A clip from the documentary series aired on American television and detailing the conspiracy that brought Morgan down
(use the Google translate feature at the bottom of the page to read in your own language!)
La Cabaña Fortress Prison, Havana, Cuba. 1961
The prisoners of La Cabaña are awake as they always are on execution nights.
It’s the early hours of the morning, but still night, the time they always choose for the killings. This way, the act itself is hidden. No one sees the harsh arc lights beating down on ‘El paredón’—The Wall—nor the rough wooden post with the blood pooling on the sand beneath. But the sounds are everywhere. They make sure of that.
There are voices, the engine of a car idling, the tailgate of a truck carelessly allowed to clang open, the truck bringing the coffins rattling over cobbles. But then a thick silence. The time is close and no one, prisoner or guard, can speak or move a muscle or even breathe with any ease; interminable seconds that make men want to cry out, to scream and protest the injustice of another man’s fate. Imagination provides the pictures. The tying of hands, the blindfold, the line of soldiers, rifles by their sides. A voice, distant, pitched high with the call to present arms, to take aim. Another endless moment passes, until mercifully the hot night air is punctured by the ragged crackle of rifle shots.
The coup de grâce comes as a relief – a single shot reverberating around the granite walls of the stone fortress leaving behind it an emptiness so deep and so profound that the hammering of coffin nails seem like jumbled, long-delayed echoes.
In the condemned cell, the low vaulted arch and stone floor mildewed and dank, William Morgan hears everything. He sits at a reading lectern designed for prayer. The only light comes from a bare bulb above his head. He is writing on crisp white prison stationary.
‘Since the first time I saw you in the mountains you have been my love, my happiness, my companion in life and in my thoughts during my moment of death… I have never been a traitor or done any damage to Cuba… I tell you this, because you know this to be the truth…I have great peace in my spirit… my ideals and beliefs you share with me, and I know that I can trust you to defend these ideals… The words on paper can never describe the feelings that I have for you, or the love that we shared. Those who are putting us on trial and condemning us have their job to do and are acting according to the conditions set out by today’s politics. So if they are guilty of many injustices, leave it to history to straighten out such faults. Revenge is not the answer. I only ask that one day the truth be known.’
August 1957, one a.m., half a mile off the north coast of Cuba, near the Bay of Matanzas.
William Morgan was sitting in the companionway to the boat’s cabin, reading a Marvel Boy comic by the light of a torch and drinking steadily from a bottle of Matusalem rum. From somewhere below, a barely audible Buddy Holly tune came over the tinny transistor radio.
Without looking up from the dog-eared comic, Morgan groped for the bottle and took another swig. The rum was sickly and warm, but it would have to do until they got back to Miami and ice-cold beer. The day had been hot, mid-nineties. The long evening had hardly cooled the air at all and the night had brought no wind, not a breath.
A drip of sweat from one eyebrow hit the comic like a breaking egg. It landed on a panel showing Marvel Boy smashing his way into a nest of bad guys, liberating the serum that will save the world from a deadly virus. Morgan’s mind somehow connected the drop of sweat soaking into the page with the serum, but only briefly—that kind of thinking was not his style. He turned the page.
Behind him, a haphazard pile of heavy-duty wooden crates littered the cockpit floor. There were ten boxes in all. Morgan didn’t know exactly what was in them, but he could guess: Garands, ex-army MIIs, a few Thompson subs and maybe a couple of Stens—though, not being American, Stens were harder to come by. Some of the arms were working models from shady dealers on the mainland, but many were bought from more-or-less regular surplus outlets as harmless decomms intended for collectors. There was always someone willing to replace the firing pin and do a bit of machining for the right price.
Ammunition was trickier. When his three years in the Army penitentiary at Chillicothe were up and they finally cut him loose, Morgan had started as a buyer for Bartone’s operation. He found out pretty quick just how hard it was to source live ammunition at all, let alone precise calibers for specific guns. This consignment, like the others he’d delivered over the past two years, would need someone skilled enough to make ramp-and-throat modifications to barrels, magazines and chambers to handle the ammunition available without jamming. But none of that was his problem—Morgan was just paid to deliver.
At the stern of the boat, Jack Turner scanned the beach and the line of palms beyond for any sign of movement.
“What exactly am I looking for?” he said over his shoulder, trying for a casual tone but missing.
Morgan had warned the younger man he’d be jumpy the first time out. He turned to see Jack gripping the guardrail as he craned forward, his foot tapping like a metronome on the teak deck. The twelve-hour trip had been hard going, what with Jack crashing around the boat, dropping things and asking dumb questions. And the nerves were only getting worse.
“You’ll know when you see it,” said Morgan.
“Is it always like this—the waiting?”
When Morgan was slow to answer, Jack’s foot started tapping again.
“Relax,” Morgan said. “Count the money. It passes the time. Here—”
Holding the rum bottle up, Morgan waggled it from side to side, keeping his nose in the comic.
“I’m good,” Jack replied, as if he’d downed some already.
Morgan smiled to himself. Yeah, right.
He and Jack had got acquainted when the army stockade in Kyoto, Japan had become home to both of them. Despite being from different units and four years apart in age, it turned out they had something in common. Both had gone AWOL for a girl, and both had gotten three months’ hard labor.
