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Spy’s Fate

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The debut novel from the Godfather of Cuban Noir.

$14.95 $11.21

Excerpt from Spy’s Fate

Excerpt of Chapter 1

The fan stopped with the screech of a dying animal. The heat, pushed aside all this time, invaded the room again. He remained motionless, staring into the darkness. Another power failure, he told himself, feeling immediate guilt for not jumping out of bed to unplug the refrigerator. The coils might burn if the power went on too soon or if there was a surge of high voltage on the lines, but still he refused to move. He was tired, very tired. Tired of the heat in that miserable 1994 Havana summer. Tired of the sleepless nights thinking about the problems that harassed him. Tired of waking up every time the power went off and on. Tired of everything he had done during the last twenty years.

A month earlier, in July, he had come back from Africa after a three-year assignment, pursuing one of the most complex missions of his life. Returning, he had been full of joy. Finally he was going to live a normal life, spending most of his time with his children—who were not children anymore—enjoying the grandchildren to come as he had never enjoyed his own kids. But his homecoming at the airport had been cool and polite. His two sons, who were twenty and twenty-two now, seemed uneasy and inhibited, and they made him feel the same way. His daughter, now seventeen, had not come to the airport at all. She had gone to the beach instead. Two days later, when she came back, she had excused herself, saying, “Imagine, Dad, two days in Varadero, what an opportunity! You know, Varadero Beach is only for the tourists and for the big shots’ families now. I hadn’t been there since you took us when I was twelve.”

***

When they arrived at his apartment from the airport, he had found all three bedrooms taken. His sons were living with girlfriends in two of them. The master bedroom, now belonging to his daughter, was locked. It was clear he did not fit into his children’s plans. Worst of all, though, was Cecilia’s absence. Sitting in the living room, trying to make conversation and being attended to like an unwelcome visitor, he realized that his whole past life had vanished with her death. The place was no longer the sweet home that had filled his dreams for so many years of patient waiting in distant lands. It was a territory invaded by three hostile strangers. The small boys he remembered taking turns to wear his boots and the tiny girl who liked so much to fall asleep on his lap had vanished forever. Just like their mother.

During the conversation, he decided to make a tactical retreat to study his new situation. He told his children he had to attend a work meeting for a few days just outside of Havana but would keep in touch by phone and drop by to see them as often as the meeting allowed.

The first couple of days, he stayed at a friend’s house, telling his friend that his whole family had been at the beach when he arrived and he had no keys to get in. He thought of discussing the situation with his superiors at the Service and asking for a place to stay for a few weeks, but rejected the idea for the moment, deciding to look for a room instead.

The next day, he stopped by for a short visit at an hour that seemed convenient to his children. They kept themselves distant and silent, asking no questions and showing no interest in where or how he was going to live. The presents he had brought were lying in the same place, as if they didn’t want to touch them. Sometime during the visit he stopped making conversation to gaze at the three sad faces staring through him and wondered what had become of his children now that they were grown-ups. It was clear they had a lot to say but did not want to say anything. For his part, he thought it wiser not to rush into the unavoidable bitter discussion. It would be better to first find out exactly what had happened, and why they had changed so much.

Later that afternoon, he left “his” apartment on Twentieth Street close to Third Avenue in Miramar feeling empty and defeated, as never before. He started to walk south along Twentieth toward Fifth Avenue when he suddenly heard the high-pitched squeal of a heavy vehicle braking behind him. He jumped toward the sidewalk. Glancing back, he saw a 1952 green Chevy pickup that had stopped barely six feet from where he had been walking. He started to move on, then felt someone at his back. Two arms held him from behind in a grip too powerful to shake off. He was bracing to try some defensive movements when he heard a voice thundering:

“This is how I wanted to catch you, sonofabitch!”

