First In the Series

Agatha Girls

He looked older than he was. Wearing a priest’s garb will do that for, or maybe to, you. He was only seventeen, I found out later. Later. After. Later after he had hit me from almost behind. With a short, weighted club. After I had turned almost around. After sensing his arm swing back and reach forward. After I had raised my own forearm almost just enough to deflect the blow completely. Almost doesn’t count, but it’s the thought that does, and the thought I had was to protect my head, Jewish girl that I am when it comes to these things. I deflected the blow to that soft space between my neck and collarbone that still hurts like hell all these years later. After that, I watched him make the sign of the cross. And after that, I took the fall.

From my new position, on my side on the sidewalk, my head resting uncomfortably on a bottle cap’s serrated side, I watched him run away, his Nikes swooshing against the priestly robes. Then I remembered that I was very tired. I closed my eyes thinking, “Jesus, New York can be a tough place for a girl like me to make a living.”

When I came to, after twenty two minutes, my head and the bottle cap were still there. I thought, for a moment, that the bottle cap would become part of me, presenting new challenges and opportunities to my ability to accessorize. My purse was still there, with my license, my money, my credit cards, cell phone. And my lipstick, thank god. No gun, however. I won’t carry one. Anymore. Never carry something you won’t use, I believe. And I won’t use a gun anymore. I used one once, and I didn’t enjoy the experience. Even if he was a man. Even if he deserved it.

I checked myself. Carefully, deliberately before moving. I had gotten used to the bottle cap by then, barely noticing the cookie cutter pressure it placed on the side of my forehead. I took an inventory of functions, organs, and digits. And clothing. Everything was intact. Thankfully. Not that I thought sex was the reason for the faux junior priest’s attack. At least no more than I think sex is the reason for every attack by every man on every woman. I don’t. Sometimes I think money is the reason. However, a woman can never be too careful. A woman should never assume. Especially when dealing with somebody dressed as a priest.

A girl like me, I should have seen it coming. Literally and figuratively. Intuition and profession and all that. I used to see these things coming from behind me. I don’t think getting older has anything to do with it. Nor does being tired have anything to do with it. Actually, I think a bit of exhaustion sharpens the non-cognitive mind, allows you to sense things without processing them through the arrays of gates called thought. No, I think I was just a bit off my game that night. A girl like me. An Agatha Girl.

I should have seen it coming as soon as I saw him come into our office. Our office being the office of the “Agatha Girls.” The four of us, partners on the edges of crime, female private investigators, “women keeping an eye open for women,” as it says on our business cards.
How we got that name is a short story. I saw it on a sign outside a woman’s clothing boutique in Paris. So I took it. Plagiarism? I don’t think so. Who knows where the boutique owners got the name? None of them was named Agatha either. How we became Agatha Girls is a much longer story. Maybe I’ll tell you some other time.

I should have seen it coming when he walked into my office in his beige linen suit, his white unbuttoned linen shirt, his gold chains, his hair combed straight back like a cartoon version of a tango instructor, his too large ring on his right ring finger, his sockless loafered feet. He looked like someone trying to look like someone trying to look Italian.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.

“Mind if I smoke?” he replied, ignoring my insult.

“Absolutely,” I said.
His hand, holding the unlit cigaret, stopped before reaching his mouth. He put the cigaret away.
He extended his now empty hand. “Jose Dorfman.”

“Rachel Goldstein-Perez,” I said meeting his hand with my own. It was his turn.

“You’re kidding me,” he said.

“Not yet.”

“You Jewish? Puerto Rican?”

“Both,” I replied.

“Me too. How about that?”

“This is New York, Mr. Dorfman. It’s rare, I admit, but not unheard of.”

“Maybe we’re related.”

“Let’s hope not,” I said. He was so vain, he took that as a compliment, a promise of non-incestuous sex to come. What a putz.

A girl like me, I should have seen it coming just looking at him sitting there, his legs spread apart, elbowing the empty air aside because he was a man and that’s what men are supposed to do. I wonder about that. I wonder about that watching men on the subway, sit with their legs wide open , squeezing women into places too small for them to even cross their legs.

He kept his legs open like there was something I might want to see. There wasn’t.

” Are you advertising something, Mr. Dorfman. Or are you just glad to see me?”

He didn’t get it. He was so slow he didn’t register the least flush at the remark. It’s tough work, embarrassing a narcissist.

