Chapter 3 of "The Death of an Emperor", a set of vignettes unraveling the mystery.
The bright sun washes out the colors, even the trees look bleached through Curro’s squinting eyes. It is one of those mornings. One of those mornings that everything starts late. Power interruptions, both alarm clocks failing, milk gone sour. Interrupted communications error, some network down, no way to let the office know. One of those mornings playing catch-up. Scramble, hurry, and stub a toe. No power also means no steam cleaning this morning, “Why did I not get an apartment with an old fashioned water shower”, Curro’s close mouthed curses are hidden sounds; the city outside came to life hours ago.
Moments later Curro is on the sidewalk dusting of his clothes after he missed a couple of steps on the way down the stairs. In Curro’s hands the sad remains of his sunglasses, so to get some placebo relieve of the heat and blazing sun he crosses the street. He looks back to his apartment building free from the grip of the palm tree-shadows. The faintest memory of its original color is hinting at a pink hue, the raised letters barely read MACONA with some unreadable symbols underneath it. Curro starts reliving his inane quest to retell the story behind the name. It was his curiosity and his love of telling stories that led him to become a reporter, and young as he was he thought it would make a nice story. Quickly he found out that storytelling by the Xīnwén Network of Imperial Glory, or simply the Network, is a political game. Political games he tried to escape when he left Havana. It was shot down, especially after they found out he already spend some money on the investigations.
Curro shakes his head. He is late, and there is no way he can make it to the XNIG corporate ferry in time. So he jogs slowly down sw 6th street, towards the glitter of water between the abandoned buildings that still stand along the 6th courtyard on his left. He hopes to find some illegal water taxi at 5th and 4th to take him down the river to Swire Key to go around the isle to the B-park. He is lucky. One older man, a Haitian to hear from his accent has just sold all his patties and frescos, and is willing for a steep rate to bring Curro to work. Curro curses under his breath, he really does not need this right now. The last thing he needs is to call father again for more money. Water and bread the rest of the week it seems. The boat trip is apart from the humming of the engine, peaceful. Left desolate buildings stand in the water until they hit the river proper and the increased speed bring a bit of cooling on this hot day. After rounding the point the Haitian cuts in front of the isle, more that 4 feet of water is standing over the old bridge now, more than enough for the small flat boat to approach the park from the west. Most of the tall Brickell buildings are gone now, recycled for its steel, mainly to elevate I95. Still the aorta for the city. If the flow stops, the magic dies.
Sweat is dripping down his back when Curro pays the man and finds his way to the checkpoint. Swire Key is Imperial territory from the day of occupancy, and the Key was owned by Chinese corporate head-figures long before then. Curro chooses this checkpoint over the Brickell-Point since only Imperial Card Holders are allowed to enter via B-park. His choice is right, not many people are entering at this time through the gate, although he does see the large silhouette of his boss at the front of the line. Quickly he ducks down to tighten his shoe lace and avoids being seen. His name will be on the list of late entries anyway, but it is a psychological thing. Curro curses the power outage in his building. Curses from Swire Key are dangerous spells. When the scanner notices the biodegradable implant under his wrist the screen turns green: “Franciso López Fernández, ICH, Havana”. The guards let him in, and Curro sighs as he counts the 49 steps up to the main entrance of the XNIG headquarters in the Americas. Every day these steps, these cogwheels of a corporate lucky charm take the fun out of reporting.
First things first: coffee. A strong brew and then messages: none. “Mmm is that good or bad”, he mumbles. Others ignore his mumbling habits. He did miss a meeting though. The spirits lift a bit after the coffee and being engulfed in airco-air. So he calls, again to the power company. Who direct him to his landlord, who directs him to the block curator. The dick.
“Twenty-eight-minutes. Twenty-eight. Oh, oh, oh, wait for it! Click. Twenty-nine-minutes. On hold.” The science of Muzak calms no-one, especially after twenty-nine-minutes of sweaty intimate moments with a mobile phone. Curro sighs, hate is a weak word for the feeling inside. It is more an explosive, infinite annoyance of supernova quality. From his neck protrudes his nervous tick. His tick is an obviously trained public speaker. With Shakespearean acting skills it draws the people in, to deliver the punch lines in the most prominent way. Just to make sure his co-workers get the proper translation Curro hits his hand flat on the desk, a sign of loss. A loss of control, of time and nerve. A look from another booth gets his answer: “why can these companies just pick up the phone or call me back... yeah hallo, hallo, fu...” and a grunt.