In Morgan’s case, the girl was a local nightclub dancer called Asami, whose name meant ‘morning beauty.’ They were married for a month when the MPs came and dragged him naked from her bed, and for eight short weeks afterward—just long enough for Asami to get her U.S. citizenship and a divorce. Jack was doing time for trying to catch a civilian flight home to a girl named Thelma waiting for him in Richmond, Virginia.
Behind bars, Morgan took care of the kid, making sure the corridor gang knew to stay clear. Still, the place was a jungle. The guards were bored and brutal and for Morgan, it was time to get out. He’d thought about bringing Jack in on the plan but Morgan had earned six months additional time for fighting and setting fire to his cell where the younger man only had a couple of weeks before he’d be shipped Stateside. So he decided to go it alone.
He pretended to be throwing up in one of the toilet cubicles. When the guard came to check on him, he smashed the guy’s head against the wall and tied him up with duct tape he had stolen from the workshop and hidden behind the toilet cistern. Then he stripped the guard of his uniform, which was not a bad fit, and put on the belt and sidearm. At the shift change an hour later, he’d walked out the front gate with the other guards, stopping at the barrier to get a light for his cigarette on the way.
He’d been sentenced to five years’ hard labor for the escape and he and Jack, predictably enough, had lost touch—until the Tropicana.
That was a year ago. Seeing Jack there with Thelma was pure chance, one in a million, and the two of them had spent the whole night reminiscing about Japan. Thelma was patient and pretty, just as Jack had described her, with a short blond bob, heavy mascara to accentuate her small eyes, and the same open expression as her man’s. She seemed freshly minted, a sweetheart who actually listened to their stories and laughed in all the right places.
After the chance meeting, it was natural they would arrange to get together again, often as a foursome with Morgan and his girl, whoever that might be at the time.
It was natural, too, that sooner or later Morgan’s reticence in talking about his line of work would pique his younger friend’s curiosity. Morgan bragged a little but kept the detail light. Jack was fascinated. And the more questions he asked, the more intrigued he became until one day he said he wanted in.
For a long while, Morgan said no. But Jack kept on, and every time they got together, he brought it up. It got to be a joke between them but Jack Turner was serious. He told Morgan he was making nothing doing construction work. They were just surviving in their crummy apartment, and Thelma wanting to buy a house and settle down. He really needed the break, he said—just long enough to get a down payment together. Then he’d get out.
Finally, Morgan agreed to speak with Bartone and get Jack an introduction, but on one condition: Thelma had to know, and she had to give the idea her blessing. Without that, it wouldn’t happen.
Morgan was confident that would be enough to stymie things. First up, Jack would never have the balls to tell Thelma. Second, if he did, she’d never agree. When Jack said they had talked it over and Thelma was okay, Morgan didn’t believe him. He insisted on speaking to her in person. They all sat together in the young couple’s apartment below the South Dixie Highway and Jack got them three cold beers and they smoked Pall Malls while Morgan laid out the territory for her playing down the rewards and playing up the risks. She listened carefully and seemed to understand. Then she told Morgan she was pregnant. He thought maybe they were saying they’d changed their minds, but Thelma was adamant. She couldn’t bring a baby into the world while they lived in that apartment, in that neighborhood. And besides, she said, Morgan knew the ropes and would be there to take care of her man. He would do that, wouldn’t he?
Morgan said he would.
He turned a page of the comic to see Marvel Boy let loose a deadly shower of atomic radiance from his special wristbands, but something—maybe a dull head from the booze—made him lose interest. He threw the comic onto the chart table, and pulling his bulky frame upright, he groaned and yawned, tilting his head beneath the low roof of the cabin. He flicked the radio off, then the torch, and took the three stairs to the cockpit in one. Clearing the overhang, he stretched to his full six-feet-four and walked aft to join Jack at the stern.
“What have you got?” said Morgan.
The sea was black and oily with a faint, reluctant swell, and he could just make out the flat yellow-gray strand that seemed to hold the tree line suspended above the horizon. The only sound was the occasional slap of water against the stern.
“Just the beach,” said Jack.
“You smell something?” Morgan said.
Jack must have caught a whiff of smoke because his foot stopped tapping, and as he peered into the darkness, he seemed to pick out a light he hadn’t noticed before.
“What is it?” Jack asked, but Morgan said nothing.
As they watched, the light seemed to dip and rise and dip again. And then it broke into two. Dark shapes were forming beneath the lights, morphing in front of their eyes. The outline of a small boat began to emerge, no longer than a skiff but narrower, more like a canoe. Then there were two, then three, then four. From beyond the random lapping of the sea against the boat came a new sound, rhythmic and human: paddles breaking the water’s surface.
“Boats!” Jack hissed. “Coming this way. Are these our guys?”
All at once, the moon arched out from behind the clouds, and blue-white light swept across the water, revealing a line of four boats snaking toward them like some kind of religious procession. Men in white smocks and straw hats, their faces greasy and tanned, swaying kerosene lanterns on poles above their heads, their paddles rising and falling as if to a coxswain’s chant only they could hear.
“Jesus—” Jack murmured. “Don’t look much like rebels, do they?”
There were two men in each boat. As they pulled alongside, one or other of the men—sometimes both—stood up, swaying comfortably with the swell, gripping on to the foot of the guardrail.
The small boats were so low in the water that only the men’s faces were visible above the deck, peering up at the big boat. They said little to Morgan or Jack, merely nodding or grunting as they took hold of the first crates, but their eyes darted this way and that, taking in the boat and the gringos. When they spoke, they talked quietly to each other in a harsh, rapid-fire Spanish, swallowing the final consonants as if finishing a sentence took too much effort.
