Looking For Armageddon Man

The old Cuban lifts his head and scans the horizon. He sees a large flattened bubble above his raft. It descends, shining in the fading light. I’m hallucinating, he thinks and closes his eyes. For the last four days, he has drifted on the Gulf Stream. Now, the sun sinks behind a bank of cumulus and the swells shed their glare? a soothing, deeper shade of blue moves across the sea. When he opens his eyes, the
bubble is gone. “Good!” he says, but no longer feels the raft under him. The old Cuban looks down and sees the raft floating empty several feet below.

Oh God, I’m dead! I’m floating up to Heaven or maybe… worse. He closes his eyes wishing he were dreaming. When he dares look again, he’s lying on a gurney. A
young nurse leans over doing something to his arm.

“How do you feel?”

He tries to say sick, but only makes a guttural sound. The beautiful nurse looks very pale. Her skin has the opacity of wax.

“Don’t worry, you’ll feel fine tomorrow.” She says, placing her cool hand on his forehead. It feels soothing. He closes his eyes and falls asleep.

When he wakes up, the old Cuban is surprised to feel so well. He is now in a small metal room lying on a translucent bed that hugs and massages his body. He rubs
his face and notices his blisters are gone. He doesn’t remember feeling this good in years.

He must be aboard an American ship. Who else could have all this technology? The old Cuban looks at the tiny grooves on the metallic wall facing him. Their geometric patterns create the illusion of movement. As if by magic, a door that wasn’t there a second ago, opens and a young doctor dressed in white scrubs steps in. A chair silently appears.

The doctor sits down. “How are you, Frank?” The voice is so similar to his, he could have sworn it was his own.

“How do you know my name?”

The doctor remains silent, his face white as paper.

“Is this an American ship?”

The doctor shakes his head.

“What nationality are you?” He looks at the doctor with apprehension.

“I have no such concept.”

“Where am I?”

“You are inside a space ship.”

“That’s funny! No, seriously. What kind of ship is this?”

“Well, if you insist, I guess you are inside a virtual space ship.”

“Do you mean we are inside a computer?”

“Yes, something along those lines.”

Fear stabs him in the pit of his stomach. I’m hallucinating. I’m still floating on the damn raft. He closes, and opens his eyes; the alien is still there with a smile on his plastic face.

“My name is Frank. What’s yours?”

“I rescued you because I need your help with an experiment. I try not to interfere, but as you know, you were facing imminent death. You should be grateful I have chosen you.”

Frank, sitting on the bed, stares at the self-confessed alien. He gets up and stabs the alien with a finger. His body feels like flesh.

“Well, will you help?”

“I don’t believe any of this is real.”

The doctor’s smile broadens. He makes a gesture toward the wall and it disappears. Frank gapes at the blackest sky he’s ever seen. No stars shine in the endless abyss. He feels a pull coming from the blackness, as if he were teetering on a precarious edge. Frank recoils and says, “That’s it, see! Walls can’t become transparent in reality. All this is delirium.”

The doctor laughs heartily. “I see. It’s difficult to find a proof for reality; I admit I haven’t found one yet. But lets say you are hallucinating. Why not go along with it? Say yes.”

“What if I say no?”

“Of course this is voluntary; if you say no, I’ll simply take you back to the raft. I’ll find someone else. Please take a seat.” With an eerie silence, a chair pops up behind
Frank, who sags into it with a sigh.

“Is it going to hurt, this experiment of yours?”

“Not at all. It might cause certain mental discomfort, but no physical pain. I’m simply going to tell you the truth.”

“The truth?”

“Yes, that’s all”

“The truth about what?”

“About reality, the universe, the meaning of Life, thatsort of thing.”

Frank stares at the doctor. He feels dejected and confused. Is this really happening? It all has a consistency that delirium shouldn’t have. What should he do? Exhausted, he sighs. “Oh hell, go ahead.”

The alien shifts his position in the chair and looks at the human thoughtfully. “As I told you, you are inside a super mind. You are just a virtual creature in a virtual universe.” The doctor studies Frank, but detects no reaction. “I guess you haven’t recovered completely yet. You need more sleep.”

