Leonardo Padura

Havana Black

The second book in the Mario Conde Mystery series, 2006

First published in Spanish as Paisaje de Otono by Tusquets Editores, S.A., Barcelona, 1998

© Leonardo Padura Fuentes 1998 English translation © Peter Bush 2006

For Ambrosio Fornet, the best reader of the history of

Cuban literature.

For Dashiell Hammett, because of The Maltese Falcon.

For friends, near and far, who are part of this story.

And, happily, for you, Lucia.

Author’s Note

In 1990, when I started to write the novel Pasado Perfecto, Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde, the protagonist of that book, was born. One night a year and a half later, after the novel had been published, the Count whispered something in my ear that, when I’d thought about it for several days, seemed in the end like a good idea: why don’t we write more novels? And we decided to write three other works that, together with Pasado Perfecto (which took place in the winter of 1989), would make up the four season tetralogy of “The Havana Quartet”. And thus were conceived Vientos de cuaresma (spring), Mascaras in the original, Havana Red in the English edition (summer) and this Paisaje de Otono or Havana Black, which we finished writing in autumn 1997, a few days before the Count’s and my birthday, for we were indeed born on the same day, if not in the same year.

I want to note just two things via this confession: that I owe to the Count (a literary, never real, character) the good fortune to have meandered through a whole year of his life, following his every hesitation and adventure; and that his stories, as I always point out, are fictitious, although they are quite similar to some accounts of reality.

Finally, I must thank a group of reader-friends, for their patience in absorbing and analysing each of the versions of Havana Black, an exercise without which the book would never have been what it is – for better or for worse. They are, as loyal as ever, Helena Nunez, Ambrosio Fornet, Alex Fleites, Arturo Arango, Lourdes Gomez, Vivian Lechuga, Beatriz Perez, Dalia Acosta, Wilfredo Cancio, Gerardo Arreola and Jose Antonio Michelena. My thanks also to Greco Cid, who presented me with the character of Dr Alfonso Forcade. To Daniel Chavarria, who inspired me with the story of the Manila Galleon. To Steve Wilkinson, who saw the mistakes nobody else had seen. To my publishers, Beatriz Moura and Marco Tropea, who forced me to write with an axe, as Juan Rulfo recommended. And, of course, my gratitude to the person who sustained and tolerated this whole endeavour more than anyone: Lucia Lopez Coll, my wife.

Autumn 1989

She reflected. “I prefer stories about squalor.”

“About what?” I said, leaning forward.

“Squalor. I’m extremely interested in squalor.”

J. D. Salinger

Hurricane, hurricane, I feel you coming

Jose Maria Heredia

“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 cosmic destiny 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 hiddenmost 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

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