by  T. Raymond Watson

At first it seemed liked a normal day at King Cigars. Terry-Watson-WH2

It was close to noon. The usual suspects were on the patio. Five middle-aged regulars, in business casual, all smoking their daily cigars and leering after each, near-underage female who passed by. A guy in dreadlocks, imitating a latter-day hippie, sipped his cafe con leche, sucked on his cigarette, and talked intently to his waif of a girlfriend as his hand stroked her jean-clad inner-thigh.  A panhandler walked by slowly, hoping to get a handout without drawing the attention of employees inside.

I passed through the door, and the sunlight disappeared, changing to a smoky semi-darkness with sounds of hushed voices coming from several huddled groups. Behind the cigar counter stood Juan, a fixture there for years who was now branching out into guiding ghost tours of Ybor. Juan was one of those guys who always had stories to tell. I hadn’t gone on one of the tours. Why should I? I could come into KC and hear the stories for free. Over the previous months Juan’s ghost stories had changed. He no longer seemed to tell them for fun. He was now more like an evangelical preacher. He leaned into you, telling his stories with a passion, and sharing the latest evidence he could dig up.

In the corner window sat Al Fuente in his resplendent yellow sports coat with its matching fedora on the table. He held a lit cigar in his right hand but it somehow looked more like a prop for a photograph than something he was really smoking. Al was the big man on Cuba politics in Ybor and beyond. He had traveled to Cuba repeatedly in his quest to see our policies toward the island nation brought into the 21st Century. Al was intimately familiar with all the players and was passionate to the point of being a lightening rod in the eyes of many. I considered him a friend and would normally have sat down with him, except that he was sitting with two men I did not know. They seemed to be deep into a conversation, so I decided to join him later.

I instead found a window seat by the door, ordered my coffee, expecting soon to be joined by friends eager to debate the latest political issues. Tony, the owner, came in from the back.  I pulled out a chair in anticipation. He hesitated before he came over, seeming grim and pre-occupied. Finally, he sat down but barely acknowledged my greeting. He was turned askew toward the front door and only answered my comments and questions with a brief yes or no–quite unusual behavior for him.

Pepe Mendez came in and glanced our way. I had known Pepe for several years and thought he would come over to greet us. He was the owner of America’s only three language radio station and carrier of the flame for Ybor renaissance. He was also friends with Al and a fellow crusader for normalization of relations with Cuba.  Instead of joining us, he looked only at Tony. I thought I saw Tony nod slightly. Pepe then continued to the back of the store. I figured he needed to go to the restroom and would be back shortly.

Three men I had never seen came in and found seats near the back. Once seated, they seemed to study each person in the place.

After several minutes of distracted conversation, Tony abruptly said he needed to do something in the back, got up, and left. No goodbyes, no promises to see me later, nothing.

I sat and tried to read the paper but I couldn’t concentrate. I felt very uncomfortable. For the first time ever, I felt that I didn’t belong in this place. I didn’t feel connected to the people around me. There was one exception. When I looked over at Juan standing behind the counter, he smiled. It was a strange, calm, almost all knowing smile. I decided I would go over and talk to him but first I had to take a piss.

I got up and headed for the restroom hoping that Pepe would be done by the time I got there. I walked past the threesome who had come in earlier but their glares made me a little self-conscious and added to my discomfort.  Ahead of me I saw that the restroom door was open. I briefly wondered what had happened to Pepe. How could he have left without my seeing him? 

Standing in front of the urinal, I realized that I was glad to be in the room alone. At the sink, I purposely took a long time washing. As I did, a feeling of anxiety seemed to flow out of my body as steadily as the water washed off my hands. What was going on out there? Was it me, or was everyone in the place behaving strangely? Perhaps I had been uptight when I first entered and created the negative reactions in my own mind. I would leave the bathroom with a smile on my face, sit down with some friends, and enjoy the next couple of hours.

When I emerged from the restroom, the three men were gone.  That was strange. They had just been served. Two thirds of a cigar was lying across an ashtray, and their drinks were still mostly full. I hadn’t been in the bathroom that long. How could they have wound up their conversation, paid their bill, and disappeared already?  No matter, I squinted my eyes to see into the front corner. I would join Al and his two companions. But, they, too, were gone. In fact, the place was empty. There was only Juan at the cigar counter and the beautiful Sabina on the opposite side, behind the bar. How could things have changed in the place in such a short time?

Behind me, I heard a muffled “Oh shit!” followed by a scraping sound. It sounded like Tony, the owner. It came from beyond the bathroom, from a back room with stairs that went up to the second floor office. Most of us never felt welcome to go back there, but it sounded as if Tony might need some help. As I walked past the bathrooms, I heard the scraping sound again.  I called his name but all was quiet.

The room was small, dark, and a little damp. It had just enough space for the stairs, an alarmed emergency escape to the alley, and a few boxes of kitchen supplies stacked against a wall. Strangely, two boxes had fallen and were blocking the stairs. I bent to pick them up and saw that the box they had been sitting on sat ajar from its place against the wall. I started to put the boxes back into place when I saw that a small section of the wall seemed to be pushed out and there was a sliver of light coming out of a narrow crack.

I glanced around quickly, feeling as if I were doing something wrong, as if I had my hand in Grandma’s secret cookie jar. This wasn’t my place. What right did I have?

