The streets of downtown Havana out to the suburb of Miramar were all but deserted at two of a muggy morning as María León, driving an older 7 Series BMW, pulled up at the security entrance to the compound of Fidel Castro.
She was a slender woman, thirty-six, her flowing dark hair framing a finely defined dusky face of high cheekbones, narrow nose, firm chin, and broad, darkly expressive eyes. She was dressed in an L.A. Rams T-shirt and light-colored shorts that accentuated her long legs.
But she wasn’t crying, not yet, if ever she would. She had mixed feelings about her father that very often bordered on hate, even now that he was dying.
A pair of officers in slacks and guayabera shirts, both of them armed, came out of the gatehouse. One of them held back, his hand on the butt of the pistol in his shoulder holster, while the other approached the open driver’s-side window. They were not smiling.
Neither of them had pulled their weapon. She could easily have shot both of them with a silenced pistol and gotten into the compound without raising an alarm.
She held up her state credentials card, which identified her as Director of Operations for Cuba’s foreign secret service—the DI, Dirección de Inteligencia—and for a moment, the man at her window didn’t know what to do.
“Damned sloppy, both of you,” María said. Security out here came under the umbrella of operations, and up until now, she’d assumed that Captain Manuel Fuentes, the little mouse of a man who ran the division for her, was doing a good job.
“I’m sorry, señora, but you were expected and we recognized the car.”
“Anyone could have been driving. The real María León could be lying dead in a ditch somewhere.”
“Get out of my way, puto,” María told him, and as he stepped back, she raced down the one-way driveway that passed through one of the security screens of trees that crisscrossed the compound, the first tears beginning to well up in her eyes.
She was angry, as she’d been for most of her life. She felt as if she could count on one hand the number of times she’d ever been truly happy or in love or not lonely. Since she’d finally stopped asking why she was treated differently from the other children in the KGB-run special school years ago, she’d been so filled with resentment that most of the time—like this morning—the bitterness lit up her insides with a nuclear furnace that powered nearly every aspect of her life and her career.
“You’re mad all the time,” one of her lovers, a dashing captain in the air force, had told her one night after they made love.
“It’s what keeps me going,” she remembered telling him.
“That’s too bad for you, because it’s ugly.”
But then, he wasn’t an illegitimate daughter of Fidel’s, not acknowledged, not once. Never told that she was loved, never held in her father’s arms, never seated at his table, never allowed to play with his other children. No aunts or uncles or cousins or grandparents to send her little presents. No vacations to the mountains, or even day trips to the beach.
Only tutors, studying, books, small classes where students were identified only by their first names in schools run by stern, no-nonsense Russians who endlessly drummed into their heads that they were special, that ahead of them lay brilliant futures in service to the state.
Later, the purely academic subjects of mathematics and science and languages—Spanish, of course, but also Russian and especially English, and all the rich literature—were followed by political indoctrination lessons last thing every day, almost like boring sugarless desserts.
And then when she turned thirteen, María joined a small class of boys, dressed like them in camouflaged uniforms, and learned weapons and explosives and hand-to-hand combat, a discipline she enjoyed immensely. A vent for her anger.
The entire compound was lit up, and driving up to her father’s house, she saw a lot of people milling around, some of them by the pool, some in the covered walkway and in the living room, spilling out from the open doors. She knew this place, but she’d never been here at the same time as her father, and she hated herself all the more for feeling sad about that it.
Fuentes, speaking on a walkie-talkie, came from the house as María parked behind a line of mostly beat-up old American cars from the 1950s. Dressed in green military fatigues with no name tag or insignia of rank—the same as Fidel and most of the others from the revolution favored—he looked like some idiot outfitted for a costume ball, or one of those dreary Marxist stage productions about the bright Communist world, where every worker was treated the same.
“You’re almost too late,” he sniveled.
María resisted the sudden urge to take the little man apart here and now, but it would wait. “I want you in my office at eight, Captain,” she said sharply.
Fuentes flinched, but he didn’t back down. “Is there something wrong with my security arrangements, Madam Director?”
“Plenty,” she said. “Now, did El Comandante ask for me specifically?”
“Yes, and he’s sent everyone away, except for Dr. Céspedes.”
Some of the people on the veranda and just inside the house were looking at her—some of them family, others close personal advisers—but none of them smiled. She was an outsider, the fact that Fidel was her father a closely guarded secret except from a select few, Fidel’s brother Raúl among them. None of the leader’s children had any idea she was a half sister, and the people gathered here this morning knew her as nothing more than some government functionary. But they were obviously curious about why Fidel had called her to his deathbed.
She glared at them, but then admitted to Fuentes that she didn’t know the way.