Curro is about the fling his phone through his standard issue “Interactive Holographic Active Matrix Organic Droplet”-screen”. Of course the nebulizer may get it, most likely another phone will be added to his expense sheet.
Sure enough. Curro’s IHAMOD comes to life as if to protest its earlier promise of an assault. It shows a picture of the large round face his boss, under it scrolls the message:
“[INSERT NAME] is requested to come to the office of the executive producer who is waiting for you. Bless the Emperor. May his heart full of light guide you through this day.”
Another harmless phone is saved. For now. Curro’s hand over the console pauses the image. Insert name? Curro is still fuming, but a silent heat-like boiling anger takes over so he slips his phone into his drink to silently protest all injustice done to him today, then he gets up to see why he is summoned. Either because he was late or those damn expense sheets. Insert name? Curro’s manicurial habit saves his palms from some bloody wounds. Then the ominous door of the executive producer swings open, while Curro tight fists slowly open like a fern unfurling in sweet morning rain. But Curro’s rain is black, thick and a toxic acid this morning. The silhouette blocks the streams of real-light that wants to intrude in TL-tube land. Some people blink. Time to go. He hopes it because he is late. If he gets chided again for his excessive expense sheets he needs to find another job. Curro has all the receipts somewhere, and an excuse for all of them. Now more people look out of their cubicles. Curiosity is a scared animal. He stands up slowly, gives a last look at his sad phone floating in his drink and with a light tread tries to calm himself after not talking to the block curator to not get his electrical problems fixed. Now he hopes he will not not keep his job. A day of everything starting late progresses nicely into a day of getting nothing done.
Curro comes face to face with the executive producer. The mountain they call him, for obvious reasons, but also because he is an extension of the Emperor: a symbol of stability and of the Earth itself. The mountain grins, “please come in and take a seat”. The moment Curro steps over the threshold, his spidey senses tingle. Curro feels it. Sometimes, he compares himself to a spider, a made-up hero from a long forgotten past. Nobody gets Curro’s jokes. He sits, the mountain stands in front of his desk. The roles are clear. So he waits for the mountain turns to volcano, yet a smile graces the face of his boss. Panic strikes Curro now. This is way worse than he could ever imagine.
He has read the reports from the illegal Spanish newspapers sold next door. The language is banned for decades now, a decree of the prior Emperor still strongly enforced. In little Havana many still speak it daily though and in Cuba news and newspapers are more openly defiant. Last week a headline in the Havana Post: “Federico López Famosa proposes changes in the trade agreements” and last month: “Strict regulations from our Glorious Leader dim the economy”. Something is brewing and it is clear that his father is a big part of it. Curro is not stupid. He understands that father only indulged in his son’s career choice because it puts his son on Swire Key, using Curro as a Cuban flag on Empirical grounds. But he thought he could make a difference; that he could show them. His disapproving family in Havana, and his friends who still call him stupid for not standing safely in his father’s shadow. So being here in the Mountain’s office without being scolded, without a hurricane trying to rip the flag off its post, is raising some red flags.
“Curro, I need you to travel to Havana to report on the parade of the Emperor. I know it is short notice, but see this as an opportunity. I had to pull Eddie out of Havana, the food I guess did not sit good with him”,
Curro knows when to be silent and when to speak. His father’s hard hand taught him that much, but all the hairs in his back are up. He feels like he wants to run and hide in the bushes until the scary monsters pass him by. It does not make any sense to feel this way. This is the break he is waiting for. To go and cover a story. To prove himself, to show Mountain and his father that he can do this. That he can cut it as a reporter. Yes, Havana makes sense, he is from there. Curro wonders if his father influenced this decision or does he not know about it? Curro looks up at Mountain. It does not matter if he is angry or sad or happy, his boss is always a closed book. But Curro doesn't need to read the Mountain's face to know that something is wrong. So, so wrong.
Curro shrugs. “Sure, cool, whatever”, he needs to recuperate from this strategic loss. Regroup his man, send out the scouts. Call the air force. Whatever it takes. “I mean thanks boss, this is a real big opportunity and I am honored... I meant to say, I will not let you down boss.” If he only could figure out what his strategic loss is. Why he is in the valley stuck in the swamp with footmen, pikes, and horses, and why the Mountain is overcrowding the hillsides with archers, sun in the back. Bows drawn, ready for the kill.
