BAHIA DE TANAMO AIRFIELD
PUNTA GUARICO, CUBA
7:45 P.M. EDT, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20
For forty-five minutes the pilot waited in the cool darkness of the ancient wooden hangar, the picture of his daughters almost forgotten in his left hand. In the open doorway the sea wind off the Caribbean stirred up miniature tornadoes of ochre dust that floated across the dirt floor. The battered windward wall was pierced by nine thin blades of slanting yellow sunlight. Out in the arc of the bay, past the ragged line of dusty palms, a flight of gulls crossed the red disk of the sun, wheeling in unison over a sea filled with a churning golden light. It was the same clean light that he had seen as a child in the Platte River country, shining in the windblown yellow grasses that rolled away to the edge of his world. He hadn't been back to Nebraska since the Navy had sent him out to Hawaii in 1969. The picture of the two little girls in his hand had been taken on a beach in Oahu in 1973. The colors had faded; the bright ocean dulled, the sunset behind the girls a band of pale orange light. Katie was three at the time, Eileen two. He had taken the picture, Ruth's hand on his shoulder. Forty-eight hours later, he went back to the Gulf of Tonkin, flying a Phantom off the USS Coral Sea on Yankee Station. It took the Navy three weeks to deliver the photographs to the carrier. They were on his bunk waiting for him when he got back from Pearl. He heard a sound that he took for a gull's cry, but it was one of the Cubans calling him. "Oye! Señor Verde!" It was time to go.
Mister Green -- the words played in the silence of his mind. Green was his cover name for this...well, mission was not the right word. This lunatic stunt was closer to the mark. Mister Green sighed, got out of the old wicker chair, straightened his leather flight jacket, tightened the holster strapped to his right thigh, and stepped out into the light. The heat was strong on his cheek; the humid sea breeze smelled of salt and seaweed. A long ribbon of shadow rippled across the tarmac behind him as he covered the hundred feet from the hangar to the stone jetty, where the Kodiak Turbo Twin bobbed at the wharf. The wind plucked at the cuffs of his tan slacks and feathered his graying hair. At the far edges of the valley behind them, stunted scrub cypress fluttered and swayed under the unceasing winds off the Caribbean. Beyond the cypress, the distant cliffs of the Cuchillas del Pinal glowed with violet and deep rose light. Far away beyond the mainland, climbing up out of the southeast, he could see a high bank of thunderheads, vivid purple in the sunset, a storm front coming out of Haiti. Green tried to put the weather out of his mind. What mattered here was the plane itself.
He ran his hand over the fuselage, the Teflon-coated hide as warm and smooth as the barrel of a horse. She was rocking softly in the gentle swells, rising up under his hand. He ducked under the port wing, crouched down by the dockside and checked out the Number One engine cowling. Dry, clean, no streaks of oil or signs of hasty work badly done, no duct tape, no flimsy pop-rivet repairs, the usual trademark of feckless Third World mechanics.
He walked along the whole port side, touching it, stroking it, shaking the struts, leaning in close to rattle and tug at the float connections, the old familiar preflight routine running on automatic, the indelible residue of his twenty-odd years on a carrier's deck. Under the floats, the water was as clear as a gin-and-tonic. Sequined fish darted away from his shadow on the lime coral heads. The Cubans watched him from the dock, both hard Indian faces tight with attention. He straightened, tugged at the port cabin door and pulled it open. He had to hold it against a sudden gust off the water. Sea spray scattered tiny glittering diamonds across the windshield. The cabin interior was spotless, the instruments in good order. There was a large emergency oxygen canister in a brace beside the instrument panel. The cabin smelled strongly of soap and disinfectant. Someone had spent a lot of time and energy cleaning the interior. Green decided not to think about what may have happened to this plane's last pilot.
He stepped up on the ledge and studied the upper sections of the big wings. The paint job was perfect, a deep ocean blue on top, the undercarriage a light sky blue. Invisible against the ocean if she was spotted from above, invisible from the ground against a clear blue sky, painted with radar-suppressing latex: the Kodiak was a gem, as far as he could judge, in flawless condition, a very good plane. He hoped it wasn't going to kill him today.
Popping open the bulkhead hatch, Green looked over the cargo section, fifteen hot-pink bales, tightly bound in waterproof shrink-wrap, each bale averaging eighty pounds, for a total payload of twelve hundred pounds. Mounted on a solid metal skid, it seemed. Odd, because a wooden skid is lighter, and every bit as strong. Anyway, add the two saddle tanks, the auxiliary tank stowed aft and Green's own one hundred seventy-five pounds. One hundred and eighty-one, if he added in the loaded Glock strapped to his thigh and the fifty rounds of nine mill tucked in the breast pocket of his brown-leather bomber jacket. All in all, a heavy payload. Right at the plane's specified upper limit, a critical threat even without that big storm front he could see building over the mountains in the south. There was no margin for error. He tugged at the nylon straps holding the cargo. They thrummed with a deep bass note, piano-wire tight. The bolt-downs looked well set, the titanium racks solid. Good work, especially for Indians. He stepped back onto the dock, walked over to the Cubans. Narcisse Suerta was waiting with his hands down at his sides, his face turned into the wind. The other man with him, from his look a relative, was much heavier. His thick black hair flew back off his temples. The hard light in his eyes was Neolithic.