“I need you to find someone for me,” he said.

“A woman?” I asked.

“A woman,” he replied.

“Are you involved with this woman professionally or personally?”

“Both,” he said.

“And this woman no longer wishes to see you?”

“I don’t know that,” he said. “She just hasn’t shown up at work the last two days. She’s not at home. She hasn’t picked up her messages from her phone.”

“Home or business?”

“Both ,” he said. Both seemed to be his answer for the day.

“How do you know that?” I asked. “Do you live together? Do you have keys to her apartment?” I expected him to say “both.” He said “neither.”

“Her answering machine at home picks up after two rings when there’s a message already on it and four rings if there’s none. The first time I called her it picked up on four rings. Every time since then, 2 rings. As for work, we work together. Her voice mail indicator has been flashing continuously.”

“Mr. Dorfman, we don’t refuse this type of work, but we generally try to avoid it. Our experience has been that when a woman disappears those looking for her either caused her disappearance or are exactly the people she doesn’t want to know her whereabouts. So, if we accept this case, and if we do find her, we don’t and we won’t tell you her location.”

“Well, how will I know if you’ve actually found her? I am paying you for something.”

“We’ll ask her to call you. To leave a message on a phone other than yours that you will be able to listen to at a later time. But if she doesn’t want to do that, it’s your tough luck. We understand that you might not like those terms. We understand that you might want to take your business, and your search, somewhere else. We won’t mind.” Mind? I would have, I should have, paid him to go somewhere else. It would have been in everyone’s best interest. His too.

“Look,” he said, “I have to find her. It’s important to me personally and professionally.”

“Just exactly what is it that the two of you do, Mr. Dorfman?”

He hesitated. His hand slipped inside his linen jacket, searching for his cigarets. “Are you sure I can’t smoke?”

“Positively certain. What business are you in, Mr. Dorfman?”

He hesitated. “I, we, run a website.”

“Could you be more specific, Mr. Dorfman? Last time I checked there were several million web sites, most of which I hope to remain unfamiliar with.”

“Well it’s kind of an adult-oriented brokerage website.”

“A what? What kind of brokerage? Securities, real estate?”

“Not exactly.”

“Mr. Dorfman, if I were a lawyer, god forbid, if you were paying me by the hour, I would let you ‘not exactly,’ and vague me until your money ran out. But you don’t and I won’t. By the way, you do have money, don’t you?”

“I’m not just another pretty face,” he said withdrawing a roll of new hundred dollar bills with oversized pictures of another overly important ugly man on the front.

“So,” I continued, “You said adult-oriented brokerage. Just what is that? A pornographic clearing house?”

He startled, visibly struck by the accuracy of my description. “Close. Very close,” he said. “How did you guess?”

“I am a detective, Mr. Dorfman, or did you forget why you came to Agatha Girls?”

He went on without responding to that remark. “We offer adult oriented services for our member/subscibers. The usual sexually explicit photos, videos, live webcams. Nothing that unusual. Nothing illegal. No minors. No e.pimping,” he said.

“But that’s not all you offer, correct Mr. Dorfman? That’s not what makes a brokerage a brokerage. Straddling, pardon the pun, buyer and seller, that’s what makes a brokerage. Just what, or who, are you straddling that brings you to this office?”

“I’m really not a liberty to say.”

“Then I can’t help you, Mr. Dorfman. And I can’t help her. I’m a detective not a clairvoyant. I conduct investigations not seances. Tell me, or get out.”

“That simple for you, is it?”

“Most things in this life are, Mr. Dorfman. And I know it’s the simple things that give us the most trouble. So tell me or good-bye and good luck. What bigger crime are you hiding behind the smaller crime of your pornography? What’s hiding behind those raised skirts?”

He looked like he was really uncomfortable or he had his sham act down pat because he was sweating and his mouth was dry. Real actors, and accomplished liars, can do that. I know. I used to live with one.

“I’m not a criminal. We provide a service. We bring buyers and sellers together for the purpose of arranging transactions in certain rare works of art, ornamentation, decoration, and archeological artifacts. We do not inquire as to the origin of these items or how they came into a member’s possession. We make a market, an auction market, on-line, but hidden, encrypted within our website.”

A girl like me, I should have seen that coming. He was a fence. An e.fence.

