DIRE STRAITS, Chapter 7B
September 15, 2011
The woman’s name was Claudetta Tambiama. She ran the fruit and vegetable market. Her husband, Momka, ran the bar and strip club next door. He was sleeping in a room above the market, where they lived. She asked him if he wanted coffee. He did. Desperately.
While she fussed with an old-fashioned coffee maker, a glass bubble on the top to announce the perk, he spun a tale of fooling around with a local girl, only this local girl’s brother was a cop, and he found out their tryst and went after Derek – Derek was calling himself Jake Smith in the story. She brought him a mug of coffee and sat down across from him.
In Krio she said, “You are full of shit. Why are you lying to me?”
Damn, he thought. That didn’t work. He raised his hands in surrender. “Look, Claudetta, I’m really in trouble. I can’t talk about it. But I saw the sign and I really did grow up in Sierra Leone. I need to lay low for a couple days before I can get out of the country. I thought you might be able to help.”
“Maybe I can. What kind of help?”
“A place to sleep for a day, maybe. Maybe a car or a bicycle or something.”
“We don’t own no car, Jake. Or a motorcycle. Momka, he own a bicycle and a scooter.”
“The scooter, maybe. So I can get around the city a little faster.”
She drank her own coffee, staring at him over the mug with her brown eyes, skin the color of a coconut. “You bring trouble on Claudetta. Chaka-chaka.” Chaka-chaka. Messy. She made the peculiar gesture at her chin, the all-purpose symbol of the bearded one, Fidel and his government. She let the comment dangle there, something inferred.
“I’ve got money,” Derek said. kɔpɔ. And he did. Some in his wallet. More in his money belt. Canadian. Cuban. American.
She smiled. “Why you not say so before? Of course we can help you. Got a room above the bar. For business. You know?”
So it wasn’t just a bar or a strip club. It was a brothel, too. “How much?”
She reeled off a figure. He pulled out his wallet, then raised an eyebrow. “And how much to make sure you or Momka don’t tell anybody I’m here. At all.”
She doubled the price. He laid out the Cuban Pesos.
“I show you room.”
Upstairs above Pleasure were four squalid little rooms off a short hallway. At the end of the hallway was a bathroom – a toilet and sink, rusty and stained. The walls were whitewashed plywood. Each room contained a soiled mattress and a bare table with a lamp. The Hilton’s reputation was safe.
“You need anything else?”
He shook his head and thanked her.
Once she was gone, he slammed home the door’s slide-bolt and pushed the table against it. It wouldn’t keep anybody out for longer than about ten seconds, but ten seconds could save his life. He’d take what he could get. It’s not like he had many options.
He decided to leave his shoes and clothes on, sprawled on the mattress and was asleep in minutes.
It was a restless sleep. At one point, mid-day according to his watch, he heard movement down below and murmured voices. Claudetta talking to a man. Some of it was in Spanish, some of it was in Krio. He heard his name – Jake – and he heard the Krio word for money.
He drifted back to sleep.
Several hours later he snapped completely awake. Heavy footsteps were climbing the steep stairs. Two sets. A deep male voice said something in Spanish. A flirty female voice giggled and said something back. Derek, not for the first time, wished he spoke more Spanish.
He rolled out of the bed and onto his feet. The only weapon he had was the utility tool. He snapped open the blade, stood to the side of the door and waited, body coiled.
The footsteps passed his room and the door to the room next to his closed. Through the thin wall voices muttered, then the rustle of clothing, followed by encouraging male words.
Glancing at his watch, he saw it was seven in the evening. The bar was either open or a customer was getting an early start. He slid back the mattress, unlocked the door and hurried down the stairs, peering around the corner into the bar.
Along one wall was a tin bar with stools. Across the bare wood floor were about ten small round tables, two or three chairs stacked atop each of them. Along the opposite wall was a low stage with two stripper poles, spotlights and a sound system at one end.
A short, thin black man in jeans and a loose white cotton shirt was sweeping the floor. His Afro was bushy and speckled gray. A wispy mustache decorated his upper lip. In Krio he said, “Cop upstairs. It how we do business, yes? They get a girl, they leave us alone. But he early tonight, otherwise I warn you. Best you get out of here.” He fished in his pocket and tossed a key to Derek. “Vespa out back. Tank is full. Don’t come back until late morning, hear? Or best you not come back at all. Leave bike, though.”
“One way or the other I’ll get the bike back here or let you know where it is. Thanks.” Derek handed the man a twenty Peso note and headed out the rear of Pleasure into the Havana evening.