Tropic of Darkness
The moment Meyer Lansky stepped out of the coolness of the plane into the sunlight of Havana, he could see it, practically feel it like texture on his skin. He could see it on the faces of the two men waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. And could feel it mingled with the basting heat that closed around him like a second suit of clothes the instant that he emerged from the cabin.
And this week, it was all he needed. More than his fair share of grief had found its way into his lap back in Vegas these last couple of days.
Lonnie Coen, for instance. â€œLaughingâ€ Lonnie, a man heâ€™d known for years. The putz had been found with both hands in the till right up to the elbows, over at the Flamingo. Turned out it had been going on for quite a while. Meyer had ordered him driven out into the desert, one-way trip.
A friend? No. Meyer had stayed on top for so long by understanding that there were no such things in his line of business. But . . . Lonnie was somebody whose company heâ€™d valued. Someone who had made him smile, and that was a rare thing. It was like being suddenly punched by the clown at your kidâ€™s birthday party. Lonnie Coen. Of all people. Damn.
Then there was this new guy sent down from Chicago, this Carmine Vincenzi. The guy was a flake, only interested in cocaine and showgirls. It often made him insane, the way the families used his Vegas as a dumping ground for all their drek. He and Siegel had built it out of nothing, out of frigging sand, for Godâ€™s sake!
And now heâ€™d gotten on a plane, flown to a completely different country. And here was trouble once again, waiting for him like a shadow. His feet hadnâ€™t even touched the ground yet. Meyer felt his shoulders slump.
The two men on the runway belowâ€”their eyes were a little too wide in their sunburned faces, their jaws were tense, and they were shuffling uncomfortably. He knew them both. â€œBig Johnâ€ Roth and Eddie Lanzarro, neither of them what youâ€™d call the fragile type. Whatever kind of trouble it might be, it was serious.
Meyer looked away from them, squinting off through the heat haze, and then adjusted his sunglasses and the brim of his hat. He made his way down slowly, a heavy leather briefcase swinging from his grasp. He had no other luggage. Everything that he required was at the Hotel Nacional.
Lanzarro ducked his head respectfully, reached for the briefcase, and Meyer let him take it. But he refused to look at either of the men. He peered, instead, at the lines of tourists waiting by the customs shed, every single one of them as eager as hell to start putting money in his pockets, by way of the clubs and the casinos that he ran here.
The sight should have given him some comfort, but did not. He took out a cigar, lit it slowly. Both the huge men who had come to greet him became even more uncomfortable. And, despite his weary annoyance, Meyer relished that.
Physically, he was no match for either of them. They could crush him like a dried-out leaf. Yet he had the ability to make them, and a whole battalion like them . . .
And that was what power was really all about.
He exhaled smoke, watched as the heat spirited it away. Then finally he asked, â€œSo, what the hell is going on?â€
They were both tongue-tied at the moment. Big John finally replied.
â€œItâ€™s the new guy, Mr. Lansky, sir.â€
â€œYeah? Iâ€™ve met him. Something of a ladiesâ€™ man, as I recall. Someoneâ€™s husbandâ€™s after him?â€
â€œUhâ€”weâ€™re not sure whatâ€™s wrong with him, sir.â€
â€œCould you expand on that? You know that there is something ass-shaped, but you canâ€™t quite put your finger on what that elusive thing might beâ€”is that what youâ€™re trying to tell me?â€
â€œHeâ€™s gone nuts, Mr. Lansky, sir,â€ Eddie Lanzarro broke in. â€œHeâ€™s locked himself in his suite, and he wonâ€™t let anybody in. And he keeps screaming, yelling about some broad or something.â€
Well, this was a new one, and Meyer thought that he had heard them all. He recalled the one time Mantegna had come out West. A big, sturdy young guinea with matinee idol looks. Women were like trophies to him, nothing more.
So why would somebody like that go crazy over just one broad? Start screaming about her? Too long on the booze, maybe? The rum was strong and plentiful here, and that kind of thing had happened before.
â€œWhy doesnâ€™t someone break the door down?â€ Meyer inquired. â€œWhoâ€™s going to mind? We own the damned hotel.â€
â€œHeâ€™s got a gun, Mr. Lansky. He keeps threatening to use it.â€
â€œAnd you two are scared of guns?â€
â€œWe werenâ€™t sure how to play it, sir. We didnâ€™t want to put ourselves in a position where we might have to whack him without your say-so first.â€
Meyer pursed his lips and nodded. Letâ€™s face it, they were right.