Moments later Curro is back at his desk. The corner of his screen jumps to action. All cubicles are silent. Curro never understood that. He tried once with a colleague: “do you not think it is a very unnerving setting for a office that is producing news”, a blank stare was his response. The office is indifferent to his opinion. Humming of the TL-tubes is a given. He waves his hand at the message, which inadvertently unlocks his screen. In the video a bot is explaining to him his travel arrangements and more boring details. When Curro hears the name of the hotel he supposes to stay at some of his earlier anger and anxiety comes back. The bot blabs on and he feels a slight vibration in his wrist. The ticket is uploaded to his bio-chip, but not his ID chip in his neck, it is to be a corporate trip after all.
Time to go to the cloakroom. Located in the damp basement is a small, overly protected warehouse where the correspondents can fetch their predestined needs for any trip. So Curro switches off his screen, decides to not retrieve his useless phone, and shimmies downstairs. There he presents his bio-chip and clicks and clacks behind the triple steel door tell him that the bots are doing their job. Curro is not too sure about the trip and he tries to recall all the words Mountain carefully laid out. He doesn’t buy the story about Eddie, but surely Eddie is not the to-go-guy for information on this. When home he must try get a hold of his father, but first he is forced to focus on the task at hand. A red flashy light tries to scare off an even more annoying siren. A relic robotic voice, probably never replaced for budget reasons or fitting a well-researched psychological pattern to scare people, barks at Curro: “step back behind the yellow line or we will engage”. Curro knows better than to reply, but he thinks: “engage? Engage in what?” He knows now is not the time to experiment, so he steps back behind the yellow line. The door swings open and via an ancient track a flat trolley stops just shy of the door opening. On its surface a back-pack that slides off while the surface inclines. The flashy red lights and the sound of the electro motors make this feel like he is in an old science fiction movie or something, but then the door closes, the lights stop and Curro is alone with that what he needs. He never understood why they call this the cloakroom.
Since his flight is in a few hours there is not time to check the content now, so he fetches the bag and hurries out the building. At B-park a corporate speedboat is waiting, with on its stern a proud display of the Imperial flag. Curro would be in trouble if he would not salute, so he half-heartedly pays his respects. The capitain nods and speeds of. The ride is short and brings him relatively close to his house since they took the shallow route through 3th sw street. Some poor deconstruction guys and steel-trippers still live here and floating pontoons with ladders to the 3rd floor line the houses. Some who did not get a job via the lottery this morning hang out the windows smoking cheap cigarettes staring at the boat and its flag. They do not salute.
The captain directs the plans: “Go fetch some stuff from your apartment, you leave in 30 minutes.”
The boat does not wait for him and when he turns the block into his street he understands why: a botcar is waiting for him. The power is not restored in his block yet and this means no shower, and no phone call to his father. He hopes that he got clearance for a mobile phone connector to his wrist implant, but when he shakes out the content of the bag it is clear that he has to try to call at the airport. The feeling of the morning is growing back. He is late and it feels like he is chasing an elusive shortcut in time. But unlike this morning he is rushed. This morning he rushed himself. Curro stares at the content on the bed. “Think Curro Think”.
Power problems are a constant in Little Havana. Water is a second constant in the dynamic formula of the city. So when Curro opens the blinds for some light to shave he finds that the water comes from the tap as it should. Thank God for that. He smiles as he opens the Bethania shaving cream. On the back a picture of a far relative who opened a macrobiotic store in Havana. The rest is history. Who would have thought that the expansion into natural and organic beauty products would bring his family so much fortune? Father loves mother, Curro does not question that, but if his mother Adelaida had not been the heir to the Bethania empire, he may have settled for someone else. Someone else to pay for his political career. Curro followed the steps carefully as his grandfather had taught him. He wets his face and the brush’s bristles with hot water; he dips the center of the brush in the tin jar of cream. The classical scent of vetiver fills the room as he lathers up the cream. Only a straight razor will do. With trained hands he turns his two-day beard into a smooth surface. The whole ceremony takes 10 precious minutes, but it calms Curro’s mind in the same way as a four-hour meditation session of a Buddhist monk.
He spreads out all items from the bag and tries to deduce some meaning from it. A book with a big red label on it: “Prohibited by the Emperor, special use only. Abuse will be punishable by death”. Barely readable due to sticker size: “English to Spanish to English dictionary”. Curro sighs. A map of Havana of at least 10 years before the Liberation Wars started, and a thick folder with background information about the parade, personal history of the current Emperor (mostly propaganda), and pants and a sweater. Curro is most intrigued by the clothing, but cannot figure it out. Curros packs some clothes, his electronic writing pad, two old fashioned books and his foldable IHAMOD cube for watching some movies or reading books for the long wait to get on the plane. Curro repacks his corporate bag and gets in the botcar.