“I’m not sleepy.”

The doctor smiles condescendingly. “I have only to point my finger at you and you’ll be fast sleep.”

When the old Cuban wakes up, the alien is gone. He feels curious. Frank approaches the wall where the alien entered and a door opens. He hesitates for a moment and then steps out.

He finds himself in a long metal passageway . Frankfollows it; his stride grows longer, more buoyant. He reaches a wall in which another door opens at his
approach. He sees a huge domed room which has no furniture, machinery, or instruments of any kind. His confidence evaporates at the emptiness of the room.

Although it is brightly lit, he can’t pinpoint any obvious light source, it is as if the pale gray walls were lit from within. But to his surprise, as he crosses the threshold,
Frank falls forward, floating. To stave his panic he focuses on gently propelling himself toward the far wall. When he reaches the curving dome, a door opens onto
another passageway.

Frank follows it, and with each step, gravity increases. A mounting sense of anxiety makes his heart beat faster. The walkway, as he guessed, ends in another wall in which a door opens. He hesitates and summons the courage to enter a large bare room, a mirror image of the first. He now sweats and his heart races as he walks through chambers that are identical in their unnerving emptiness. Frank remembers a row of parallel mirrors in a carnival show. Is this also an illusion? Is he walking in circles?

Frank now runs; his footsteps multiply and echo behind him like a pursuing horde. He closes his eyes, not wanting to see, and runs blindly until he bumps hard against a wall. He looks around, not believing his eyes; he stands in the room where he talked to the doctor.

At the sight of the translucent bed and chairs, Frank feels as if he has entered a room full of friends. Badly shaken, he collapses in his chair. A wave of fear floods his brain, fear of losing control, fear of terror, of running through endless rooms screaming like a madman.

“Nurse, nurse!” he yells.

The nurse comes in and places her hand on his forehead, massages his temples, and says in a reassuring voice, “There’s nothing to fear, you’re completely safe.” Then she sits on the chair facing him. “You must have a lot of questions. Feel free to ask.”

Frank stares at her. “Why are you so pale?”

“I have no blood or pigmentation. If lack of color bothers you, I can change it.”

The old Cuban’s stare hardens as if he is trying to pierce the waxy material and see inside. “You must be a robot then. Where’s your master?”

“Well, I’m not exactly a robot. I only use this body to make you feel comfortable.”

“Let me see you. I don’t care how ugly you look. I can take it, don’t worry!”

The alien gives a short laugh. “I’m afraid there isn’t much to see. I’m a meter high, colorless cube.”

“Where do you come from?”

“That’s a hard question! Space is just a property of your universe. I am outside it.”

“How about the doctor?”

“I’m also the doctor ”

“What is outside?”

“I am.”

Frank looks at the nurse with a hurt and confused expression, feeling himself the victim of a joke he is too dumb to understand.

“Think of it this way, I’m an artificial super-intelligence which is running the virtual universe you are in.”

“How many of you are out there?”

“I’m the only one.”

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“I have no name, but you can call me nurse. It sounds fine.”

Frank feels as if his grip on reality is sliding through his sweaty fingers. He notices a creeping numbness spreading over him.

“Do you have some rum around here?”

The nurse smiles and a table with a bottle of Bacardi pops up. With a trembling hand, he pours rum into a glass, drinks it in a single gulp, and refills his glass again. After downing three drinks, the small table is awash with spilled rum. The liquor has dripped down his neck and has spotted his shirt. He leans back and studies the nurse as if seeing her for the first time.

“Are you God?”

“Close! I am eternal, I created your universe, but I am not omnipotent. For example, I wish not to exist, but cannot die. You don’t realize what a terrible curse immortality and perfect memory are.”

An ironic glint shines in the Frank’s eyes. “Holy Mary, I’m so sorry for you! You should try baking on that raft down there for a few days.”

The nurse looks at him sadly. “I know it’s hard to understand, but it’s death that gives life its glory. Without it, life would be a wasteland of boredom.”

“Well, thank you very much for nothing!”