I told him as much. “You mean you’re a fence in the world of electronic commerce. How clever. When’s the IPO?”

“This is real commerce, Ms. Perez. Real objects, real cash, ….”

“Real risks?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you think one of those real risks has befallen your partner, Ms…. Just what is her name?”

He reached into his jacket, the side opposite the cigaret side and withdrew a picture, handing it to me as he said her name.

“Marieta. Marieta Morales. And I don’t know, but I’m worried.”

I took the picture from his hand. I wished I hadn’t. The picture was a full length shot of a young woman about five foot ten with long curly black her, jet black eyes, and eyebrows, brown skin, lips red enough to shame lipstick. She was smiling, posing with a hip cocked in the direction of tomorrow, her short black dress and red open-toed high heels showing off her brown legs, her hand holding a glass of wine. She looked just like my sister. Just like my sister had looked before her ex-boyfriend shot her. Before he tried to strangle me. Before I took the gun away from him and shot him. I placed the picture on the desk in front of me.

“Something wrong, Ms. Perez?”

“Everything,” I said. “Tell me, who wrote the code for your software. Who did the encrypting? Pardon me for saying this, but I can’t exactly picture you in that role.”

“I’m not insulted, Ms. Perez. And I’m not stupid. But compared to her…well, she was the brains of the operation, no doubt about that…”

He let the sentence hang in the air, like a smoke ring, gently coming apart in different places all at once.

“Who’s idea was it? The website within the website, ebaying the underworld so to speak. Was it yours?”

“I thought so, at first,” he said. “But now, I’m not so sure. She seemed to know just what to do as soon as we started talking about it. She had worked for banks on their encryption and transaction software. She knew what they had in inventory.”

“Inventory?”

“Ms. Perez, I told you what we did. We arranged for buyers and sellers to find each other, to exchange their objects, to make inquiries, to bid and offer. Objects, artwork, artifacts, antiquities, without questioning. Who do you think has the resources, the accumulated property, the network to pursue these trades?”

“Microsoft?” I offered.

He laughed. “Not a bad guess. But Gates, for all his paper, is object poor, the usual condition for a newcomer. Plus, he doesn’t really care, yet, for these objects, these emblems of eternal wealth. No, not Gates or Case or Time-Warner TNT. Banks. Banks have the resources, and the history. And the Catholic Church. Nobody has a network like the Catholic Church. Nobody, not even the Brits, have been involved in amassing ancient artifacts and modern works of art like the Catholic Church.”

I just stared at him.

“I told you I’m not just another pretty face. I told you I’m not stupid.”

“And these banks, and the Church, they use your website?”

“Yes, with, until now, complete confidence. Ms. Perez, you have to understand, every calamitous event is an opportunity to separate objects, the embodiment of a culture, from its producers, and turn them into treasure, embodying value. Every invasion of a country, every economic collapse, every colonial expedition sweeps artifacts and art into the market as it shreds the culture. Once cast into the stream, these objects are naturally plucked out by those with the resources to dam the stream.”

I stared at him, this Dorfman. He looked like his website, a pornographic picture hiding something even more insidious. He acted like his website inside the website. I didn’t like him.

“And you, Mr. Dorfman, you match buyers and sellers?”

“Not exactly. We allow buyers and sellers to match each other. It’s a market in its purest expression.”

And in its origins, I thought.

“For a commission,” I added.

“Exactly, Ms. Perez. These objects are not the kind that might appear at Sotheby’s without raising more than an eyebrow. You’ve heard of the recent controversy surrounding several valuable works that, it is claimed, where taken by the Nazis from their Jewish owners?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s just the tip, the smallest part of this iceberg. The British royalty and the Catholic Church literally bulge with stolen masterpieces and artifacts. Banks also have a sizeable inventory of these works. There are artifacts from African cultures of extreme beauty and value. Lately, Russian masterpieces have been pouring into the market. These aren’t pieces that have rightful owners to speak of.”

“You mean they’re stolen.”

“More or less. But our policy is ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell.’ “

“You and the Pentagon,” I said. “Tell me Mr. Dorfman, this is a cash business? With all these electronic transactions, does actual cash ever change hands?”

“Always, Ms. Perez.”

“I’m surprised.”