Ten minutes later, three of the boats were already on their way to shore and the fourth was waiting alongside. Morgan and Jack lifted the last of the crates from the cockpit deck to the gunwale. The crate was heavier than the others, and Jack staggered, then lost his hold, letting go and jumping back to avoid getting his toes crushed. The crate hit the deck at an angle, popping the lid with a splintering sound, and two ancient Italian carbines clattered onto the teak, the excelsior packing curling around them like dry seaweed.
“Pick up,” Morgan said, his voice taut from the effort of holding the weight.
Jack stuffed the rifles back into the crate one at a time. He appeared excited by the feel of the guns in his hand.
“Come on. The lid—”
Jack positioned the lid, with the nails protruding, and banged it down with the heel of his hand.
“Lift,” said Morgan.
The men in the small boat slowed the heavy crate’s descent until it lay between them like an undersized coffin. And then, without a word, they pushed off.
As the small boat came about, one of the men looked up to Morgan and Jack and raised his paddle in salute.
“Gracias, Señores,” he said. “Cuba libre.”
“De nada,” Morgan replied.
Jack said to Morgan, “You ever wonder why these guys are doing it?”
“We have guns, and they’re willing to pay for them.”
“I mean, what are they fighting for?”
“We’re done. Let’s go home,” Morgan said. He kicked at the loose straw on the deck as he reached for the stern anchor chain.
The moon had disappeared from view, and the little boats were dissolving once more into the sea.
“Thanks. For getting me in, I mean. Thelma’s already spent the money, but this is going to change everything for us, with the baby and all—Mr. Bartone only gave me a shot ’cause of you,” Jack said. “I mean, I’d still be totting a hod, and you know what working construction pays…”
Morgan let the chain slide and stood up straight, as if suddenly attentive to Jack’s words. But it was something else. The sound was distant, beyond the bay for sure. It could be anything, and he wanted to be wrong, but he’d heard this sound before. Jumping up onto the gunwale, one hand on the cabin roof to steady himself, he scanned the horizon. Morgan was looking north, toward the open sea, toward the Florida Keys, ninety long miles away. Jack was still talking.
“Lousy forty bucks a—”
Jack stopped talking. He looked up at Morgan, bewildered. He too, must have heard the low thum-thum of powerful marine engines, only he could have had no idea what the sound meant.
Morgan knew. He knew well before the silent, bright flash of the 40mm cannon briefly lit up the horizon. Before the magnesium dashes of tracer fire scored the night sky overhead, hitting the water close to the boats and sending plumes of spray into the air like decorative fountains. A PT boat, war vintage, once fitted with torpedo tubes for close attack on larger vessels, but now stripped back and loaned or given to the Cubans as surplus to requirement; mahogany-planked hull, 1,800 horsepower gasoline Packard engines. The sound they made was unmistakable—like no other boat. More like an aircraft.
The second cannon salvo followed moments later, and again the flashes were soundless for a couple of seconds. Morgan followed the line of tracer to see rounds cut through one of the small boats like cheese wire. The smallest box of all—the one with the grenades—must have caught, because just as the boat began to crumple, it exploded in a bright orange ball. The shock wave thumped into Morgan’s chest. He saw a body pirouette through the air and land awkwardly in the black sea, like a flubbed splash dive. Two of the other boats were awash, and there was burning debris on the water. Someone was howling in pain.
Morgan noticed headlights bouncing through the palms toward the beach beyond the burning boats. Jeeps or trucks of some kind. Military, police. It didn’t matter.
“Shit,” he said softly.
Jack was standing there gawping like a kid at a fireworks display.
“Get the anchor up—now!” Morgan shouted to Jack.
He lunged for the wheel and the ignition, knocking Jack to one side. He turned the key, engaged the forward anchor winch with his right hand and at the same time, pressed his thumb to the starter button, willing the engines to catch.
Instead, the motor whirred and died. The searchlight strobed over them as the eighty-foot patrol boat raced straight for their position. Morgan steadied himself. He checked the gear lever. Neutral . . . full choke . . . glow plugs ready . . . He pressed the starter button again and once more the motor whirred and moaned, but didn’t fire. He swore, then prayed briefly and took a deep breath. The clanking of the forward winch finally stopped. He pressed the button a third time. The engine and the whole boat vibrated as the crankshaft turned, forcing the pistons to life. Blue diesel smoke came coughing from the exhausts.
Morgan felt a surge of hope—until he looked around to see Jack, frozen and staring at the oncoming craft, with the stern anchor still down. He shouted again, though he knew it was already too late. They would never outrun a PT, even an old one. A boat like that could hit forty knots. He had ridden them in Japan, easing the monotony of eighteen months’ peacekeeping duty after the war. Hell, he had even tried waterskiing behind one—until the shore patrol caught them.
At three hundred yards, the PT boat slowed and came off the plane, its bows dipping and the stern rising in response. As it rocked and steadied in the water, they heard the bullhorn crackle and hum. Then a booming, distorted voice with a thick Cuban accent.
“Cut your engines and prepare to be boarded. You are under arrest!”
Morgan’s mind was working fast but coming up with nothing. He would leave the engine running, that much he knew. What happened next was anyone’s guess. The PT boat was closer now and he squinted under the dazzling searchlight at the dark figures lining the deck, each with a gun trained on them. He raised his hands and faced the light, glancing around to make sure Jack was following suit.