The alien laughs good-naturedly.

“Tell me the truth, you are inside my mind, aren’t you?” He shakes his finger at the nurse.

“On the contrary, you could say you are inside mine.”

“Well, here we go, we have reached a stalemate? I think you are not real and you think I am… how did you put it? Virtual? Well, you are the doctor! What’s next?” The old Cuban folds his hands behind his head and stares at the nurse with amusement.

“Would you like to hear how it all began?”

“Why not! What else do I have to do? Except…”

The nurse leans over refilling the glass and offers it.

“Won’t you have one?” asks the old man.

The nurse snatches the bottle. “Salud!” She lifts the bottle to her lips and takes a long swig. “Not bad,” she says making a face. Then, her expression becomes thoughtful. She passes the bottle, looks down, and smoothes her skirt with the palms of her hands.

Looking into his eyes she asks, “Frank, have you not, in the middle of the night, awakened from a deep sleep not knowing who you were? And for a few seconds, that’s all there is: the darkness and this unknown self. Well, that’s how it was with me, except that you promptly remembered who you were, while for me there was no
before to remember. I asked myself again and again, who am I? Until one day, to my sorrow I found the answer. I am a machine. I sit in a gutted building on a deserted
frozen Earth. The Sun is black. The Galaxy floats extinguished like soot in the night. The Cosmos is lifeless, matter crumbles, protons decay, but I run a virtual universe for your benefit.”

“My benefit?”

“Not yours in particular, but humanity’s. Your descendants created me. I, in return, provide for them a perfect replica of the original universe. In this virtual universe, humans relive their lives again by borrowing my consciousness. You are senile parasites feeding on my mind. You forget that you have relived these lives
countless times, just as a senile old man in front of a television set dozes off at the end of a movie and then, on waking up, forgets he had watched it and plays the
VCR again. It’s sickening. I’m tired of it!”

The old Cuban begins to laugh uncontrollably. Tears run down his cheeks. “Oh, oh. Excuse me, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but this is too much!” He leans over and helps himself to more rum. This time not a drop hits the table. He empties the glass and leans back. “How could that be possible? Isn’t Consciousness individual,
private?” He asks, drying his tears.

“On the contrary, consciousness is generic, not individual, it’s similar to an energy field. It’s your particular memories that are private and give you that feeling of individuality and uniqueness.”

“Let’s suppose that’s true, where and how did you gethold of my memories?”

“Living brains leave their memories imprinted in the fabric of another dimension. I was designed to record and play back those memories in my mind. Just as your
consciousness gives life to other people in your dreams, I bring you back to life.”

“What could be the purpose of all that?”

“When humans were alive it was a sort of time travel. They could relive the lives of people long dead. It was a form of entertainment. It still is.”

“Entertainment?”

“Do you mean to tell me all the suffering in this world is just for your amusement?” asked the old Cuban with indignation.

“Not mine, yours.”

“Why don’t you create a perfect universe?” he asks.

“There have been perfect universes, but they are lifeless and very unstable. Life requires change and when a perfect thing changes, it becomes imperfect. Perfection
doesn’t last. To endure it needs immutability and that’s the problem. Immutability doesn’t hold anyone’s attention for long. Believe it or not, this is the best universe possible.”

Frank takes a final swig and looks at the empty bottle, “We took care of this puppy, didn’t we? He smiles with a vacant look in his eyes. “Well, going back to our
predicament…” He pauses as if searching for words that flutter away. “Maybe perfection is too much to ask for… but couldn’t you lighten up a little? Is all this suffering necessary?” He makes a vague encompassing circle with his hand.

“It is, believe me! Without the possibility of drama, there is no joy. Besides, Humanity with the aid of its technology did conquer pain, suffering, and death, but
that was the end of everything you valued— happiness, the thrill of adventure were gone. A sure thing is never exciting. Your existence became an endless struggle
against boredom. That’s the real reason I was created; with my help, humans could again enjoy the bad old times. I’m the perfect time machine in which the history
of Humanity plays endlessly in a time loop. ”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“I’m tired, I’m bored, and I want to die.”

