Havana may be far from Washington, but DC power brokers are never far from Havana. Neither are danger, deception, and sudden death. That’s what draws Max Pauling there. As an ex-CIA, ex-State Department employee, he faces an uneventful early retirement–until he is asked to secretly fly some medical supplies into the mysterious Cuban city.
If Max is looking for excitement, he finds it. First there’s his contact, a breathtaking beauty with private plans of her own. Then there’s a former senator, in Havana to ease the U.S. embargo, but who may have another, more malevolent, mission. Throw in endless supplies of under-the-table money– not to mention a murder–and Max has landed in a place even more corrupt . . . and more compelling . . . than the U.S. capital itself.
About the Author
Margaret Truman has won faithful readers with her works of biography and fiction, particularly her ongoing series of Capital Crimes mysteries (nineteen and counting)–from Murder in the White House to Murder at Ford’s Theatre. Her novels let us into the corridors of power and privilege, poverty and pageantry, in the nation’s capital. She lives in Manhattan.
Read an Excerpt
New Mexico Max Pauling left the private airport outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, at six in the morning and flew to a small airstrip in Arizona, near the town of Maverick, on the southern rim of the White Mountains. There, his single-engine, fixed-landing-gear Cessna 182S was loaded with God knows what. The dozen pea-green canvas bags were wrapped with duct tape, low-tech security. He didn’t care what was in them. He’d made the point when signing on to transport materials from Maverick that drugs were off-limits, and was assured none were involved. None, that is, if you could believe what they said, “they” being agents of his former employer, who had a reputation for many things. Consistent truth telling was not one of them.
The man who’d pulled the green pickup truck to the side of the aircraft and unloaded the bags from its bed had small lumps all over his face, some obscure disease, Pauling figured, that made him look strange but probably wouldn’t kill him, though it didn’t do much for Max’s morale. Other than that, the man seemed average in all ways.
“Nice plane,” he said.
“I like it,” Pauling said.
He’d bought it used two years ago from a Maryland flying club after returning from a seven-year stint in Moscow, ostensibly as a member of the Trade and Commerce Division of the U.S. embassy, but more accurately on assignment for the CIA. There were more up-to-date single-engine aircraft, and more expensive ones, but this one suited Pauling just fine. He’d loaded it with modern avionics; he was instrument rated, which allowed him to fly in IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) conditions, while private pilots rated VFR (Visual Flight Rules) sat on the ground until they could see where they were going. His recently earned multi-engine rating turned out to be more frustrating than pleasing. He was now licensed to pilot twin-engine aircraft, but couldn’t afford one. Whoever said life was fair?
The man with the knobby face told Pauling to have a nice trip and drove off, his pickup kicking up yellow dust from the dirt strip. Pauling looked around. There wasn’t another person to be seen. Because Maverick did not have a refueling facility, he’d topped off the tanks back in Albuquerque. He knew there would be fuel at his next stop because he’d taken on some there on previous trips.
He did a walk-around of the plane to check for obvious external problems, climbed into the left seat, strapped the clipboard holding the aeronautical chart to the top of his right thigh, started the engine, checked gauges, ran over the preflight checklist, taxied to the downwind end of the runway, pushed down on the brakes with his toes, advanced the throttle to the firewall, waited a moment for the engine to reach maximum power, released the brakes, and bounced down the strip until pulling back on the yoke and lifting off. The lifeless, unrelieved sameness of Maverick, Arizona, fell away below.
He glanced at some of the green bags piled on the right-hand seat; the bulk of the cargo had been loaded in the back. He looked on the floor to make sure his survival kit was there, felt beneath the instrument panel where an Austrian Glock nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol was securely strapped, and pulled a slip of paper from one of twenty-six pockets in the tan photojournalist’s vest he wore, the many pockets his answer to a woman’s purse. Written on the paper were instructions for crossing the Mexican border. Pauling had committed them to memory, but like any good pilot he depended upon lists to back up his brain. He was to be at precisely three thousand feet when he crossed the border two miles east of Douglas, Arizona, then bank hard right and pass over the Mexican town of Agua Prieta, set a course of 210 degrees, and fly to an airstrip just east of Hermosillo, where the mountains give way to greener lowlands.