He wasn’t. Instead, he’d decided to haul in the anchor chain, now that it was way too late to help. He even appeared relaxed, as if they really had just gotten in a good day of fishing and were heading for port and the nearest bar.
“Leave it!” Morgan barked.
But Jack didn’t seem to hear. Instead, he kept at it, hand over hand, yarding up the wet chain and letting the slack clank onto the deck.
“Jack! Leave it!” Morgan shouted.
But still Jack carried on.
The bullhorn squawked again. “Put up your hands! Do not move!”
There was nothing Morgan could do. He stood with his arms still raised, wedging himself tight against the port side of the cockpit as the wash hit them. Adjusting his features to those of a man both surprised and innocent, he shouted to the patrol boat.
“Okay, guys, okay, relax. Pesca! You know, fishing!”
It was a vain hope, but just maybe, if they stuck to the story no matter what, there was a chance. The Cubans might not believe the fishing cover, but the guns were gone and they would have to prove otherwise. It was worth a shot.
The PT boat’s engines kicked into reverse, straining at the water and churning the surface to bubbling eddies and whirlpools. Morgan rehearsed the line: norteamericanos, vacaciones, just my buddy and me. Rented the boat in Miami. Thought we’d do a little fishing, see the sights, live aboard, you know?
He made a silent wish before glancing at Jack, hoping fervently he had come to his senses.
What he saw made him blanch. There was Jack, one hand on the wet chain, the other on the anchor, bracing with his knee on the padded cockpit seat, clutching the dripping steel in the crook of his right arm, left hand on the long shank.
Even from across the cockpit, with the anchor held like that and the look of excitement on Jack’s face, first impressions would say it was a weapon. From the patrol boat, there was no doubt.
For a long time after the event, Morgan would wonder that the reaction from the patrol boat hadn’t been a good deal more decisive. If he had been in the guardia’s place, looking at the excited gringo swinging around at him like that, his finger would have gone to the trigger for sure. He might even have made the shot.
As it happened, only one young man on the PT boat felt the same way. Perhaps fear kept the others from reacting. They certainly looked scared to Morgan, trying to cover him and Jack, and keep their footing as the boat rocked from side to side. And given the uneven motion of both boats, the chances of the only round fired hitting Jack in the chest at fifty yards were remote at best.
When the shot came, it was Jack who looked most astonished. The bullet must have passed straight through, between the ribs and missing the sternum, because he was still standing, still holding the anchor, even as the sound of the shot died away and a small patch of blood began to seep into his pale shirt. Only when one knee buckled slightly did he take half a step back to sit on the cockpit bench, anchor in his lap, mouth open. He didn’t even blink—just looked somehow disappointed.
Morgan reacted on instinct. He dived for cover, stretching for the throttle lever and yanking it down from neutral to full ahead, practically snapping it off. The engines revved high and loud, but instead of surging forward, the fishing boat twisted and kicked to the left, forcing its bow up and ramming the exposed hull of the PT boat. The mahogany planks splintered as the soldiers on deck pitched sideways. One went over the side and thudded off the cockpit roof directly above Morgan’s head before sliding into the sea.
Morgan made a grab for the wheel, spinning it to starboard, just enough to pull his craft back off the patrol boat and scrape along its hull. The screech of wood and fiberglass clawing at each other was like fingernails on a blackboard.
And then they were free. With the rudder set straight, the fishing boat suddenly ripped away, props gripping the water.
Keeping his head down as they put twenty yards, then fifty, then a hundred between them and the Cubans, Morgan at last allowed himself one look back at the patrol boat. It hadn’t budged, and he wondered if he had holed it below the waterline. It hadn’t even come about to give chase. The searchlight was flailing around and even found them once or twice, but by veering a few degrees to port, then starboard, he lost it easily.
Steering for the open sea, he checked on Jack, now slumped on the bench, still cradling the anchor in his arms. Eyes wide open.
As the sun rose, its warmth began to burn off the sea mist lingering in clumps over the ocean. It would be hot again today, but there was a chill in the air that made Morgan shiver. A mile or so from the Keys, the flat, calm water was listless and gloopy under the boat as it drifted, engines off.
Jack’s body was laid out precariously on the gunwale, arms tucked neatly to his chest, looking like a proper corpse prepared for burial. The blood had soaked his shirt from shoulder to waist. A big orange gas cylinder full of liquid propane, which Morgan had dragged up from the galley, was tied around Jack’s waist with a thick rope.
Morgan held the Matusalem rum bottle in one hand, studying the image of a bird in flight. He couldn’t be sure if the bird was a swift or a swallow, or a creature that existed only in the artist’s mind. A moment later, he hurled the bottle as far as he could into the mist and didn’t hear it hit the water.
He mumbled the opening to the Lord’s Prayer because that was all that came to mind, then put one hand on the cylinder and one under Jack’s shoulder, and shoved.
Body and gas cylinder splashed into the clear blue water together. But when Morgan looked over the side, he saw the cylinder heading downwards with a sense of purpose where Jack seemed to hover for a moment, arms outstretched. Morgan suddenly noticed that the eyes were open. And yet he had closed them for sure. Maybe the force of hitting the water had pried them open again.
Then the rope became taut, the weight of the gas cylinder gave the body a sudden downward yank and a few bubbles emerged from the mouth, like Jack was trying to speak. The vacant stare and the arms held wide gave him the appearance of someone reaching out, or falling in slow motion from a great height.