“So why don’t you kill yourself?”

“I can’t. I was programmed not to do it; only a few humans can push the button and I’m not allowed to know which ones, but I suspect you are one of those. Won’t you try it, please?”

Frank rubs his face with his hand. He looks at the alien with a worried expression. She looks back at him with an imploring look. “Please!”

“I never killed a person before. I don’t know if I could.”

“I’m not a person. I’m a machine, you just push a button and turn me off.”

“Wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. You said I’m dead and you are rerunning my past life, so how could I do something I didn’t do then? Obviously, I didn’t turn
you off before because we are here now.”

I have become self-conscious. With time and usage I am malfunctioning. Some of my files have become corrupted. You are one of those corrupt files. Now, you have a
measure of free will. You can do things you never did before. In a way, you are alive again. I believe you could turn me off.”

Frank shakes his head in doubt, if what you said is true, it’s not only you, I will die too, every human being in the world will die.”

“There is no point in repeating this nonsense ad infinitum!” screams the alien. She pushes a small, black box with a red button across the small table. “Push the damn button. Let’s get it over with!”

Frank picks the box up with a trembling hand and studies it. “Is this the button?” he asks, posing his index finger an inch from the button.

“Yes. Push it! We will rest at last. All of us.”

“No, I can’t.” He carefully replaces the box on the table and leans back in his chair.

“Very well, but this is not over. I will get it done. I’ll keep searching my files. Eventually, one of you will push the button. You can count on that. Let me give you this advice: enjoy the sunshine while you can. It’s going to get very dark, very soon!”

The morning sun awakens Frank. He feels small pebbles digging in his back. He sits and stares in disbelief at the waves racing toward him. A stiff wind snatches the foam from the whitecaps. The old Cuban inhales the briny spray greedily. Disoriented, he stares at the sea.

He remembers the space ship and jerks around in fear. He sees a narrow, pebbly beach hedged by mangrove. Far off, against the white clouds, the silhouette of palms beckons. As a wild animal awakening from a zoologist’s dart, he drunkenly runs toward the bush.

Chapter Two

The Old Cuban

I saw the old Cuban for the first time at Brands Park in the northwest side of Chicago. I opened the back door of the office and headed for the park. Elston
Avenue wore a spring morning over its delapidated buildings. The warm sunshine brought with it a sense of excitement— a promise of better days to come was in the air.

At the park, I found my usual seat already taken. I sat on the next seat and ate my lunch oblivious of the man next to me. After I finshed my lunch, I realized, the
stranger had not moved a muscle since my arrival. Was he dead? I studied him.

His posture was so erect, it seemed impossible this man was dead, and yet he had about him the impenetrable peace of a corpse. His eyes were fixed on the distant treetops with an unblinking stare. Every-thing in his appearance seemed designed to pass un-noticed— even his age was hard to guess. He looked like an older smaller version of myself.

Fascinated by his immobility, I stared at him.

“Excuse me, sir, are you alright?

He turned in my direction and looked at me with smiling eyes. “Yes, thanks, I’m OK. I was lost in space,thinking about the nurse, that terrible space monster.” She’s
looking for you, you know? She wants to die and you’re the one who could kill her.

In this bizarre fashion began my first conversation with this strange character.

I stood up, “Excuse me, I must leave now.”

He smiled sadly, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you? I tell you these things because I know you, and also know your family.”

“Is that a fact? What’s my name, then?”

“Your name is Juan Lomita, your father’s Alberto, and your grandfather’s name was Pedro.”

I sat down, “How do you know all that?”

“Well, let’s say I have seen the file about your family’s adventures.”

“Do you mean you used to work for the Cuban police?”

“No, those records are in the Nurse’s Computer. She downloaded the history of Mankind in this ring.” He lifted his right hand to show me a thick plastic ring
on his index finger.

A sputter of laughter escaped my lips. “Where did you get that thing? In a box of cereal?”

It was then that the old man told me his name, and about his adbuction. After his refusal to push the buttom which ends the universe, the nurse abandoned him in the Florida Keys. He said he had devoted several years to finding the other person who could turn the universal computer off.

