«If there is a single moment of ringing truth in Philip Kraske’s excellent City on the Ledge, it is when Jay Streets, ex pro-football star, is asked to arbitrate between Ecuadoran plantation owners and union officials. For he got to this point through the oddest combination of circumstances, and as every historian knows, this is business as usual in human affairs.
«And who are asked to operate in Ecuador’s shifting tides of greed, justice, ambition, and political aspiration? Diplomats like Paul Klippen, whose lonely job it becomes to steer a middle way between those who seek a decent future for their people and others who play a zero-sum game of industrial espionage. And «play» is indeed the word for CIA head of station Harry Kruger, as amoral a figure as ever graced a thriller, who believes only in what advances his career.
«City on the Ledge combines vivid local color (even a fixed beauty pageant!) with the drop-by-drop anguish of high-stakes politics. There is a great deal to learn and to ponder as you move through each chapter and each successive climax.»
–Graham Kelsey, Author of Anarchosyndicalism
I just read a terrific novel set in contemporary Quito, Ecuador, with the main characters employees of the U.S. State Department and the CIA.
This is not an easy one to write about without spoiling the plot. Let me just say that it’s politically and psychologically insightful. It doesn’t simplify or glorify. It doesn’t beautify or brutalize human behavior. And you will find yourself trusting that it’s going somewhere good, but you will not be able to say exactly where. Kraske has invented a narrative that takes us inside the workings of our government in a way that no collection of State Department cables ever could. For better or worse, I suspect he’s taken us to a place very closely resembling the real thing.
— David Swanson, WarIsACrime.org
Quito, Ecuador. In this unknown Andean capital ladled along the ledge of a volcano, an eruption is taking place. After centuries of oppression, the workers are for the first time on strike against the banana plantations. And if Ecuador, the top banana exporter in the world and the bargain basement of the industry, raises its price, then so will all the others.
Through a wacky chain of events, Jay Streets, handsome former pro-football star, is called on to arbitrate the wage negotiations and set a final salary for workers. Because he has no interest in the matter, both sides expect him to be impartial. But the U.S. Government, thinking of U.S. consumers, would rather that Streets be partial – and has ordered discreet, kindly diplomat Paul Klippen to ensure it.
Klippen weaves a web of conspiracy among millionaire plantation owners, greedy Ecuadoran politicians, and his own ham-fisted ambassador, who is determined to get the Ecuadoran government to allow Americans to use a local airbase. Among Klippen’s few allies is Mary Swanson, who is in the middle of a full-throttle romance with the leader of the striking workers. At the same time she is fending off advances from the embassy’s CIA station chief, who suspects that she has hidden reasons for snubbing him – and investigates.
Set against the emerald majesty of the Andes, full of cultural and political details, City on the Ledge witnesses the machinations of politicians, spies, diplomats, and lovers to pull off a revolution, or kill it before it can bloom.
City on the Ledge is now available in Quito at:
In Quito, you can find it at the Hotel Quito, Avenida Gonzalez Suarez, or contact Geovanna Valencia at firstname.lastname@example.org.
City on the Ledge is available at either Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com for $12.40. The Kindle version costs $3.35. The absolute cheapest version, though, is the PDF, which I will send you for two bucks. Just send a PayPal payment to email@example.com, and I’ll send the PDF to your PayPal address. Don’t forget to specify which title of mine you’re buying. And anybody who writes a favorable review of one of my books at an online site gets a free PDF of any other of my titles. No kidding — just two or three delirious sentences, and you’ve got another week of reading free.
PROLOGUE AND FIRST CHAPTER:
Quito, Ecuador, South America.
Alvaro the shoeshine boy is running towards death.
It is eight p.m. of an honest Thursday, and already colonial Quito has hunkered down for the night. The beggars have tumbled into their doorways to nibble bread cached beneath the folds of their ponchos still stinking from the rain. El Trole — the trolley — begins its night service that grants travelers one run an hour. The Indian traffic cops are hiking off home to see how their wives have eked the four hundred monthly dollars that the Force of Public Order pays its custodians. The streets go still as a painting, as an unvisited museum.
