David H Weisberg
Havana, Winter 1953
For the third afternoon running Philip Narby hung about the crummy little sidewalk café, watching for Sylvio. Two hours now, long enough to go through a pack of Chesterfields, four bottles of Hatuey beer, last week’s Time magazine and just about every word of the International Herald Tribune. He was sick of it, waiting like a leashed dog for a lowlife like Sylvio. And if Sylvio didn’t show? That meant skulking around the stairwell of some decrepit apartment house, seeking out one of Narby’s other acquaintances who might have what he wanted, and with a good chance of getting swindled.
Narby ordered another beer and picked up the Tribune. He read the story again, with its glimmer of hope: the North Koreans had finally accepted the U.N. terms for a preliminary exchange of prisoners. Narby knew very well the kind of horseshit the military and the State Department fed the press. Still, it made sense. Ending the war now had advantages for all concerned. Mao could boast that his peasant army had fought the nuclear-armed Americans to a draw. Stalin could stop hemorrhaging tanks and fighter jets. And Eisenhower could make good on his promise to bring our boys back home, get his ticker-tape parade down Broadway. The only losers — once again — were the no-account Koreans themselves. The Poland of East Asia.
There were other factors: the prison camp riots, the pointless slaughter back and forth, fighting over a few square miles of barren ground, the mounting political cost. Even the Reds had to appease their own masses once in a while. Two, three more months and his purgatory would be over. Once they started demobilizing, with thousands of young men just like him coming home everyday, Narby could slip back into the country, hiding in plain sight.
At the moment, however, Narby had more pressing concerns. The tremor in his leg was acting up, though probably it was only nerves. And his side was starting to throb. By the weekend he’d be in considerable trouble. If it came to that he’d have no choice but take whatever he could get. But he drew the line at injecting himself. That had been a dangerous mistake. The girl he was with — even a worse mistake — had panicked, pulled a knife. Afterwards, he’d been sick for a week, scared out of his wits.
That was another item on his list for Sylvio. He’d been a month without. The girls Narby met through Sylvio were of an entirely different class, and he always took adequate precaution. He wanted that La China again, the mixed-blood girl with the dark skin and the green oriental eyes. It wasn’t very nice, very gentlemanly, paying for it. But he had his animal needs. Besides, he hadn’t asked to come to Havana, having to live like this, like an animal. The whole country was a goddamn cesspit. The mere fact that Narby didn’t mistreat them, didn’t beat them or demand unnatural acts, made him something of a moral paragon.
Narby scanned the narrow street, the opposite corner and down the block of dingy three-story houses, their iron balustrades draped with laundry. You could recognize him right off, that raffia hat with the red band, Sylvio’s sign that he was open for business.
Who the hell was that? Straightening from his slouch Narby picked up the newspaper and then, casually, turned the page, lowering and then raising the paper. A well-dressed American – possibly a European, but definitely not Cuban – walking towards the café. There was nothing around here for tourists, no hotels or casinos or high-class brothels. It was far from the Malecón and the Vedado. Maybe he was lost, though the man’s gait and posture – steady, calm – suggested otherwise.
The man was taking a seat about ten tables down the sidewalk. He asked for a cortadito and a bottle of water. Good Spanish, but the broad American vowels gave him away. Even more disconcerting – because it was unlikely that a well-heeled American would have any business in this obscure pocket of Havana – was the sense, the near certainty, that Narby had seen him before: a tall, trim, elegant-looking man in his forties with light brown hair, wearing a beautifully cut pearl-gray suit, with that relaxed, loose-limbed attitude. Except for those first weeks in Havana, when Narby hardly knew where he was or what had happened to him, he scrupulously avoided the bars and beaches and the fashionable streets around the Prado, or any place where Americans congregated. And he made a point of rotating among a half dozen newsstands, at odd hours, making no pattern.
