Silent Passing


 

David Michaels worked his way down the war torn street, amazed that yet again, he hadnít the self-control to refuse a story, even one that risked his life. His well-known byline in an international leftist newspaper had saved him from repercussions by the Cuban government Ė so far. Yet lately, he felt that any time now he would become one of the thousands who went missing every month, either killed or kidnapped by Fidelís army of murderers.

Since he had arrived in Cuba, five years ago in 1967, his stories had changed. They started to reflect the reality of the Communist takeover of that small country by making analogies to Batistaís worst actions. Recently, he began to get warnings from his newspaper that if he didnít start sticking closer to the party line they would either have to pull him from Cuba, or let the new regime take him to task.

He had found a note with the address of an old church in his jeep late last night, asking that he come to hear a "very important" story. He fought with himself about going, but eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he set out today to meet the unknown person who wished to talk.

He entered the dilapidated church through what remained of its wooden doors. The interior was cool and smelled of incense. David stood there for a few minutes, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness and soon he was able to make his way through the dim entranceway into the nave.

There was a funeral going on. Perhaps that was why he was asked to get to the church? Maybe one of Castroís revolutionaries was being laid to rest today?

David tossed aside that thought; all the revolutionaries were strict Marxists and would never be buried by the church. In fact, it was a little strange that there were people in any church in Cuba. Only recently was religious worship again permitted by the state.

Being over six feet tall, copper haired and light skinned, David couldnít help but stand out. He was visibly a foreigner and that made him an unknown to the peasants in the church and therefore a man to be feared.

By the coffin at the front of the hall, a few men pointed him out to the priest who then walked towards him, "Can I help you sir?" he called out, "Do you speak our language?"

"Yes," David replied in Spanish. He tried to keep an open, friendly smile on his face as he shook the priestís hand. "Can you tell me whose funeral it is today, Father?"

The priest shook his head, "No one of any importance, sir, just a poor farmer. He was not a political man but a Godly one. You see, sir, he was found innocent of any wrong, for his body was returned to his family this morning. That does not happen with traitors."

David saw how frightened the priest was, but there wasnít much he could do about that. He was on the trail of a story and had to find out why he had been lured to this church at this hour.

"Tell me, Father, what is the name of the family?"

The priestĎs eyes filled with worry, "Please no, sir, they are good people. Let them alone. They have done no wrong, sir. Please!"

David saw that he would learn nothing here. Everyone was looking at the man in the coffin, their backs a wall to him. With a sigh, he said goodbye to the priest and moved toward the exit.

Suddenly, a voice behind him hissed, "Mister Michaels, please!" and a hand grasped him by the upper arm, guiding him toward a dark corner. David went along; experience told him that as long as he remained in a public place he would be safe. The man holding onto him pointed out a stone bench and they sat side by side.

David studied the man. He was dressed as a farmer with a large straw hat and washed-out pants and shirt, but his voice had an educated smoothness to it. The man removed the hat and smiled up at David, "Do you not recognize me Mister Michaels?"

David peered at the face. Although the manís identity tickled at his memory, he couldnít place him, but he got a real bad feeling.

"No," David said, suddenly feeling annoyed, "and it is not a good idea to play games with me. If Iím not told why Iíve been asked to come here, I am leaving."

The man raised both hands in a calming gesture, "No sir, wait. If I could easily be recognized then both of our lives would be in danger."

Suddenly Davidís guts lurched, the voice and the face were bringing up feelings of terrible danger. "What do you want?"

The man took hold of his arm again, but this time his grip was like iron. "We have met during many press conferences with Castro. I am the man who stands to his right on the podium."

David felt the blood drain from his face. "On the podium next to Ė "

"I am Immanuel Pena," the man finished, "I am also known as ĎThe Hand of the Devilí."

David gasped. "What do you want?" His mind was working furiously. If Pena had wanted to arrest or kidnap him, it would have been easier to simply take him from his room or off a dark side street. Why would Pena go through this charade to meet him?

"I know of your work Mister Michaels," Pena said with an intensity that David didnít like, "Castro has had a file on you from the minute you arrived here. I read it last night."