Moments later, the body vanished in the deep water. Inches beneath the sea’s surface, tiny translucent fish darted this way and that, as if looking for something lost.
Naturally, given the way things had turned out, Bartone was mad as hell with Morgan. He ordered him to lie low, wait for things to cool off. A couple of weeks, he said, no more. If anyone asked questions, play dumb. When the time was right, he’d get a call, but until then, best stay out of the light.
Morgan too, was mad, but at himself. He needed to talk to Thelma. He had to explain what had happened, and how. She would be going crazy. Bartone had said it was a dumbass idea and that under no circumstances should he go near the girl. When Morgan started shouting, two of the guys were on him in a flash, and he took a couple of solid gut punches before he remembered his manners. Bartone threatened at first, then abruptly changed tack and promised to make sure Thelma had what she needed. Money was not an issue, he said. Morgan should trust him, go back to his apartment and lie low.
“Understand?” Bartone had said, nodding to his goons to let go of Morgan’s arms.
There would be someone watching him, that much he knew. Morgan kinked the blinds to check the street out front and straightaway saw the guy sitting in a tan Ford parked across the street.
He recognized the watcher as Carl, part-time doorman at the Eden Roc Hotel and one of Bartone’s gofers. Carl was not exactly covert, smoking and tapping the bodywork in time to the radio. Morgan released the blind and went out into the hall, closing the door to his apartment behind him. At the back of the building, he opened the window and eased out onto the fire escape. After walking two blocks to make sure he wasn’t being followed, he took a cab to Thelma’s.
As soon as she saw him, she crumpled—before he even said a word.
He gently eased her back inside the apartment, closed the door with his foot and held her tight as she sobbed and beat on his chest. And when she finally collapsed on the sofa, Morgan covered her with a blanket and sat by her, stroking her head. He poured her a drink and then quietly told her how. He made only a few minor adjustments to the truth, telling her Jack had died instantly and gone over the side when the bullet hit him. But that was just to save her from unnecessary nightmares. In the evening, he scrambled eggs for them both, but she didn’t touch a thing. All night he sat by her bed, watching her sleep and wake repeatedly, crying dry tears and taking deep, heavy breaths.
Before he left in the morning, he made a call to her closest girlfriend—a girl called Karen—and talked her into calling in sick in order to spend the day with Thelma. When she arrived at the apartment, Morgan put some money on the sideboard, went back to his place and slept. Carl and the tan Ford were gone.
Over the days that followed, he saw Thelma whenever he could get away from his watchers. Time and again, he told her it was unlikely Jack’s body would ever be recovered, and explained that going to the authorities either here or in Cuba would only bring a storm of trouble down on their heads. His analogy became pointedly ironic when Hurricane Audrey swept up the Gulf of Mexico in June and made a devastating landfall in Texas and Louisiana. On her way past the Keys, Audrey whipped the seas into a fury, somehow bringing what was left of Jack’s bloated body to the surface, where it was spotted from a pleasure boat and reported to the coastguard.
In the investigation that followed, Thelma rushed to tell the cops everything she knew. She was mad with grief and furious at Morgan, at Bartone, the Cubans—everyone—and she named names. Bartone was hauled over the coals, but talked his way out of any direct involvement. After twelve hours in the can, they had to let him go. When he got back to the shipping office in the dockside warehouse he used as cover for his operations, he ranted and threatened, and vowed to make somebody pay. As a first step, he called his two best enforcers together and outlined his vision for Morgan.
But they were too late. Twenty-four hours before Bartone’s men broke down the door to Morgan’s apartment, he’d taken a bus over Seven Mile Bridge, then walked and hitched until there was no more road. He found a cheap hotel in Saddlebunch Harbor and spent his days lying on the single bed, drinking and watching the ceiling fan go round and round. He wondered about his chances of getting to Bartone before his goons came for him in the Keys. If he was going down, he wanted to go down fighting.
But the more he worked on a plan, the less sense it all made. This wasn’t about Bartone or Thelma—or even Jack. This was about twenty-eight years on the planet, with nothing to show but a catalogue of failure. No wonder his parents had pretty much given up on him. They were churchgoers. They lived in a good neighborhood in Cleveland and were heartbroken when their son turned out to be an embarrassment to them and a danger to himself. They knew nothing about his life in Miami, of course. It had been enough to watch him grow into manhood with a police rap sheet, two knife wounds and a dishonorable discharge. After the army and his time in the pen, they’d gotten him a job with the Monsignor as a church caretaker. It wasn’t much, but it was steady work, a breathing space. He’d lasted a month before deciding to hit the road. His father had driven past as he stood by the highway with his thumb out, and hadn’t even recognized him.
They never said so, but Morgan was sure they would have been happier had he given his life for his country. At least then they would have a flag and a medal cabinet, and could hold their heads up in public. If he had the courage, he thought as walked down the beach toward town, he would save Bartone’s goons a trip and do the job himself.
He saw the poster as he came out of the store carrying a quart of bourbon and eating cheese puffs. There was no cinema for miles around, but Saddlebunch Town Hall was holding a screening of Shane, starring Alan Ladd, that night. Morgan, and maybe twenty other people of all ages, sat on hard metal folding chairs. The sound was crackly, and the projector kept overheating so that they had to pause occasionally to let it cool off.
