“You need a friend, gringo? You need a woman?” said one, sidling up with a bustle of tits, ruby-red lips and smoky eyes full of promise.
I ushered her away from the castle walls.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Do you speak English?”
“No, no English.”
I smiled. “But gold is a language we all speak, no?”
Yes, as it turned out, Ruth did speak gold. She was almost fluent in gold and so was her friend, Jacqueline.
Bonnet had been hanging around, looking shifty. Introductions were made and a few minutes later we were walking, bold as brass, to the front gate of the castle.
At the top of the approach I looked back to where the hustle, bustle and heat of Havana seemed to recede, kept at bay by the forbidding stone and tall watchtowers of the Castillo, which radiated a kind of malignancy, like the mythical monsters sailors said lived in the uncharted depths of the deepest oceans: fat and deadly. Stop it, I told myself. We had a plan and needed to see if it played out.
In the role of burly minder, I banged my fist on the wicket door and we waited for it to open. Two Spanish soldiers, carrying bayoneted muskets, stepped outside and gave us the long look up and down: me and Bonnet, with especially lascivious looks reserved for Ruth and Jacqueline.
I played my part. I looked tough. Ruth and Jacqueline played their parts. They looked sexy. Bonnet’s job was to speak the lingo, some of which I could understand, the rest he filled me in on later.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m afraid neither of my two lady friends speak Spanish, thus I’ve been asked to speak for them, and my colleague here”—he indicated me—“he is here to ensure the ladies’ safety.”
(Lie! I held my breath, feeling as though there was a sign above our heads advertising our dishonesty. Lie!)
The two soldiers looked at the girls who, fortified with gold, not to mention several glasses of rum, preened and pouted so professionally that anybody would think they did it for a living. It wasn’t enough to convince the guards, though, who were about to wave us away and let themselves be swallowed up once again by the squatting grey beast, when Bonnet said the magic words: El Tiburón. The girls had been called for by El Tiburón, the executioner himself, he explained, and the guards paled, sharing a nervous look.
We’d seen him at work earlier, of course. It takes no skill whatsoever to pull a lever, but it does require a certain—how shall we say?—darkness of character to pull the lever that opens the trap that sends three men plummeting to their deaths. So it was that El Tiburón in name alone was enough to inspire fear.
With a wink Bonnet added that El Tiburón likes the girls from Portugal. Ruth and Jacqueline, continuing to play their parts well, giggled and blew mock kisses and adjusted their bosoms flirtatiously.
“El Tiburón is the governor’s right-hand man, his enforcer,” said one of the soldiers suspiciously. “What makes you think he will be in the Castillo?”
I swallowed. My heart nudged up against my rib-cage and I cast Bonnet a sideways look. So much for his information.
“My dear man”—he smiled—“do you really think this assignation would meet the approval of Governor Torres? El Tiburón would need new employment if the governor were to discover him consorting with prostitutes, and as for doing it on the governor’s own property . . .”
Bonnet looked from side to side and the two soldiers craned to hear more secrets.
Bonnet continued. “I need hardly say, gentlemen, that being in possession of this information puts you in a most—how shall we say?—delicate position. On the one hand you now know things about El Tiburón—Havana’s most dangerous man, let’s not forget—he would pay, or perhaps kill . . .” Here he paused just enough to let this information sink in. “. . . in order to protect. Depending on how you want to conduct yourselves in possession of this information would no doubt dictate the level of El Tiburón’s gratitude. Do I make myself clear, gentlemen?”
To me it sounded as though he was spouting twaddle, but it seemed to have the desired effect on the two sentries, who at last stood aside and let us in.
And in we went.
“The mess hall,” said one of the guards gesturing to walkways looking down upon the courtyard in which we were standing. Tell them you’re looking for El Tiburón, they’ll point you in the right direction. And tell these ladies to behave themselves lest you inadvertently reveal the true nature of your business here.”
Bonnet gave his best greasy smile, bowing as we moved past and giving me a sly wink at the same time. We left two thoroughly hoodwinked guards in our wake.
For me the first stop was the loot room and I left them to it as I climbed steps, hoping for all the world that I looked like I belonged in the fortress. At least it was quiet: apart from the sentries there were very few troops about. Most seemed to have congregated in the mess room.
I headed straight for the loot room, where I almost cheered to find the pouch with all the documents and the crystal present and correct. I pocketed it and glanced around. Bloody hell. For a loot room it was woefully empty of any actual loot. All there was apart from a pouch containing a few gold coins (which went into my pocket) were crates of Bonnet’s sugar. It occurred to me we had no contingency for their rescue. Sorry, Bonnet, it would have to wait for another time.
A few minutes later I’d rejoined them: they’d decided not to risk the mess room and instead had been loitering on the walkways nervously awaiting my return. Bonnet was too relieved to see me back to ask about the sugar—that particular pleasure would have to wait until later—and wiping nervous sweat from his brow, he ushered us back along the passage and down the steps to the courtyard, where our friends the sentries shared a look as we approached.
“I see. Back so soon . . .”
Bonnet shrugged. “We asked at the mess hall, but of El Tiburón there was no sign. Possibly there has been some mistake. Perhaps his desires have been satisfied elsewhere . . .”
“We will tell El Tiburón that you were here, then,” said one of the guards.
Bonnet nodded approvingly. “Yes, please do that; but remember, be discreet.”
The two guards nodded; one even tapped the side of his nose. Our secret would be safe with them.
• • •
Later we stood on the port with Bonnet’s ship nearby.
I handed him the pouch I’d filched from the loot room at the Castillo. It seemed the decent thing to do—to make up for his lost sugar. I wasn’t all bad, you know.