I walked from my air-conditioned room on the first floor of the Hotel Espléndido into the courtyard and it was like slipping into a warm bath. The nights in Miami tended to be hot and humid, but this evening the air was completely still, not the slightest breeze stirring. I strolled around the courtyard and paused under an avocado tree to have a cigarette. I fired one up and blew a puff of smoke into the branches; it hung there like a spider web. Nothing moved in the dead air, except for mosquitoes and the fragrance of jasmine and the vague sense of menace always looming behind the deceptive stillness of a tropical night. Perhaps the menace wouldn’t be vague at all tomorrow morning: I was going to be calling on Haroun’s House of Hummus, first stop in the search for Farouk.
Farouk had gone AWOL from Guantanamo again, and according to the FBI, was planning to take me out for good, this time. I knew that Florida would be his first stop, and Haroun’s place was a clearing house for information among the local Arab population, so, operating on the theory that the best defense is a good offense, I was going to try and track him down. I grabbed a cab the next morning, and headed out to the not-so-classy section of Biscayne Boulevard. There, wedged in between a t-shirt shop and Tío Wang’s Cuban-Chinese Cafetería and Tea House (“Today’s special: boliche con eggroll”), was Haroun’s House of Hummus. I pushed the door open and walked in.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if Sidney Greenstreet had waddled over in a white linen suit with a fez on his head and a fly-swatter in his hand. The place looked like a 1940’s Hollywood set at Warner Brothers (“one (1) standard middle-eastern café, including ceiling fans, lattice-work shutters, small round tables with grimy white table cloths; scattering of sinister characters”). Actually, though, the joint was owned by Haroun Saba, a Lebanese Maronite who was ostentatiously apolitical, but not allergic to the profit motive; I calculated that a cut of the reward money out on Farouk might secure a useful tip. I snagged a table near the door, and just as I was taking a seat, I was run down by one of the customers who was passing by with a cup of coffee. It was a soft and sweet-smelling collision, and the contents of her cup spilled on her, so I didn’t really mind. She had thick, lustrous black hair, piled up on her head like Audrey Hepburn’s, and large, liquid brown eyes, and flawless skin the color of a Kraft caramel cube, and she was dressed to the nines in a low-cut yellow satin dress.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, sir! Did I spill any on you?”
“No, ma’am, I’m fine. But it looks like your dress is done for.”
She let out a little moan of despair and immediately sat down at my table. She picked up a napkin, dunked it in a glass of water and began rubbing the stain, which ran in a streak down the front of her dress. She rubbed the thigh area in long, smooth strokes, until the fabric was so saturated that it became nearly transparent. I could tell that her caramel coloring went all over.
“I’m sorry to be such a bother, and I hope you don’t mind; this dress is practically brand new and I just naturally reached for the first water I saw – which, unfortunately, turned out to be your water glass.” She gave me a dazzling smile, and I couldn’t help but think, given her instinct for tidiness, how nice it would have been if she had overturned a whole samovar of coffee on herself. She called the waiter over and asked him to bring me another glass of water. His complexion reminded me of a Kraft product, too; “vegemite”, I think it’s called.
My new friend kept up a steady flow of patter, occasionally casting what looked to me like nervous glances toward the main dining area. Suddenly, she placed her hand on mine, the long graceful fingers pressing down on the back of my hand firmly; I could feel her racing pulse.
“Why don’t you let me make up for all this fuss by buying you breakfast?”
I smiled and happened to glance at a mirror hanging on the wall to the right side of the table. An interesting piece, probably antique, that might have dated from the late Ottoman empire; however, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the moving images I saw reflected in it.
“Baby, I’m afraid neither one of us is going to have time for breakfast.” I grabbed her by the wrist, stood up, yanked her out of her chair, twisted her arm behind her back, and pulled out Shiny Sal – my stainless steel .38 caliber revolver – all in one seamless movement, and pointed the barrel in the direction of the front door, where two seedy patrons were attempting a quick exit.
“Hold it Farouk!”, I shouted. Farouk, who had been moving speedily to the door, stopped abruptly, his hand on the doorknob. His companion – his old comrade, Ali, if I wasn’t mistaken – wasn’t quite so alert, and practically climbed half-way up Farouk’s back; they looked like two vaudeville comics who hadn’t yet gotten the dancing horse routine down pat.
The tomato squirmed, but I held her tight. “Nice try, honey, trying to distract me that way while your pals escaped. You want to tell me the connection?”
“You bastard!”, was all she’d say. I looked steadily into Farouk’s eyes. “Well, boys, here it is: you can go back to Gitmo in one piece, or I can send you back looking like a couple of colanders plucked from the scratch-and-dent bin at K-Mart. What’ll it be?”
Farouk and Ali conversed hurriedly and heatedly for a moment in their native lingo. I could tell it was Arabic; they sounded like the quality-assurance team at a spittoon factory.
Farouk uttered a monumental sigh, and both characters held up their hands in surrender. The girl began to scream at them. “You are a disgrace to Islam! I am ashamed to have such cousins as you! Why do you not resist.?”
Farouk stared at her sternly. “Shut up, Saleh! Obviously, for the time being, Allah prefers that I return to Cuba. And as for you, Mr. Paco. You are a most vexatious man!”
I grinned at him. “Yeah, that’s always been my problem. In fact, my senior year in high school, I was voted ‘most likely to vex’”. Haroun finally made an appearance, his standard deadpan altered by one slightly raised eyebrow. To ensure his safety, I affected not to know who he was.
“You! Do you work here? Call the local FBI branch and tell them to send some agents over here to pick up these terrorists.” He obeyed, with seeming reluctance, and ten minutes later, the gang was being loaded into the FBI paddy-wagon.
As they were escorting Saleh into the wagon, she took one last look at me, and shouted, “Why don’t you stuff that gun up your . . .”Slam! went the door.
I turned to one of the FBI guys. “What a pity. Now I’ll never know what she was going to say.”