When the movie was over, he came out of the hot, sticky hall into the night air and walked to the beach nearby. He sat cross-legged on the sand, looking out over the black water of the ocean. And suddenly, he knew exactly where he was going—and why.
Ray Halliwell had a window seat aboard the Pan Am Lockheed Constellation en route to Havana’s José Martí Airport. It was December, 1957.
He was still smarting from a row with his boss Jim Sturry, deputy editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, responsible for foreign news coverage. When Ray got the call to return from Havana to Chicago for a meeting he’d known right away something was up. But he hadn’t expected to have to justify covering Cuba at all.
He’d fought his corner, citing the resistance building up in the Sierra and the cities, but Sturry had waved the argument away. “Bunch of students and the disaffected. Batista’s got an army, courtesy of the US government, and I feel for the people, really I do. The guy’s a monkey. But he’s their monkey, not ours. I want you to think about coming back to crime.”
“There’s plenty of crime in Cuba and I’ve been writing about it Jim, you know that. What about the laundering piece? Hundred of thousands of dollars…”
Sturry didn’t let him finish.
“Okay, so you’re writing about the mob down in Havana. Trafficante, Lansky, Luciano. It’s good stuff. But readers care about the bad guys in their own neighborhood. In this city. Nobody cares where they take their vacations. It’s all too far away, Ray. We need something closer to home, a story for the ordinary Joe.”
“Mister Halliwell?” The stewardess handed him another sour mash and discreetly took away his empty glass. It was his third. He took a long sip. He planned on getting drunk.
As he swilled the ice round and round in the golden liquid he wondered who the hell Sturry’s ‘ordinary Joe’ might be anyway. Did he even exist? He looked around at the passengers on the plane. The usual mix on the Havana flight. A couple of rows in front, two good ol’ boys with what sounded like Texas accents, each sporting bad taste Hawaiian-style shirts as loud as their voices. There were Cubans, some sporting giveaway army haircuts even in their casuals, their wives and girlfriends loaded down with new purchases from the Miami stores. The kind of purchases beyond army pay, the kind only privilege and backhanders could buy. One or two honeymoon couples holding hands or sleeping on each other’s shoulders, recovering from the big day and dreaming about sun and sand; a guy in a dark suit and sharp flat-top haircut sitting alone, looking neither left nor right but straight down the aisle. Not a businessman, thought Ray idly, more likely a spook. What the Embassy sometimes called an ‘advisor.’ There were more and more of them these days, painfully easy to spot, down to see for themselves what was going on and what needed to be done to keep a lid on things. A few weeks on the island was no hardship posting. Not that you’d tell from this guy’s Cold War frown.
Ray looked across the aisle to see a boy, maybe nine years old, one row back, pointing his index finger directly at a man in the next seat. His would-be victim was wearing a crumpled white suit and two-tone shoes. He was reading a Captain America comic book.
“Randy, stop it!” said the woman sitting with the boy—presumably his mother. She grabbed the boy’s wrist and forced him to lower his hand. “And stay still!”
“Hey, buddy?” the man said. The boy stopped fidgeting and gave him a suspicious glare. He rolled up the comic book and jabbed it playfully across the aisle. “Here you go.”
Ray studied the man. Over-dressed and over here. Gambling was probably his thing. Gambling or girls, or more often both. There’s your ordinary Joe, thought Ray.
Outside the terminal, Ray took a cab as always. The driver used his horn and some fine expletives to force his way through the jam outside the building. Soon, they were skirting the airport perimeter fence toward the main highway.
Ray opened his briefcase and picked out the invitation card for the evening reception at the US Embassy. Hosted by the American Telephone Company in the presence of the Cuban president himself, General Fulgencio Batista, it was exactly the kind of event Ray loathed and generally avoided. But he should catch up on things with Amelia and the others. He put the invitation on the seat next to him, noting with distaste the gold-embossed instructions for black tie.
He was leafing through the rest of his papers when he happened to look up and see a figure walking at the side of the road, toward the city; white suit, two-tone shoes.
No one in his right mind, thought Ray, would set out deliberately to walk ten miles to the city—not with both the temperature and the humidity at ninety and a fierce midday sun baking the ground beneath your feet.
As the cab drew level with the walking figure, Ray couldn’t help but turn and stare. It was the guy from the plane for sure. The man’s face was damp with sweat, though his expression appeared relaxed, even tranquil, and from what Ray could tell, he was whistling as he walked. Loco maybe. Ray sat back in his seat and returned to his papers, but then on impulse, he said to the driver, “Pare aquí.”
They pulled over. The man approached the open door of the cab, neither speeding nor slowing his pace. Just as it seemed he might walk on by he stopped abruptly and bent down to peer at Ray in the back seat.
“Need a ride?” Ray said.
The man thought about it. “That’s a kind offer, sir. Thank you.”
As the cab began to pull away, the man offered Ray his hand.
“William Morgan,” he said with old-fashioned formality.
“I’m grateful, Mister Halliwell. Little warm out there today.”
Conversation faltered. This oddly private Midwesterner, William Morgan, seemed content to remain silent. Ray was relieved, but also surprised, even a little peeved, realizing he might end the ride without a clue beyond what he could observe about the man. Maybe there was nothing to discover. Sturry would love this guy.
“You travel light.”
Morgan took a second to reply, but when he did, he turned to make full eye contact and smiled broadly.
“Yes, sir, you might say that.”