David almost tried to make a run for it then. Immanuel Pena was rumored to be the man who performed the worst of Castroís crimes against his own people. Yet Pena was as good at covering his tracks as he was at torture. No one had been able to prove that this man was a monster.

Penaís hand clamped down even harder on his forearm. "Calm yourself, sir. Calm yourself. I am not here to arrest you I am here to confess to you my crimes."

"What?" Even though he felt a rushing fear for his life, David felt an even more powerful urge to get hold of the story. "What do you mean confess, and why to me?"

"You are the only American journalist in Cuba whose words are not always a glowing endorsement of Fidel. I read your latest article on how our great poet Herberto Padilla was arrested and detained for political differences with the government. You might be trusted to tell my story." Pena leaned closer, "I am being brought to the United States tonight, by a man whose name I will not mention, a man who will help the truth of Castroís crimes to become known. I will be testifying in front of your Senateís hearings on international affairs in Washington tomorrow!"

Hardly believing his luck at having the story of the decade thrown into his lap, David reached inside his pocket with his free hand for his pad and pen. "I must take notes. I have many questions for you." Pena released his hold and David set the pen against the paper, "Why are you going against your leader?"

"No," Pena said, "we have not time now for questions. I will tell you why I am doing what I am doing, and it will be for you to get the story to your paper so the people of the United States will be interested in my testimony tomorrow. The proof of my crimes and the crimes of this administration will be told to the world for the first time. It is my hope that your Senate will see Castro to be as evil as any communist government and will do even more to target his junta to destroy it."

David took a deep breath to calm his shaking hand as he scribbled, "Tell me why you are doing this, after all these years of Ė"

"Acting as a good Marxist revolutionary and then becoming the monster for Fidel?" Pena looked at the group of people across the hall, praying at the plain wooden coffin. "It is because of that man."

"The dead man, the farmer?"

"Yes, Emile Guiteras was his name." Pena bowed his head, "Do you not see? I am the man who killed him."

David stopped writing and looked up to study the man sitting close to him. Pena was gazing toward the coffin.

"I had him arrested three days ago. I had reports on him. He was a poor farmer who, because of his inner goodness, gathered people to him and shared with them his ideas of freedom and God. That was his crime. Good men are a threat to this administration. They are considered to be the enemy to our country."

David took notes as quickly as his shaking hands would permit.

Pena sat back on the bench. "I had him brought to The Rehabilitation Section, to my favorite room, the place that is spoken of only in whispers. It is where I had made a study of the art of torture. It was a subject that gave me much pleasure for a long time."

An involuntary shudder overtook Davidís body. He had seen some of what remained of the victims of ĎThe Hand of the Devilí and could hardly believe that the man sitting next to him could be capable of inflicting such atrocities!

"My assistants had charge of him first, but in a panic they called me in because he would say nothing but that he forgave them. Ah yes, from the first moment I saw him, I had an uneasy feeling about this simple farmer. He had no fear in his eyes," Pena shook his head remorsefully, "That is something I never tolerated, for fear is what fuels the ultimate breakdown of will."

David tried to concentrate on his note taking. Sitting next to a man who so casually talked about torture made his skin crawl.

"By the second day, when the farmer had not made his confession or given up the names of his friends, I became angry. I became even more brutal."

David heard Penaís voice catch, and looked away from his pad. He was surprised to see him weeping, the tears flowing down his cheeks.

"By the end of the second day, all I could get Guiteras to say was that he forgave me." He shook his head, "I did my worst to break him, to make him confess or give up his friends, but all he would do, no matter how I made him suffer, was to say he absolved me of my sin. My rage was soon out of control; my honor was at stake. That I could not break a nothing, a farmer, was an embarrassment to me. I left the treatment room and went to my home. My nice clean home. But I could not get away from his eyes and his words of forgiveness, they followed me until I could not sleep or eat. I went back to my torture late that night. Finally he absolved me for my brutality one too many times. And for that crime, I killed him."

