Chapter 4- The Tropicana Tables
Illustration by Ermitas Blanco- Action at table five. Havana, Cuba.
Sal had been sitting at the bar for awhile, when Snowball finally joined him. The “Trop” was always slow as hell between when the showgirls ended their afternoon rehearsal and the Special guests began to arrive for late dinner. That suited Sal just fine. His investigative style was “laid back nice guy,” who preferred to chum up his marks and ply them with liquor or women, while getting more information than any waterboarding had ever managed to do.
He’d trained in Tampa directly under the head of the FBI Interrogation Unit before heading down to Havana on a minor assignment for the gaming commission. Turned out, he had Cuban roots in the family, but they were hushed up by his mom every time it came up. Something about numbers and cigars and YBor city, but that was a second cousin or something. Sal was just a private dick, looking for cash from anyone that needed dirt on anyone else. With Havana being full of celebs, gangsters, gambling, booze, women and a dictator with a predilection for detailed information, it was a good racket. And the side benefits weren’t bad for a middle aged guy with no other career options.
Snowball was immaculately groomed and tailored, but nothing over the top, considering he was one of the most popular showmen in Havana in the 50’s. White three-piece suit from Savile Row. Spectators. Pinkie ring. Straw hat. Walking stick.
“Cuba Libre, por favor.”
Snowball loved the “focused buzz” of Coke and Rum, especially since he would go on to play three sets with the orchestra on a night like this.
“Got something for you, Sal. Good saleable information. But it’s gonna cost you.”
“What the fuck, Snowball, you say that every time.”
“No, this is another level. And its fresh information. I just got the call from my guy at the Nacionale on my break. We may have some special travellers again, and they’re headed here tonight. But first, here’s my shopping list. I gotta have it before I spill.”
Sal had learned body language from his FBI days, and this guy was screaming jackpot if anyone was. He bit.
“Let me hear it first…”
“Three people, a dame and two guys, rolled into the Nacionale totally disoriented. Yeah, that happens in Havana often enough. But she whips out this camera and starts snapping Frankie entering the VIP door, which is bad enough- he’s not supposed to be here. Then the guy who Vinnie has been tailing for Santo Jr. literally falls down the stairs and the driver catches him before he runs off in a taxi, Vinnie and his blubbering second in hot pursuit. They lost him of course, the meatheads. But the American couple and this Cuban driver we’ve never seen before go into the lobby and start screaming ‘What the fuck?’, holding the newspaper. Heard this before? OK, so they have a few shots on the back veranda and sell a few photos to my guy, but then they print the thing right out of a machine in her purse. No dark room, no chemicals, no drying, I swear, magic shit. Then she freaks out to the manager saying her key doesn’t work- and she’s not even registered… but she had notepaper from the writing desks that are only in the rooms. Last thing my guy catches is that the American dude is a card shark, so they decide to head to the Trop- tonight. We’ve got three people right off the Back to Havana Tour coming right here to eat, drink hear great music (ahem) and play poker. Talk about delivering on a silver platter: that’s worth triple my normal.”
“Here’s your normal stack, Snowball. Plus a cherry for playing ‘Blue Moon’ for me, later.”
“Damn it, Sal — I need the dough. I could have got more elsewhere!”
“Go to hell, Snowball. Try your chances there.”
Sal didn’t like low-balling Snowball, but he had no choice. If he knew how precious his information was, it would be sold and resold all over town. Or worse yet, he might have used it to figure out this crazy time-travel riddle, if it even were possible. What the fuck. Who cared? People with money were paying cash for information about this mysterious phenomenon called ‘Back to Havana’. Sal suddenly had a treasure trove of information about it- and the night was young.
Genetta approached just as Snowball was leaving.
“Hate that guy!”
“Yeah, always nosing around the dressing rooms, laughs it off pretending he’s queer, but I have my doubts. I’d love to sing next to him, but I can’t stand him! So what’s the plan for tonight, big guy?”
“Hang out at Table Five as usual, with the high rollers. See what you can pick up. Information, not guys, please! Come back when you hear Moon River playing. You can fill me in and I can leave early.”
“Sure, Sal. What do you have to go home to? Take one of the show girls once in a while, you’ll sleep better.”
She laughed that infectious girlish laugh over her bare shoulder as she left for the tables.