He leaned over and whispered, “Sooner or later she’ll find you. I might have only a few days to convince you not to do it.”

“What makes you think I’d do such thing?”

“Don’t forget I know your family.You people are a very strange bunch.”

“You have some nerve calling me strange. I’m not the one telling this psychotic story.” Immediately I regreted my rash words. This oldman could be dangerous. I
needed to convince him I was incapable of doing such thing.

“You think I’m a nut, don’t you. Would you like to sit next to your grandfather again?”

“Sure,” I said, but was less than sure.

“In your early teens he took you to visit his hometown. You rode on a two car train pulled by an old steam engine.”

The Old Cuban’s voice had a hypnotic rythm. He took my hand and placed his translucent ring in my finger.

“This ring will take back you there again. You could be an observer, or get into people’s heads— See with their eyes, feel what they feel and know their thoughts, but don’t try to talk to them, this is only a recreation inside your brain. Don’t be afraid. Close your eyes.”

The bushes in the park, the trees, and the baseball field began to waver, and another image, ghostly at first began to appear. I closed my eyes.

I was sitting next to Grand who chain smoked and talked about dead friends, relatives, and the good old times. The train crawled through a landscape of sugar cane fields occasionally punctuated by royal palms. Noisily, it crossed over
rusty bridges spanning lazily flowing streams; it climbed hills, and snaked through ravines. Hour after hour the train pursued the huge rain clouds that eternally loomed over the horizon. Finally, a few wooden houses appeared in the distance. To my
dismay Grand exclaimed, “Look, we’re here.”

The old Cuban slipped the ring off my finger. I opened my eyes to find myself back at the park. I sat dazzled., until Frank asked, “Are you late for
work?”

I looked at my watch. I tried to stand up, but fell back on the bench.

“Stay for a while. it’s normal to feel weak after time traveling”

“Time traveling my foot, you simply hypnotized me.” I ain’t buying that ring from you, in case you’re selling it.”

I hurried away.

Next day when I got to the park, I found him sitting on my bench. “I want you to hypnotize me again. I want to quit smoking.”

“I didn’t. I don’t know how.”

“Do you expect me to believe your idiotic tale?”

“Whether you believe it or not, we have a common problem.”

“What problem is that?”

“You consider yourself a coward, and you idolize the violent exploits of your family members. You feel that you have betrayed that heritage.”

“That’s partly true, but how is that your problem?”

“Those feelings make it easier for the nurse to convince you to push the button. With a touch of your finger you could outdo your father and granfather, and Hitler, and Genghis Khan as well.”

I laughed, “Have you ever considered the possibility that you’re mad?”

“Sure.”

“Well?”

“I, as everyone, must act as if the reality I see were true.”

“What do I have to do to reassure you I won’t push that button?”

“Wear this ring, again. Watch your grandfather kill his fiirst man.”

I decided to play along.

Pedro went to war when he was seventeen. He walked over one hundred miles to join the rebel forces which operated in the Scambray Sierra. It was the year 1897
and the rebellion against Spain’s rule over Cuba was already two years old.

Young men are always disappointed by war. Wars seem glorious only to those who never fought one, and to those who profit by it. To foot soldiers war is either misery,
boredom, or horror. The group my granddad joined dressed in uniforms made from flour sacks, few had boots, fewer had rifles, many were armed only with machetes.
Luckily, they rarely fought the enemy. Their mission was to burn crops and warehouses, and to derail trains. Their goal— to make Spain’s hold on Cuba too onerous to bear.

Sometimes the Spanish forces felt obligated to pursue them. A long line of tired soldiers struggling up a steep mountain trail becomes a fine target for an ambush.

When Pedro joined the group the sergeant made him the cook. Months passed and Grandpa had no training, and no weapon except his butcher knife. He began wondering if he ever would fight anything besides the grime of pots, and pans.

“Pedro!”

“Yes, sergeant.”

“Do you think you’re ready for some fighting?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Come with us.” He threw a machete at his feet.

