Authors: Jerome Charyn
Open Road Integrated Media
For Eliza Kazan, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Penn, who taught me about the wicked witch of drama during the writing of this book.
HEY WERE THE BANDIDOS
, lunatics and murderers Castro had let out of his jails and shoveled onto the boats at Mariel harbor. They practiced a jailhouse religion called Santeria, where saints turn into ferocious African gods who can toss thunderbolts, wrap themselves in a thick vapor, become a man or a woman at will. The Bandidos were beholden to Santa Barbara, “sister” and spirit of Changó, the thunder god who wore women’s clothes some of the time. It wasn’t Fidel who had inspired the boatlift, the Bandidos believed. Changó had arranged the whole thing. Changó sat on every boat, looking like an ordinary
in a red dress, wearing his
, red and white beads.
The Bandidos had no families to welcome them in Florida, not one fat uncle from Flagler Street, like the other Marielitos had, the good Marielitos, who’d never sat in jail, who’d come here to be with sisters, brothers, mamas, papas, uncles, and aunts in Little Havana. The Bandidos were herded into tents under a highway. The federales saw the tattoos in the webbing of their thumbs, on their lips, inside their mouths, and called them desperate characters. Most of the Bandidos couldn’t read anything but their tattoos, which were the signals of their trade: kidnapper, executioner, stickup artist ... Some of the Bandidos found a sponsor—a concerned “uncle” or “aunt”—who bailed them out of the tents. Others were shipped off to detention camps, like Indian Town Gap, in Pennsylvania. The luckier ones landed in New York, where they could pull stickups and pretend to be innocent Puerto Rican boys, or become thugs for La Familia, those Batista babies who’d left Cuba twenty-five years ago and had their own crime family now. The chiefs of La Familia were educated men. They’d been judges, lawyers, and jewelers during Batista’s regime. They despised the Bandidos with their silly god in women’s clothes and wouldn’t really welcome them into La Familia. The Bandidos had no discipline. They were little better than dogs.
That much Holden knew. His rats had collected information on the Bandidos and the boatlift. He had diagrams of all the tattoos and he could tell which of those monkeys was a murderer or a stickup man. Holden had to be careful, because he couldn’t afford to fool with the Bandidos. They might send Changó after him, and he’d get bumped by a god in a red dress.
The man and woman he was after weren’t Bandidos, his rats had assured him. The man had come riding out of Mariel with all the lunatics, but he didn’t worship Changó and he’d never been in jail. He was known as the Parrot and he was a Cuban confidence man. The Parrot had been stealing money from La Familia and doing a lot of damage.
Holden was on a prairie in the middle of Queens. With a parking lot and a pizza restaurant. He saw a huge metal pie in the window. The pie blinked. Holden wasn’t in the mood for pizza. He’d come by subway. There was a hospital on the prairie, and Holden could have produced some phony doctor’s plates, but he preferred the anonymous drift of a subway rider. No one would see him disappear in a borrowed Lincoln or Dodge.
He crossed the prairie with a quarter of a million in a vinyl bag. Holden was like a mule, lugging packets of hundred dollar bills. But it couldn’t be helped. He had to destroy the Parrot and his mistress. The Marielito would pose as a dealer from Miami, with keys of cocaine to sell. The woman was brainier than the man. She used a knitting needle on her gentlemen callers, catching them between the eyes.
The Marielito shouldn’t have prospered outside Florida. It was the woman’s beauty that saved him. No one would have cared about this Parrot. But the woman possessed a talent for disturbing very shrewd men, according to the file card Holden had. The Marielito was fond of a Llama .22 long. He couldn’t afford to rely on knitting needles. He didn’t have the woman’s calves or her cleavage.
The couple should have gone back to Miami, settled in a houseboat, and preyed on Florida businessmen, because there wasn’t much of a future for buccaneers in Queens, unless they were Bandidos. But the Parrot and his mistress had already murdered fifteen men.
Holden didn’t find one Latin nightclub, or a bar that advertised yellow rice and beans. He couldn’t have entered some secret Cuban zone. The apartment house was ordinary. Dentists and accountants, Holden figured. And furriers like himself. He was with the Aladdin Fur Company. But he knew nothing about pelts and skins. He’d never seen a live sable. He collected for the company. And the company’s strange books had brought him to Queens. He was the wandering sheriff of Aladdin Furs.
The Marielito was in apartment 7B, under the name of O’Connor. Holden wondered how many apartments this Parrot controlled. He never struck from the same place twice. It was either a hotel room, where the woman could lure a man into bed and dig with her needle, the back of some nightclub, or an apartment with the name O’Connor on the bell. Holden pressed the button.
A woman’s voice drifted down from 7B. “Who is it?” The voice startled him. Holden couldn’t find much of a Cuban accent. Maybe it was the wrong O’Connor.
“Parrot,” he said. “I’m looking for the Parrot.”
Holden heard a click.
had gotten him into the building. The Marielito was waiting upstairs to kill him and swipe the vinyl bag. Holden wished he had a gambler’s gun in his shirt sleeve, a derringer he could have pressed against the woman’s heart. He had to arrive with nothing but his baby fat, or he’d never get close enough to the Marielito.
He was only the courier, a common mule. The Parrot and his mistress had burnt every mule before Holden. They’d frisk him at the door, pull him inside with the bag of money. The woman wouldn’t bother to seduce a messenger boy. And that was Holden’s one advantage. He wasn’t important enough to worry about. Holden couldn’t tell how the buy had been made, or the number of men the Parrot’s mistress had seduced. How else had they gotten a messenger boy with a quarter of a million to come to Queens?