Genetta had been working for Sal for a few months now. It was the only thing that passed as regular income for her. Tall and statuesque with black hair, eyes dark as coal, and hips that barely slipped ever so slightly back and forth beneath her, Genetta was a vision in a long white strapless silk dress. People called her the Latina Marilyn Monroe, and when she modelled, her eyes went through the camera, right at the person on the other side, looking back at her through the magazine. But that career was sporadic and would never last, so she was trying to break into singing with a silky voice that evoked a young Billie Holiday. What better place than the Trop to hang around and try to get discovered? Sal’s stipend allowed her to float and meet people that most showgirls could not. Well, they could, but the conditions of their companionship were pretty compromised and highly transactional. Genetta was above that. Way above that.
By the time she got to the table, it was nearly midnight.
Her eyes moved across the table. Lefty, the Trop’s credit manager, was in the first chair as usual. He never played, he knew the odds. He just watched. Next, a few Europeans she had seen before, and a few newbie Americans from the Tropicana Special with the promotional chips they handed out on the plane.
The big man, Mr.Fox, was at a chair for the moment. He nodded suggestively at Genetta, despite his wife Ofelia hanging on his arm. Just as her eyes passed to the last chair at the table, the player made his bet and looked up. Genetta froze the moment their eyes met. Medium build but athletic, older but looking very well-preserved. Casual, but well dressed. Perfectly positioned at the table to read every person and yet still steal a glance at her, as if he’d been watching her all the way from the bar. At once, she knew this was the man Sal wanted to know about, but she wanted to know about him even more.
She saddled up to Lefty to get a better view of the action, half sitting on the chair with him.
Pablo and Nina stumbled in after a few minutes, arm in arm. Finn hardly noticed, totally in the zone of reading cards, reading people, and doubling his stake every few hands. Nina whispered in his ear, but he shooed her away. The Fox’s blocked her from standing near him, so they went off dancing and Genetta assumed they were the couple and this card shark was flying solo. After an hour passed, the Specials had exhausted their cash and were into Lefty for credit. The Europeans were giving ground steadily, and Finn was cleaning up. Mr. Fox ordered rock lobsters and Rose Champagne for the table, to extend the time and even the odds, but Finn just ate lobster, sipped slowly and doubled down. He was a machine, and he knew Lefty or Fox would soon freeze him for the night. But a big winner is good for business, and the house was way ahead on the table for the night.
The Specials and the Europeans were drowning in their misguided hopes of getting lucky. Genetta knew she had found Sal’s shark, but harbored a small fantasy of getting lucky with an American as well.
Snowball began to play the long prelude to Blue Moon. Genetta knew she had to go.
Blue moon you saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
As she got up, Finn caught her eye again and she got the chills. He won another hand just as a new, young Latino took Mr. Fox’s seat at the table and was dealt in. Creme white dinner jacket, hand-tied bow tie, pocket square, cigar and a brandy, he cut a dashing figure that may have won Genetta’s favors — if she was into the local Latino playboys. She wasn’t.
It didn’t appear that the two knew each other, but she could have sworn the Latino reached into the American’s jacket pocket for an instant while clipping a pair of cigars from his pocket, then went back to fondling his chips. If he had, not even the pit boss picked up on anything, and the table played on. Finn cashed out with [$15,000] in just over three hours play.
Blue Moon, You heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for
And then there suddenly appeared before me
The rest of the table lost $45,000, most of it on credit to people who always collected on loans. Genetta caught up to Sal just as he was leaving. She shared her observations, leaving out her flirtatious feelings for the American. He palmed her a few American hundreds- more than her sister the surgeon made in a year’s work. Sal kept his reaction to the information close to the vest- he knew instantly that this was the trio from the Nacionale, and that the Latino was probably the grandson of Nicola’s friend he’d seen earlier at the bar. It was no coincidence that the dapper Latino sat next to the American shark, or that he dipped into his jacket for a moment.
Alerting the pit boss to let them play was a master stroke from Sal, as was beating Genetta to the entrance as if he was done for the night. The other two from the Nacional trio were hammered on the dance floor, doing a compromised version of the “Cuban Salsa,” when Finn collected them and piled their drunk asses into a taxi.
Sal was at the wheel, having paid off the driver for the night. The livery cap was an extra touch.
A donde ?
Probemos la Riviera, por favor!
Ven a La Habana, muchachos?
Nina no pudo resistirse, riendo por su estupor …
Oh, una vez cada sesenta años más o menos
Prefer the whole Book One? Here is the Table of Contents, with links.