Fog sits on the city. It coats in droplets every stop sign, every gate, bench, balcony and door; it turns the distant streetlamps into starbursts. All are silent, nothing drips. Tangled cables tacked along the cement facades calmly bear their burdens of power and data, and the national flag – red, blue and yellow stripes flown everywhere with the hope of a crucifix – hangs heavy like dripping candle wax.
In all Latin America, only Quito can achieve a mood of Gothic. You hear it in the clump of its Indians’ hammy feet along the brick sidewalks, feel it in the anger of the storms that rake its streets. You see it in the hulking gray of its churches, the grim consummation of its wrought-iron gates, and the humorless stare of infants slung on their mothers’ bent backs. Even the cobblestone streets, laid out by the Conquistadores centuries ago, lie in a gloomy grid, with no exceptions for the insufferable grades that mark the first upward jolt of the Pichinchas, the three green peaks that rise a mile over the city, witnesses to the itch-itch-itching of humanity bent on breaking its final limits.
Only Alvaro troubles this portrait.
The shoeshine boy slaps through these streets tonight, slaps because his shoes are teenaged-sized and his feet are not; slaps because the wet sprawls everywhere, on stone and metal, clings to his ankles and probes his jacket, seeks to root in his innocent heat. And Alvaro has heat to spare. The driving beat of his shoes – la plata, la plata, la plata – on the cobbles describes the importance, the sheer great sweet commercial tang, of his mission: twenty dólares to bring the envelope to El Ejido Park! The man will wait for him at the start of Friends, and Alvaro knows that this is any minute now, even though he cannot read a watch.
He and his older brother Leopoldo, who is twelve, never miss Amigos reruns on the television at Televisiones Chimborazo, just off the Plaza Grande and a stone’s throw from President Atahualpa Tingo’s office, where they spend the mornings cadging for clients. La Rachel, the blond Amiga, is the most beautiful woman ever born. Alvaro and his brother each have a sticker of La Rachel on the inside of their shoeboxes, and they have cut their fingers and sworn on their blood that if La Rachel ever comes to Quito, they will shine her shoes for free, each one taking a shoe. And at the end, they will stand up and bow deeply and pronounce the phrase honed through many idle sidewalk hours: “It has been an honor – a great honor to the Ecuadoran nation – to clean your shoes, Señorita Rachel.»
La plata, la plata, la plata – the silver, Latin America’s ancient denominator of wealth. La plata, la plata, la plata. Alvaro’s shoes sing, and the echoing chorus follows like a posse amidst the flat-faced buildings, for every street in the colonial district is a canyon four floors deep.
La plata, la plata, la plata. Alvaro’s pace does not vary, though Quito lies at 2800 meters, more than a mile and a half, above sea level. He passes a dozen Indian women, each with an infant sprawled to her back, standing like statues in a line before a closed door with a light on in the transom. He pounds through another silent four-way intersection, ears looking both ways for him around the corners. He doesn’t notice – why should he? – a car two blocks up the steep hill to his left, its passenger window rolled down, and a man leaning well over from the driver’s seat to watch him through the fog; and then speed ahead.
La plata, la plata, la plata. Alvaro zigs right at the intersection, zags left at the next. He weaves through the cement balls along the sidewalk that keep cars from parking there, and he keeps his head carefully down as he passes the gargantuan Iglesia de la Merced with its stark, gnarled stone door in the massive white wall. A zig, a zag. He turns another corner, and the grade is downhill now, the going easier; he shifts his filthy wooden shoeshine box, no longer than his forearm and which he grips by its footrest, to his other hand.
Up ahead, he sees two people spying round the corner of the building into the next street. One, a woman, turns at the sound of Alvaro’s feet, and Alvaro instinctively swerves wide – and nearly cries out in surprise, for the other, a man, has now turned too, and his face is lit by the tiny, bluish screen of a video camera. Alvaro has seen tourists using them, and even once saw his own image when a tourist took his picture with him. The two persons watch him pass – “Cállate, carajo!” the man hisses angrily – and Alvaro pushes yet more speed into his legs. La plata, la plata, la plata.
