Juan, a Cuban construction worker who has settled in Albuquerque, returns to Havana for the first time since fleeing Cuba by raft twenty years ago. He is traveling with his American wife, Sharon, and hopes to reconnect with Victor, his best friend from college—and, unbeknownst to Sharon, he also hopes to discover what has become of two ex-girlfriends, Elsa and Rosita.
Juan is surprised to learn that Victor has become Victoria and runs a popular drag show at the local hot spot Café Arabia. Elsa has married a wealthy foreigner, and Rosita, still single, works at the Havana cemetery. When one of these women turns up dead, it will cost Padrino, a Santería priest and former detective on the Havana police force, more than he expects to untangle the group’s lies and hunt down the killer.
After leaving his wife in the hotel, Juan decides to visit the Havana cemetery, where his father is buried. He hasn’t been there in a long time and feels lost.
The Colón Cemetery’s main entrance was a Romanesque triple arch. Juan had to tiptoe around a string of Santería offerings: flowers, rotten bananas, eggs with names written on them, coins, an ear of corn and even a dead chicken with a red ribbon tied around its feet, feathers strewn all over. He shook his head. The deities his grandmother worshipped had always struck him as suspicious. After being taught at school that religion was “the opium of the people” and after his early attempts to communicate with the spirit of his dead mother had failed, he had rejected Abuela’s attempts to induct him in any kind of Santería ceremonies. But she had kept harping at him. “If you visit the cemetery, always leave an offering by the gate,” she used to say. “A plum, a black hen, a piece of chocolate pudding . . . anything to show respect to the Queen of Bones. You don’t want Oyá angry with you.” Absurdly, he thought he should have brought something, just in case. But he waved the idea away with a sweep of his hand.
He stood among the elaborate tombs and statues of angels, engulfed by an ocean of marble, blistering white in the sunlight. Though he had vague memories of visiting his mother’s grave when he was a child—his paternal grandfather had been buried in the Chinese cemetery—he didn’t remember where it was. But he knew it was called “the Lasalle mausoleum”—it had belonged to his mother’s parents, who had died before he was born. He thought it shouldn’t be too difficult to find.
An old man was going around selling gladiolus, marigolds and roses. Juan asked him about the Lasalle mausoleum, and though the flower vendor didn’t know where it was, he was able to direct Juan to the information office.
“Someone will help you there,” he said. “Was it a recent burial, the one you’re looking for?”
“No, my dad passed away seventeen years ago.”
“That’s fresh, man!” The vendor cackled. “Foreigners come here all the time asking for loved ones who died sixty or seventy years ago. I have the sorry job of telling them that those graves probably belong to someone else now.”
“I’m not a foreigner.”
“Fine. Just ask them to let you consult the registros book. The information office is left of the main entrance; you can’t miss it.”
Juan thanked the vendor and walked off. At the information office, a young man dressed in all black—black-blue jeans, a Grateful Dead T-shirt and an unmarked baseball cap—offered Juan the services of an English-speaking guide. “The admission fee is five CUCs, Señor. You can pay here. We also have a horse and carriage tour—”
“I’m not a tourist!” Juan blurted out, fed up with the constant confusion. “I just want to see my father’s grave.”
“Sorry. Just go to registros. Here, let me show you on the map.”
Following Grateful Dead’s instructions, Juan passed by the imposing Central Chapel and turned toward the northeastern quadrant. He walked quickly by a succession of mausoleums, iron grilles and glass windows—some intact, others broken—but didn’t stop until he saw a small gray building. A faded sign on the door read registros. The door was half-open. He went in without knocking and found himself in a windowless room. There were two large wooden benches with a Formica table in the middle. A picture of Fidel Castro watched him from the wall. Juan had forgotten how ubiquitous El Comandante had always been in Cuba.
A faded blue curtain acted as partition between the main office and another area from which Juan could hear the murmur of voices. When he approached, he was hit by the scent of withered flowers. It wasn’t a horrible smell—not rotten exactly, but reminiscent of decay. He fought the desire to run as fast as possible from the pungent aroma of death.
Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana and now lives in Hobbs, where she is a Spanish and ESL professor at New Mexico Junior College. She has published ten novels and three collections of short stories.
Her first culinary mystery Death Comes in through the Kitchen (Soho Crime, 2018) is set in Havana and features Padrino, a santero-detective. It is loaded with authentic Cuban recipes like arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and caldosa (a yummy stew). Her second mystery, Queen of Bones, was also published by Soho Crime in November 2019 and includes elements of Santería and, again, food—clearly, the author loves to eat! Both novels are rich in details about life in the island, the kind only an insider can provide.
They are the first two books of Soho Crime’s Havana Mystery series. Upcoming are Death of a Telenovela Star (June 2020) and Death under the Perseids.
She also wrote A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) and Habanera, a Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010).
In her native Spanish she has authored six novels, among them Muerte de un murciano en La Habana (Death of a Murcian in Havana, Anagrama, 2006, a runner-up for the Herralde Award in Spain) and El difunto Fidel (The Late Fidel, Renacimiento, 2011, which won the Rincon de la Victoria Award in Spain in 2009).
Once in a while she delves into theater. Her plays La Hija de La Llorona and Hasta que el mortgage nos separe (published in Teatro Latino, 2019) has been staged by Aguijón Theater in Chicago.
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