Turning the page again Narby chanced another look. God damn it, the smooth son-of-a-bitch was watching him. The bank. Now he remembered. Only last Monday Narby had made a withdrawal at the Banco de la República. Passing in the entranceway. Their eyes had met. Or was Narby imagining things? He was always a bit keyed up on those bank runs, signing the slip at the international counter, feigning impatience when the clerk insisted on matching the signatures.
He’d been so obsessed with finding Sylvio that Narby had forgotten all about it. That greasy little scum. It was all Sylvio’s fault. Screwing with him, never letting Narby know when or where, jacking up the price because he thought he had Narby on a string. And now Narby had left himself exposed, trapped.
Or maybe not. The Philip Narby at the bank was clean-shaven and coiffed, in a silk sports shirt and linen trousers and oxfords. The Philip Narby hanging about, drinking beer, was rather unkempt: a week’s growth of beard, wearing cheap canvas trousers and an old sun-bleached polo shirt and tennis shoes – a young man on a lark, bumming around the Caribbean, trying to make up his mind whether to finish college or put on the harness and take that job in his old man’s office. But what if the American had been tracking him since Monday? Had Narby been so blind, so careless, as to let that happen?
Folding the paper he leaned back and sipped his beer, absently gazing down the street, channeling his nerves into the pantomime while keeping the man in his peripheral vision. The American got up, was walking toward him. The man had come to kill him. If he pulled out a gun, shot Narby right here and now, who was going to stop him or chase after him? The toothless old men playing dominoes, the barefoot kids running along the street, the halfwit hawking tickets for the bolita? An American like that, with money and connections, could get away with anything in Cuba.
His suit jacket, hooked with one finger, was slung over his shoulder. In his other hand he carried a coffee cup. He was neither armed nor dangerous. On his face he wore a solicitous, genteel smile.
Maybe the man was only a queer, interpreting their little peek-a-boo at the bank and again, just now, as an invitation. He certainly looked more like a queer than a killer.
“Hello. Again.” The man nodded, looking down at Narby. “Mind if I join you?”
“Sorry,” Narby said, catching his breath. “Must be a mistake. No, thanks.”
The man continued, smiling. “No. No mistake. I’m quite sure. We met in Tokyo. Though briefly, I admit. May I?”
Without waiting for assent he put down the coffee, pulled out a chair, and draped his jacket over the back. “Believe me, I’m as surprised to see you here as you seem to be, seeing me.”
“Why should I be surprised, since I don’t know you?” Narby said flatly, averting his face. “Besides, I’m not that way, if that’s what you’re looking for. Each to his own, friend. But you’ve got the wrong guy.”
The man raised an eyebrow, momentarily flustered, and then he laughed. “No, no. Nothing like that. Don’t you remember? We were introduced, but for the life of me I can’t recall your name.” He offered his hand across the table. “I’m Bill Knowles.”
The name startled him. Yes, Narby knew it. Very well, in fact. But the face, the voice, held no particular meaning. He shrugged, declining to shake the man’s outstretched hand and feeling a vague satisfaction as Knowles, looking a bit foolish, withdrew it. “All right,” Knowles said, his tone confidant despite the rebuke. “Presumptuous of me, I suppose. Barging in on you like this.”
A crumpled pack of Chesterfields lay on the table. Noticing it, Knowles reached back and from his jacket pocket took out his own. “Funny, how trivial things stick in the mind,” he said, pulling a cigarette and lighting it and then dropping the pack between them. “You smoked Chesterfields. So did I. They didn’t carry them at the PX in Tokyo. You had to get them on the black market. You told me so yourself.”
Narby remembered that, about the Chesterfields, buying them on the street, the cartons piled in the trunk of a car. But that was earlier. His memory about certain things that happened later was still confused. Knowles was trying to unnerve him, with his cool gray eyes. Narby met them for a second then looked away.