In the next street, he sees what the two are filming: a man, halfway down the next block, with hair as golden as La Rachel’s, though in a halo around his head, not long. He is down on his haunches handing something to a man sitting in a doorway. Now hearing Alvaro approach, he rises, and Alvaro hears the crackle of his knees; he recognizes this because he often hears it during his workday.
But this man is enormous, a giant! He carries a plastic bag and takes something out. And now he is moving into the street. Alvaro, now at full sprint – la plata, la plata, la plata, la plata! — barely gets past him. The man calls after him, but the words are truly those of a monster and echo over the wet walls like ghosts sent to pursue him. But they do not; they cannot. They fall behind. Alvaro is invincible!
He turns the corner. At the end of this street is Guayaquil Avenue, a busy street because it soon merges with Avenida 10 de Agosto, which leads to the modern, northern section of Quito. After the afternoon rainstorm, he and Leopoldo canvas this area, where there are men in business suits who want shines and tip well.
But now a broad figure – dark pants and windbreaker, white polo shirt — steps out of a double-parked car and hails him. Alvaro again swings wide, now as far as the opposite sidewalk. The man hurries across to intercept him. Alvaro puts on speed. The man is calling: Espera, espera. Te doy dinero. Wait, wait. I’ll give you money. But Alvaro has been warned about maricones — homosexuals. One touch of their dicks with your bare hand, Leopoldo says, and you’ll turn into one.
La plata, la plata, la plata.
La plata, la plata, la…
Jamming along the wall of a grocery store, Alvaro tries to slide past. But the man lunges and pins him with one massive foot, thumping his back against the bricks. His hand falls on Alvaro’s arm like a shackle; the other snatches his shoeshine box, and Alvaro cannot leave it behind.
“Don’t worry, kid,” he says in a wrenched Spanish that slurs the Rs. He is kneeling and opening the flaps of the shoebox. “I only want to look at your letter; I’ll give it back.”
“Por favor, señor,” Alvaro squeaks, the breath knocked out of him.
Letting go of his arm, the man kneels and, careful not to upset Alvaro’s three bottles of polish – red, black, and color café – takes out the half-sheet buff envelope that the other man, the one who spoke good Spanish, put in twenty minutes earlier. This man puts a small flashlight in his mouth, slides out the contents, and quickly flips through four photographs. The reflections from their glossy surfaces dapple the man’s muscular face.
And now it goes stiff; whatever is in the photos, he does not like. He has large, rubbery lips, and these curl back from the flashlight like a dog’s mouth, and a sound like a distant thunder simmers under his throat.
But Alvaro is not going to miss his money because of this maricón. Now catching his breath, he steals a hand under his woolen sweater and finds the knife in his belt. Very slowly he begins to draw it out. His thumb finds the button for the blade.
Still kneeling, the man taps the photos back into the envelope.
“Take that, maricón!” Alvaro cries. In one oiled movement, he jerks out the knife and swings at the man’s face, the blade spitting out like a snake’s tongue. The man jerks back just in time: only the very tip of the blade reaches him, and traces a finger-long gash under his ear. The man squawks and his light falls to the ground and goes out.
Alvaro grabs the footrest of his box. The man, who has fallen sideways, is leaning on one hand. He kicks at Alvaro, kicks hard because the boy has humiliated him, and his toe drives straight into Alvaro’s right kidney. The boy staggers back against the wall, paralyzed with pain. He drops his knife and box, but can’t bend down to pick them up.
Panting now, face tight, the man stands and presses a handkerchief against the wound and bends his head against it to hold it in place. Alvaro in his breathless agony sees blood running over the white collar of his shirt and is glad.
“Who will you give the message to?” the man snarls in his pasty accent.
“A man is waiting for me at the Arch of Triumph in El Ejido Park,” Alvaro manages to say. Even to breathe sends waves through his back.
“Who? What man?”
“El Profesor.” His back is aflame with pain. “Don’t hurt me any more, señor. Please.”
“Okay, but don’t tell him that I looked at the letter.” He bends closer. “If you do, I will dump gasoline on you and burn you alive!”
“No, no, I won’t tell anyone.”
“I will find you if you do!”
