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Authors: Mel McKinney

Where There's Smoke

BOOK: Where There's Smoke
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This is for my wife Susan, who edits my life and
made it necessary;
and for my daughter Denise, who edits my words and
made it a book.
May 12, 1955
The flow of money charged the night as Raul Salazar's father hastened toward him through waves of reveling gamblers. Even at a distance, Raul could see there was something in his father's eyes, yet a new sadness clouding Victor Salazar's tormented sky.
His eyes locked on Raul, Victor whispered briefly to a pit boss monitoring a Texas wildcatter persistently boring dry holes at the roulette table. When he started again toward Raul, Victor's eyes lifted.
Raul tracked his father's glance to the mezzanine. There stood Joseph Bonafaccio, the Don, arms folded across his chest. He was flanked by his son Joseph Jr., and his bodyguard, Dominick Romelli. All three watched Victor Salazar make his way toward his son. Sweating and pale, Victor finally reached him.
“Raul, come and walk the
with me
We will have a smoke.”
His father's expression confirmed this was a mandate.
“Domingo,” Raul said to a nearby pit boss. “I am going out with my father. I will be back soon. You are watching the señorita on table three?” The pit boss nodded. Soon they would have to decide whether the Texan was losing enough to justify tolerating his wife's cheating.
As he followed his father toward the front of the casino, Raul again looked to the mezzanine. The Don and his entourage were gone.
It was a few minutes past midnight, Raul's first time outside Noches Cubanas in ten hours. The freshening breeze from the bay carried a salty, but tropical, fragrance. He filled his lungs, exhaled, and did it again, cleansing himself of the casino's cloying blend of nervous sweat, stale smoke, and spent perfume. It had been too long since he and Victor had walked the malecón.
Victor Salazar slipped a thin, gold cutter from his vest pocket and cut the ends of two Don Salazario Presidentes. Cupping his hands from the warm breeze, he lit one for each of them.
“The best of Grandfather's cigars,” Raul said. “What are we celebrating?”
His father's eyes answered. This was no celebration. Victor Salazar took his son's arm and they began to walk.
“Raul, my son, my heart is heavy with what I must tell you.”
Raul was not surprised. The forced entry of the Bonafaccio family into Noches Cubanas three years earlier had wrought a terrible change in his father. The business he'd created in 1935 had slid like a helpless mouse down the gullet of the Mafia serpent. Only a façade of Victor
Salazar's prideful ownership remained, used now by the Bonafaccios to their advantage.
“I am listening, Father. We have seen much together. We can deal with the rest.”
The old man shook his head and exhaled. The breeze caught the smoke and trailed it behind like a pilot's scarf. Raul thought of nightime walks with his father from long ago—before Don Bonafaccio and his Mafia snakes had clustered with Batista to infest Cuba with their corruption.
“No, Raul. Not this time,” Victor said, his voice low and tired. “Events are now beyond us; at least for me. For you, it is arranged. You will survive.”
Raul pulled his arm away and stopped. His father gently recaptured it in both of his.
“Keep walking, Raul. They are watching.”
Then Raul saw them, shadows only, but unmistakable. The night could not conceal Don Bonafaccio's broad bulk and the squat meanness of the always present Dominick Romelli. The silhouette of a dark sedan crept along behind them.
Raul and his father resumed their slow pace.
“You see, my son, to do business with thieves, one must become a thief.”
Raul let his father's statement linger, its meaning not entirely obscure. In the casino business, there were certain understandings, customs, and practices.
Victor Salazar drew slowly on the large cigar, then continued.
“When the criminals infected our island and our business, I knew we had lost. Those who resisted fed the
sharks. Better to get along as well as we could, I thought, because it would be only a matter of time before they squeezed us out completely. I took steps to protect us, our family, and all who depend on us. But I underestimated them, or at least their clever accountants. Now they know.”
Raul's mind raced as he tried to comprehend. His father droned on in a resigned monotone.
“Don Bonafaccio and I have talked. An agreement has been reached. You and the Don's son are the same age. Bonafaccio may be many things but he is still a father. He could not deny my request for time to explain this to you. It is part of our agreement.”
Raul stopped again, firmly. It no longer mattered that they had an escort. He had to see his father's eyes. He asked softly, “And the rest of the agreement?”
His father looked up at him, a film glistening those black coals that had seen so much. Raul read the exhaustion there and cursed himself for not attending it earlier.
