It is 1956 and Batista’s Cuban dictatorship is under threat from Fidel Castro and his gallant revolutionaries.
Help is at hand in the shape of our reluctant hero in the Secret Intelligence Service – Captain Thomas Fletcher.
When he isn’t falling for the beautiful revolutionary Consuela Cortez, he also plays an unwilling part in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis.
Also by Ken Donald on Obooko:
Those of you who have experienced the perfect delight of reading my previous memoirs will know that I’d been dragged into the doomed Hungarian uprising in ’56. Fortunately I’d come away from the blasted mess whole and healthy, and I’d ended up ensconced in a comfortable Viennese establishment with the mouth-watering Anna Novak for company.
Life couldn’t have been better, and I’d have been more than happy to see out the next few months whiling away the hours in bed with my gorgeous rebel but, alas, it wasn’t to be. Within a fortnight my pretty revolutionary was getting itchy feet and making contact with the Austrian journalistic fraternity, hoping to drum up support for the downtrodden masses left behind in her homeland. A complete waste of time, of course, but she wasn’t to be persuaded otherwise, no matter how much I did my best to wear her out in the horizontal belly shuffle.
Happily I had other ways to make constructive use of my time. You see, for the first time in our acquaintance my quondam, Mr. H Biggins, wasn’t eager to spoil things. You may recall that the fat-faced virgin was besotted with his obnoxious little Eva, so he’d found a more exciting way to expend his repressed energies, instead of slaughtering every communist who had the bad taste to cross his path.
I couldn’t face a bleak winter back in Blighty with the prospect of waking up to leaden skies every blasted morning and, no longer being on a fiddler’s wage, I headed straight for my excellent little retreat on the pretty island of Antigua. Naturally I did my level best to get the stunning Anna to accompany me, but the ungrateful trollop insisted that her duty to her fellow countrymen had to come first.
“I’m destined for a higher purpose,” espoused the mad bint, so I left her to it.
I would simply have to rough it with the local talent on my idyllic island paradise, I thought - which is exactly what I did, until a nasty surprise put a stop to my well-earned rest only a few short days later.
The unwelcome intrusion came in the shape of a Sunderland flying boat, which had the bad taste to land in the bay overlooked by my well-appointed villa - courtesy of a pretty drug-running double agent in Vietnam, God bless her. It wasn’t so much the sight of the plane itself that threatened to reintroduce my breakfast to the fresh air, as what it contained.
When I looked though my binoculars, I recognised the figure alighting from the said aircraft as H Biggins esquire - and a mighty distressing sight it was too.
Even at the best of times his sudden appearance more often than not spelt trouble for your downtrodden correspondent and, to add to my feeling of dread, I’d convinced myself that he had no knowledge of my Caribbean retreat. I hadn’t the foggiest notion how he’d found me, or why the Billy Barlow had gone to all the trouble in the first place.
I briefly toyed with the idea of running off into the interior before he found my villa, like some sort of escaped convict, but I soon thought better of it, and instead I decided to fortify myself with a large brandy, in spite of the early hour.
“My God, Biggins, how the devil did you find me?” I asked by way of welcome, once the maid had shown him through to my little Garden of Eden.
“Is that any way to say hello to an old friend, Fletcher? Aren’t you going to offer a man a drink?”
“Of course, old chap. Would you care for a brandy?”
“It’s a little too early for me, but a nice pot of tea wouldn’t go amiss.”
So I rang the bell and when the maid returned with Biggins’ brew, he eventually stopped ogling his surroundings.
“Well, I’ll say this for you, Fletcher, you certainly know how to live. How on earth did you afford a place like this?” asked the nosey parker before he’d even taken a sip of his tea.
“It was part of my inheritance. Seriously, Biggins, how did you know where I was?” I asked, quickly trying to change the subject before he started digging any further into the questionable nature of my personal finances.
“Honestly, Fletcher, after all your years with the Service I’m surprised you need to ask. All it took was a quick call to London and the backroom boys soon followed the paper trail of a house purchase and a transatlantic flight.”
I decided to damp the mug and took a healthy swallow of eau de vie to help steady my nerves. If he’d found my secret lair that easily, I thought, then the sudden appearance of a large wad of the Queen’s pictures in my Swiss bank account might not be as hush-hush as I’d hoped. I’ll freely admit he’d given me a fright, and for a brief moment I thought my light-fingered past might have caught up with me.