Pena got up off the bench and walked toward the door, David stayed right next to him. "I sat with his body all day, in the room where I had taken his life from him. I spoke to him, asking why he did not cooperate, why he gave me forgiveness even as I gave him agony. Yesterday afternoon, as the sun began to set, I came to the realization that I had to make myself worthy of his forgiveness. I made contacts and arranged to be smuggled out of this country and tomorrow, I will testify to your Senate committee. I will try to take down the evil that I have helped to create in my country. "

David couldnít believe it, "Just like that? Youíre changing your whole way of life just because one man forgave you?" David heard the harsh sarcasm in his own voice, "Why? Did you suddenly develop a belief in God?"

"I do not know about that," Pena said as he reached for the door, his face suddenly glowing with an inner light, "but I can say I have a suspicion that God suddenly developed a belief in me. Go and do good with your story, for I must start my journey now. Good-bye." He replaced his straw hat and slipped outside into the glare of bright sunlight.

David followed Pena out, hoping to catch him for another question, but the brilliance of the outdoors blinded him for a moment. When he could see again, he just caught the view of an old and crowded car speeding away from the church.

It was just getting dark when David rushed into his hotel room. His mind was racing. He had one of the great stories of the decade to tell but he couldnít figure out who to give it to. His own left-wing newspaper might not print a story against the communist regime. They had already warned him to stick to the party line.

He thought about giving it to a contact he had with the London Times. They might print it, but then afterwards, he didnít know if any newspaper would trust a reporter who snubbed his own paper. He could get it to the Associated Press and attempt to build himself a career off of it, but then he would have to try and get out of Cuba on his own. His paper would certainly take away its protection. He might wind up being the victim of Castroís next "Hand of the Devil."

David locked his door and sat at his desk. Taking a bottle of scotch out of the bottom drawer he filled a glass. He drank it in one gulp and shuddered as the alcohol hit his already churning gut.

He had to act quickly; Pena was going to testify tomorrow, the story had to go out tonight.

He opened the pad with his notes and decided to write the story and sell it already finished toÖ Damn, heíd work that out later. Right now he needed to get the story on paper. Heíd think of a way to make the most of it for his career afterwards.

Twenty minutes later, he was just about finished with his byline when his door crashed open and a gang of men swarmed into the room. David jumped to his feet, but before he could try to escape, he was surrounded and pushed down to the floor, his arms pinned to his sides, heavy bodies pressing on his chest. The last thing he knew was the sweet smell of ether pouring into his lungs. Then everything went black.

David realized his eyes were open when he saw a dim light. His head was pounding and he felt nauseous. He tried to lift his hands to clutch at his temples, but he couldnít move them. Thatís when he realized that he was tied to a chair. His stomach lurched with fear. His nightmare had come true. He'd been kidnapped!

David worked on swallowing the bile that threatened to come up out of his throat, He was gagged and if he vomited, he would choke on it. He had seen enough people die that way to know that he didnít want that. He took slow, deep breaths through his nose and looked around at his surroundings.

The room had a light bulb hanging from the ceiling that did little to illuminate the area. He seemed to be alone. He heard nothing; no cries of torture, no weeping people. He also smelled nothing vile: no urine, feces or old blood Ė or decaying bodies. He knew he might be clutching at straws, but the fact that the room appeared to be clean comforted him.

Suddenly, off to the side, a door opened and two men walked into the room. David felt his heart start to pound. He didnít recognize either man. They were dressed as peasants, not in the uniform of Castroís Communist Revolutionaries or of the opposition.

"Heís up," a man with an American accent said. "Go tell them heís awake."

The other man turned and went back out the door.

The American walked closer to David, peering into his face. "You look like hell buddy," he said with no hint of humor in his voice. The door opened again and another figure walked into the room but stayed in the shadows.

The American continued, "I bet youíre shitting yourself just about now."

"That will be all Mister Calderon," a voice with an educated British accent rang out. "Do leave Mister Michaels to me. Heís not your concern, now is he?"

The American took one last long look into his face. "Good luck buddy, youíll need it." He turned and left the room.

David tried to see the man standing in the dark corner of the room, but he could only make out a silhouette. Losing his nerve, he began to shake uncontrollably.