“Tonight,” said Victor. “You leave tonight. Now. They will take you to the airport and put you on the plane to Miami. You will be given one-thousand dollars. No luggage. You will be searched. You are not to return. Ever.”
Raul waited. He knew there was more.
Victor Salazar again filled himself through his cigar. He expelled the smoke with a sigh. Then he turned and started to walk.
The old man did not stop.
Raul caught up and took his father's arm, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Those bastards!” he whispered.
“No, Raul. Not really.” Victor Salazar was smiling now.
“For them it is business. They are thieves, but not among themselves. They have their code. I was expected to honor it. I knew that. But I was not one of them, so I did not. Now they say that unless I return their money, I must pay their price. But I know these men. Even if I return the money, they will have their vengeance.”
Victor Salazar released another long curl of smoke into the lush Caribbean night as the dark sedan came alongside.
“Look, your ride is here. We must say adios. Look for some of your grandfather's cigars in the mail. I will send them to our old friend, Paulo. Go see him. He will help you get started in Miami. Enjoy the cigars, and remember me.”
A door opened. Raul, now too numb to cry, threw an arm around his father. Victor Salazar squeezed his son's hand, pressing into it the thin, gold cigar cutter that had belonged to Raul's grandfather.
Six hours and a century northeast of San Francisco a river plunges in rebellion before its waters are captured and tamed. Trout of mythical stature wait in its gorges. It is a place of mystery and legend. Thank you Gray Hills for wondering whatever happened to JFK's thousand Cuban cigars. Vintage as they were, I'll bet not a one of them equaled any we've shared under Bollibokka's dark moons.
—Mendocino, CA
April 6, 1999
Washington, D.C. September 15, 1963
“ONE THOUSAND, ALL premium Cubans, is that what you said?”
“You hear good, amigo. One thousand. Give or take a few. He has had them for two months.”
“How can you guarantee they will be
“Look, amigo, do you want them or not? They are his, just sitting up there in Massachusetts. I know others who would seize this opportunity. The way your father-in-law was talking the other night in my restaurant, he will kiss your feet for this. I owe you a favor, so I called you first. There, the debt is paid. You want them, you tell me now. I have no time for bullshit.”
The freshman congressman from Florida covered the telephone mouthpiece with his hand, sucked in a huge breath, and held it. This was more than politics; this was retaliation. His father-in-law, Cornelius Gessleman,
on retaliation. Even though the Cuban's proposal smacked of an inflated fraternity prank, Gessleman had
stewed over those thousand cigars since the rumors had surfaced. The Cuban was right: Gessleman would bathe his son-in-law in adoration when presented with the cigars.
Wesley Trent Cameron exhaled slowly, clearing his mind. “I'll take them,” he said, forcing a quaver from his voice.
“Good. Congratulations. You will not be sorry.”
Then reality seeped through. “How much did you say?”
“Amigo, maybe you do not hear so good after all. Twenty thousand.” The Cuban ignored the silence. “Amigo, this will be a major operation, breaking into one of the most secure houses in the country. It will require a diversion, two teams of professionals.” He paused.
“Your father-in-law would not blink, you know. He would think it a bargain.”
My God,
thought Cameron
. Twenty thousand dollars.
He would have to involve Gessleman from the outset. But the old robber baron would love that. Intrigue, vengeance, winning; these coursed through his father-in-law's veins, not blood cells. This venture would be sport compared to the ladder of broken backs mounted by Gessleman in his ruthless rise to privilege and fortune.
Wesley Cameron also recognized a distinct, practical reason to get the cigars in the family. Cornelius Gessleman was eighty-six years old, and his doctor had cropped his cigar intake to one a day. At the same time, the congressman's own obsessive craving had escalated to three or four a day as he emulated his political hero, Winston Churchill. Yes, it would be convenient to have a thousand vintage
Cuban cigars in the family. Gessleman would hardly be able to smoke a dent in the prized cache by the time he …
“Amigo? Are you still with me?”
“What? Oh, yeah, I'm still here. So how do we wrap this up?”
“You get the twenty thousand together. You will know when I get the cigars.”
“How?” Cameron asked, leery of unnecessary contact with the Cuban.
“Trust me, amigo, you will know—it will make the papers.”
The congressman thought about this. It would play nicely into the payback element. Gessleman would relish seeing the young president squirm as he answered reporters' questions about the theft of the cigars, the night of their purchase still shrouded in the hypocrisy of insider knowledge at the highest level. But publicity was always dangerous; like electricity, it needed to be channeled.