“Floro!” He recognized the voice of a buddy who had taken parachuting lessons with him fifteen years back. Later they’d worked together in Africa for several months. Floro was one of the most remarkable guys he’d ever met. Fearless, with the energy of a battalion, he could find solutions—sometimes crazy—for everything. Floro had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel twice and been demoted both times for some foolish mistake. He was finally dismissed from his short and brilliant career in the Intelligence Service five years ago for seeming to have lost the capacity to observe any sort of discipline or to obey any authority. Nevertheless, they had all liked him and were sorry to see him go.

Floro sat down on the curb, invited him to do the same, and began to relate the course of his life since they’d last met. A few minutes later, he finished, saying, “I work now as a construction foreman. Never had it easier in my whole life. I’m in charge of rebuilding houses. Once a house is rebuilt, it’s rented for dollars to foreigners living in Havana or to one of the new enterprises that work only with dollars. Dollars, dollars, that’s all that counts these days. What about you?”

“Floro, I’m in a hell of a mess. I just got back from too long a stint away from home. During that time, my wife died and my kids have changed completely—they’re downright hostile. They don’t even want me in the house anymore.”

Floro’s face looked grim. “They don’t have a right to do that to you!” His voice was angry.

“But it would be worse still if I tried to force them to share the house with me.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Floro remained silent for a while, then spoke emphatically. “Your situation is extreme, but don’t think you’re the only one in that boat. It’s a general problem with this generation. A lot of them have careers, and they know enough of the world to compare their income with what they could have if they were in another country. They have wings and they want to fly. They don’t ask themselves for one minute how and why they got their wings. They want to eat well, have their own place to live, own a car, and be able to travel with their own money. Basically, they want to do the things they see in American films and on TV. When they look at what they have now, they become convinced they’ll never have anything near what they desire. Then, they begin to resent the government as the cause of all their miseries. So they turn against people like you and me, as if we were part of the forces that keep them grounded while life passes them by.”

“You’ve become quite a philosopher, Floro. But the thing that worries me most now is that I don’t have a place to stay and I can’t afford to rent a room. This morning, a lady wanted one hundred dollars a month for a room. That’s two thousand pesos—four months of my salary!”

Floro slapped his friend on the shoulder, leapt up as if he’d been bitten on the ass, and pulled him from the sidewalk. “Let’s go. I have the perfect solution for you. The saints want to help you. They made me turn at Twentieth and not at Tenth, as I always do. Do you believe in our African voodoo saints? Shangó, Oshún, Yemayá . . . You better. Miracles are the only thing keeping the Cuban people alive nowadays.” Floro pushed him into his beat-up Chevy pickup and started driving.

“This vehicle is better now than when it came out of the Detroit factory. It had a gasoline motor, but I put in a new 100-hp Volvo diesel engine. A little heavy, though.”

After a short hop to Twenty-sixth Street, Floro stopped in front of a three-story apartment house being rebuilt into an office building a block away from the seafront. He led the way into the place, walking with his usual big strides. His old Russian boots with no shoelaces sounded like the hooves of a horse. He greeted the workers he met along the way, slapping his big hand hard on the shoulders of the ones he caught off guard.

“We’ll work on the top floor until it’s finished,” Floro said. “Then we’ll come down floor by floor. Most of the workers I have come from the eastern provinces. I give them some rooms on the second floor to live in. We keep the tools and the construction materials locked up in rooms on the first floor.”

Floro opened doors as he walked, showing him everything as he kept talking, jumping from one subject to another. When they reached a door at the end of a dark hall on the first floor, Floro pulled a big bundle of keys from his pocket and started testing each key in the lock. The last one opened the door to a room even darker than the hall. A stale odor welcomed them.

“I can let you use this room and the kitchen in the back. Take the key; it’s yours. But whenever you want to screw a woman, don’t bring her in here. Can you imagine what would happen if I let the men living upstairs do their fucking here? As my buddy, I’ll lend you the key to an empty house I keep furnished as a dormitory. You’ll have to make sure nobody’s using it before you go in with a lady. When you use it, you have to put up a signal in the window—your shirt, a shoe, the woman’s panties—anything.”