Making no noise whatsoever, the figure moved directly behind Davidís chair. David closed his eyes. He had been wondering how he would react to being tortured ever since he first interviewed a victim years ago; he would find if he could stand it very soon. Sweat started pouring out of him, trailing over his face, dripping down his neck.

He felt the man behind him tug something at the back of his head. Davidís heart skipped a beat. The gag fell open and David let it drop from his mouth with a gasp of surprise.

The man remained behind him, unseen. "Mr. Michaels, we need to talk."

"What . . . " David tried to speak, but the words wouldnít come out of his parched throat.

The shadow man moved to the side and David heard the sound of liquid being poured. From behind his head a glass appeared half filled with what looked and smelled like water. The glass was pressed to his lips and tilted to let the liquid flow into his mouth. David found the chilled water to be the sweetest thing he had ever tasted.

"Better?" the British voice asked.

David drank more and when the glass was taken away he nodded his head and cleared his throat. "What do you want?" David asked, amazing himself with the steadiness of his voice.

"Some cooperation," the voice said, so close to his head that David felt the manís breath tickle the inside of his ear.

David let that sit in the air for a moment. "Who are you and what can I do?"

"Ah, good, the correct answer Mr. Michaels. A certain unnamed mutual friend of ours took it upon himself to have a most foolish conversation with you in church the other day. He wanted you to share his upcoming plans with others."

Pena? David still couldnít figure out what was wanted of him.

The Britís voice was beginning to sound angry. "My organization doesnít want that information to come to light."

David made a choice. "I donít know what youíre talking about."

He heard a deep sigh from the man behind him and then the sound of a chair being scraped along the floor. In a moment he saw the chair set in front of him and the man who had been speaking sat down, his knees touching Davidís.

"Mr. Michaels," the guyís face was half in shadow and half in the harsh light of the bulb. He was in his early forties and dapper but with large bags under his eyes. "Do not even imagine that youíre protecting your source for this story."

David stared at the man. "I know you, Iíve seen you around. Youíre Ė"

"My cover story in Cuba was as a representative for East German farm equipment, Mr. Michaels. But youíre a bright boy, you must see through that facade by now."

David was beginning to feel dizzy. "Who are you working for?"

"Concentrate!" The manís words cut into his head, sharp as a knife. "I know who you spoke to. He told me himself just as we drove away from the church. Unfortunately he thought he was making a wonderful contribution to his cause but, by involving you, he was simply mucking the plans up."

"I donít know what Ė "

"David, David, David," the man intoned, "Do try and think. I was the one who brought our friend to safety. He told me that he had just met with David Michaels, the reporter, to help get his message to the American public." He leaned closer to David, articulating precisely. "He made a mistake talking to you."

David stayed very still, suddenly dreadfully afraid.

The man sighed, the tension of his gaze broken. "I suppose I should concede that I made a mistake when I permitted him to pick the place of our meeting. I mean, I should have made the arrangements, but I never thought he would be so stupid as to contact a reporter."

"Did he tell Ė "

"He told me enough," the Brit interrupted, "I had my men pick you up before our friend and I lifted off Cuban soil. You were brought here to wait until I got back." The man got close to Davidís face, "For your own sake Michaels, you need to cooperate with me."

David felt his bladder weaken as those last words were spoken, so quietly, so calmly. "What do you want?"

The man smiled and leaned back onto his chair, "Thatís much better. We need to agree that you never spoke to our mutual friend yesterday." He looked at his watch, "As heís already testified to the committee, your story already has had its legs cut off. Now all you have to do is forget about the meeting."

"But if heís already testified, and the world knows heís defected, why bother with me?" 

"Ah well, thereís the rub, isnít it? Our friendís change of team hasnít been made public and we donít want it known."

David stared back at the man, his mind a blank.

"Mr. Michaels, the US government hates Cuba with every fiber of its being, our friendís testifying to the Senate couldnít possibly make the US hate this government anymore than it already does. His real worth to us is the inside information that only a close intimate of Castro can give to us."

David began to get a glimmer of understanding. "The US government doesnít need him for propaganda, but for inside, personal information."