Narby took a cigarette. Knowles had his lighter out but he ignored him and struck a match. Leaning back, he sprawled his legs under the table. “So what?” Narby said, deciding on a tack. “Lots of people smoke Chesterfields. You’re mistaking me for someone else. But, thanks for the smoke.”
“All right. No harm then if you indulge me for a moment. If I’m wrong then I’ll go away.” He smiled again, his complexion warm but not suntanned, the earthen shade of a pale potato. “It was at the Kansas City. A month or so before Korea, summer, pouring rain. The monsoons. You came with Ted McCoy. He brought you along. You worked for him, as I recall. Something of a protégé, it seemed. Tokyo. Summer of 1950. Come now, you can’t deny you were in Tokyo.”
“Why should I deny it?”
Knowles laughed, gently, easily. “No reason at all. Just as there’s no reason you shouldn’t remind me of your name.”
“You followed me from the bank, didn’t you?” he said, too quickly, reacting instead of thinking. His leg under the table was trembling. “You’ve been watching me for days.”
“What bank? Look, I sat down for a coffee and I saw you, recognized you. Don’t be fantastic. Why in the world would I follow you?”
“Then what the hell are you doing around here, in this neighborhood? Aren’t you afraid of getting rolled? Look around, friend. You’ll ruin your expensive suit, sitting on that filthy straw chair.”
“You’re in some kind of trouble, aren’t you? Maybe I can help.”
“How do I know you’re really Bill Knowles? I’ve got some pals around here. All I have to do is whistle and you’re in for it. Whatever you are.”
“Of course I’m Bill Knowles. Here. May I?” The threat had no effect. He reached into his suit jacket, cautiously, and took out a business card. “I’m with the Allbright Paper Company. We have a warehouse not far from here. It was a pleasant afternoon, not too hot, so I decided to walk. I’ve cut through this neighborhood before. Never had any trouble.”
It was happening again: information without memory, as if someone were using Narby’s mind as a filing cabinet. He ought to keep his mouth shut. But he didn’t like that superior smile, that smirk. “It’s phony. There is no Allbright Paper Company. All the paper in Japan under the Occupation came from a company called Putnam. You lied then, and you’re lying now.”
“I was right,” Knowles said. He leaned forward to tap his cigarette against the ashtray. The smirk was gone. “That’s what made such an impression, frankly. What you said to me that night at dinner, at the Kansas City. That you didn’t buy into all that ‘losing China’ hysteria. And something else, about natural resources in Indo-china. A little naïve, I thought. But I said to myself, McCoy’s young friend, he’s quite an original.”
“MacArthur wanted you out of Asia.” He was reacting again, but he couldn’t hold back. “Willoughby hated you even more, hated everyone connected with State, with Frank Wisner, despised anyone with the taint of Acheson or Roosevelt. But they couldn’t touch you. Not like me. One phone call from MacArthur’s people to Washington and I’m sent straight to Pusan. To the Naktong.”
“Calm down. It’s all right. You served at Pusan? With Task Force Smith? That was bad. Brutal. But … well, here you are, all in piece and far from the fray, taking the afternoon sun with a beer, relaxing with the Herald Tribune and the war still grinding on. Now,” he said, smiling again, “how’s that?”
“You tell me.”
“Well, maybe I could, if only you’d remind me of your name. Whatever’s happened, we’re on the same side, right? You obviously know enough about me to realize that, yes?”
“The enemy-of-my-enemy kind of thing? That what you mean?”
“Well, yes, if you must take it that way. Still. Isn’t that good enough?”
“Depends. Maybe there are more than two sides. More than one enemy.”
Knowles shook his head slightly and picked up his coffee, crossing his legs, his smile fading, leaving his face neutral. His fine sky-blue shirt was splotched with perspiration and he loosened his tie.
“Unfortunately, for some men, everyone is an enemy. I could find out, you know. Besides,” Knowles went on, the slate-gray eyes assessing Narby, the wharf-rat clothes, the beard and the sprawl and the jiggling leg, “you don’t exactly project the picture of peace and prosperity. Not that it’s any of my business. Frankly, it’s nothing to me. It’s just my innate curiosity. I don’t like hanging threads.”