If I’d only known the real purpose of his visit, I might well have been screaming: “Fair cop, guv,” and grabbing for the handcuffs. Unfortunately I was to discover the reason for Biggins’ unexpected arrival soon enough.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” I asked, trying to sound like an old friend.
“The PM’s been after us, so I had to give my apologies to Eva and find you as quickly as I could.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. We’d only just come through the messy business in Hungary by the skin of our teeth, and I wasn’t looking forward to being thrust into some other Godforsaken hell-hole. I was racking my brain, trying to imagine what awful war-torn part of the world the PM could have in mind for us this time, when Biggins gave me a cryptic clue.
“As luck would have it, you happen to be in the part of the world where our services are needed.”
I helped myself to some more of my brandy, hoping to still my beating heart, and my confused look was the signal for Biggins to explain himself.
“The PM wants us in Cuba, Fletcher.”
“Cuba?” I asked, none the wiser. “Since when has Britain taken an interest in the Yanks’ neighbourhood?”
“In all honesty, I think he’s trying to make up for the Suez debacle. The Americans weren’t pleased with HMG and our French allies when we were intent on invading Egypt, and I rather think he’s hoping to make amends.”
“You’ve still lost me, Biggins. How on earth does Eden expect us to put him back in Eisenhower’s good books?”
“Really, Fletcher, I do wish you’d keep abreast of international affairs once in a while, instead of just sunning yourself and chasing after the nearest piece of skirt.”
“Save the lecture, Biggins, and tell me what’s going on.”
“As even you must know, the Americans have a number of important business interests on the island, and they’re rather eager to keep Batista firmly in charge.”
“Batista’s a bit of a thug from what I’ve heard,” I said, just to show I wasn’t completely ignorant in such matters.
“You may be right but that’s by the by. The point is, this Castro chap and his bunch of rebels look set to put a cat among the pigeons and challenge the regime. What’s more, Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, is an admirer of the communists - and you can imagine how the Americans feel about that. The last thing they want is a friend of the Soviets living right on their doorstep.”
It sounded like the chaps at the CIA were starting at shadows from what I could see and I said so. But Biggins put me straight.
“Do you think so? Batista’s damned unpopular with a large section of the population in Cuba, and the revolutionaries could gain enough support to overthrow the government.”
“Well, what on earth does Eden expect the two of us to do about it?” I asked, prepared for the worst.
“The PM has explained how we’ve had dealings with communist leaders before and apparently the president was quite impressed. The hope is that this time we might be able to stop a communist takeover before it even gets started – sort of nip it in the bud, so to speak.”
“Sounds like a half-baked idea if you ask me,” I said, not overjoyed at the prospect of getting stuck in the middle of another blasted revolution.
“No, it’s all been arranged. The head of Batista’s intelligence service is expecting us. All we’ve got to do is discover the whereabouts of Fidel Castro when he returns to Cuba, and Batista’s men will deal with him.”
“Hang him out to dry on the leafless tree, you mean,” I said, totally unimpressed by the ridiculous scheme.
“If that’s what it takes. I’m surprised at you, Fletcher – since when have you been so squeamish?”
As usual Biggins had got it all arse-backwards. My concern was that when the shooting started, we’d find ourselves right in the firing-line. It all sounded damned risky to me and I decided to dig my heels in. It had been eight long years since the arson business when Biggins had held the threat of the Irish theatre over my head, and I was determined not to let him think he still had some sort of hold over me.
“You can count me out, Biggins. You’ve dragged me everywhere from Vietnam to Hungary – I’ve had enough.”
“I see,” he replied, and the smug grin that appeared across his ugly dial suddenly filled me with dread. His next words confirmed my worst fears.
“By the way, Fletcher, talking of Vietnam – that little drug-running tart you fixed yourself up with has been making enquiries as to your whereabouts. Naturally I said I had no idea where you were.”
“That was very obliging of you,” I replied, suddenly becoming very wary of where all this was heading.
“She even tried to offer us some information in exchange for telling her where you could be found.”
“Well, she always was a persistent little madam. I dare say the little darling’s just missing me.”
“Quite. The thing is, she claims there was rather more money in the suitcase we snatched than actually ended up in the Service’s coffers.”
And with those words he stared intently in my direction.
In spite of the cool breeze that drifted up from the bay, I realised I’d broken into a sweat and I cleared my throat, desperate to change the subject.
“I say, Biggins, when exactly are these Cuban chaps expecting us?”