“Welcome mister Francisco López, I will bring you to Tamiami Airport today. The roads are clear and we will be there in no time.”
The optimistic tone of the bot is not shared with Curro. He looks at the newly build ramp from 3rd avenue onto the Dixie highway. Curro knows better but tries a conversation anyway.
“Why are you bringing me to Tamiami? I thought all traffic to Cuba is conducted by the Suzong International Airport.”
The bot replied with a chipper voice: “Each year on average 200 flights are conducted from Tamiami to Havana which constitutes 2 percent of all flights to Havana”.
Curro grunts and sees they are already following the remains of the old tracks. The demand of steel did slow down the use of trains. He is getting a bit nervous now, they are getting close.
“Do not worry sir”, the bot chippers on, “I can almost see the dikes that shield the airport now”.
It is just that proximity to the airport that feeds Curro’s worries. He rubs his hand over his smooth chin to subconsciously calm himself. To no avail. It is like some of Mountains archers already fired while Curro is staring at the sun and spots of light dance like moths around a light-bulb.
Half an hour later the air-taxi to Havana takes off. The 22 minutes it takes will not give him much time to call his father. The small plane is half full. Luckily corporate seats come with a phone. He calls his father’s office.
“Yeah hallo”, Curro decides to speak English, most likely this call will end up on a RE-FRAM stick on Mountains desk. At least on his desk. It is good not to piss off the wrong people by speaking an official language.
“Hello, yes this is Franciso López Fernández, son of Federico López Famosa, could you get him on the phone?”
“Mmm, aha, yes this is his son and this is urgent. Tell him I am on an air-taxi to Havana right now, yes right now. Ok, yes... I will hold”, Curro squeezes the phone in his hand as if it is a stress ball. Old stale Cubatón Muzak fills his ears and some of the earlier stress of the day is coming back.
“Ola, yes hello father”, it is a miracle. Only 8 minutes on hold. It also means not much time left. “Yes father, you got that right. I am on my way to Havana right now. I will land in 10..12 minutes. Mountain himself send me to report on the Parade”. Curro wishes he could feel more proud of his breakthrough assignment, but strangely enough he does not. Father is silent for a moment. Then instructions follow. Curro listens intently.
“Alright I will do just that. No hotel and I will see you first, yes I know what you mean. Yes, father I understand. No father, under no circumstance. Yes, yes, I will see you soon”.
Curro puts down the phone and a sigh escapes his body. The air-taxi starts its vertical descent. Curro stares out the window with the skyscrapers of Havana in the background. The instructions of father are clear: do not go to the hotel; seek out a trusted face and only get with him in the car to his father’s office when the time is there; do not trust anyone else. Curro was right. Mountain was up to something. Father must know something, why else all these precautions? A few moments later the air-taxi merges with the ground. The noise stops, the movements stop. Cuba. To Curro its been many things, but for now it is a safe place. Home, against all odds.
Curro steps into the airport and the military presence, the green uniforms stand out. He was in the occupied territories long enough to feel awkward in their direct ubiety. Also Spanish is drowning him. It startles a renaissance in Curro, awakes a new identity of an expat returning home. The familiar filtered with new eyes. An old world, a new Cuba. He fetches his bag, and due to the latest in Individual Person Tracking technology Curro can walk out of the airport without problems, while all his movements are documented for the state archives. No chips needed in Cuba.
“IPT is here for you! No more implants, no hassle, we take care of you!”
The billboards are clear. The newest of technologies invented by the Chinese to monitor and control their subjects is a miracle for your personal freedom. Most people are not convinced. Curro wishes he had less chips in his body.
All the flashy billboards distract Curro. He almost misses the familiar face. Curro smiles as he sees Ernesto, a servant of Father from the early days. He missed him in his latest visits. They hug and avoid the string of Asian tourists who are allowed to travel to the Chinese speaking areas of the Centro who houses most of the Barrio Chino, and the English speaking Vieja. The Revolution Square is off limits now due to the preparations of the parade that would take place in only two days.
“How have you been?”, Curro starts and Ernesto smiles while he puts an arm around him, with the other he takes Curro’s bag.
“Havana has missed you, son of the Revolution”, Ernesto always pulls a dramatic feather from his sleeve. “Come I bring you where you will dine and sleep tonight, where we lay your bag to rest, and we will take something a little wet at La Rosa so you can fill me in on what a dump you live in. You cannot believe some of the technology the Chinese are bringing in the last few years you were gone.”
“Father is ok with that?”