“I won’t tell anyone, not even my brother!” Alvaro pleads.
The man takes the envelope and tucks it into the shoeshine box. Then he bends down and picks up Alvaro’s knife. For a terrifying moment, Alvaro waits for the stab, knowing that he is in too much pain to dodge. But the man looks down at him and nods.
“Good move. You almost got me.”
He wipes off the blade on his handkerchief, pushes the button a few times and admires how smoothly the blade darts in and out, and drops the knife into the shoeshine box.
The weight of his whole body seems to crush directly on his wounded kidney, and Alvaro needs a great effort to walk. The effort will become ever greater for the next several days, as the wound refuses to heal properly and gets infected. A week later he will die in Leopoldo’s arms.
“Fast!” the man growls.
Alvaro makes a little jumping movement with his feet and shuffles them faster. After several steps, like an albatross trying to take flight, he finally works into a running stride, though it seems to split his torso down the middle. Turning onto Guayaquil Avenue, he looks back. The man watches him flatly, pressing the handkerchief against his neck. Alvaro hopes it hurts like a sword run through his flesh, because that’s how badly his side hurts.
Four days later, at six-thirty a.m., two men were playing basketball in La Carolina Park, in northern, upscale Quito. The night air still hung wet as washed bedsheets, but bright and abundant, for the gargantuan rising sun bowled waves of light across the deep eastern valleys and into the city, which lies, painted in white, ten miles long and half-a-mile thin on the ledge of the Pichinchas.
Rafael Ramirez took the ball at the top of the three-point line and concentrated, tugging down his jersey. His thick middle made a maternity gown of his Los Angeles Lakers jersey – number 32 for Magic Johnson – which got hung up on his belly every time he raised his shoulders. So he was always tugging it down; otherwise the shoulder straps fell off sideways.
«Okay, gonna moth’fuck you, man. A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.» His English, the fruit of two partying semesters in Miami, was a wreckage of undercooked grammar and the lyrics of classic pop tunes.
Paul Klippen set himself in a defensive stance and rubbed his hands on his shorts, waiting patiently. At thirty-nine, he was actually ten years older than Rafael but looked about the same age, being lithe and slender. His pretty hair was thick, brown and shiny, though his hairline had receded on the sides. He wore his only pair of glasses, with round delicate black frames, because he had none for sports.
Finally, Rafa performed on a stutter-step fake to his left. It would not have fooled a child, but the American, being a diplomat, shuffled his feet diplomatically in that direction. This the Ecuadoran took as his chance to bull his way up the right side of the foul lane, slapping the ball down, shouldering the American along. Nearing the hoop, he stopped and set his feet. With a tremendous grunt, he leapt and launched a hook shot. The American didn’t really jump, but hopped up a few inches and raised his arms – the type of defense one plays against a young son. The ball bounced twice on the rim, rolled around it once, hung for a moment on the support, and grudgingly, poutingly, like a lady seated in the last empty place by a stern flight attendant, settled into the chain net.
«What skyhook, eh, man? Take your breath away.»
«You’re unstoppable today, Rafa,» Paul Klippen admitted, glancing across the twenty yards of grass to where the Rafa’s chauffer and bodyguard, copper-faced Indians, leaned back against the Mercedes, listening to talk radio through the open window. The one smiled at the other, and Paul wondered for the hundredth time what Rafa would say if they told him what a lax defense he offered their boss. Not that he feared their saying something: the lower caste of Ecuadoran society rarely speaks with the upper, which considers their opinions foolish and ignorant anyway.
«It makes 26 to 28, okay?» said Rafa. «One more basket and…We are the cham-pions, my friends!» he sang, throwing up his arms, which made his jersey ride up and the left strap fell off sideways.
«Something incredible just might happen.»
Rafa jerked down his jersey. «Incredible? Go to the hell, man. Also I won you last week.»
«That’s true, isn’t it?» Paul said, dribbling the ball back up to the three-point line.
«See? It has nothing of incredibilation.» His jaw twisted sideways in doubt. «I can say this in English?»
«In Missouri, that would be ‘incredibleness,’ Rafa.»
