Tanner's Tiger Page 3

The Chief thinks I’m one of his men.

Maybe I am. It’s hard to say. He once sprang me from a CIA dungeon somewhere in darkest Washington and since then he has made contact from time to time to hand me assignments. I’d rather he wouldn’t do this, but the man is convinced I’m one of his most reliable operatives, and I’ve never been able to figure out a way to change his mind. Besides, there’s something to be said for the connection – as it stands. I’m under fairly constant surveillance by the CIA, which is sure I am some kind of secret agent, never mind whose, and by the FBI, which is positive I am six different kinds of subversive. With all of the consequent wiretapping and mail-snooping going on, it’s vaguely reassuring to have at least one government factotum who thinks, right or wrong, that I’m on his side.

The message from the Chief came in my morning mail the Thursday before Minna and I flew to Montreal. I suppose he figured that once the FBI censors had read my mail, anything that got into my mailbox was safe from them. Anyway, when I hauled the mail up to my room, there was one envelope with just my name on it, no address, no stamp, no return address, nothing. In the envelope was a matchbook from something called Hector’s Lounge, in Helena, Montana. I checked to see if anyone had written anything anywhere. No one had.

I knew it had to be him. None of the marginal subversives in any of the groups I belonged to would ever think of anything quite so cute. I turned the matchbook over and over in my hands. It was trying to tell me something, but it had been struck mute.

I left the building and walked through the heat to a drugstore on Broadway. In the phone booth I dialed the area code for Helena, Montana, which, if you care, is 406. Then I dialed the seven digits for Hector’s Lounge. It rang a few times, and then an operator cut in and asked me what number I was calling, please, and I learned that the number I was calling did not exist, and neither did Hector’s Lounge.

I had a Coke at the counter. If someone ever wished me ill, I thought, all he really had to do was gimmick me to death. He could keep leaving cryptic messages for me, all of them quite meaningless, and I would run myself ragged calling nonexistent telephone numbers and otherwise making an ass of myself. Maybe one was supposed to immerse the matchbook in water. I asked the counterman for a glass of water, and immersed the matchbook in it, and tried not to notice the way he was staring at me. All that happened was that the matchbook got predictably soggy, and some of the red gunk at the tips of the matches came off.

I went back to the phone, dialed 202 for Washington, and then the number again. I got somebody in the Bureau of Health, Education, and Welfare. He didn’t know just what I wanted and I didn’t know just who he was, and I wasted my time and his until I established that Hector’s Lounge meant nothing to him.

I looked in the phone book under Hector’s Lounge and found out that there was such a place right in Manhattan, on Sixth Avenue in the Forties. The listed number was not the same as the one on the matchbook. I dialed it and nobody answered the phone.

Then I dialed the number from the matchbook, without bothering with area codes, and that turned out to be what the Chief had had in mind. Maybe I should have done it that way in the first place, I don’t know. Maybe that’s what everyone else would have done. Make things sufficiently complicated and almost anybody can find a way to foul them up.

I dialed the number, and a woman answered it in the middle of the first ring. She said, “Yes?”

I asked if this was Hector’s Lounge.

“It is,” she said.

“May I speak with Hector?”

“Who’s calling, please?”

“ Helena,” I said.

She gave me an address, a second-floor loft on Gansevoort Street in the bowels of the West Village. I took the IRT subway to Sheridan Square and groped around until I found the place. The loft smelled of untanned leather, and hides were stacked in bales all over the place. It was infernally hot in there. A noisy old fan on a tripod blew warm air at me.

My other meetings with him have always taken place in comfortable rooms or suites in good hotels. Now, on a day like this one, he had picked one of the few places in New York (aside from my damned apartment) that was not air-conditioned. He sat in a leather chair, then got to his feet at my approach and crossed the areaway to shake hands. He had already sweated through his shiny gray suit, and he looked as uncomfortable as he had every right to be. “Ah, Tanner,” he said. “Excuse this heat and this mess.”

He sat down. His was the only chair in the room. He nodded vaguely at a bundle of hides and I sat on it. He picked up a bottle and a couple of glasses.


“With a lot of ice.”

“I’m afraid there’s no ice,” he said.

We drank our drinks and chatted. I asked him if he happened to know anything about the friends of mine who were lost in Africa, and he said that as far as he knew, they had been eaten. I had already come to that conclusion myself, but it would have been nice to know something more definite, one way or the other. One can resign oneself to a loss, even in such barbaric circumstances, but it’s dreary to have the whole business up in the air. Better the horrible fact than the horrible probability.

“ Cuba,” the Chief said suddenly. “Keep in touch with Cuba, Tanner?”


“Refugee groups, that sort of thing?”