Holden didn’t take the elevator. He climbed six flights. What if Holden himself was being set up? The more of a history a bumper had, the larger the feathers he built around himself, and the nearer he got to his own execution. Holden was like a grandpa, an ancient man of thirty-seven. He’d never come to forty. His feathers were already too long.
Holden arrived at 7B. He was about to knock when the door opened. It nearly broke his heart. That bitch was a perfect height for Holden. Around five foot four. She’d come to him without shoes. She didn’t smile. The bitch was blonde and all business. Her hair was almost white. She wore a polo shirt. It wasn’t the outline of her breasts that defeated him. It was the curve of her arms. Now he knew why the other fifteen had failed. What the hell was a kilo compared to her skin? And then Holden looked beyond the polo shirt and the blonde, blonde hair and remembered the knitting needle.
She cooed at him. “Come in.”
He entered with his quarter million and the man appeared, almost as blond as the bitch (there must have been a consignment of blondies at Mariel harbor). The Parrot locked the door. He had a .22 long tucked into his pants. Holden could have slapped his head with the money bag and shot the Parrot with his own gun. But he couldn’t attend to the woman and dance around with the man. He was in a blind spot near the door, some hurricane alley.
The bitch was staring at him. “I like your tailor.” He’d worn his crappiest clothes, because he couldn’t look like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. on a prairie in Queens. But it was still a London suit from Hester Street. Holden’s tailor was a thief. He could pirate any style.
“That’s a thousand-dollar suit,” the woman said.
It was just Holden’s luck that the woman he had to kill was a couturier in a polo shirt.
“Bella,” the man griped, “leave him alone. Can’t you see? He’s just a kid.”
A grandpa, and they called him a kid.
“Sonny, give us the satchel ... nice and slow.”
Holden held out the vinyl bag. The Parrot took it and said, “Now hug the wall with your palms, sonny, and keep your ass high.” The woman searched inside his collar. She fondled his neck while she searched, and Holden had an erection. She dug into his pockets, patted his thighs, held his penis for a moment, as if it were all part of some inscrutable frisk. Holden had to endure the metaphysics of her hands.
The Parrot sat on a table six feet from Holden and unzipped the bag. He started to play with the money, building a tower with the packets of hundred dollar bills, while he dangled one knee over the table, contemptuous of Holden, who was still standing in that hurricane alley.
The bitch rubbed him with her body, her breasts like gloves in his back. Holden didn’t like it. He saw the needle rise up from her dungarees. He struck her once in the throat, with the needle almost at his ear, and she made a strangling noise as Holden grabbed the Parrot’s leg, brought him down from the table, and socked him three times in the temple. The Parrot was dead.
The woman choked quietly in a corner. But he couldn’t take a chance. He walloped her where her brows began. The needle fell out of her hand.
“Fuckers,” he said, and then Holden saw a pair of eyes under the table, in all that dark and dust. Like a leopard that had come to haunt him with fevered animal eyes.
The leopard was a little girl. Darkhaired. A Marielita in a red dress.
Changó, he muttered. That little girl was the Bandidos’ god. But Holden didn’t believe in jailhouse cults. She was a Marielita, that’s all. He had to make sure. He stooped to find out if the Parrot was wearing Changó’s red and white beads. But the Parrot had nothing inside his shirt—no necklace, no tattoos, no prison scars. Silly, Holden said to himself.
He trembled now, because Holden didn’t have a choice. The little girl wasn’t little enough. He couldn’t leave a witness like that. Some police artist could compose a portrait of him from the little girl’s nods.
the artist would say, “was the bad man’s forehead high or low?”
He’d have to smother her with his hand, feel her hot mouth and the fiddle of her throat.
There wasn’t supposed to be a little leopard girl. That bit of news would have been somewhere in the file cards Holden kept. It was a stupid trick. The Parrot was minding the little girl until her mother came home. What mother? Would they let some neighbor’s little girl watch while the woman finished Holden with her knitting needle? He understood enough Creole talk to ask the Marielita her name. But he didn’t want to know.
He stuffed the money back into the bag and listened to an odd chirp. He stooped. The Marielita wasn’t crying. She looked up at him with her leopard’s eyes. It had to be that other bitch. But she lay dead in her polo shirt. The noise had come from him.
Holden didn’t care. He went about his business. But the chirping didn’t stop.
“Jesus,” he said, shoving the bag under his arm and grabbing the Marielita’s fist while he wiped the doorknob with his handkerchief.
he said, “you be quiet.”
The girl hadn’t made a sound.
Holden knew the Marielita would mark him. It was like carrying a tag on his back.
Take a look. I’m the man who did the piece of work in 7B.
And what if he should meet the mother on the stairs? He’d have to waltz her out the window and run with the leopard girl.
But he got to the front door without the slightest complication. It was just a building in Queens with a coachman’s circle to let accountants deposit their wives on the doorstep, like some fat Cinderella escaping from the rain. The Marielita didn’t struggle. Her own fingers tightened around his hand.
They passed a bunch of nurses on the street and he was afraid she might bolt from him. The nurses paused in the middle of their conversation to admire the Marielita. He couldn’t pluck his head somewhere like an ostrich. He had to acknowledge his right to the girl.
“Isn’t she the prettiest thing? ... Johanna, look at those eyes. A regular Rita Hayworth.”
They pulled at her, these busybodies with their capes and their nurses’ bonnets.