an awesome hurricane, indifferent even to death’s void, with nothing to remember or look forward to, now alarmed by the desperate cry he unleashed at the most distant point on the horizon: “Get here quick, you bastard …!

He imagined the cork’s possible pain as if it were live flesh he was penetrating with his implacable metal corkscrew. He sunk it in as far as he could, with a surgeon’s precision and determination not to fail: he held his breath, pulled gently, and the cork surfaced like a fish embracing the hook that was its perdition. The alcoholic vapour rushing from the bottle rose full and fruity to his nostrils, and, not a man for half-measures, he poured a large dose into a glass and downed it in one gulp, with the panache of a Cossack haunted by the howls of winter.

He gave the bottle an anguished look: it was the last from the stocks he’d hurriedly assembled three days earlier, when Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde abandoned Police Headquarters after he’d signed his request for a discharge and decided to lock himself in to die of rum and cigarettes, grief and bitterness. He’d always thought that when he’d achieved his wish to depart the police he’d feel a relief that would allow him to sing, dance and, naturally, drink, but without remorse or pain, for he was after all realizing a desire for emancipation he’d postponed for far too long. At this late stage in life he told himself he’d never really understood why he’d said yes to joining the police, and then that he could never fathom at all clearly why he’d deferred his escape from that world where he’d never really belonged although he’d found it infectious. Perhaps it was the argument to the effect that he was a policeman because he didn’t like bastards getting off scot-free that had seemed so convincing he’d eventually believed it himself. Perhaps it was his inability to be decisive that had guided his whole erratic life, tying him into a routine crowned by satisfaction at his more than dubious successes: catching murderers, rapists, thieves or fraudsters who were already beyond redemption. But he was in no doubt whatsoever that it was Major Antonio Rangel, his chief for the last eight years, who was mainly to blame for his almost infinite postponement of his wish to make an escape. The relationship of feigned tension and real respect he’d established with the Boss had functioned as an overactive delay tactic and he knew he’d never find the necessary courage to go up to that office on the fifth floor clutching his release papers. So he rested his hopes of making a break for it on the retirement of the Major, now fifty-eight, with possibly only two years to go.

But all the real and fictitious parapets fell at a single stroke that last Friday. The news of Major Rangel’s replacement had spread around the corridors at Headquarters like wildfire, and, when he heard it, the Count felt fear and impotence grip and score his back, spread to his brain. The Boss’s much debated, always inconceivable departure wouldn’t be the last chapter in that history of persecutions, interrogations and punishments to which detectives at Headquarters had been subjected by other detectives entrusted with the unnatural act of spying on other police. The long months of that inquisition had seen apparently untouchable heads roll, while fear thrived as the protagonist in a tragedy that smacked of a farce prepared to see its three obligatory acts through to the bitter end: an unpredictable end dragged out to a grand finale, and the sacrifice of something everybody had believed invulnerable and sacred.

Mario didn’t have to think twice before he decided to go once and for all. He refused to listen to any of the poisonous explanations going the rounds in relation to the Boss’s departure, wrote down his request to be discharged on personal grounds, waited patiently for the lift to take him to the fifth floor and, after signing his letter, handed it to the woman officer he met in the lobby to what had been – and would never again be – the office of his friend, Major Antonio Rangel.

But, rather than relief, the Count was shocked to find himself overcome with sorrow. No, of course not: that wasn’t the path to the triumphant, self-sufficient escape he had always imagined, but a reptilian slithering out of sight that not even Rangel would forgive. And so, instead of singing and dancing, he simply decided to drink himself silly, and on the way home spent all his savings on seven bottles of rum and twelve packets of cigarettes.

“Hey, you giving a party?” asked the Chinese sales assistant in the liquor store with a knowing smile, and Mario Conde looked him in the eye.

“No, friend, a wake,” he retorted, and back he went into the street.

While he got undressed, drinking a glass from the first deflowered bottle, the Count noticed how the death foretold of his fighting fish, Rufino, had been enacted: he was floating in the middle of water a dark, sickly ink colour, his gills open, like an aged flower about to drop its petals.

“For Christ’s fucking sake, Rufino, what made you die now and leave me all alone … just when I was about to change your water?” he asked the motionless body, before gulping down his drink and casting corpse and liquid down his voracious lavatory.

Already holding his second glass and unaware that he wouldn’t say a word for three days, Mario Conde took his phone off the hook, picked the folded newspaper up from under the door and put it next to the lavatory in order to give that ink-stained paper the use it deserved when the time came. That was when he spotted it, tucked away on a corner of page two: it was an as yet unnamed flurry, drawn west of Cabo Verde on a map whose cold latitudes sent an electric shock of prescience through him: the bastard’s heading this way, he thought immediately, and began to desire it with all his might, as if he could mentally attract that catastrophic, freakish engine of purification. And he poured himself a third glass of rum, and waited calmly for the cyclone to hit.

  • Havana BlackLeonardo Padura