"Muy bueno, Narcisse. Your people did well."
Narcisse had nothing to say to that. Green got nothing human off the man, only his close attention. The mark on his face, the carved tattoo of a palm tree and a thunderbolt, looked like a red smear. The second man, new to Green, bearing the same tribal scar, did not even look at Green; all his interest was focused on the plane. He was barefoot and wore white pajama pants, a Polo shirt, and a bright yellow inflatable life jacket.
"Who's this?" asked Green, nodding at the man.
"In a moment. Where are your papers?"
Green handed Narcisse the packet containing his passport, wallet, identification papers, his Rolex, his wedding ring. He put the snapshot of the girls into his jacket pocket, next to the box of 9 mm rounds. Narcisse looked as if he had something to say about the picture, then shut his mouth, took the sealed package without a word, handed Green a Timex Indiglo watch with a clear plastic band and a bundle of used American bills sealed in a plastic Ziploc bag. He glanced down at the Glock in the holster on Green's thigh.
"That's clean," said Green. "Nothing traceable. Anyway, I'm keeping it. You'll want to stand off there. She'll kick up a big wash when I start the engines. I'll be doing a preflight check for about five minutes. How's the outside looking?"
Narcisse lifted up his shirt. Next to the Colt Python revolver shoved under his belt, there was a gray plastic Motorola radio.
"They are up there, on the ridge. If there had been anything, they would have told us. You should go as quickly as you can."
"Who'll be on the other end?"
Narcisse didn't like that question.
"I'm not told those things, Mister Green. I do the planes. You go now, okay? The American takes off very soon."
"You know the schedule?"
"There is no schedule. We have people in Caimanera, in the hills above Guantánamo. They know the plane. Everybody in Cuba knows the plane. When it takes off, our people phone. At this moment, the propellers are already turning. You need to go now."
"What about that storm front? I'm already too damn heavy. I get caught in that, I'll go down like a gutshot mallard. And the cargo with me."
Narcisse looked to the south, over the ridgeback of the mainland. A dark-gray squall line rode the mountain peaks and ribbons of lemon-yellow cirrus were spreading across the southern horizon. He shrugged it off, his plank-hard face tightening, his yellow-rimmed eyes narrowing.
"It comes. You will be in front of it. There is no danger."
None for you, anyway, he thought, but he kept it to himself. Doomed or not, he was going to have to fly this mission. He had no choice. With a dark heart he gave it one last try.
"We can do this another time. I take it this load cannot be lost."
"Yes. That is true. This one is the most important one of all. Castro's people are not stupid. It must go tonight."
"Who'll be on ground crew if I get back?"
"I will. I will show you lights once I hear from you."
Narcisse turned his upper body, gestured without looking up at the peak of El Caballete over his left shoulder.
"Up there, a red light blinks. If it does not, you land farther along the coast near Cayo Moa. We'll be waiting with a boat. If there was surveillance, or anything has happened, we will sink the plane."
With me in it, if I give you half a chance.
"I'll need some hot food. If I get back. And cerveza."
Narcisse showed his upper teeth, one gold incisor glinting.
"If? You will come back, Mister Green. Many people would miss you very much, no? You have much responsibility. It is very important for you to come back safely. You understand me? Now forgive me. I must speak alone with my friend. Oh yes. I forget. I have this gift for you."
Suerta pulled a small plastic packet out of the pocket of his slacks, handed it to Green with a reptilian smile, and backed away a few feet, watching Green's face with a fixed and avid expression that was an obscene parody of the gift-giver's expectant regard. Green held the package for a moment, looked hard into Suerta's eyes, and then opened it. Inside the package was a small brown hand, a human hand, purple with bruising and still crusted with dried brown blood, neatly severed close to the palm, the fingertips burned away, the fingers themselves broken and mangled.
Staring down at it, his breathing locked up tight, his face paling, he recognized the small silver ring he had given to Ottavio Colon fifteen days ago, a gift for the child, to amuse him while he and the boy's father, a local fisherman, talked quietly about Green's request -- a private message for a girl living in Havana -- and he had thought -- he had hoped -- after so much time without a word, that Ottavio and his father Fulgencio had made it all the way safely.
But they had not.
Suerta's people had caught them. After a time, in their Indian way, they had grown bored with the effort of hurting the child to punish the father and they had killed him; this gift was Suerta's way of telling Green not to try to send anyone to Havana again. Green composed his features and presented a stony blank mask to Suerta when he looked up again.
"Why was it necessary to do this?"
Narcisse lifted his hands, palms out, and shrugged theatrically.
"Consider it a lesson."
"For everyone here. The situation must be made plain to the local people as well. These fisherfolk, they run in and out of Havana with their catch, to sell in the marinas."
"Where is Fulgencio? Ottavio's father?"
A cynical shrug. Dismissive.
"No lo conosco. Desaparacido, tambien?"
"It is possible that his family killed him. It was he who cut off the boy's hands."
"His father did this?"
