The setting: Havana, Cuba, 1952
Dapper, custom suited butch Lesbian Cantor Gold is in Havana searching for her stolen love, Sophie de la Luna y Sol, who was kidnapped from the streets of New York and sold into the Havana sex trade.
Turn two corners from the Prado, Havana’s tree-lined boulevard of flashy hotels, neon- bright high-hat casinos, well-dressed locals and swanky tourists, onto Consulado and the accommodations and entertainment become a lot less high-hat or flashy, the locals a lot less fashionable, and the tourists are more interested in the kind of sleaze they can’t get at three o’clock in the afternoon back home in Cornfield County. Make another turn at a corner with no name and you’re in the Callejón de los Burdeles, the Alley of the Brothels, a narrow strip of Hell in the Colon Quarter’s red light district.
One step into the callejón and my face is smothered in a humid fog of cheap perfumes on sweaty flesh and the stench of stale sex. The aromas ooze into my nose and seep into my mouth, puckering my lips and tongue. Clashing music from radios and tinny phonographs rolls through the sticky air from saloons, cafés, and the open windows of flea bitten brothels; conga drums and brasses collide with steamy crooners and sentimental strings. I’m tossed around by despair and desire at the sight of so much sex for sale by so many women of so many colors of flesh, some pale as linen, others dark as coal smoke, and all the tasty shades between. Women in fishnets and flashy spangles and not much else beckon with curling fingers, smeared smiles, and voices flirtatious and brittle in Spanish and English: Ven aquí, chica. You want a good time? Here and there, pretty boys give me the eye before they realize their mistake and look past me with a sly smile. I’m not their clientele but we understand each other completely.
So many faces, so many swaying, desperate bodies, the young bodies still succulent, the older faces wise in the ways of staying alive for one more day. They all see me and figure me, know what I am and what I like. They call to me with the promise to provide it.
I want to see Sophie among these faces. I want to find her, take her home, leave Havana, get out from under Lansky’s thumb, get back to New York, bathe Sophie clean in my arms.
I don’t want to see Sophie here in this filthy street with its scabby bodies and destroyed lives. Not here. Not here…
“Cantor Gold?” My name comes up next to me through a woman’s voice, an American voice, gravelly from too many cigarettes, too much booze, and probably too many years earning the rent on her back or her knees.
The voice is faintly familiar, but when I turn to look, the face—its high cheek-boned, blue-eyed remnants of a once delicate beauty now puffy under bottle-brunette waves—brings the memory home. “Agnes Cain,” I say. In her expensive light blue linen suit and matching little hat, the fishnet veil softening the life-smart lines of her face, she’s a lot better dressed than she used to be. Her cat house must be doing well.
Like all savvy working girls, and the madams who employ them, Agnes can read a face straight through to the thoughts in your head. “I’m down here shopping,” she says, going right to the question that’s evidently written all over me. “See if there’s any fresh new trade I can buy off the street and put to work for me. But what about you, Cantor? I haven’t seen you in Havana in years.” She puts her hand on my chin, turns my face this way and that, examining. “You’ve bought yourself a few scars since I saw you—what?—ten years ago? Before the war, anyway. You know, those scars suit you, especially that knife-shaped number above your lip. Makes you look dashing. But what are you doing here? I never pegged you for the gutter trade.” I’m about to answer her, even press her for information about Sophie, but she’s not through with me. She puts her alligator clutch under her arm, slips her arm through mine and walks with me along the street as if strutting me down the aisle. “You know,” she says in the intimate manner of a bride, “I’m all done with my business here, so what do you say we go back to my place? I’ve moved up in the world since the last time you patronized my establishment. I run a top-of-the-line house now.”
“From what I hear, the local gangs have a grip on the houses. How do you get by?”
“Same as I always have. Same as everybody. I pay whoever’s in charge. It used to be the cops, now it’s the gangs for ‘protection’,” she says with a shrug. “Tell you the truth, the gangs are easier to deal with than the cops. Less greedy. So how about it, Cantor? I’ve got a lovely little sweetie at my place who’s right up your alley. I know it’s been a long time, but a good businesswoman never forgets a customer’s tastes.” The smile she gives me could eat right through my teeth.
I stop our walk. “Okay, Agnes, let’s do business. What’s an hour cost with that lovely little sweetie?”
A hand on her hip, and with the chummy attitude of a peddler trying to sell me a souvenir tablecloth, she says, “For you, a special price, Cantor, as a way of welcoming you back as a customer. So, shall we say a hundred dollars American? But if you’re paying in pesos—”
“Uncle Sam’s burning a hole in my pocket.” I take a hundred from my stash in my jacket, and take out the photo of me and Sophie. I give Agnes the hundred, but hold on to the photo. “We can do our business right here, Agnes. The hundred’s for information. I’m looking for this woman,” I say, showing her the photo. “She was kidnapped in New York and brought into the Havana flesh trade over three years ago. Ever see her?” My breath sticks in my chest while Agnes looks at the photo. Maybe my search can end here. Maybe Agnes recognizes Sophie, knows where she is. Maybe it’s even Agnes who has her…
The veil of her hat sways as Agnes shakes her head.
My breath seeps out again.
But Agnes keeps looking at the photo a little longer before looking back up at me. That hat veil does nothing to soften the look in her eyes, filled with both pity and scorn. “You look like you could use a drink,” she says.
I’d like to drown my disappointment in a whole bottle, but a friendly bit of alcohol with Agnes could loosen her lips, tell me who’s the current who’s who in Havana’s sex racket. “I’ll buy,” I say.
She gives me a coquettish smile that wore out years ago, and rips the photo of me and Sophie in half, right down the middle.
I don’t hit women, and I’ve been known to exact a terrible price from guys who do, but right now it takes every ounce of my willpower not to swat Agnes across the face for her desecration. My jaw’s so tight I’m afraid my teeth will crack by the time she gives back Sophie’s half of the picture, and says, “If you’re going to show this woman’s picture around town and expect to get information from anyone”—she hands back the half of the picture with me—“never let them see your heart.”
More About Ann Atptaker
Lambda Literary and Goldie Award winner, native New Yorker Ann Aptaker’s first book, Criminal Gold, was a Golden Crown Literary Society’s Goldie Award finalist. Her next book, Tarnished Gold, book two in the Cantor Gold crime series, was honored with a Lambda Literary Award and a Goldie Award. The third book in the series, Genuine Gold, won the 2018 Goldie Award. Flesh And Gold is the newest book in the ongoing series, with Murder And Gold scheduled for release in July 2021 by Bywater Books.
Ann’s short stories have appeared in two editions of the crime anthology Fedora, Switchblade Magazine’s Stiletto Heeled issue, and will be featured in the Mickey Finn crime anthologyand in The Black Cat Mystery Magazine, both scheduled for late 2020 publication. Her novella, A Taco, A T-Bird, A Barretta and One Furious Night, has been released by Down & Out Books’ Guns And Tacos crime series. Her flash fiction, A Night In Town, appeared in the online zine Punk Soul Poet, and another flash fiction is featured in the Goldie Award winning anthology Happy Hours: Our Lives in Gay Bars. Ann has been an art curator, exhibition specialist, art writer, and has taught Art History at the New York Institute of Technology. She now writes full time.