“Is that wise? I mean, the papers and all? Look, I can't afford to be linked to anything like a theft or burglary. You know that.”
A chuckle. “Amigo, you are too much. You think me and some Pancho Villas are just going to break into his home and steal his cigars, guns blazing?
, give me some credit.”
There was another pause. Cameron thought he could hear the Cuban breathing. Then the voice resumed.
“Listen, I have a plan, a good one. Like a magic trick. Everyone looks to the right, and the bunny drops through the hole on the left. Get the money together. I will be in touch.”
“Wait!” said Cameron. “Give me some idea
. It's going to take some time to line up the cash.” Actually, he knew he could get the money in minutes. Cornelius kept twice that much in a cigar box in his desk, just for pocket change. But he also knew his father-in-law was a stickler for details. He would demand a schedule.
“Okay, amigo. This is September fifteenth. By the middle of November. Yes, by November fifteenth. Two months. No later.”
The line went dead.
Congressman Cameron punched the intercom button, bringing his aide to the phone. “Sir?” came the pert voice.
“Get me on the next flight from D.C. to Louisville. I need to meet with our number-one constituent.”
One thousand miles south, in the heart of Miami's Little Havana, sweat glistened on Raul Salazar's forehead. The horns and shouts of the never-ending parade below his office window were muffled by the blood pounding in his head.
Madre de Dios!
he thought.
What have I done
? Had the stranglehold of the embargo conspired with his desire for Rosa to drive him crazy? And that magic-trick-bunny-rabbit farce he had rattled off; what possible diversion could make such a burglary possible?
He would think of something. He had to. Rosa's fervored passion for this idiotic scheme
had hatched now ignited
Raul lifted the phone and dialed the international operator. He recited the number in Mexico City for Dolores, Rosa's cousin.
“Dolores? This is Raul. Listen carefully. Call Rosa and
tell her it has begun. Do you understand? ‘It has begun.' She will understand. Tell her that I will see her soon, in Kingston, as we planned. I must go. I have much to do.”
His eyes closed, Raul rested his finger on the phone peg, still trembling from his conversation with the congressman. Suddenly he was standing next to Head Nurse Rosa Solero at the single telephone serving the clinic in Cuba's rural highlands, his eyes feasting on her joy, his nostrils flaring at the scent of her excitement.
A week earlier in Mexico City, as Rosa reclined in his arms, and her dark hair spilled across his chest, he had meant only to entertain her with Gessleman's drunken ravings about the Kennedy cigars. Her response had stunned him.
“Why don't
steal the cigars for him, Raul? From what you say, he would pay handsomely for them. The money you send through Dolores is very generous, but your restaurant is failing. Use this Gessleman to help us buy the medicines Kennedy keeps from Cuba's children.”
She had propped herself up on one elbow, the taut nipple of her delicious left breast brushing his chest. Her eyes sparkled as she molded the impossible scheme.
“You may not be my husband, but you can act like the husband you were going to be. Brave action is required, Raul. That monster Kennedy is killing Cuba's children. Every day his murderous ‘embargo' devours one or two more.”
He had studied her face, searching for any trace of humor. Anyone proposing to steal the cigars of the president of the United States had to be joking. Instead of the glint of jest, he saw the irresistible blaze of revolution.
“I will do this for you, I promise,” he had said, drawn into the flame of her passion. She had rewarded him with a spontaneous burst of sensual joy that still seared his senses.
This promise, sealed in passion, could not be broken. Raul dialed his maître d' in the restaurant below.
“Paulo, are Pedro and Jorge in the bar? Good. Ask them to come up and have a smoke with me, will you?
Raul brushed aside the stack of restaurant bills he could not pay, reminded of Rosa's truth. Noches Cubanas
failing. Though he managed to cover the wounds, he could not staunch the hemorrhage. Labor, food, maintenance, repairs, equipment; the weight of these bricks on his shoulders had become unbearable. The embargo was the last straw. Without Cuban cigars, Noches Cubanas would lose its luster. While his customers appreciated the excellent food, they came for the cigars.
Rosa was right. Brave action
required. It was time to back up the bravado of his promise and the lure of the cape he had fluttered at the congressman.
Raul selected three Bolivar Coronas Gigantes from his humidor.
Magnificent plans call for a magnificent smoke,
he thought, preparing the corpulent cigars.
BOOK: Where There's Smoke
10.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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