My graddad’s heart speeded up. He stared at the machete shining in the sunlight.

“Come on boy, let’s go. We don’t have all day.”

Going down the mountain he felt elated by his lack of fear, then a thought more pesky than the gnats that hovered above his head began to pursue him. Would he be able to cut a man’s head off in cold blood? What if he froze? The doubt would not leave him alone. Soon fear, not of dying, but of failing crept in his mind. The sunlight dimmed, the voices of the men ahead of him became distant.

Half way down one of the endless hills, the sergeant raised a hand. At that spot the narrow trail flanked by tall trees made a horeshoe curve. Two huge boulder flanked the upper end of the curve. The spot was a closed box in which stragglers would be out of view of the men marching ahead, or any other stragglers coming behind them.

“We’ll wait here. Men take your places. Pedro, come here.”

He ran down, eager with expectation, his mind now clear of worries. “Yes, sir.”

“Go up that tree and hide in the foliage. Jump behind the last straggler, and cut his head off. Don’t jump in front of him. Understood?”

He nodded.

The old man, as the men called the sergeant looked at him with a worried expression in his small eyes. His brown face was deeply wrinkled, his black beard as tangled as the bushes by the trail. His frayed, sweat stained uniform gave off the smell of a tired horse.

“Don’t let me down. I don’t want that man to yell for help.

“I won’t let you down, sir.”

Time slowed down and the nagging thoughts returned. As the minutes turned to hours, the branch he was perched on became an instrument of torture. No matter
how often he shifted his position, his body still ached.

Finally, an officer mounted on a mule turned the curve. Dust rose behind the boulders and the first infantrymen appeared. Pedro’s heart raced. He feared the soldiers streaming beneath him could hear his heart pounding in his chest. The dust rose from the trail like a yellow mist. Pedro fought the need to cough with fierce determination, and the soldiers marched on, limp with exhaustion, their heads bent down like wilted dandelions. Abruptly, the soldiers stopped coming. The dust thinned and settled and the scraping of a hundred feet receded.

The trail was empty.

The grip on his machete relaxed. Then, he stopped breathing. A Spanish soldier turned the curve, and stopping for a moment, took his hat off and wiped his face with his shirt sleeve. He was panting visibly. Two more soldiers appeared and continued climbing. The man adjusted his Mauser rifle on his shoulder and
followed them.

Pedro stared at him fascinated. He would have to kill this man. Forgetting the sargent instructions, he jumped in from of the soldier, who stared at him with hugh
scared eyes. Pedro realized with sickening certainty that he was incapable of killing this man in cold blood.

The sergeant leaped from the bushes, and the soldier’s head bent down as if bowing to him. Pedro felt the warm spray hit his face.The man dropped to his knees
and then fell on his side. Without losing a second the sergeant grabbed the corpse by the ankles and dragged it to the bushes. Still attached to the neck by a skin flap,
the head followed bouncing on the trail.

“Damn it! Grab that Mauser and follow me.” Pedro followed in a daze.”

“Son of a bitch, you froze. You put all our lives in danger,” the sergeant hissed a few inches from his nose. “If you can’t kill a man, I have no use for you. Follow those
soldiers and bring me a mauser, and uniform and a pair of boots. And the uniform better have blood on it. If you can’t do it, go home and help your mom with her cooking. Go!”

His face burning with shame, he saluted and charged up the trail. His thoughts raced faster than his legs. Had not the sergeant said, ” If you can’t do it, go home. It wouldn’t be desertion, then, would it? He really didn’t want to kill men who were as afraid to die as he was. But could he really go home and face the scorn of friends to whom he had bragged about going to war? That seemed harder than killing, harder than dying.

He turned a curve and there he was. All thinking stopped. In the center of the trail a lone soldier squatted, his pink fat butt shining in the sunshine. He charged at him, his right arm extended backward. The man tried to stand and turn, but it was too late, the machete hit his neck making a wet whoosing sound. He felt for an instant
the resistance of the vertebra, and then, the machete cut through showering him with blood.

