ONE

Santa Maria del Mar – Havana, Cuba

Miguel could feel eyes on him the instant he entered the cabana.

He took a quick look around, but nothing seemed amiss. Plenty of families and a few stray tourists peppered the golden sands of the Santa Maria del Mar. Sunbathers occupied the bright blue beach chairs. The waters were calm, save for the children splashing around. The sun was glowing on the horizon, unobstructed by clouds, and there was a gentle breeze that swayed the palm fronds.

Everyone looked to be in good spirits.

Miguel took a breath, pulling deeply on the briny sea air. He could feel the winds of change coming to Cuba. Change, he decided, was good.

He’d just come from another successful business meeting with the hotel management, and he wanted to wind down with a beer before heading home. It was hot out despite the breeze; his upper lip was rimmed with sweat. He loosened his tie and sat down at the tiny bar. “Cristal, please.”

The bartender nodded, opened a bottle and placed it on the counter in front of him. Miguel tried to pull out a couple of pesos to pay him, but the bartender held his hand out, shook his head. His money was no good here. He took a deep, long swallow and was instantly cooled. His mind drifted to the long drive ahead of him.

He hadn’t seen when the man approached the bar, but Miguel scanned him warily when he got close. The stranger wasn’t from around here, that much was clear. Miguel knew everyone there was to know in Cuba and he did not know this man.

Nor did he want to know him, he decided in a split second.

The man wore all black, despite the heat. This only accentuated the fact that he was pale, with dark hair cut in a very low caesar. He had only a light dusting of facial hair: a thin, neat mustache and a shadow of a beard. His narrow, ice blue eyes slanted down toward his nose in a serpentine way. And each of his arms, as far as Miguel could see, was a continuous canvas of skulls and roses. He ordered his own beer, took the empty stool next to Miguel and nodded to him. “Lovely afternoon,” he said in English.

Miguel glanced at him and then nodded curtly, turning himself in the opposite direction and hoping the man would get the message that he wasn’t exactly in the mood to chat.

He either didn’t get the message or he ignored it.

Instead, he scooted his stool an inch closer, leaned in and lowered his voice to a murmur. “I was wondering if you could help me with something.”

Miguel turned to him. “Help you with what?”

“I’m looking for someone. Someone here in Cuba.”

“Well,” Miguel replied. “Cuba’s a big place. What makes you think I’d be of any use to you?”

“Look, Miguel-” he started.

Miguel snapped to attention at the sound of his name.  

The man registered this and smiled slightly. “Sorry. I’m so rude,” he continued. “I’m Victor. It’s nice to meet you.” He held out his hand, offering no last name.

“How did you know my name?”

“I hear that you’re well connected around here and that you’d be the man to talk to if I was trying to locate someone. Just asking you to do me a solid here.”

Miguel studied him for a moment. His outward expression was friendly enough, but there was a venom behind his eyes. He looked down at Victor’s still-extended hand. He didn’t want to shake it, but he also didn’t want to be rude. Finally, Miguel gave him a brief, feeble handshake. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You’ve been given the wrong information.”

Victor smiled then, but there was no joy behind it. “Humor me,” he said. He reached into the front pocket of his cargo vest and pulled out a square piece of paper. A photograph. He slid it across the bar and stopped in front of Miguel. “Have you seen this woman around?”

Miguel looked down and studied the photo, partly as a pure automatic reaction but mostly out of sheer curiosity. The woman in the photo smirked up at him. She was young and pretty, with big, honey-colored hair and greenish eyes. “No,” he said, sliding the picture back over to Victor. “I’ve never seen this woman.” And it was the truth. He hadn’t seen her before. He swallowed the last of his beer, and, thinking this the end of the conversation, got up to leave. “Good luck and enjoy your stay.”

Victor held a determined hand to Miguel’s chest, stopping him mid-step. “Hold on a second,” he said and pulled another picture out from his pocket. “What about this woman? Have you seen her?” He shoved the picture into his hand.

“No,” Miguel answered in a hurry. “Haven’t seen her either.”

“You didn’t even look at it.”

“Sorry but I need to go.”

“Just take a look. Two seconds is all I’m asking.”

Miguel took in a breath and held it. He looked down at the photo and immediately felt a pang. His mouth fell open and he snapped it shut again. Aware of Victor’s eyes on him, he made an effort to keep his face smooth and ignore the throbbing that had started in the back of his throat.

This woman he did recognize.

She was much older in this picture than the last time he’d seen her, but he’d know her dark, wavy hair and serious eyes anywhere. He shook his head. “No, sorry. I can’t help you,” he said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get going.”

Victor smiled and threw his hands up in mock surrender. “Well, what can you do, huh? At least you tried.”

Miguel shrugged.

“Do me favor, though,” he said. “If you run into them, look me up. I’ll be around.” Then he stalked off and disappeared behind a cluster of palm trees.

Miguel sat back down, more than a little shaken. He nodded once more to the bartender, who brought him another Cristal, and he sipped for a while, staring into the distance and wondering just who this Victor was and why the hell he would be looking for his sister.

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