â€œOkay. Letâ€™s go see whatâ€™s up.â€
They were not troubled in the slightest by the local officials as they drove out of the airport. Their limo even got a couple of salutes from the men in beige uniforms. Their kind were very much persona grata here, thanks to Meyerâ€™s dealings with the President.
Meyer uttered not another word as the car bore them into the heart of the city. Instead, he took some ledgers from his briefcase, and spent the entire journey poring over figures. When he looked up again, the car had slowed to a halt in the palm-filled courtyard of the Nacional. A commissionaire was hurrying down the stairs to open up his door.
Meyer headed through the lobby to the elevators, his men following closely behind. He maintained his silence as they rode to the fourth floor. And stepped out into the middle of a most peculiar scene.
The twin doors to Mantegnaâ€™s suite were shut. Three more guys were banging on the woodwork, trying to reason with the man inside.
The voice that answered them . . . Meyer could not quite make out what it was saying, but could hear that it was high-pitched, practically hysterical in tone. A screeching, adolescent kind of voice heâ€™d never have believed could come out of a fellow like Mantegna.
At the far end of the corridor, a small group of the hotelâ€™s staff had been allowed to gather. Maids, bellhops, even a hotel dick. He pointed them out to Eddie.
â€œLose the audience, now.â€
Then, Big John trailing along behind him, he marched up to the locked doors, ushering the rest aside.
â€œMario? This is Lansky, and Iâ€™m telling you to open up, this instant.â€
That reedy, frenzied voice came skirling out again.
â€œI want her back! Why wonâ€™t she come to me? I want her back again!â€
Meyer slammed a palm against the woodwork.
â€œStop this bullshit! Either you open up this door or weâ€™ll open it for you, and you donâ€™t want that!â€
â€œScrew you!â€ came the answer. â€œYou donâ€™t count for nothing! Only she . . . only her . . .â€
The words petered away and a rhythmic sobbing took their place.
Meyer kept ahold, but it was difficult. Screw you, in front of his own men? Screw you, in front of the damned dago staff? He felt his shoulders bunch.
And stepping back from the door, nodded to Big John, who took a Smith & Wesson from the waistband of his pants, holding it chest high; then turned his shoulder to the doors, and rammed them.
Despite his bulk, they held at the first attempt. Big John grunted and pulled back, back, ready for a second try. The blast of a gunshot came from inside.
They stood frozen, staring at the wood. No holes had appeared. It wasnâ€™t them Mantegna had been shooting at.
Meyer felt his chin jerk with bemusement, then gestured for Big John to continue.
The man went powering into the doors again, and this time they crashed open wide.
Mantegna was lying on his unmade bed, beautifully dressed in a white tux, a maroon cummerbund and the same color bow tie. Immaculate in his patent leather shoes. Except his matinee idol looks were no longer in place.
He had shoved the Magnum up into the palate of his mouth, the discharge so fierce that the entire top of his skull had been ripped away. Meyer fished a handkerchief out of his pocket, dabbed his upper lip. Circling the bed, he stared down coolly at the ruined figure, wondering what exactly could have made the guinea do this.
Some kind of illness? Some form of madness? Syphilis?
Eddie Lanzarro had rejoined them. The shorter, heavyset man seemed to notice something. He reached across the bed to the nightstand, and took off it a single sheet of hotel notepaper. Read it with a puzzled air, his temples creasing.
â€œHeâ€™s left some kind of note here, Mr. Lansky.â€
Meyer waited for the man to bring it to him. He peered down at the crazed, uneven scrawl.
The woman of my dreams
Lives only there.
Awake, I cannot find her.
Some kind of abbreviated poem. Meyer closed his eyes a moment, shook his head from side to side. What kind of sickness could turn somebody like Mantegna into a poet? It was all very hard to understand.
He broke out of his reverie, returned his attention to the mess in front of him, his manner becoming businesslike again.
â€œSee that heâ€™s shipped back to his family. See itâ€™s done by our peopleâ€”donâ€™t let the locals touch him. And get someone to clean this room up. This is a two-hundred-a-night suite, for chrissakes!â€
As his men went about their duties, Meyer crossed over to the window and gazed down at the city below.
Heâ€™d thought it the first time he had come here, and he thought it still. Cuba was an odd country; Havana one extremely individual town.
The kind of place where anything could happen.
Trouble, in particular.