It was important, he knew, to follow the flight plan with precision. Stray from it and you’d attract the attention of DEA pilots assigned to intercept private aircraft flying in and out of Mexico on the assumption that what they were carrying would ultimately go up somebody’s nose or into someone’s arm. The prescribed route he would fly this day had been worked out with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the CIA, and Mexican authorities. It was hands-off provided he stayed within the approved corridor.
He crossed the border at three thousand, turned right, and set the autopilot to a 210-degree heading. Heated thermals from the ground caused the small plane to bounce around, as expected on a sunny day in late July. The weather forecast for this area of Mexico, and for Albuquerque, was fair, no need to rush to get back home once he’d set down. He settled back and had an urge for a cigarette. Although he’d kicked the habit ten years ago, the yearning still surfaced at predictable times—at theater intermissions, over the first cup of coffee in the morning, and when cruising on autopilot. His thoughts drifted to Jessica, the love of his life, or at least his second life. Together, they had moved to New Mexico from moonstruck Washington, D.C., more than a year ago after giving up government jobs and heading west in search of sanity, which they found in Albuquerque. He spent most of his days teaching well-heeled men and women to fly. Jessica went to work as an administrator at a local hospital during the week, and spent most weekends indulging her life’s passion, bird watching, which held little interest for Max unless the bird was metal and powered by a Lycoming humming at 2,700 rpms.
Pauling began his descent into the airfield hacked out of a heavily forested area outside Hermosillo, set up for a straight-in approach, cleared trees at the east end of the strip by fifty feet, and touched down smoothly. The ruts in the ground weren’t shallow, however, and he cursed as he fought to keep the Cessna straight.
The camp at Hermosillo for training anti-Castro Cuban-Americans had been established within the past year with the cooperation of Mexican authorities after media scrutiny of Florida training facilities had become nettlesome. In the time-honored spirit of all things military, the camp’s leaders eschewed naming the new facility something simple like Camp Number Four, or The Mexican Camp, favoring a more mysterious and symbolic designation. It was known as Timba Candente—“Timba,” the frenetic new Cuban dance music, “Candente,” Spanish for red-hot. Red-hot Cuban music for red-hot anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in mottled green-and-brown uniforms, with AK-47s, mortars, grenades, and World War II flamethrowers.
A man, large in all ways—head, chest, shoulders, and arms—stood at the wingtip as Pauling scrambled down. He wore military-issue camouflage pants with ties at the ankles and ankle-high combat boots. His enormous naked torso and bald head were sunburned to leather; sweat so uniformly covered him that it was as though someone had applied it with care. He was older than he looked; a bush of white chest hair gave that away.
“Look who’s here,” he said in a gravelly voice that matched his physique. “Federal Express.”
“Hello, Morry,” Pauling said, pulling out sunglasses he’d put in a pocket after landing.
Morry grabbed a wing tip of the Cessna and moved it up and down. “What’s the matter, Pauling, they don’t pay you enough to buy a real plane?”
“You ever hear of austerity budgets? I fly cheap. But good. What’s for lunch?”
Morry, whose last name was Popovich, barked at two young Cubans in fatigues a dozen feet away, “Unload the plane. Pronto!” To Pauling: “These Cubans are itching to go into Cuba and fight a war, but everything’s mañana. All they think about is their novias back home.”
“What’s a novia?”
“Hey, Pauling, if you’re going to help the dump-Castro movement, learn the language. Novia. Girlfriend. Sweetheart.”
They walked toward a low-slung building with a tin roof and unpainted plywood walls. Two through-the-wall air conditioners powered by generators hummed like large insects. Dozens of green military tents were lined up at the western edge of the camp. Adjacent was an obstacle course dominated by a wooden tower, the top of which disappeared into palm trees.
“You convert yet?” Pauling asked as they stopped in front of a small altar of sorts, off to the side of the entrance to the headquarters building. It was a boveda, spirit altar of the Cuban religion Santeria. Candles, glasses of water, and small photos of deceased family members of recruits at the facility were neatly arranged on a white sheet.