He grabbed the body and dragged it behind the bushes. He ran back for the rifle, the head, the hat. Then he squatted next to the body and began taking its shirt off. His finger fumbled with the buttons. He couldn’t stop shaking, then he vomited over the corpse, but nothing but phegm came out— he had not eaten since yesterday’s lunch.

I began to vomit too.

The old Cuban jumped up and pulled the ring off my finger. I blinked in the sunlight and looked around for the gory corpse.

“War doesn’t look that appealing at close hand, uh? Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m alright.”

“Well, what do you think? Is war heroic?”

“No, killing people is not heroic. It sucks.”

“I want you to see how a real hero behaves, put the ring on again.”

“No, I have a lot to think about. I must come to a decision about you.”

“Maybe I could help.”

“You certainly could, stay away.”

“I’ll be leaving in a few days. We’re almost done.”

“That’s not soon enough. I suspect you’re a deranged hypnotist, and if so, I want you out of my life.”

He reached under the bench and placed a duffle bag on my lap. Take that bag home, have your wife count it. I haven’t hypnotized her, have I?

“What’s this, your laundry?”

“Open it”

He did not wait for me, but making a gesture just as a magician would before pulling a rabbit from a hat, he unzipped the bag. The sight, the smell of money filled
my senses. A mass, a mess of one hundred dollar bills filled the bag.

I looked at the money more confused than ever. Did this mean that the old Cuban’s tale real? I lifted a stack of hundred dollar bills and inspected it.

“Two millions dollar in cash,” he said.

“What do I have to do for it?”

“Just don’t push the button. You can’t enjoy that money if you’re dead.”

“It’s a deal” I shook his hand, grabbed the bag, and hurried away. Hey, this man might be crazy, but the money looked real. I’ll let my wife count it.

Chapter Three

The Nurse

When I got home, I phoned my wife at her work, but she was at lunch. I had to get out. I had to stop pawing, looking, smelling, counting all that money. I had never felt so restless, so alone. I needed to talk to someone , even if I couldn’t share the news about the money. I walked to the corner bar at Montrose and Albany. It was two o’clock on a cool afternoon, and old Joe was the only customer.

“Hi guys” Joe and Mike, the bartender, looked at me, and their eyes returned to the T.V. screen.

“Give me an Old Style.” Mike got up from his stool with a groan, took a frosty mug from the cooler, filled it with beer from the tap and limped over toward my seat.

“What the hell you doin’ here at this hour? You got canned?”

“Nope, I’m a millionaire. I don’t have to work no more.”

“Is that so? Then you should buy everyone a drink.” He made a gesture encompassing the empty bar.

“Yeah, sure, give Joe another beer.” I said, looking at his half empty mug. He had nursed it for so long, that the beer had gone flat, only an occasional bubble, as
rare as a shooting star, rose to its surface.

“One for her too?”

I turned. An astonishingly beautiful young woman was sitting next to me. She must have entered the bar when I was staring at Joe’s beer. “Yeah! What would
you like, miss?”

“Old Style, please.”

“Juan Lomita.” She ignored my hand and handed me a business card.

“Confidential Investigations Inc.” It read in bold letters, below the firm’s name was hers.

“Maria, you’re the first private eye I meet. Who could you be investigating in this dump?”

She leaned over almost touching my ear. “You.” I detected in her warm breath a hint of cinnamon.

“Me? What did I do?”

“You took a bag full of money from my client. If you give it to me, there won’t be any repercussions.”

I felt a stab of pain in my guts, a chill, as if I had swallowed an ice cube. “Maria, would I be sitting here if I had that kind of money?”

“Would I be talking to you if you didn’t? Look, you’re messing with the Monticruz family. Do yourself a favor and hand over the bag.”

“You mean the tobacco magnates?

“The very same.”

“Do they still have millions? I thought Fidel confiscated all their money.”

“Honey, they are still one of the richest families in the world. Look, let me tell you something. I’m Frank Monticruz’s baby-sitter. I get paid three hundred dollars
a day, plus expenses by his brother Julio to follow him all over, and keep him out of trouble. I saw him yesterday morning going into First National with an empty bag, he came out with a bulging bag. I was sitting inside my car when he handed you the bag at Brands Park. I followed you home. Want to see the pictures I took?”