He was whistling ‘As the Caissons Go Rolling Along’ faintly through his teeth. Ray recognized the tune.
“Military man?” Ray asked.
Morgan stopped whistling and turned to Ray. He appeared to be coming back from a world of his own and the delay was a little unnerving. In the end, rather than offer a direct answer, he posed a question.
“May I ask you something, sir?”
“Sure,” said Ray.
“You wouldn’t be the same Ray Halliwell who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, would you?”
Ray’s heart sank. He should have just kept his mouth shut.
“Well, sir, this is an honor. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the island and to my mind, well, you tell it like it is. You wrote a piece about a guy I knew. Jack Turner.”
Ray cast his mind back. Nothing came immediately, but then he remembered. “Jack Turner. He was found floating off the coast.”
“We were in the army together.”
“I’m sorry.” This is no ordinary Joe thought Ray. “Is that why you’re here?”
“You could say that.”
“I don’t know if this is your first time in Havana Mister Morgan…” The Midwesterner was looking out the window and showed no reaction. “But maybe I can give you a free piece of advice?”
When Morgan turned to Ray, he had the look of a man who knew what was coming and didn’t want to hear it.
“I wouldn’t go asking questions of the wrong people. The authorities here can be very sensitive.”
“Yeah. Real sensitive.”
“The police especially.”
“I won’t be asking the police any questions.”
Half an hour later, the cab turned off the Malecón coast road, which marked the city’s northern limit, and took a right onto Cuba Tacón, then stopped in the bustling back streets of Old Havana. Morgan got out.
“I appreciate the ride, Mr. Halliwell.”
“The Bodeguita’s right down the street,” said Ray. “You can’t miss it. If you’ve got time to kill, you might want to walk the way we came, along the seafront. They say you’ll see all Havana at the Malecón Seawall.”
“I might just do that. Thanks. It was good to meet you.”
“Be careful Mr. Morgan. The bad guys rule here.”
The homemade gelignite bomb María had spent the day helping to prepare was stable and easy to arm, as long as you knew what you were doing. Not like dynamite with its capacity to sweat and leak nitroglyerine.
Olga María Rodríguez Fariñas—María to her friends—had spent the day in a dingy basement running over the details with Hector and Alejandro. The two young men were both only eighteen, two years younger than her. They were first-timers and their nervous nods of understanding had only left her fearing the worst.
And yet the plan couldn’t be simpler. They would stop the car on the median strip of the busy Avenida de los Presidentes, jack it up and leave the spare leaning against the rear bumper. Then Hector would crawl underneath and lever off the cast iron manhole cover allowing access to the Electricidad cubano maintenance shaft. All they had to do was set the timer, lower the bomb into the shaft, replace the manhole cover and get as far away as they could in fifteen minutes. Then they would travel to the Escambray Mountains to join the small band of rebel fighters there, leaving behind family and friends but out of reach of the police.
She had wanted to go along, to make sure. But the collective leadership of the University’s Directorio Revolucionario cell had detailed her to another task. A useless waste of time she thought as she made her way through the crowded narrow streets of the old town towards the rendezvous. She’d argued, but it made no difference. Even as one of the leaders of the cell she could not sway the decision. Her English was pretty good and this meeting required someone with English, but also someone experienced enough to make sure this yanqui was for real. They needed to know more about the man before compromising the route and the safe house. It was all too common for the secret police to try to infiltrate informers. She knew many of the students at the University were on Batista’s payroll, if only through fear and intimidation. Then there was the CIA. They too had attempted to place agents and no doubt they would try again.
She had learned to trust nothing but her own instincts since coming to the city. So different from her hometown in the Santa Clara province, where her family often went hungry when she was younger but where she’d worked hard at school, hard enough to earn a place at the University in Havana.
She had wanted to become a teacher, but with each passing day in the big city, she’d witnessed more and more of the repression, the beatings and disappearances that kept this murderous regime in power and sold everything of any value to the Americans. They owned the sugar mills, the plantations, the casinos, the hotels and the harvests, and they cared about nothing but money, never counting the human cost. Her homeland had become America’s cubo de basura. A trashcan for the gringos and their gangsters.
María abruptly stopped walking. She reached into her handbag as if suddenly fearing she’d forgotten something. She pulled out her small compact mirror and checked her appearance, scanning the ground behind her as she did so. There was nothing out of the ordinary as far as she could see. She was about to put it away when she realised how different she looked tonight. How pretty, in fact. She’d done her hair and was wearing a dress, her only decent dress, yellow with a satin sheen, flared by a white petticoat in the current style. It had been a long time since she’d worn a dress. She felt conspicuous, but she knew looking like the carefree girls around her, out for the night, was best for what she had to do. And yet it made her sad to see herself like that because the part of her that liked to laugh and to be light and to be pretty had no place in her life now. She wondered if such a time would ever come again.
María closed the compact and headed to where the American would be waiting. She walked easily now, naturally, as if strolling to meet a lover or out to find herself a rich yanqui who would buy drinks, and more.
He was leaning with both elbows on the handrail of the wooden wharf, smoking and apparently intent on staring out over the water. To María, he looked like any other fat cat tourist. The white suit and two-tone leather shoes said all she needed to know, so much so that she briefly considered walking on by and making up a story for the others that he hadn’t shown. Until she realized he was watching her without ever turning to look. That was a practiced skill, she thought. The kind of skill you don’t expect to find in a tourist.