Ernesto shrugs his shoulders. He is older that Curro, halfway between him and his father’s age. To Curro he was an older brother, but now he was wondering if Ernesto had felt the same.
“Your father has done great things for Cuba, but I feel he needs to remember sometimes who gave all that to him. Anyway, we can talk shop later, after the parade. I cannot believe that Currocico is now to report on the great Parade. You know this is the first parade of the Emperor outside of China for 3 generations? Well of course you do! If you did your homework.”
Outside Ernesto mouths “taxi” while standing on the curb and seconds later a cab pulls up, “you gotta love that IPT”. Curro blinks and looks back at the airport and the ease of it all. Again his senses tell him not to follow, not to step into the taxi. Ernesto sticks his head out the door, “are you coming or what?” The sun hits Curro in the eyes and almost he hears the battlefield, almost he can smell the sweat, the horses, the iron smell of blood, mud, and trampled grass. A horn wakes him up; the next taxi wants the spot. Curro gets in.
Hotel, a fine meal of yuca con mojo, and mojitos follow that Ernesto had promised. Then they head to La Rosa, a tavern where Curro spend many nights trying to avoid the responsibilities his father though his son needed to have. Many nights it was Ernesto who brought him home, if Curro did not find the temporary love of his life. La Rosa. At the moment Curro opens the door if floods back in. The colors, the smells, and the fine feminine Cuban asses, for sure this is destiny. A divine plan. In true renaissance style Curro finds old habits in a new era of insight and wisdom. The front line pulls back, the stale smell of fear in the air is gone. In his mind he envisions a pavilion tent and a treaty is to be signed between Curro and the Mountain. The parade is far, far away. Plenty of time to report on it after he will meet his father tomorrow. Ernesto laid out all the plans. Curro gets piss-drunk in no time.
Curro wakes up on his stomach, under his face a damaged concrete floor and its broken pieces. He blinks to see that he is not in his room. Air flows over him, Curro is shivering, despite the warmth that drips in through the hole in the wall. Dry rot clings on to the last pieces of the windowsill. The smell is horrible. Curro rolls over and wipes some vomit off his face, of his sleeve and gets up. Curro stumbles, his knees are weak. His stomach turns and from deep comes some horrid bile. The bitter, green slime as it splatters on the floor is almost too much for his stomach to bare, but he can hold the rest in. Curro steps blinking into the sunlight towards the open window for some air. He trips over something and lands with his chin on the windowsill, which snaps off. The taste of blood fills his mouth, though nauseating, it is an improvement of the bile taste.
Curro touches his chin. “Fuck that hurts”, his hand is full of blood. His chin is split. Next to him his corporate bag, minus the clothes that he got from the cloakroom. He is wearing them. “What the ...”. Then it dawns on Curro. He is not in Miami, he is in Havana, and he is having the worst hangover. Ever. In the history of hangovers. His head is pounding and he needs to know where he is. So he gets up slowly. Sounds from outside are dripping in. Curro is getting his senses back and when he holds his hand over his eyes he is stumped. From his location he could see the Tulipan. He is not facing the Avenida Revolucionaria, but he can see it. He can hear it. The Parade. Curro shakes his head as a cow flinging off flies that never leave. Before him is the parade. “Two days, I lost two days?, Curro’s mind is dull, his chin is pounding and still dripping blood. His clothes are filthy. No shower in 4 days, vomit, bile, and mold. The morning sun plays in his eyes. Visions of the battlefield come back. There never was a treaty, it was an ambush. Foul play. The Mountain never ordered his men to leave the higher grounds. Next to archers Curro now finds cannons. Outnumbered 20 to 1, just a handful of friends next to him.
Then the shots come. Sharp like lightning directly overhead. First one, followed by 2. Seconds later a final one. Due to his unique vantage point Curro oversees the death of the Emperor as the Great Leader drives by, now slumping over in his Empirical Wagon. Screams in the street. People run by away from the scene. Military green, red on the shoulders. Imperial guards run up as well. No! It can’t be. Spidey sense is going crazy and before Curro can fathom anything, but just enough to want to get the hell out of here, just then it is over. The door is kicked in. Chinese Imperial guards, local police and Ernesto in Cuban uniform form half a circle. Guns are on him. The last man standing on the mud fields of Mountain’s battlefield is already dead. Curro puts his hands up.
Ernesto points at him, “Yes, that is him. López’s own son. I would not belief it if I did not see it with my own eyes. He did it, he killed him!”
Curro’s knees fail to work and he falls to the ground. He never did get away from his father’s shadow after all.
(c) Casteleijn MG. 2014-2017