So, Knowles obviously didn’t know about the bank account, about Sid Black, because if he did, then he would know that the ratty clothes were just a ploy. And up to now the ploy had worked. With the exception of Sid Black, no one knew Narby was in Havana. In fact, Knowles had failed to recognize him at the bank, had failed to make the connection. It was Narby who was the more acute observer. Knowles had simply stumbled upon him somehow. Probably they staked out the international newsstands, keeping tabs on foreigners and stray Americans. If only Narby had a little more to go on. He couldn’t survive like this much longer, hiding out in his hole of a room, clinging to dope pushers like Sylvio, siphoning off more and more of Sid Black’s money.
Narby shifted in the uncomfortable straw-bottomed chair and flicked the butt end of his cigarette into the gutter. The tables were turned a bit. He had more on Knowles than Knowles had on him. He ought to take a chance.
“Wouldn’t want to leave you hanging. My name is Narby. Philip Narby. Mind if I bum another smoke?”
Knowles blinked, his lips parting slightly as if to speak, closing, parting again. “Philip Narby?” he said. “But. I would never forget a name like that. No. It was more all-American. Some monosyllable out of Twain. Jim or Tom. It suited you, I remember. Still does, even here, so far from the Mississippi.”
“You calling me a liar?”
“Goodness no, not at all. It’s more like … a discrepancy. Help yourself,” Knowles said, smiling again, nodding at the pack of cigarettes. “Philip Narby,” he repeated. “I won’t forget this time. My apologies.”
The bastard was playing some kind of mental game. “Who’s this man you mentioned, McCoy?”
“Ted McCoy. He was at Harvard, two years ahead of me, so I didn’t know him well. But it was nice to get reacquainted, when I saw him in Tokyo. He was working for one of the Civilian Sections of the Occupation. Bad luck, that. One of the first reservists to get sent to Korea. Very sad. He was dead within the week. They found him by the side of the road, with three or four others. His hands were tied behind his back with wire, a bullet hole in his temple. No taking prisoners back then. But. If you were at Pusan, you know all that. Don’t you, Philip?”
What the hell did that mean? Was he calling Narby a coward, a traitor? “You think I was going to give them another chance to kill me? MacArthur and Willoughby and the rest of them. They’re the traitors. They had this machine, this torture. Electro-shock. Because when I came to, I couldn’t remember anything. As if it were my fault!”
“Slow down, Philip. You were captured? Where? When?”
God damn it! There was Sylvio, strolling by on the other side of the street with his hands in his pocket, whistling, the straw hat with the red band cocked to one side. He had what Narby needed, all right. Only Sylvio wasn’t about to stop and do business with some unknown American sitting next to Narby. If Narby got up now he could catch him at the plaza, where Sylvio would usually linger for a few minutes, chatting with his pals or using the urinal.
“I have to go. Don’t get up. Don’t follow me.”
“But … Wait. Here.” The business card was on the table. Knowles slipped it into the pack of Chesterfields and handed the pack to Narby. “You can reach me at that number. Or write to that address. It’s perfectly safe.”
As he turned the corner Narby looked back. Knowles was watching him but he kept his seat, a well-dressed American sitting quietly amongst the dirt and disorder of the rundown neighborhood. Ten minutes later, after leaving Sylvio, Narby circled back, coming from the opposite direction and careful not to show himself. Knowles was gone, the table cleared, the old men playing dominos, just as before. Perfectly safe, he muttered to himself. They’d be watching him from now on, could pick him up whenever they wanted. Or maybe they were looking for someone else and wanted to use Philip Narby as the bait, out front, exposed. Just like Korea, stringing them out along the hillsides like clay pigeons at a shooting gallery.
He’d made it out of Korea alive, against all the odds. He could beat the odds again.