A Night at the Hotel Central
Wednesday, February 15, 1956, 8:30 pm
I stared through the crack of the utility closet door, my eyes focused on room 313 at the end of the corridor. Our team on the third floor of the Hotel Central, Panamá City, had been in place for thirty-two minutes. No one had entered or left the room nor had there been any sounds—laughter from Julia or the Czech or bouncy Panamanian music from the radio. But we knew they were there because Fernando, another of our agents, posing as a room service waiter, had brought them a bottle of cheap Scotch at 7:41.
The previous evening, Valentine’s Day, my wife, Joan, and I drove to the Tivoli Hotel situated on a hill in the Canal Zone near the Pacific Ocean. The veranda offered guests spectacular views of both the bay and Panamá City. Joan was wearing a red satin dress she’d bought for Christmas that set off her dark hair and eyes. I was proud to have her on my arm. On our way to the bar she attracted, as usual, the gaze of the men in the lobby. As we entered, a smiling Charles, our personal barman, tall and stately in his white guayabera shirt, hurried over bringing two straight-up, icy cold, ultra dry gin martinis sporting twists of lemon peel. Just the way we liked them.
Slipping into a booth, we sipped our drinks, and I began to relax. Joan smiled and squeezed my arm. I fired our Chesterfields with the gold Dunhill lighter I’d bought at the PX a couple of days before. We each took long drags and a while to exhale.
“When we were married, Frank, we couldn’t have guessed we’d be spending a Valentine’s Day in Panamá. Our journey from Nodaway County’s been quite a trip.”
“It sure has.” I nodded my head, returning the smile. I loved this good-looking, sexy woman in the red dress who with grace and humor had shared our nearly three adventurous years traveling from Nodaway County to New York City to Baltimore to Panamá. Then my mind turned to where I’d be this time tomorrow night and the smile evaporated.
Another round appeared as soon as we emptied our glasses. Charles must have sensed my disquietude that evening because, just as we were heading for the dining room, I overheard him tell our waitress, Gabriella, “Here’s another for Mr. Blake. Take it into the dining room for him.”
He was right about my mood. As I started to thank him, he smiled and said, “It’s on us, Mr. Blake. Enjoy your dinner.”
We’d been in Panamá for over a year and had begun to think about our return to civ ilian life in Cambridge in the fall. We had never lived in New England either and were preparing for the surprises of our new lives there. We knew we’d miss a lot of Panamá’s pleasures when we were back inthe States—chief among them were Charles and Gabriella.
During the meal I was distracted and apprehensive. It had nothing to do with the succulent, rare Kansas City prime steak I was enjoying. Being in the Canal Zone the Tivoli served good American food. My thoughts were on the next night’s assignment, my first outing with the team—Luis, Jorge, Fernando, and Julia, all professionals, and Alejandro and me, apprentices. Was I up to the task or would Luis be disgusted with my performance? In basic training you spend A Night at the Hotel Central 5 a lot of time talking about killing the enemy and practicing with your weapons. I’d heard lots of talk, but this was the first time I might be involved in the doing. Noticing my lack of interest in the champagne, Joan asked a couple of times if everything was okay. Was I coming down with something?
“I’m fine,” I assured her, “and having a great time. Isn’t this our song?”
It was “Mood Indigo.” The orchestra, while not on a par with Duke Ellington’s rendition of this classic, was doing a pretty good job with it, and we got up to dance. I held Joan extra close, enjoying the scent of her perfume, and kept my mind on the beat of the music while avoiding thinking about
The utility closet was dark, stuffy, and smelled of mildew and stale cigarette butts from the trash bag in the corner. The foul odor reminded me to stop smoking when I finished the pack of Chesterfields in my pocket. A vacuum cleaner and a broom and dustpan were in the other corner. Luis was in the room across from me looking out the crack of his door. I visualized Luis’s expression, the corners of his mouth uplifted in a tight smile, his dark eyes scarcely blinking, and his body tensed like a cat waiting for its prey. Luis’s guayabera wouldn’t be soaked like mine; he didn’t sweat regardless of the temperature.
Everyone was in place. We all knew our lines and what to do. The other rooms on the third floor were unoccupied. Jorge, second in command of the Secreta, the Panamanian Secret Police, had informed the hotel the third floor was off limits for the night of February 15. When he told them the gringos would be paying for all the rooms they had to take off the market, they asked if we’d need room service during the evening, thinking we were planning a party with girls 6 Hot Times in Panamá and booze. We declined the offer. Management complained that the gringos always brought their own liquor and women o their parties and it wasn’t right not to use the hotel’s services. Jorge warned them it would be a good idea to drop the subject.
The Central had once been the main destination for important visitors to Panamá City. It was in the Casco Viejo, or Old Quarter, on the west side of the Plaza de la Independencia facing the cathedral and just off the Avenida Central. Now the grand dame was showing her age, a bit seedy with a faded gentility.
Earlier in the day, when the Czech was out of room 313, the hotel staff had changed the bulbs in the overhead lights to lower the wattage and darken the hallway, except for the light about ten feet from the door. In that socket now controlled by a dimmer switch they installed a 250-watt bulb. When the Czech and Julia walked out of the room, it would be “Lights! Action!”
And Alejandro had the camera for the “pictures.” Shifting the weight to my right leg, I marveled at the
serpentine chain of events that had taken me from a high school Spanish classroom in Maryville, Missouri, to a utility closet in Panamá City, Panamá. I was just a bit player in the impending drama, standing by in case of unexpected trouble, along with Alejandro, another agent from my unit hiding in the room next to Luis’s, and Jorge, sequestered in the room across from Alejandro. Jorge was there because he liked a little action, and we needed his agents downstairs to control the traffic if things didn’t go as planned. Luis and Julia were the main characters, along with the Czech, the star and central figure in the play. He didn’t know it was his final performance. Based on the rehearsals, we knew the whole event would take about the same amount of time as a television commercial.