My curiosity was too great. My hand shook as I stuck my fingertips into the crack to see if I could pry it open. Slowly, I pulled a four by three foot section of the wall out. It scraped against the floor, sounding similar to what I had heard earlier. A dim light filtered out. I leaned forward and peered in. A ladder extended down about 10 feet. I thought I heard some distant noises, maybe voices. I knew I had to go down. My heart was pounding, and I was sweating profusely.  As I got onto the ladder I could see a handle that allowed me to pull the section of wall closed. I wasn’t sure that this was a good idea, so I pulled it part way. Again, there was the scraping sound.

I took the steps slowly as I was constantly looking behind me to see what I was getting into.  As I neared the bottom, I could see that I was in a tunnel. A single electrical cord with periodic dim lights ran down the middle of the ceiling. The tunnel wasn’t wide. I could almost touch the walls if I reached out on both sides. It seemed to range from about six to seven feet in height. The walls and ceiling were supported by wood framing and were clearly built a long time ago. I couldn’t see well but it seemed to go on for quite a long distance and then split in two.

Then it hit me.

Were these the infamous Ybor tunnels from the 1920s and 30s? I had heard variations on the tunnel stories many times. Some say the tunnels provided escape routes for those involved in illegal activities. When the police would arrive expecting to corner six boozed up gamblers in the back of some store, they would find nothing. In the meantime, the six men would calmly walk out of a supermarket across the street. It was said that the tunnels were also used to store liquor during Prohibition.  Some doubted whether the tunnels existed at all. But most agreed that if they had ever existed, they were long gone. How far did this one go, and why was it lit?

I walked cautiously. There was trash and jagged outcroppings.  As I reached the point where the tunnel split, I heard more noise off to the left. This time I was sure that I was hearing voices, angry voices. I kept walking but very slowly. I was getting scared.  The voices were getting clearer. They were mostly in Spanish with just periodic words in English. I thought I also heard Italian, at times, but wasn’t sure. The tunnel turned right and as I edged forward it seemed to be opening into a larger space. I knew I wasn’t far from the men and wasn’t sure that I should move further. They sounded really angry and might not react well to an intrusion. There were more noises followed by a couple of thuds. Was someone being hit? Then I heard the words, “mother-fucker I am going to kill you.”

I had to get out. I couldn’t make any noise. In my panic I hardly knew what I was doing, but at some point I started to run, then stumble, then run more. My fear worsened as I realized it was taking longer to get back to the entry point than it should. Had I passed it or taken a wrong turn? Wherever I was, it was getting darker and harder to see where I was going. My foot went down suddenly and I fell forward. I started to get up but something was on my leg. I hit at it. It was inside my pant leg. I felt a sudden pain in my calf as I hit at it again. It dropped down out of my pants and ran. I just got a glimpse but it appeared to be a very large rat. I struggled to get up. I started to run before I fully got my footing and fell into the wall.

“How in the hell did you do that? “  It was Tony, King Cigar’s owner, sitting next to me at a back table. He was holding a cloth to my head. There were a couple of drops of blood on the table in front of me. Tony was apologetic. He said nobody had actually seen me fall but they think I stumbled on a power cord that was temporarily lying across the hall in front of the bathroom. I then apparently hit my head on a table as I fell. I had been out cold.

Everything seemed muddled but as I sat there my anxiety took over. Memories of the men in the tunnel came flowing back.

I grabbed Tony’s arm and pulled his hand away from my head. “No, it wasn’t the cord, it was in the tunnel.” He asked what the hell I was talking about. I tried to get up and head for the back room but I was dizzy. I tried again, this time keeping my hands on the wall for support. “Tony, come look.”

When we reached the boxes in the back, they were stacked neatly. I got down on my knees and pulled them away from the wall. Nothing. Yes, the wall was old and full of cracks and crevasses but I couldn’t see a place to pull a section open. Tony asked what the hell I was doing. I tried to explain but he interrupted and said I was confused from the fall. He insisted we go back out to the front and sit down.

Out in the cafe, he guided me to a seat near the back. My head was throbbing. I was confused. Several people came to the back and asked if I was okay. Tony told each of them that I would be fine and waived them off. Juan had remained at the front as others came and checked on me. After some time Tony got up and said he needed to take care of something but would be right back. I put my hands to my head and leaned forward on the table. My head continued to throb. I closed my eyes and slumped forward to the tabletop.

Then I heard Juan’s voice, “You saw them, didn’t you?”

I lifted my head slightly and forced my eyes partially open. Juan’s slightly rotund figure blocked the sunlight coming from the front windows. I let my eyes close again momentarily and moved my head to the right and then the left shoulder trying to relieve the pain.

What was Juan asking?

I pushed myself up straight in the chair and opened my eyes to answer. Nobody was there. I looked around in a panic.

Tony walked up behind me. “How are you feeling?” I had trouble catching my breath and found it hard to talk. “Tony, where is Juan?”

“Don’t you remember? Juan hasn’t worked here for several weeks. He has been too busy doing those ghost tours.”

Absolute fear gripped me. Was I losing it? What had I seen or not seen? I closed my eyes again and tried to get control. I felt the pain throb in my head but also became aware of additional pain, a pain in my leg. My pant leg felt wet. I looked down and saw blood spots and a tear in my pants. I pulled my leg up to get a closer look. Scratches, and what appeared to be, a small bite.