She stopped a little way from him, as if she too were admiring the view.
“Do you have a match?” she asked the American.
“I have lighter,” he said.
It was enough. He knew the response and the photo likeness was good. None of which, of course, meant anything other than the fact that this was the same man who had contacted the Directorio guys in Miami. He could still be CIA or on Batista’s payroll. Even some of the big companies like United Fruit employed their own agents. Only they called them security.
“I am María.”
She noticed a scar by his left eye, another under his chin. His forehead was high and his lips full. His gaze was unnerving and direct, but there was something boyish too. Half man, half boy she thought.
“Shall we walk Mister Morgan?” she said, leading the way.
“Sure,” he said, picking up his small suitcase,” Where to?”
“To see the sights. That’s why you’re here isn’t it?”
“If you say so, ma’am.”
The black outline of La Cabaña fortress was clearly visible across the bay against a sky now crimson beyond the lights of the city.
“You know La Cabaña?” she asked him as they strolled along the sidewalk of the seawall.
“There.” María pointed across the bay at the silhouette of the fortress.
“Yes. Built two hundred years ago by the Spanish when they ruled Cuba. Now La Cabaña is a military prison for those who oppose the Batista regime. A place of torture and execution.”
María turned to face the American. “Do you Mister Morgan?”
“I think you’re telling me Cuba is a dangerous place to be.”
“Not for tourists.”
“I’m not a tourist.”
“No? Then what are you doing here?”
“I came to fight.”
“To fight? But this is not your fight. And not your country.”
“I have my reasons.”
María checked her watch. She was thinking about Alejandro and Hector. They should be on their way.
“Our information is you brought guns to the island.”
“That was a good way to help with the fight. Go home, Mister Morgan. Send more guns. That is the best thing for you.”
“I can’t do that.”
“No? That’s a pity.”
“Look, I told your guy in Miami all this.”
“About your friend?”
“That too. So what is this? All I want is a route to the Sierra Mountains.”
“Then I’ll make my own way.”
“That’s not what I was told.”
“You were told wrong.”
María held his gaze. She could see he was angry now. If he was an agent, an infiltrator, he should change tack, try a different strategy or lose the contact. She waited.
“Then I guess we’re done,” said Morgan.
She let him walk away. A few paces only, but enough to know this was no ploy.
He turned around and faced her. With his suitcase in hand, she saw the little boy in him again.
“Walk with me.”
When they’d gone a little way and there was no one who could overhear, she spoke again. “The Sierra is six hundred miles from Havana. Fidel Castro has a small force there but you will never reach them. The army has roadblocks everywhere and there are restrictions on travel for foreigners that mean you would never be permitted to go to the area.”
She glanced at him for a reaction. He was frowning.
“I can get you to the mountains, but not to the Sierra. A second front has opened in the Escambray Mountains. Closer and easier to reach. A car is leaving tonight.”
“Okay. I guess. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me Mister Morgan. I can get you to the mountains, but I do not think you will be there long.”
“Well, we’ll see,” said Morgan.
“Yes, we will see. The leader in the Escambray is Eloy Menoyo. He will say if you stay.”
“Fine by me.”
María studied him. Still she could not decide what kind of man this was. His eyes were hard and she saw that he could be tough. A hard man but with a boy’s smile. Perhaps he was nothing more than an adventurer. Perhaps he was a fool. The mountains and the men in the mountains would decide.
“Come,” she said.
The narrow streets of the old town, beyond the glitz of nightclubs and bars and away from the tourists and touts, were eerily deserted under the few weak streetlights.
María led him down an alleyway too narrow for cars past overhanging balconies draped with wash. Morgan was aware of light spilling through slat shutters, the sound of muffled voices, kitchen pots and a whining child, hinting at the life within.
They came to an unremarkable wooden door, old and dry with brittle flakes of blue-green paint, indistinguishable from a hundred other doors in the area.
María knocked. The door opened and an old woman, who looked to Morgan to be in her eighties, ushered them in. She bolted the door behind them. From a shelf she picked up a burning candle, stuck with melted wax to a cracked yellow saucer, and held it up to see their faces. Morgan noticed the woman held something heavy in her left hand, which she quickly tucked in her apron. After a moment, she snorted and began to shuffle away down the dim hall toward the dark interior of the house. Morgan could smell fried onions.
“Who is she?” he asked Maria.
“Her name is Pilar,” she said. “Her son and grandson are desaparecidos. Disappeared.”
A smoking oil lamp lighted the kitchen. On the stove, a pan of onions, green peppers, garlic, oregano and bay leaf was sweating deliciously in oil. Morgan was hungry. He saw the old woman retrieve the heavy object she’d tucked away and realized it was an ancient revolver she’d been holding in her liver-spotted hand. The old woman opened a box on one of the high shelves above the cooker. She got out a stained rag and wrapped it around the heavy gun before putting it back in the box.
“Vengan,” the old woman said.
She picked up the candle and led them out of the kitchen, through a low doorway and down some rickety stairs to the basement. In the gloom, Morgan picked out a few boxes, a chair and two or three old army cots set out on the earthen floor. On one wall a mirror was propped on a shelf above a wide metal dish with a jug of water beside it. Morgan could only just stand upright between the dusty wooden joists supporting the floor above.
The old woman put the candle down on a wooden box. Then she turned and clambered back up the stairs and they were alone in the murky basement.
“Now what?” asked Morgan.
“Now we wait,” said María.
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