«‘Incredibleness,'» Rafa repeated, looking up to his brain as if ordering it to remember the word. Then he assumed a defensive position, arms low and legs spread, as if he were trying to catch a runaway chicken. «Okay, Paulo, twist and shout, man!» he cried.
Paul set himself well to the left of the basket, crouched over the ball. He faked right, easily losing Rafa, came back to his left, gathered his legs beneath him, pushed off, and with a well-coached flip of the wrist, let fly. The ball kissed off the backboard and went in.
«Carajo!» Rafa grumbled. «Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, man.»
«Sorry, Rafa, but I can’t let down Uncle Sam.» he said, though he knew that Uncle Sam would take his defeat with philosophy: Rafa negotiated more equably after winning a match, and today, with luck, the final agreement on their deal would come.
For what was really at stake this morning, as the rising equatorial sun coated the Pichinchas in emerald green, was Ecuador’s future and America’s most important interests in the country. These morning basketball matches were actually the center of American-Ecuadoran relations.
Which were officially at daggers drawn.
Three years earlier, in his inaugural address to the nation, President Atahualpa Tingo had called the United States «the bloodsucker (sangijuela) of the American continent.» And this was indeed a great evil, for like most South Americans, Ecuadorans are taught that North and South America are one continent. The U.S. ambassador at the time had refrained from walking out, though the first thing the new ambassador had said when taking charge was that he intended to «set Tingo straight on just who sucks blood from who, and how much Congress pays for it.» Which was why in two years Tingo had received the ambassador just four times, two of those with several other ambassadors present. Ambassador Frunk, a golf-course mogul who had contributed heavily to the U.S. president’s campaign, stuck out his dresser-drawer of a jaw every time Tingo’s name was mentioned.
So did many Ecuadorans. Nearing the end of his four-year term, President Tingo had turned nearly everyone against him. Two years earlier, his own vice-president had tried to depose him, the dirty work falling to the vice-president’s cousin, who was chief of the central-region Army brigade. On the eve of the revolt, however, General Ronaldo Santamaria’s feet went cold, and he called Paul, the U.S. Embassy’s top political officer. Paul suggested a late-night snack, and in a Quito Burger King, over double-decker Whoppers, he listened to the general’s diatribe against Tingo, commiserated copiously, and gently pointed out that revolt against a democratically-elected government, however badly run, was rarely a smart career move anymore. Times had changed, Ronaldo, alas!
Besides, in Paul’s opinion, though Santamaria was clearly the most capable general in Ecuador, the head of the armed forces was unlikely to admit it and step aside for him. Then Paul turned the conversation to domestic matters and promised to get Ronaldo’s teenage daughter an appointment with a dermatological specialist at a top clinic in Miami, to see about her acne problem. The next morning, the vice-president announced that he was leaving the government to form a new political party.
In the last year of his administration, however, Atahualpa Tingo had learned of a miraculous alignment of interests with the Americans, though he mentioned this to no one. Paul himself had aligned them, on orders from Ambassador Frunk:
«Paul, you’re the go-to guy in this dump, far as I’m concerned,» he had told Paul one afternoon in his residence, double-whiskey clenched in his fist. He was wearing an orange golf shirt and violent purple slacks, these joined horizontally at his jutting middle; he resembled a child’s plastic candy egg. He moved constantly, as if still on the green: a few steps to one side, a few to the other, a man lining up a putt. Paul felt uneasy, and not only because he was sipping a martini he hadn’t asked for and didn’t like.
«I just do my job, Bob,» Paul said. The ambassador had everyone call him «Bob.»
«You more than do it,» the ambassador barked. «Everywhere I turn in this goddamn rabbit den, your name pops up.» In a nasal whine, he imitated the diplomats, whom he loathed as ‘entitlement fleas’: «‘The guy to ask about that is Paul Klippen.’ ‘Oh, that’s Paul’s side of the field, all that.’ ‘I never met the Interior minister, but Paul Klippen just had lunch with him the other day.'»
«Oh, that was nothing. Poor Alfredo needed to talk through some underwater mortgages he has in the Florida Keys. I looked up a few property brokers for him and worked out a –«
«Whatever. Cutting to the chase. I want two things done over the next year, and I’m tasking you with the job. Up to it?»