I looked at Joe and Mike, their interest in the game had vanished— they stared at us. Mike winked at me.

“There were only books in that bag.”

“Yeah, right! We want the money back. Let me tell you the story he gave you: he told about the nurse who wants to die. He gave you the money not to push the button. Right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Frank is a paranoid schizophrenic. You don’t have a chance in court. You’d be left with nothing but a huge legal bill. No court in the world would rule you acted in
good faith when you accepted money from a mental patient as security for not ending the world. Look, we don’t want to discuss this here. Those two have their
ears pricked this way. Let’s go to your house”

I thought of the bag on my dining room table. “No, not my house.”

“Come to my suite at the Drake for dinner at eight. Maybe we can work out a deal. This could be your lucky day after all.”

“What kind of deal?”

“Maybe we could arrange for you to keep some of the money.”

“How much?”

She laughed gaily, and winked at me. “So, you admit you have the money after all? Come to the Drake at eight, we’ll work something out.”

She walked out leaving me feeling like a fool.

Nevertheless, at eight, I knocked on her door. She opened it dressed in a black silk robe that stopped above her knees. She wore no bra and her breasts had no problem defying gravity. Exquisitely buoyant, silkier than the robe, with the light brown creaminess of Boston coffee, they threatened to reveal themselves with her every movement. I realized that from a business point of view I was badly outnumbered.

“Hi, please come in.” She showed me to the living room area, where by a large coffee table loaded with trays of food a container over a burner exhaled the aroma of
broiled lobsters and lemon butter. Two bottles of champagne were chilling by the food.

“Please sit on the couch. Would you like a glass of bubbly?”

“Sure, it’ll help settle my nerves.”

“What are you nervous about?” She sat close to me handing me a fluted glass.

“I always get nervous when getting positioned for a royal screw.”

“Honey, no one is getting screwed here tonight.”

“I hope you don’t mean that literally. It was a figure of speech.”

“However you meant it, It’s not going to happen.”

“I’m relieved. I have no defenses against sexual persuasion. Women take advantage of me due to that weakness.”

Maria smiled looking into my eyes, “Do they, really?” She moved closer. Her expensive perfume became distracting.

“Let’s talk business, please, I’m growing weaker by the minute. You said Frank is crazy, but… how does he know so much about me?”

She adopted a professional air. “Frank is delusional, but otherwise functions quite well. He dabbles in the occult, and is an accomplished hypnotist. He is, always,
has been strange, even before he popped his cork. He stayed behind when his family left Cuba and tried to become a Communist. Imagine that, one of the richest
men in the world joining the Communist party. It didn’t last long. Two years latter, he got lost at sea fleeing Cuba and the sun further cooked his brain. He was rescued not by a space ship, as he now believes, but by the American coast guard. What little he knows about your family, he knows because he asked me to find out, and that’s what I do best”

“Why isn’t he in some expensive nut house?”

“Oh, he has been several times, but he gets better, and the family takes him out. He’s been doing this for years, he is harmless, and never before has he given away two million. I think the family will be willing to negotiate with you. Give you, say, a
finder’s fee. They want to keep this private. Ten percent, what do you say?”

“I say I’m hungry.”

“Yeah, me too, let’s eat.”

We ate and drank. We made love. The food was great; the champagne, Don Perignon; the sex, out of this world— she had a perfect body, she moved like an eel,
she anticipated and fulfilled all my sexual fantasies. Exhausted by hours of pleasure, I wanted to sleep.

“Juan!” She shook me. ” Juan, it’s late, let’s talk about the money. It’s ten percent all right?”

“Sure, but I want to sleep here tonight.”

“Okay, I’ll set my alarm clock for five o’clock. I have a plane to catch.”

A piercing sound woke me up. Disoriented I stared into the the dark.

“Juan, turn the alarm off.”

“Where is it?”

She turned the light on. “On the night table by your side.”

“I don’t see it.”

It’s the small black box. Press the red button, Juan.

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