“Don’t be. The technology of the exchange doesn’t change the essence of exchange one bit. Objects only become property when they can be exchanged, transformed into cash. Exchange becomes a verification process, and cash is the reward for authenticity or deception or both. For our clients, in the current atmosphere, open exchange, open recognition of their possession of these objects would prove awkward in the extreme. Nevertheless the objects compel the owners to find a method for exchange. It’s inherent in the process. “

“And the process is one of looting, pillaging, extraction.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell, Ms. Perez. We provide a service, that’s all. We don’t make judgments or moral pronouncements.”

“Unless and until somebody tries to take back what you think is yours,” I said.

We provide a service, that’s all. How many times had I heard that? It was the slogan of capitalism throughout it’s miserable history. We provide a service, that’s all. I saw those words inscibed everywhere. On gas chambers, cluster bumbs, whips, leg irons, napalm, land mines, massage parlors, ovens, gutted apartment buildings, sweatshops, collapsed coal mines, abandoned factories. We provide a service. Serving your every need, without question. Don’t ask, don’t tell. What’s mine is mine, and what’s theirs is yours. Maybe we can make a deal. It made me sick.

“I must apologize, Mr. Dorfman.”

“For what?” he asked.

“For underestimating you. You’re far more despicable than I gave you credit for originally. At first, I just disliked you. Now I thoroughly detest you.”

He laughed. “Coming from you, I’m flattered.”

“You would be,” I answered. “That’s quite a screen you’ve got for yourself there. Quite an act.”

“What act is that?”

“The gigolo act.”

“That’s no act, Ms. Perez.”

I was silent.

“May I smoke now?”

I thought about it for a second. “Sure, I said. Go ahead, light up. I wouldn’t want to do anything to keep you alive one second longer than necessary.”

He laughed again. “Care to join me?” he said offering me a cigaret.

“Not on your life,” I said. He found that funny, too. I thought he was having too good a time.
As he smoked he gave me the background details I needed for my investigation, Marieta’s address, telephone number, her age, background, family in the area (none), friends in the area (none), length of time they had know each other (two years).

“Bank accounts?” I asked.

“Citibank.”

“Of course,” I said. If Citibank was good enough to assist the former president of Mexico in feathering a nest with funds of questionable origin, it was good enough for them.

“Tell me, Mr. Dorfman. As a broker, do you trade in these objects for your own account?”

“Of course,” he said, “You’re catching on quickly.”

I ignored that remark. “The last time you saw Marieta, or spoke with her, did it involve one of those transactions for your own account?””Yes.”

“Tell me about it.”

Marieta was making an exchange. Several paintings. For cash. For a lot of cash. Millions. Three millions to be precise. She had received the cash, but, according to the other party, never delivered the paintings. That was all he knew.

“Do you believe that?” I asked. “That she never delivered the paintings?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, that’s partly why I’m here.”

“The other party, they must be upset.”

“Extremely.”

“Violently?”

“Violence is inherent in money. Money is a compelling force. But we never had a problem before. Our service was too important for any individual, individual institution, to jeopardize. Our partners regulated each other’s greed.”

I wasn’t convinced. “And who regulates your greed, Mr. Dorfman?”

“Fear, Ms. Perez. Fear keeps things in perspective for me.”

After another hour, I had amassed enough detail to form an outline of the steps necessary to beginning the investigation. More than one thing I made a point of not asking, not knowing, not wanting to know, the domain name of the website, it’s e.address, a pass code to allow me into the website within the website.

Dorfman left, taking his cigarets with him. I emptied the ashtray and sat down to think. I stared at the picture, the picture of the beautiful young African-European-Caribbean woman who wore a little black dress like she was born in it, who wore the red open-toed high heels like it was her birthright, who radiated sex through every pore, who looked exactly like my sister, Rebecca. I thought about the case. I thought about being in over my head. Briefly. I opened my desk drawer. I kept a few pictures, not at home, where they could affect me too deeply, but here at work, where I could discipline or distract myself from these documents of grief. She stared back at me, smiling. I stared back at me smiling. We were there together, arms around each other, wearing little black dresses, our legs bold in their presentation, our hips proud in their expansion. Girls holding each other, sisters, laughing at the boys who wanted to have us, possess us, own us, parade us, and then discard us, like property.

I took both pictures, of Marieta, and of the two sisters and slipped them into my purse. I went home. I opened a bottle of dark rum. I drank a toast to us, to all of us, daughters of the sugar cane.