«I do my best to give the taxpayers their money’s worth, Bob.»
«Yeah: you and you alone,» the ambassador despaired. He poked the air with his forefinger.
«One: the intelligence boys are telling me that there’s big-time labor unrest down in the lowlands – banana workers, mainly. Some pineapple.»
«I’ve heard a lot of rumors too, but they seem to me –«
«They tell me there’s eventually going to be a strike. Like shit. I want it headed off at the pass. I want it cut off at the knees. If they do get anything, I want the new wages – conditions, perks, whatever they want – I want it maybe one penny better than they have now. One thing I’ve learned in business is this: Never, never let the workers catch an updraft. Do that, you’re all finished. Last thing I need is to get my bell rung by House Ag because the price of bananas has gone up on my watch.»
Paul nodded silently, and risked a new swallow of his awful martini.
They were standing at the living room window that looked over the city. The sun was sinking behind the bulky mountains that stood like a vast theater curtain. The shadows on the lawn were visibly fading. Now they were gone. Quito went from full daylight to complete darkness in forty minutes.
After some searching, Paul found a reply. «It’ll be tough getting President Tingo to stand for that, don’t you think? He’s very pro-worker. If it weren’t for -«
«Radically pro-worker, the cocksucker.»
«If it weren’t for the conservatives opposing all his labor reforms in Congress, the –«
«Hell. Tingo’s history by this time next year.»
Paul took another sip to fortify his patience. «That’s not quite the point I’m making here, Bob. I mean that, one way or another, he would have to endorse any big agreement between workers and plantation owners. And for just an extra penny of salary, he wouldn’t. That’s why the unions are going to strike this year. It’s their last chance. He’ll sign on if they manage a big increase.»
The ambassador reset his feet. «All right, all right. You’re the expert, I’m not. Do the workers down however you want, but do it. Oh, and don’t bring in Harry Kruger unless you absolutely need to. You know those macho CIA types: walk in with a howitzer, blow the whole place away and call it a solution. Garf would give me hell big-time.»
«Garf,» short for «Garfield,» was how he referred to the secretary of state, his golf partner since college.
Paul took the tiniest sip of his martini, which was so strong it nearly made his hair stand on end. «Consider it done, Bob. And what’s number two?»
«Two – hah!» Frunk shouted, making Paul flinch. A new slurp of his whiskey. «The worker-strike shit is a kiddie cakewalk compared to number two.» He reset his putting stance.
«The latest goddamn constitution of this country forbids the presence of foreign bases. Don’t know why. Ecuadorans sure made enough money off ‘em.»
«You mean our former coastal airbase down in Manta?»
«That’s the one. Ask the local shopkeepers if they’re happy about it getting shut down.»
«Be that as it may, it seems that our airmen didn’t make careful distinctions between Ecuadoran fishing boats and boats running cocaine. Mistakes were made, people died, and the locals took that, ah, poorly, to say the least. And then the base commander, far from offering sympathy, said there was nothing to the accusations that honest boats were blown out of the water. That rankled more than a bit, I’m afraid.» And thank God all that was before my posting here, Paul added silently, remembering the frazzled outgoing diplomat who had had to deal with the crisis.
The ambassador waved his free hand at the now-dark mountains as if they were blocking his view of the fairway. «Whatever. I want our people back.»
Paul drank again and felt the angry burn on the back of his throat. «Back…on the base, that would be?»
«That’s right. I’m gonna make that little bastard Tingo eat shit – our shit – just once before I blow this pop stand. Besides, the Pentagon wants it, Garf wants it, and the American people want it. ‘America sees farther because it stands taller.’ Remember that.»
«Secretary of State Allbright’s famous quote – yes.» Paul chewed his lips pensively. «Still, changing the Ecuadoran Constitution is a rather tall order.»
The ambassador waved a meaty hand in the air again. «No, no. I got you there. You don’t have to change the Constitution. Hell, I respect their Constitution – at least till they tear it up for a new one. All you gotta do is get our people back on the base. Get it? Advisors, techies, trainers, a few pilots.»