The spy gave him a cold, half-smile. "Very good, young man. Yes, since the world is watching so closely, the US government canít outwardly destroy Castro. We are going to use our friendís information to disrupt Castroís hold on this country from the inside out."

David nodded, "I can keep quiet about that."

"Can you, Mr. Michaels? Even when Fidel himself and then the whole world starts to wonder where our friend went? Do you think you can keep your journalistís heart out of that story? And even more important to your health and future well being Ė do I, and my organization, think that you will keep quiet."

He felt the manís eyes bore into his soul. David couldnít help but feel that he was being found too weak to keep silent about that big a story.

"I can be quiet," David heard his voice come out in a whimper. He cleared his throat. "I hate the new Cuba and its leader. My paper told me that I was going to be pulled home because I wasnít party line enough."

"So I thought. I have read your latest articles," his smile was still cold. He studied Davidís face for a long time, and finally said, "I think we can do business, you and I."

"Yes, please, we can do business, Iíll do whatever you want," David said in a rush, almost weeping with relief. He felt disgust for himself, but his overriding emotion was thankfulness that this man wasnít going to hurt him.

The spy stood up and stepped behind David once again. In a moment David felt his arms released from their bindings. "Forget your story," the man said, "forget that you ever met our friend. Forget whatever it was that he told you."

David hurried to protest. "But he just told me why he Ė "

"Not important!" Cutting him off, the British accented American spy growled as he moved in front of David, "I donít know what he told you and I donít want to know! Forget it all!"

"Yes," David said, thoroughly intimidated as he stared at the floor, rubbing the circulation back into his arms.

"And as a reward for your forgetfulness, I will use one of my contacts inside your paper to get you a prime news assignment Ė in another country, far, far away from Cuba." He bent low to catch Davidís attention and then stared into his eyes, "Then our relationship could be mutually advantageous in the future. Would you like that Mr. Michaels?"

David licked his dry lips and nodded. He was selling out. He would be under this guyís thumb from now on if he accepted the assignment. But what else could he do?

Suddenly his mind caught on to something and it went racing. How would this US spy get his leftist paper to give him a choice assignment? The answer came to him and took his breath away. There were US agency moles in his left-wing newspaper! Of course, why didnít he think of that before?

His disgust for himself increased tenfold. What a naïve fool he was.

The spy stood in the middle of the room and adjusted his well-cut suit jacket, shooting the cuffs, "What say I give you a hot meal and a ticket home? You can tell your paper that you felt unsafe here and ran back to the mainland. Then we can work on your reassignment, Mr. Michaels Ė or shall I call you David, now that we will be doing business together?"

David nodded again, his eyes damp with tears, his heart heavy. How weak he was, he realized. This whole story started with a poor uneducated farmer who was able to withstand days of torture; the story of a true martyr. And it was ending here, with him caving in to his kidnappers right away, without so much as a scratch on him.

"Cheer up," the spy said jovially as he walked to the door of the room and made to open it, "My colleagues will get you cleaned up, clothed and on your way to Miami. When I need you, Iíll contact you."

He stopped for a moment, and David saw that the spy was studying him. Then he walked back to David and offered his hand to shake, "By the way," his voice was gentle, "my name is Robert McCall." David shook the offered hand, feeling a cool, dry and strong grip, "I do assure you that today is the beginning of an interesting association for both of us."

"Yes, I suppose so," David muttered, looking down in shame, feeling for all the world like a Judas.

Robert McCall stood close for a while and David felt the weight of his hand on his shoulder. "All right. Listen to me young man. When I started out in this business, I was full of idealism, just like you are. But as you find out more about the world, your view of right and wrong can no longer be in terms of black or white, but in shades of gray. Remember Mr. Michaels, as long as the objective's sane youíre not doing evil. Keep that in mind."

Dejected, David kept his eyes on the floor.

McCall patted his shoulder one more time. "Itís a hard truth, Mr. Michaels, but a lesson that youíve got to learn."

McCall left the room but David hardly noticed, his memory was fixed on the sight of a plain wooden coffin and a simple man who hadnít thought in shades of gray, but of good and evil.

David sighed, another hard lesson he had to learn:

Martyrs are hard to come by.

Back