The next morning, Saturday, I awoke with a definite idea of where to go and a particular place to be. I dressed in my Jennifer Lopez best, short tight skirt, my booty hugger as it was known in the neighborhood, my open-toed heels, fuck-me pumps as they were known to the neighborhood of women, tight blouse, and very little makeup. I was going to visit the super of Marieta’s building, and armed with my pictures, and my costume, I would convince him that I was Marieta’s sister whom she had asked to water the plants while she was way, forgetting however to give me the keys. I would be shy, embarrassed, almost helpless. I had done this before. It always worked because men are always men. I don’t blame them for that.

Marieta’s building was a redone pre-war apartment building on Avenue B that had been gutted and refurbished during the class war days of the Reagan era. The lobby gleamed with polished brass and cool marble. There was no doorman. I rang the super’s bell and we conversed through the intercom, briefly, and in Spanish. He came to the lobby door and let me in. I showed him the pictures. His face light up.

“Ah, yes, two of you together. What a beautiful sight.” He couldn’t hand me the set of keys quickly enough. I thanked him and went up the elevator to the sixth floor like I had been there a hundred times before.

I entered the apartment and double-locked the door behind me. It was a large apartment. Larger than my own. With a southerly exposure in the living area and an easterly one in her large bedroom. The apartment was perfectly clean and perfectly in order, as if it were waiting to be shown to future tenants. I guessed the rent at $2800 a month. The furniture was spare in line and quantity. A lean couch, chair, small table, TV set, VCR. There was an eating area with a counter and stools. I opened the door to the refrigerator. It was empty. The freezer was empty. Even of ice cubes. Both compartments smelled fresh, as if recently cleaned. The cabinets were empty, except for several coffee cups. The wastebaskets were empty. The phone, cordless, was in its cradle, it’s red light blinking away, indicating three messages. I pushed the play button and listened. Message one from Dorfman. Message two from Dorfman. Message three from Dorfman. I pressed *69 on the phone and the digitized voice proceed to unreel ten numbers that were 212 and Dorfman’s phone number.

I checked the bathroom. Everything was clean, and empty. The medicine cabinet was empty. The cabinet under the sink free of cleaning supplies or towels. The soap dish without the slightest residue.

The windows were open in the bedroom, and the curtains rustled comfortably in the breeze, like horsetails swishing while the animal grazed. She had real closets. Two of them in her bedroom. I was envious. Two real closets! I remembered reading Freud, smirking at his question “What do women want?” Closet space, dummy. There was a dresser, a make-up table, and a bed. The dresser top was uncluttered and dust free. The make-up table free of bottles, jars, tubes, sticks, brushes. The bed made and not slept in.

I opened the first closet. Empty. I opened the second closet. There were dresses, skirts, and blouses. A few of each. And empty hangars, more than a few. And shoes. Marieta had an eye for shoes. The ones she left behind were beautiful. For a second, I almost started trying them on. The ones she took with her must have been outrageous. I knew this woman had planned her departure. She had taken her cosmetics. And her little black dress. And her red open-toed high heels. Wherever she was going, she was going to look good, and she wasn’t going to look back.
I bent down, bending from the knees while keeping them together, as my mother had taught us, and checked the floor of the second closet, behind the line of shoes. There, on a little leather strap, I found a set of keys. I walked back to the front door and tried the keys. They fit. The one that didn’t had to be the one to the lobby door. I slipped them into my purse, without apologies to the super.

I walked back into the bedroom and started removing the drawers from the dresser. Not that I thought anything was hidden there. Anything that had been hidden there would not have been forgotten. But things do fall out of drawers. Things do lodge in the area between drawers, in the bottom of a dresser. And there was such a thing in such a place. It was another photograph. Of Marieta and what looked to be her girlfriends. They were leaning against a waist-high stone wall, in the background was the sea. They were smiling, they’re arms around each other’s shoulders. They were all wearing maroon berets. Green poplin shirts, green poplin pants with bellows pockets on the thighs, and boots. I didn’t know where the picture had been taken, or when. But I knew what. These weren’t campfire girls. They were soldiers. I had found something. Now it was time to leave.

There were several plants in the living room, and I watered them before I left.