«Still: bit of an end run around the spirit and the letter, you know, Bob.»
«Oh no, it isn’t,» said the ambassador triumphantly. «I had Elena look it up in the Constitution and translate it for me.» He dug into the depths of his purple pants and took a dingy, folded three-by-five card out of his pocket. Not wearing his glasses, he had to hold it at arm’s length to read it. «‘Neither the establishment of foreign military bases nor foreign military facilities will be permitted. It is illegal to cede national military bases to foreign armed forces or security forces.’ See? No problem. Their base – lock, stock and barrel. Just our personnel there alongside their own. They don’t have to cede anything.»
«Yes, that would be the famous Article Five. Article Four is about the same, just a little more prickly.» Paul nodded slowly, looking out the window at the tortured rock of the Pichinchas outlined against a power sky fading to mauve. «Tricky. Tricky one, Bob.» A careful smile. «But don’t give it another thought. If America wants it, who am I to say it can’t be done?»
Seven months and, by Paul’s meticulously-kept log, one hundred ninety-three meetings later with Defense, Agriculture, State, Commerce, CIA, FBI, DIA, the Navy, Panamanian banks and Filipino maritime officials, and eight different congressional subcommittees of every orientation, faith, and purpose – his record was nine meetings in a seventeen-hour sprint across Washington — the deal was about to be closed on a public basketball court. And just in time, for Tingo’s term had just months to run and, out of the blue, the workers on the biggest plantation in Ecuador, Plantaciones Costa, had walked off the job. Within days, the strike had spread across the lowlands, and most ominously, the plantations were unable to resort to the usual tactic of hiring replacement workers. For once, workers had locked arms.
Rafa Ramirez’s hook shot from the three-point line crashed through the chain net. «I win! Baby, we were born to ru-u-u-u-u-n,» he sang, throwing his broad, teddy-bear arms in the air
«The embassy flag goes at half-mast today, Rafa,» Paul said, though he had had to miss his last five shots in order to lose. «No question about it.»
«A media asta.»
«Oh.» It took Rafa a moment to get the joke. «Oh! Right! Yeah, have-mass. Ain’t no sunshine, eh, man?»
Now they turned to the usual post-game free throws, ten each, one rebounding the ball for the other. A Delta Airlines 767 came in roaring – screaming – overhead, so close that Paul could see the rivets in the wings. The night flights from Miami and Europe were starting to arrive, and the present airport was only a mile away, right in the middle of the city. The new airport, already built across the valley, would open any day, had been the official answer over the past year or two.
Rafa tossed up a few of his hook-shot free throws, made some, missed others, and put on his professional scowl. Paul knew the gesture well.
«Okay, Paulo, now it is the time for that we are serious, okay? Takin’ care of business….»
«And workin’ overtime,» Paul sighed, tossing back the ball. It was their usual routine to begin negotiations, and he had to suppress a groan every time he said it.
As usual, Rafa opened the proceedings with a spurt of Ecuadoran oratory: «I mean, today over all, we are treating matters of the maximum importance for the life of the Ecuadoran state, and we need that you give it all you got, and do the maximum effort, and to practice a true, ah, seriosity – is this possible?»
«‘Seriousness’ would be my choice there, actually,» Paul said as he rebounded a missed shot, once again longing for Rafa to converse in Spanish with him. But Rafa wouldn’t hear of it. Doing business in Spanish wasn’t «correct,» he always said.
Rafa pounded the ball on the court, set his feet sideways to the basket, and tossed up another hook. «Seriousness. Okay, today we must to be maximum-security seriousness. In this moment in time it would be necessary to open, ah, open your heart and give it all you got for that we make an accord that is feelin’ groovy for the two of us and for our nations. We are the world, we are the children, okay? I believe, Paulo, that we can terminate our negotiations today.»
«Oh?» Paul had a bad moment, till he realized that Rafa had meant «finish our negotiations.»
«Yes, we are young men, Paulo, oh so young and free, and we see what changes need to be effectuated in the world for that everything continue singin’ in the rain. Our generation must to play the paper that history give for it.» He shot.