“I’ll show you,” Fuentes said coolly, and he took her through the modestly furnished living room to the small master bedroom at the rear corner of the house, knocked once, and went inside.
The room stank of death and decay mingled with the odors of medicines and maybe alcohol, and cigar smoke that was permanently embedded in the walls and ceilings and fabrics. Fidel Castro lay propped up with a couple of pillows in the middle of a queen-sized bed, his doctor taking his blood pressure. His face had sagged, and his beard was poorly shaved, leaving a bluish tinge to his skin.
He turned his head when María approached, and she got the impression that he was minutes if not seconds away from death. His eyes were weeping some thick mucus, and a little blood had seeped from his mouth to stain the front of his pajamas. But when he focused on her, he seemed to revive, pulling himself up out of a near stupor.
“Leave us now,” he told the doctor, his voice weak but surprisingly firm and understandable.
The doctor hesitated but then took the blood pressure cuff off Fidel’s arm and walked out with Fuentes, leaving María alone with her father, and she realized how frightened she was.
Fidel was nearly a god to most people of Cuba, and to her as well, she had to admit. From the time that, as a teenager, she’d learned who her father was—the reason she was so special to her Russian teachers—she’d been almost in awe of herself, of her genes. That reverence had turned to anger within a few years because of his distance, because he never acknowledged her, and because she was constantly reminded that her relationship to Fidel was an important state secret. Divulging it would be considered an act of treason.
And after a while, she began to understand the reasons for the secrecy—or at least she thought she did—which only increased an anger that was directed inward. She began to hate herself for loving her father, or at least her idealized notion of what a father should be. She wanted to be proud, a vanity that she thought was stupid. She wanted to think about him rescuing her from a dreary life; it would have taken only one stroke of a pen, one word to Raúl, and she would have been properly acknowledged. Loved. Yet she hated that longing, too, because of all the years of her life that had been wasted.
In the end, brainwashed or not, she became the functionary the Russians had trained her to be. An agent for the state, taught spy craft and international diplomacy at the finest schools in Moscow.
And right now, she felt like a child. “Hello, Papá,” she said, unable to think of anything else.
She went next to him, where the smell of death was much stronger. Her heart pounded and her mouth was dry. Dios mio, she felt stupid. “I’m here.”
Phlegm rattled deep in Fidel’s chest. “You’re a beautiful child,” he said, his voice very soft as he tried to catch his breath. “Retribution,” he whispered. His eyes closed.
She leaned closer, half-convinced he had just died. “What did you say?” she asked. She didn’t want to touch him.
His eyes opened and María was so startled, she reared back.
“Find Kirk McGarvey,” he said. “Bring him here. He’ll know.”
She knew the name, of course: He was the near legendary former director of the CIA who until recently had gone back to work for the agency from time to time. He’d once even conducted some investigation at Guantánamo Bay, so he was a fixture on the DI’s Persons of Interest list. But he had dropped out of sight some months ago, and nothing she’d read in any Daily Report or Weekly Summary hinted at any operation of interest to Cuba that he was currently engaged with.
“He’s retired,” she told her father. “No longer a threat to us.”
“It’s what I want,” Fidel croaked, half-rising off his pillows, his face turning beet red.
María was truly alarmed now. She didn’t want to witness her father’s death, and she certainly didn’t want to cause it. All her anger was gone. “I’ll call the doctor.”
“No,” Fidel said, his voice strong again for just that one word. “He knows.”
“What does he know?”
Fidel started to say something, but then he shook his head and fell back. “Our salvation. Bring him here. Ask him. Promise me. My friend Jong-il told me he could be trusted.”
She had no idea what her father was talking about, except that Kim had been the General Secretary of North Korea; maybe this was only the lunatic ravings of a dying old man who’d manipulated practically the entire world for nearly all his life. The U.S. embargoes made Cuba poor while at the same time making Fidel more powerful in the eyes of his people. He was the man who stood up to the United States. The Bay of Pigs was his victory, as was the so-called missile crisis, out of which came the pledge from Washington that Cuba would never be attacked.
“Promise,” Fidel said, his voice nearly inaudible now.
But he’d first said retribución. For what? Guantánamo? María touched his bony shoulder. “I promise, Papá,” she told him.
And he smiled the open yet secret way he did when he went on television and shook his fist at the United States. She’d seen the smile a thousand times; everyone in Cuba had. And everyone knew that he was holding something up his sleeve. “Be careful whom you trust, child.”
“I promise,” she said softly.
And a moment later, Fidel Castro took his last, shallow breath, his open eyes draining of life.
María looked at the old man. The bastard was up to something, even at the last. It was amazing, and perhaps, she thought, her life to this point had been a better one without his acknowledgment.
Copyright © 2012 by David Hagberg