Dire Straits: Chapter 3A (A Derek Stillwater novella)
August 23, 2011
Coro Gomez took Derek by the hand and headed toward the elevators. He stopped her just long enough to grab his camera off the desk. She was, he thought, way too good to be true. While training at The Farm, the CIA’s training school near Williamsburg, Virginia, he had been coached on motives for spying – how to use them to recruit spies and to be wary of them. The acronym they taught was MICE, which stood for Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego.
Sex as a way of recruitment typically fell in the Compromise bucket, because the recruitee was married or involved or perhaps a closeted gay. Under certain circumstances, it fell under Ego – flattery and vanity, certainly.
Having sex with Coro Gomez, if the opportunity arose, wouldn’t seem to compromise him because he wasn’t married or involved with anyone. It was also something he was just plain planning on avoiding, no matter how attractive and sexy she seemed. His job was to get into the CBC, evaluate its manufacturing facilities, and fly home. If possible, he was to steal a sample or take a photograph or otherwise find proof that their vaccine and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities were being used to develop and manufacture biological weapons. Bedding Coro Gomez wasn’t in the plan.
But man, she came on strong.
She strode through the hotel lobby, short skirt flaring around long tanned legs, then out onto the street where a line of cabs waited. She said, “Oh, we have to take a Coco Taxi,” and dragged him toward a bright yellow cab that seated two behind the driver in its round yellow open cockpit.
“Why do they call it a Coco Taxi?”
“It’s shaped like a coconut, silly! How do you like Havana?”
“Very nice. I haven’t seen much of it so far. And this cab doesn’t look anything like a coconut. It looks like a big round lemon.”
She laughed, girlish, cute, sexy. “Lemons aren’t really round, though, and that doesn’t sound as good as Coco. I will show you the city. Do you like to dance?”
“Sure. But it’s early. Let’s see the city a little bit. I like historic architecture.”
She laughed at him, amused. “Everything in Havana is historic architecture. You want to go to Old Havana?”
“There aren’t many clubs there. But we can walk along the Malecón.”
“Sounds great.” He wanted to see the Plaza de Armas. There was a building there with rows of collonades. In between several columns were wooden planters filled with flowers. In one of the planters was a small plastic box that would contain a message for him. “But let’s hit Old Havana first.”
Figuring out how to get her out of sight while he checked the dead-drop would be the trick.
They squeezed into the Coco Taxi, which forced them shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh. She leaned into him and rattled off a stream of incomprehensible Spanish to the driver. Derek had taken an intensive Spanish language course for this mission – his first for the CIA - but he was far from fluent. He caught very little of what she said. And he didn’t want her to know he spoke Spanish at all. If they assumed he only spoke English, maybe they would say something useful that he could catch.
In what Derek was starting to realize was a constant and necessary state of paranoia for an undercover CIA agent, he wondered if the driver was just a random taxi driver or someone working with the Cuban government. He drove from the hotel to the Malecón, a broad roadway and seawall that stretched along the coast for almost five miles from the mouth of Havana Harbor to Vedado. They climbed out and Coro told the driver something. Derek had his wallet out, but she told him he was going to pick them up a mile or two down the esplanade.
Walking alongside her as she pointed out the sites, Derek had to admit that he liked the Malecón, a broad road and walkway. It was a sunny day, evening just coming out, the blue of the ocean dark beneath a denim-colored sky. The water was restless, the occasional high wave splashing over the seawall.
“So you are a scientist?” she asked.
He was gazing at the horizon. Derek loved the water, loved the ocean. He hoped one day to own a boat. He didn’t know where that came from. His parents were missionary physicians. Home base was Florida, but he and his brother, David, just now finishing up his medical residency at Johns Hopkins, had grown up all over the world – Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and even in Cuba for six months when he was about ten. If he had to call any of them home, it would have been Sierra Leone, but in many ways he’d never really put down roots.
“Yes,” he said. “Although a scientist with a business side. That’s why I’m here. To evaluate CBC’s facilities and try to outline a possible R&D agreement with my company and the CDC.”
They walked, the ocean to their right, Old Havana to their left. They passed people every few feet – lovers out for a stroll, runners exercising, tourists taking in the view. Not as many people as Derek would have expected.
Coro chatted, asking him questions about himself. The CIA had developed a good cover for him, one similar enough to his own that it wasn’t hard to stick with it – Peter Hamill had a doctorate in biochemistry; so did Derek, although his was also in microbiology. Hamill had an MBA as well. Derek did not. Derek had been a Special Forces soldier specializing in biological and chemical terrorism and warfare. He had served in active duty during Desert Storm, a frontline cowboy. His partner, a psy-ops guy named Richard Coffee, had died there.
Peter Hamill was single. So was Derek.
Peter Hamill lived in a condo in Toronto with a view of Lake Ontario. His parents were doctors working in the Canadian healthcare system.
Derek lived in an apartment in Virginia that he spent as little time in as he possibly could. His parents were doctors currently living and working in Sri Lanka.
He slowly shifted so he was asking Coro questions, although he had doubts about the truth of her answers. She was twenty-three, unmarried, living with her parents. She worked for a translation and tourism guide firm and was regularly hired by CBC to provide translation services to English, German and Italian speaking business travelers visiting Cuba.
After walking for about a mile, she pointed to their yellow Coco Taxi. “Are you ready for food?”
“Not yet,” he said. “I want to see more of Old Havana.”
She gave a very pretty pout. “Old buildings. Don’t you want to party?”
“With you? You bet. But first, show me around the city. I’m going to be stuck in a conference room for the rest of the week and I wouldn’t be surprised if the meetings lasted into the evenings. So I want to see some of the city now before I get cooped up.”
She strode toward the taxi. Derek purposefully got a grip on her elbow and helped her in so he could get a hand on her purse. Not surprisingly, the purse was unusually heavy.
Exactly as if it contained a small handgun.
She turned to him in surprise as the purse swung away from him. A complex of emotions ran across her face. He held up the camera and snapped a picture. “Hey, sorry, I got tangled up in your purse. Smile!”
Two hours later Derek had not gotten any closer to the site of his dead-drop at La Habana Vieja, although Coro had been willing to show him Castillo del Morror and two other castles, half a dozen churches, and the National Capitol. She seemed to be intentionally avoiding Plaza de Armas.
“Now to the night clubs,” she said. “I want to dance!”
“One more place. Plaza de Armas.”
“That is, how do you say it… a tourist trap. How about we go to El Floridita. It’s on the same street. That was Hemingway’s favorite bar. We can have a daiquiri.”
He shrugged. “Maybe later. I’m a tourist. Last place. I promise.”
Reluctantly she directed the driver to Plaza de Armas. And sure enough, it was crowded with tourists. They wandered the large plaza while Coro talked about the different buildings. Finally Derek pointed for her to stand by a statue of King Fernando VII. He backed up to the planter that would hold his message and held up the camera to take a picture, then shook his head. “Hang on! I’ve got to change film.”
Coro looked disgusted. He wound up the film, popped out the cartridge, then fumbled around in his camera bag for extra film. And intentionally dropped it, so he had to bend over next to the flowers. He slid open the little box inside, withdrew a slip of paper, and stood up.
“Almost got it!” he called out, and loaded the film. Then he slammed off half a dozen shots. Mission accomplished. “Now, how about that daquiri!”