«That’s ‘play the role,’ Rafa,» Paul put in, for some of Rafa’s mistakes bit too deeply. He caught the ball and bounced it back.
«The role, yeah, thanks. Okay, Paulo, my Uncle Tata, the president of the Ecuadoran Republic, he is agree with all the things importants that we have talked, except one detail or two. Really, no problem. Don’t worry be happy.»
«Well, that’s good news,» said Paul cautiously. «So, first: we have agreement on the banana negotiations: whatever the price that the owners reach with the unions, even if it’s one penny, Tingo will sign off on it, right?»
Rafa lined up another hook shot. «Right. The unions – I hate to those guys, man. Baddest man in the whole damn town. I don’t know why Uncle Tata loves them.»
«Their blind support and votes must have something to do with it.»
Rafa shrugged and tossed up a shot: out. «Yeah, is truth: when a man loves a woman, can’t keep his mind on nothin’ else.»
Paul chased the ball down the baseline and snapped Rafa a pass. «All right, and when he accepts the wage, twenty million dollars will appear in a Panamanian bank, which he can draw whenever he wants.»
«With two millions for me.» Another piratical grin as Rafa whipped another hook shot towards the basket: in. «And real quiet, right, man? Like, ‘Hello darkness my old friend,’ huh?»
«Oh, the darker, the better, Rafa, believe me. And once the money is where it needs to be, your kind Uncle Tata will sign an agreement renting for just one dollar the fine services of the United States Air Force – trainers, mechanics, pilots, no more than a hundred at any one time. And if someone leaves a drone aircraft or two tossed in the corner under a tarp, nobody is going to make a fuss, right?»
«Yeah, right, Paulo, except, ah….» The grin faded. «Hey, that’s ten. It’s your turn to shoot.»
«Now, did I hear ‘except,’ Rafa?» Paul walked to the foul line, dribbling the ball as casually as he could.
«Yeah, one thing that we must to talk, Paulo: the new salary for the workers, the advisors in the airbase of Manta – fine, no problem, don’t worry be happy.»
«Yet I find myself worried and unhappy, Rafa. What’s the problem?»
Rafa grimaced hard, like a man who has farted in the elevator. «Well, the president is nervous about the money. Where is gonna come from those twenty millions of dollars? Yeah, okay, I asked to you before, and you said is your problem, not the mine. Okay. But also he is reading every day that there are many bad-bad Leroy Browns cutting your budget.»
Bouncing the ball a few times, Paul chuckled and shook his head. «I’ll give you that one, Rafa: Leroy Brown is a pale choirboy beside those congressmen.»
«And the president, Uncle Tata, he wanna make plans, he wanna know everything is gonna be all right uh-huh uh-huh.»
Paul drew a breath, took aim with what concentration he could spare, and shot: out. Well, this is no time for people to get nervous, he told himself.
«This is between me and you and your uncle — okay, Rafa?»
«Yeah, sure, Paulo: sunshine on my shoulders.»
«We – the American Embassy – we know what the new salary for the workers is going to be already.» He raised a hand in caution. «More or less. Within a dollar or two.»
Rafa’s brown eyes grew wide in his round face. «Really? Really?» He lowered his voice. «Hey, Paulo, you doing like, like, like ‘do a little dance, make a little love’?»
Paul shot: in. «Let’s just say that we’ve got a handle on it. And we’ve made a deal with the top banana-plantation owners: if we at the embassy keep salaries low, they will put up the money for your uncle.»
«But they hate to Uncle Tata. They prefer killing to him!»
Paul spoke quietly. «They don’t know it’s for your uncle. All they know is that if we keep the new salary below a certain amount, they will thank us by putting twenty million in a Panamanian account that we specify. And believe me, they’re so worried about the strike that they’re happy to do it. Twenty million is nothing compared to what they might lose if the workers get a decent wage out of the strike.»
Rafa caught the ball but didn’t throw it back. His mouth hung open in an O. «And you can make that to happen, Paulo? Make all our dreams come true – even with the negotiations with the workers? That’s great balls o’ fire!»
A mysterious smile. «For the U.S. State Department, Rafa, it’s all in a day’s work. Now, do we have a deal?»