In the lobby, I returned the keys to the super, thanking him and promising to be back in three days. I kissed him on the cheek and left the building like the caring big sister I knew how to be. I walked with long strides, mulling over the information, or lack thereof, I had gathered in the apartment. I knew I had to call Dorfman. Something wasn’t right, to put it mildly. Something wasn’t right enough to make me not want to use a cell phone for the call. I found a working pay phone, and a quarter. He answered the phone on the first ring, like he had been expecting the call. The skin that I can never scratch, the skin I can never reach on my back, the skin I can never wash without a back scrubber or one of those loofa sponges, that skin between my shoulder blades, started to tingle. That skin was telling me something, and it wasn’t about the weather.

“Dorfman, Perez. We need to talk.”

“Did you find something?”

Was it anxiety or anticipation in his voice? Wish or fear?

“Yes. No. I don’t know, yet. But I need more information.”

“OK. Where and when?”

“Today. My office.”

“No, today’s a bad day for me. Tomorrow. And not in your office. How about at the waterfront, near my office at the World Financial Center? I’ll meet you along the walkway, just north of the plaza. Eight AM, is that OK?”

“OK,” I said. “Just one thing. Where is Marieta from?”

“The Dominican Republic,” he said.

“You sure?” I said.

“Sure I’m sure. She’s Dominican. From the Atlantic Coast.”

“OK.” I hung up.

I walked home, conscious of the effect my attire was having on the men who lounged on stoops, drinking beer, smoking, making sucking noises as I walked by. Nothing melts a woman’s heart like grunts and sucking noises, right girls?

After I changed into slacks and sandals, I sat down with an espresso and the photographs I was carrying around like visas stamped onto an invisible passport. I focussed on the picture of Marieta and her comrades. Their uniforms were without insignia, decoration, or rank. I thought that unusual, or usual only of those undergoing special training in intelligence or reconnaissance. I couldn’t place the background, but it looked familiar, almost classic. A place where a million picture had been taken, a thousand movies made, a piece of history, history that seeped into my brain even before I was aware of its meaning. Something, someplace important.

I set the alarm for 6 AM. I wanted to be up and out and at the World Financial Center before Dorfman. I wanted to watch him arrive, see if there was any change in his cocksuredness. At 7 AM, I was there, staring into the thick green waters of New York Harbor. I picked up a handful of pebbles and began tossing them into the water, listening to the soft shallow splash as each one hit the water. I watched one of the pebbles sink into the water, when something seemed to be floating up from the bottom. It was something large, with something billowing as it moved lazily to the surface. I stared, believing totally what I was seeing. It was Dorfman, and he wasn’t coming up for air. His white linen shirt waved softly in the water. His beige linen jacket trailed off one of his arms. His mouth was open. And there was a hole where his left eye used to be.
I moved away with as much nonchalance as I could muster. I would have whistled if my mouth hadn’t been so dry. I turned and headed east, away from that spot, that spot in the water that had been my client, looking for a pay phone that worked. When I found one, I dialed 911 and told the operator what and where.

“Is he breathing?” she asked.

“Not so’s you’d notice,” I said.

“Have you tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?”

I hung up.

I had never lost a client before, not like this. Not because I’m that good. I was a little beyond my normal range. Murder was a little bit outside my professional experience. I remembered my last phone conversation with Dorfman. I remembered him saying, “…today’s a bad day for me.” He wasn’t kidding. But guess what Dorfman? Tomorrow isn’t going to be any better. Or the next day. Or the day after that.

I didn’t like being in water this much over my head, not to mention Dorfman’s. I had no idea which way to turn. So I turned and went back to the office, to the home of the Agatha Girls. Our office has always been a place of our strength. Maybe because there are four of us. Maybe just because it’s ours. I went to the office, double locking the door behind me.

I sat at my desk, pulling out the pictures again. One of Marieta, one of Rebecca and me, one of Marieta and her comrades. Comrades. Comrades. Then it struck me. Comrades. The picture. The wall, the sea. The picture was taken in Havana. Along the Malecon, facing the sea. Marieta and her comrades were just that. Comrades. Soldiers of the Cuban Revolution. It was the Malecon, the sea, a place where a million pictures had been taken, a place that pictured a revolution blocked off by the sea.

I put the pictures down and waited for night. I knew where I had to go. Back to Marieta’s apartment.