“Yes.” Half of Florida belongs to one Cuban refugee group or another, and I know people in most of them. My favorite is the band that runs gunboats in the Caribbean sinking ships en route to Havana. Fidel doesn’t pay too much attention to them, but the U. S. Government makes their life rather difficult, and I think they can use all the support they can get. “Yes,” I said, “I know some men involved in those groups.”

“Thought you might. You were also involved in one of the front organizations, weren’t you? Play Fair with Fidel or something?”

“Fair Play for Cuba.”

“That’s the one.”

“It wasn’t exactly a front organization,” I said. “The Cuban Government supported it, of course, but it was more than a straight propaganda outlet at the time. Leftist-dominated, naturally. An organization composed of people who were concerned that the United States might interfere in the internal affairs of Cuba.”


“An unwarranted assumption, of course. The Bay of Pigs showed as much.”

“It did?” He looked at me oddly, seemed about to say something, then sighed shortly and lifted the Scotch bottle. I was perspiring far too heavily to want anything without ice, especially whiskey. He helped himself to another small drink and tossed it off.

“Where were we?”

“ Cuba.”

“Yes. Not our normal bailiwick, you know. The Boy Scouts generally keep an eye on that part of the hemisphere.”


“Yes, even now. To err is human, that seems to be the official line. And naturally they want to stay with it, you know. I think they hope to improve their track record down there.”

“Shouldn’t be hard.”

“Not at all.” He put down his glass, placed his pudgy hands in his lap, and folded them. I waited for him to tell me that I had to go to Havana, disguised as a worker in the canefields, to shave Fidel in his sleep. Havana would be just the place in August. It was the only city I could think of offhand that was almost certain to be warmer than New York. It was bad enough to be handed an assignment that was dangerous, stupid, and immoral. This one promised to be all of those, and uncomfortable in the bargain.

“I may be sending you on a wild-goose chase, Tanner.”


“I almost handed the whole thing back myself when I first got wind of it. Almost told them to give it to the Boy Scouts. They’ve got the manpower to spare, they can afford to send people on fool’s errands, and a lot of their personnel aren’t geared for much better than that. Almost gave it back, Tanner, but then I thought of you.”

I did not say any of the things that occurred to me.

“Felt you might be right for it. If there’s anything to it, that is. If there’s any game at all, not to speak of whether or not it’s worth the candle. But your background, your contacts, your languages, your special talents – I thought it might be down your alley.”

“I see,” I lied.

“You can turn it down if you want.”

“It’s like that?”

“Yes.” He sighed, started to lift the Scotch bottle, then set it down again. I’ve never seen him drunk and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him not drinking. Perhaps he’s drunk all the time and it simply doesn’t show. I drew a deep breath and began to think of reasons why I couldn’t possibly go to Havana. My mind wasn’t working well. I think it was the overwhelming smell of leather that was getting to me. I had always liked the smell of leather before.

“I would like you to go-”

“To Havana,” I said.

“ Havana?” He looked confused. “No, not Havana. Why on earth should you go to Havana? I want you to go to Montreal.”

“It’s the Cuban Pavilion,” he was saying. “You know there’s a World’s Fair in Montreal this year. Expo, they call it. Man and His World, that’s the theme of it. Makes things rather simple for the exhibitors, wouldn’t you say? I’d be hard put to think of anything that wouldn’t fit the overall theme of Man and His World. Even Sally Rand, for heaven’s sake.

“ Cuba is one of the participating nations. The theme of the Cuban Pavilion is revolution. Or Man and His Revolution, I don’t know. Quite a shocking display they have, from what I hear. All the other countries offer rather pleasant displays of native crafts and burgeoning industry and dynamic agriculture, and the Cubans confront one with posters and machine guns and the most blatant propaganda in history. One walks past all of these screaming posters, then enters their little restaurant and has a rum drink and a Havana cigar. That’s what they’re selling – rum and cigars and revolution.”

“Is it successful propaganda?”

“Probably not. I suspect that family groups parade through, then say something like, ‘That was nice, now let’s ride on the Minirail.’ It’s hard to measure the effect of such intangibles.”

I was sort of lost. I was still trying to get used to the idea that he was sending me, not to Havana, but to Montreal. Montreal, I kept thinking, was 400 miles north of New York. North. It was almost certain to be cooler in Montreal. And Minna had been badgering me to take her there anyway. And there wouldn’t be any race riots there, or any cab strikes or social worker strikes, and my landlord wouldn’t be there, and-

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said. “You don’t want me to blow up the Cuban Pavilion-”

“Heavens, no!”

“Or organize demonstrations around it, or anything?”


“Then what? I mean, Havana spends three-quarters of its time launching anti-American propaganda of one sort or another. This seems like one of their less effective ways to do it, since ninety-five percent of the people exposed to it will be Americans or Canadians. I don’t-”

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