Popovich snorted. “Hell, no.” He patted his holstered side arm. “This is all the religion I need.”
They turned as a dozen young Hispanic men in combat fatigues and carrying rifles jogged by, prodded by the shouting of a Caucasian instructor who kept step with them.
“You’re wasting your time, Morry,” Pauling said casually as the unit passed.
“What’a you mean?”
“Training this ragtag army to topple Castro. It’s going to happen without one shot fired.”
“Is that so? What the hell do you know?”
“Read the papers, Morry,” Pauling said as they entered the building. “We’re gradually softening up on Castro: the administration, Congress, public sentiment. Elián helped. McDonald’s and Motel 8 will do the invading.”
“Bull! The only way that scumbag dictator will leave is when we take him out in a box.”
Pauling smiled. “And not good for your career, huh, if the diplomats and pols win the war?”
“Bull! If it isn’t Castro, it’ll be some other tinhorn troublemaker. Chávez in Venezuela. Gadhafi. What are you doing, Pauling, going soft?”
“No, I’m not getting soft, Morry. Getting a little older, maybe, and wiser. What’s for lunch?”
A young Cuban in uniform tossed a snappy salute at Popovich and Pauling as they ducked through the door. The interior consisted of one large room with scarred dining tables and folding chairs. Two weary ceiling fans were hung low enough to decapitate tall people, slowly. At one end, more tables created a separation between the main room and a kitchen. On one wall was a large blowup of a map of Cuba; multicolored pins clustered in various locations indicated, Pauling assumed, poten- tial targets, although he’d never bothered to ask. He’d had his fill of pins in maps when he was with the CIA and had functioned in a similar capacity with the State Department. War games. Pins. He’d outgrown them.
They went to the kitchen area where three Hispanics stirred something in large vats and turned innominate meat on a grill. A crude, handwritten sign was strung across the wall: “Este año con valentia, disciplina y honor Cuba sera libre del tirano Castro.” It hadn’t been there the last time. “What’s it say?” Pauling asked.
“Cuba will be free from Castro’s tyranny this year. Discipline, honor, the usual bull.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” said Pauling.
“What’s for lunch? You want to know?” Popovich said, ignoring the comment. “Cuban cuisine. They call it El Campo. Country food or something. Beans. Black beans and red beans. Rice. And always el plátano grande—plantains. They fry ’em, steam ’em, squash ’em, boil ’em. No American food, Pauling, because your friends back in Lang- ley think it would be bad for morale if officers eat different from the troops.”
“They’re right,” Pauling said with a smile. “And by the way, I don’t have friends back at Langley.”
“Oh, I forgot. You retired.” Popovich had a way of making a point by stressing certain words, stretching out their pronunciation, and smirking as he did so. “You keep in touch with Hoctor?”
“No.” Tom Hoctor had been Pauling’s “handler” for much of his career as an operative for the CIA.
“How’s retired life?” Popovich asked.
“Except you’re playing messenger for your ex-employer. That doesn’t sound like retirement to me.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It has been years since Max Pauling was an active secret agent, but sometimes he misses the drama. When a fellow former agent offers him a chance to do investigative work in Cuba, Max decides this is just the kind of break from retirement he needs. Although not anticipating danger, one of his sources is killed, and then he is assaulted. Max realizes that someone does not want him to uncover dangerous secrets of the isle bonita.
Margaret Truman was very perceptive in her distrust of some federal government agencies, especially those which keep secrets even from the men and women who work there. Their directors seem to go off on their own to authorize "special missions" which are pet projects of theirs. Anyone below those directors are expendable. They look one in the eye and spout their own propaganda without batting an eye. I have believed for many years that one cannot trust anyone who has ever run one of these agencies. As with all her other books, the researchers were first rate and provided her with small details which add realism to her stories. I am now reading the 23rd book in the Capital Crimes Series and have recommended that many of my friends, especially my high school classmates who still live in the DC area, read the series. I made sure I have the entire set and wonder what next book will be able to live up to the enjoyment I've had from reading all of this series.
I have read and enjoyed all of Truman's books. This was not her best. It seemed very disjointed - even though I read it at one sitting on a long flight.