"We gave him a choice. He chose to live."
Green looked at Narcisse Suerta for a long while, and Narcisse held the look without a visible emotion. There being nothing more to say, their mutual hatred as clear as it could ever be, Green simply folded the package and put it into the breast pocket of his flight jacket. Still silent, his jawline tight and a muscle in his right cheek flexed with the effort of this silence, he climbed into the Kodiak.
Narcisse gave him an insolent bow and backed away twenty feet, turning to speak with the second man. Green got his breathing under a semblance of control, stilled his mind and settled into the pilot's chair, buckling his harness tight. Through the skin of the plane, he could hear Narcisse's voice raised, a harsh dialect that was probably mestizo, having some kind of bitter argument with the other man. The argument grew very heated. Then there was silence. Someone stepped onto the float and knocked on the door. It was Narcisse, his face very pale, his voice flat and hard, packed with resentment.
"It appears that you must take this man with you."
The big Indian was standing behind Narcisse, his face a stone mask, his body rigid. Green shook his head and frowned.
"No. Not in the plan. I'm heavy as it is. Not possible."
"It is felt...no. It is decided."
Green looked at Narcisse's face, could see there was no point in debating the issue with him. It had been Green's experience that the only way to win an argument with a man like Narcisse Suerta was to write your opinion down very clearly on a piece of paper and then nail the paper to the man's forehead with a nine-inch spike.
"Better get him on board, then."
Narcisse turned, spoke to the other man, a burst of rapid Spanish. Green felt the floats heaving as weight came on them; the Kodiak dipped. The passenger door popped opened and the man climbed inside, broad, powerful, heavy muscles sliding under his soft teal Polo shirt. A sterling-silver medal hung from a steel chain around his neck. His thick Indian face was blank, with a blood tint in his black eyes, the whites as yellow as old ivory. He smiled once, showing expensive bridgework and a single steel tooth. His smile was a thin one and did not warm his face. Green turned back to Narcisse, who was watching him intently.
"This guy's big enough to have his own climate."
Narcisse shrugged, said nothing. The man was leaning out of the cabin. The Kodiak rocked as he strained at something and now there was an assault rifle in his hands -- an AK-47, old but well maintained, with a curved magazine. The muzzle was pointed more or less in the area of Green's right kidney, possibly without intent. Perhaps the man found it more comfortable that way. Green did not.
"Narcisse, this is bullshit. I don't need a keeper."
"This is not bullshit, this is Geronimo, my cousin. You can call him Jerome. He wants to see Miami again. He has not been there for many years. Many old friends. It is important to him. As you can see."
"He weighs a ton, for Christ's sake."
"Do not blaspheme, Mister Green. For myself, it does not matter. But Jerome is very devout. Our people are from Belize and Our Lord is respected there. Jerome is a true believer."
He watched Jerome, who was examining the control panel as if he had never seen one before. Green had a terrible insight.
"Has this man ever been in a plane before?"
Narcisse shook his head, flashed him a shark's grin.
"No. This will be his first. He is very happy."
As far as Green could tell, the man was as cheerful as a crypt.
"He's a believer? Then tell him to pray for us."
Green may have meant it as a joke, but Narcisse's face was solemn. He inclined his head and spoke with some gravity in his thick growling Spanish, a Catalanian proverb that Green had come to recognize. "May no new thing arise."
Six minutes later, the blue Turbo Twin hammered away across the water, her twin engines blared and roared, white spray showered the windscreen. She lumbered into the air with a staggering lurch that Green felt in his spine. She was dangerously overloaded. In the co-pilot's chair, Jerome's face was bone white, his body arched and rigid, one bare foot propped against the panel, the AK-47 clutched in his hands. A portrait of incipient panic. Green looked off to starboard, saw Narcisse Suerta at the jetty, a small white figure on the concrete wharf. Suerta's head was turning to track his bank to the northeast. Green recalled the night his Harrier had been targeted by an Iraqi SAM site during a Gulf War mission over Bubiyan Island. The pilots called it "lit up and locked on." That was it exactly.
Copyright © 2003 by Absaroke, Inc.
Rick Broca's had more than his share of hard knocks -- which may explain why he's a retired cop at the age of thirty-three, working as a technical consultant for Hollywood producer Jake Siegel. For the last few months, that's meant taking care of Siegel's boat, Cagancho, in the Florida Keys.
But everything changes when Broca rescues a pilot from his downed seaplane during one of the Keys' notorious storms. Charles Green, injured but alive, is thankful for his good fortune, and Broca takes a liking to him. But is Green who he seems to be? Why does the faded photograph Green carries of two little girls in front of an old warship seem to haunt him? And why does he deny having had any military training, despite obvious evidence to the contrary? Questions fill Broca's head as he and Green steer Cagancho back to Miami. But when they are intercepted by a fishing boat carrying artillery, Rick knows enough to shoot now and ask questions later. So begins an insidious sequence of events that will ultimately force Rick Broca back into working for the government and force the U.S. government into an ugly confrontation with Cuba.
With its deadly maze of international espionage and political intrigue, Cuba Strait is a blistering thriller with all the trappings of a breakout bestseller.