His friend disappeared into the darkness, stumbled twice, and cursed. Finally, he heard the sound of Venetian blinds being opened. Sunshine poured in and changed the place like magic. A rush of fresh air swept the dead odor out. Floro kept opening more windows and doors. “As long as I’m the one who pisses the furthest in this business, you don’t have to worry about a place to stay. After we finish here, there’ll be another house to rebuild somewhere else, then another and another. There are hundreds of empty houses to be rebuilt in Miramar alone.” Floro grabbed his friend’s shoulder in a steel grip. “Listen, man, I can even put you on the payroll as a night watchman. I’m talking seriously. An extra couple of hundred pesos a month come in handy, even if they aren’t worth shit these days. You’ll have to sign up with another name, but you’re used to that, aren’t you?” He paused a moment, then shook his head. “Well, maybe that’s not such a hot idea; for only two hundred pesos a month, we could both end up in jail.”

***

He pushed the thoughts—the unwanted memories—away, got up from the bed naked, and walked into the shadows of the kitchen, stumbling here and there against walls and furniture, searching for the electrical cord that had to be disconnected. Afterwards, he wrapped a wet towel around his waist and walked to the end of the kitchen to open the back door. A gust of sea breeze cooled by a full bright moon freshened the place.

“It would be heaven if this door could be kept open all night.” He muttered the words aloud and immediately realized that the invitation would be accepted by all the burglars on the coast, with the sure loss of the few irreplaceable items he still owned. The priceless electric fan first of all.

He closed his eyes and told himself again that his children and his present living conditions were only a partial cause of the bitterness he felt. There were other woes as well. He had come back to a country very different from the one he’d left. The economy seemed to have collapsed rapidly once trade and other economic relations with the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc had stopped—almost overnight—in 1991. In that same year, the United States had intensified its thirty-five-year economic war against Cuba. Now everything was in short supply: food, fuel, electricity, medicine, and transportation. Everybody he met had lost more than ten pounds on average in the last three years. Prostitution had flourished overnight. Young, beautiful, educated girls were selling themselves for almost nothing. Political unrest was growing because most people could see no way out of the current situation. Many desperate emigrants were trying to reach Florida at any cost to enjoy the privileged asylum granted to Cubans under a US law dating back to the sixties. That was a card the American government had been playing against the Cuban Revolution for many years, to encourage demoralizing defections and the use of force to procure vessels. In the last few months, numerous armed assaults had been made to seize small crafts from fishing enterprises, dockyards, and Coast Guard stations. Even a passenger ferry servicing Havana Bay had been hijacked, ending up at the bottom of the sea, its passengers drowned.

Finally, the situation out of hand, the Cuban government had issued a decree permitting free migration in any sort of vessel. The clear objective was to create a huge wave of emigrants in search of the land of milk and honey in Florida. The human tidal wave, the government had believed, would act as a boomerang forcing the United States—already overwhelmed by immigration from everywhere—to stop rewarding all Cubans arriving on US coasts with privileges not granted to any other nationality.

As soon as the new decree was known, thousands of desperate people began to gather whatever floatable material they could put their hands on to assemble all kinds of rafts. Working in their neighborhoods until they were ready, they would then carry everything to some place on the coast where the rafts could be assembled and launched out to the sea. Usually, they would take off late in the afternoon or at night to avoid the blazing tropical sun. Seamen recommended just past midnight as the best launching time, the period when the terral sets in, the friendly wind that blows from the land toward the sea until mid-morning the next day, taking sailing vessels easily into the open sea. Then, in the late morning, the trade winds set in, blowing steadily westward.

In good weather, crossing the ninety miles from Havana’s coast to Key West takes a day with a decent sailboat—a couple of days or more for a strong raft with oars and a sail. But still there are dangers. Weather in the summer changes quickly. Frequent thunderstorms with strong winds, heavy rains, and lightning are a deadly threat for any small vessel. Toward the end of summer, low-pressure centers can develop into hurricanes. On a poorly built raft, the odds against voyagers crossing the Florida Straits are great. In those cases, with luck, they might be spotted by a small US reconnaissance plane and picked up long before they reach the Florida coast by one of the many US Navy ships patrolling the area.



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