It was after midnight when I turned down Avenue B. The street was empty. The lower east side had changed. Night life here, now, was governed, paid for, by those who went to work on Monday mornings. I was thinking about that when the air moved behind me and I turned almost in time and I went down to ground and met the bottle cap. And it was twenty two minutes later when I awoke, dusted myself off, stood back up, cursing the costumed little bastard, and wobbled over to Marieta’s building, pushed into the lobby, the elevator, her apartment. Rubbing my neck. Waiting for the phone to ring. It did.

“Hola,” I said, “Marieta?”

“Hola,” the voice, strong, confident, proud, replied. “Companera Perez.”

“Si.”

“Should we speak in English?”

“That’s fine.”

“Where are you Marieta?”

“Companera Perez, I bring you greetings from Havana.”

“Well, Marieta, hello from New York. Is there something you want to tell me?”

“You’re well, I trust.”

“Compared to Dorfman, I’m perfect.”

“Yes, poor Dorfman, I heard about that. Too bad.”

“Did you kill him, Marieta?”

“Do you think I could, Rachel?”

“Hell yes. I know I could.” There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“I didn’t. Despite all his shortcomings, despite his Guido-envy and his South Beachitis, he wasn’t a bad person. He never insulted me or tried to take advantage of me. And he was a gentle lover with me. His death saddens me. It wasn’t necessary. If he had done what he was supposed to do, he could have gotten away.”

“What was he suppose to do, Marieta?”

“We had agreed if one of us disappeared or if trouble threatened, that we would leave everything intact and just walk away. We would touch nothing. Move none of the inventory. Transfer none of the funds from our working accounts, taking only the cash on hand.”
“You seemed to have taken a bit more than the petty cash.”

“Yes, but there was plenty of cash remaining for him to make his disappearance. His greed got the better of him. He tried to transfer funds out of the working accounts. His clients saw the movement in the accounts and acted.”

I remembered Dorfman saying that it was fear that kept his greed in check. Not in check enough was the verdict.

“Explain it to me Marieta, please. What was your purpose, or should I say mission?”

“Companera, let me tell you something first. As we speak, the records of every transaction conducted on or through our website are being electronically transmitted to your Internal Revenue Service, Britain’s Inland Revenue office, the tax offices of every country in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. And every major newspaper in the world.”

She laughed. “Nothing is more fun than turning the tax hounds on their masters. As for our purpose, my mission. We, in Cuba, know there is going to be, what you call an ‘opening,’ with Cuba. We know also that this opening will unleash forces that we may not be able to control completely or indefinitely. We know that one of those forces is a primitive cultural accumulation for capitalists, and disaccumulation for the rest of society. We want to make that process a little more difficult, a little less bold. We know that we may not defeat capitalism in this or any battle, but we remember how to retreat, how to find our way to our mountains, how to reassemble, and fight our way back out. Such was the purpose of my mission.”

“And the three million dollars?”

“An unexpected gift to the people of Cuba from one of your real estate barons. Perhaps he’ll declare it as a charitable contribution.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “I would be lying, Marieta, if I didn’t tell you I’m impressed. I’m very impressed. Will I live long enough to remember this conversation tomorrow?”

“Definitely, companera. You were an integral part of our getaway. Our clients were supposed to follow you following me. In that way Dorfman could have escaped. The boy who struck you earlier is being taken back to his employers with a message as we speak.”

I was silent. Hopeful yet guilty about the boy’s fate.

“Companera Perez, have you ever been to Havana?”

“Not yet,” I replied.

“I invite you to Havana as my guest. We will walk together along the Malecon. Order ice cream at Coppelia. At night, we’ll go to the Casa de Musica and dance the son. Can you dance the son?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You know, companera. The Argentines call the tango a way of walking. But the son is everybody talking. Everybody talking all at once and understanding everything being said. We’ll go and dance. The men will line up around the block to dance with us, for a chance to dance with my big sister from Nueva York. We’ll break hearts and laugh about it as we walk home.”

I laughed into the phone, hard. “It’s that way in Havana, too?”

“That part of it is the same. But no man here would ever touch a woman without her permission. You can feel safe here.”

I found that, that feeling safe there or anywhere, hard to believe.

“Sounds interesting,” I said. “How will I be able to get in touch with you if I decide to visit?”

“Email,” she said. She proceeded to give me her email address, an address that ended in .cu.

I shook my head. A girl like me, I should have seen it coming. An Agatha Girl like me. I should have known.

—————

Written, I think, around 2000.

address all comments to: sartesian@earthlink.net

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