The sun flung itself against the windshield and breathed fire through the glass.
Dion reached the other side of the bridge, and the paved road gave way to a stretch of crushed shell and gravel, two lanes dropping to one, the pavement suddenly a patchwork of various grades and consistencies.
“I mean,” Dion said but said nothing else.
They bounced along for a block and then came to a standstill in the traffic and Joe had to fight the urge to bolt the car, abandon Dion, run away from this whole idea. Who in his right mind drove a fucking bomb from one point to another? Who?
An insane person. Guy with a death wish. Someone who thought happiness was a lie told to keep you docile. But Joe had seen happiness; he’d known it. And now he was risking any possibility of ever feeling it again to transport an explosive powerful enough to pitch a thirty-ton engine through a steel-plated hull.
There’d be nothing left of him to recover. No car, no clothes. His thirty teeth would sprinkle the bay like pennies flung into a fountain. Be lucky if they found a knuckle to mail back to the family plot in Cedar Grove.
The last mile was the worst. They left Gandy and drove down a dirt road that ran parallel to some train tracks, the road sloughing to the right with the heat, creviced in all the wrong places. It smelled like mildew and things that had crawled and died in warm mud, and were left there until they fossilized. They entered a patch of high mangroves and soil pocked with puddles and sudden steep holes, and after another couple of minutes of bouncing through that terrain, they arrived at the shack of Daniel Desouza, one of the outfit’s most reliable builders of concealment contraptions.
He’d fashioned them a toolbox with a false bottom. Per his instructions, he’d dirtied the toolbox down, gritted it to the point where it smelled not just of oil and grease and dirt but also of age. The tools he’d placed in it were top of the line, however, and well tended, some wrapped in oilskin, all recently cleaned and oiled.
As they stood by the kitchen table in his one-room shack, he showed them the release on the bottom of the box. His pregnant wife waddled around them, heading to the outhouse, and his two kids played on the floor with a pair of dolls that weren’t much more than rags stitched together with a butcher’s finesse. Joe noted one mattress on the floor for the kids, one for the adults, neither with a sheet or pillow. A mongrel dog wandered in and out, sniffing, and flies buzzed everywhere, mosquitoes too, while Daniel Desouza checked Sheldon’s work for himself out of idle curiosity or sheer insanity, Joe couldn’t tell anymore, numb to it by this point, standing there waiting to meet his Maker as Desouza poked a screwdriver into the bomb and his wife came back in and swatted at the dog. The kids started fighting over one of the rag dolls, screeching all shrill until Desouza shot his wife a look. She left the dog alone and started clouting the kids, slapping them all over their faces and necks.
The kids wailed with shock and indignation.
“You boys got you a nice piece of craft right here, what it is,” Desouza said. “Gonna make itself a statement.”
The younger of his two children, a boy of five or so, stopped crying. He’d been wailing his wail of stunned outrage, but when he stopped, he did so as if he’d snuffed out a match at the core of himself, and his face went blank. He picked one of his father’s wrenches up off the floor and hit the dog in the side of the head with it. The dog snarled and looked like it might lunge for the boy, but then it thought better of it and scurried out of the shack.
“I’m a beat that dog or that boy to death,” Desouza said, his eyes never leaving the toolbox. “One of the two.”
Joe met with their bomber, Manny Bustamente, in the library of the Circulo Cubano, where everyone but Joe smoked a cigar, even Graciela. Out on the streets, it was the same thing—nine- and ten-year-old kids walking around with stogies in their mouths the size of their legs. Every time Joe lit one of his puny Murads, he felt like the whole city laughed at him, but cigars gave him a headache. Looking around the library that night, though, at the brown blanket of smoke that hung above their heads, he assumed he was going to have to get used to headaches.
Manny Bustamente had been a civil engineer in Havana. Unfortunately his son had been part of the Student Federation at the University of Havana, which spoke out against the Machado regime. Machado closed the university and abolished the federation. One day several men in army uniforms came to Manny Bustamente’s house a few minutes after sunup. They put his son on his knees in the kitchen and shot him in the face and then they shot Manny’s wife when she called them animals. Manny was sent to prison. Upon his release, it was suggested to him that leaving the country would be an exceptional idea.
Manny told this to Joe in the library at ten o’clock that evening. It was, Joe assumed, a way to reassure him of Manny’s devotion to his cause. Joe didn’t question his devotion; he questioned his speed. Manny was five foot two and built like a bean pot. He breathed heavily after walking up a flight of stairs.
They were going over the layout of the ship. Manny had serviced the engine when it had first arrived in port.
Dion asked why the navy didn’t have its own engineers.
“They do,” Manny said. “But if they can get a y… especialista to look at these old engines, they do. This ship is twenty-five years old. It was built as a… ” He snapped his fingers and spoke quickly to Graciela in Spanish.
“A luxury liner,” she said to the room.
“Yes,” Manny said. He spoke to her again in rapid Spanish, a full paragraph of it. When he finished, she explained to them that the ship had been sold to the navy during the Great War and then turned into a hospital ship afterward. Recently it had been recommissioned as a transport ship with a crew of three hundred.
“Where’s the engine room?” Joe asked.
Again Manny spoke to Graciela and she translated. It actually made things move a lot faster.
“Bottom of the ship, at the stern.”
He asked Manny, “If you’re called to the ship in the middle of the night, who will greet you?”
He started to speak to Joe but then turned to Graciela and asked her a question.
“The police?” she said, frowning.
He shook his head, spoke again to her.
“Ah,” she said, “veo, veo, sí.” She turned to Joe. “He means the naval police.”
“The Shore Patrol,” Joe said, looking over at Dion. “You on top of that?”
Dion nodded. “On top of it? I’m ahead of you.”