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The Cuban Affair
Published on September 19, 2017
Debuted at #1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list!
From the legendary #1 New York Times bestselling author of Plum Island and Night Fall, Nelson DeMille’s blistering new novel features an exciting new character—U.S. Army combat veteran Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, now a charter boat captain, who is about to set sail on his most dangerous cruise.
Daniel Graham MacCormick—Mac for short—seems to have a pretty good life. At age thirty-five he’s living in Key West, owner of a forty-two-foot charter fishing boat, The Maine. Mac served five years in the Army as an infantry officer with two tours in Afghanistan. He returned with the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, scars that don’t tan, and a boat with a big bank loan. Truth be told, Mac’s finances are more than a little shaky.
One day, Mac is sitting in the famous Green Parrot Bar in Key West, contemplating his life, and waiting for Carlos, a hotshot Miami lawyer heavily involved with anti-Castro groups. Carlos wants to hire Mac and The Maine for a ten-day fishing tournament to Cuba at the standard rate, but Mac suspects there is more to this and turns it down. The price then goes up to two million dollars, and Mac agrees to hear the deal, and meet Carlos' clients—a beautiful Cuban-American woman named Sara Ortega, and a mysterious older Cuban exile, Eduardo Valazquez.
What Mac learns is that there is sixty million American dollars hidden in Cuba by Sara’s grandfather when he fled Castro’s revolution. With the “Cuban Thaw” underway between Havana and Washington, Carlos, Eduardo, and Sara know it’s only a matter of time before someone finds the stash—by accident or on purpose. And Mac knows if he accepts this job, he’ll walk away rich…or not at all.
Brilliantly written, with his signature humor, fascinating authenticity from his research trip to Cuba, and heart-pounding pace, Nelson DeMille is a true master of the genre.
I was standing at the bar in the Green Parrot, waiting for a guy named Carlos from Miami who’d called my cell a few days ago and said he might have a job for me.
Carlos did not give me his last name, but he had ID’d himself as a Cuban American. I don’t know why I needed to know that, but I told him I was Scots-Irish-English American, in case he was wondering.
My name is Daniel Graham MacCormick—Mac for short— age thirty-five, and I’ve been described as tall, tan, and ruggedly handsome. This comes from the gay clientele in the Parrot, but I’ll take it. I live here on the island of Key West, and I am the owner and skipper of a 42- foot deep-sea fishing charter boat called The Maine, named for my home state—not for the American battleship that blew up in Havana Harbor, though some people think that.
I usually book my charters by phone, and most of my customers are repeats or referrals, or they checked out my website. The party just shows up fifteen minutes before sailing, and off we go for marlin, sailfish, tuna, sharks, or whatever. Or maybe the customer wants a sightseeing cruise. Now and then I get a fishing tournament or a romantic sunset cruise. Whatever the customer wants. As long as it’s legal.
But this guy, Carlos, wanted to meet first, coming all the way down from Miami, and he sounded a bit cryptic, making me think we weren’t talking about fishing.
The barmaid, Amber, inquired, “Ready for another?”
“Hold the lime.”
Amber popped another Corona and stuck a lime wedge in the neck.
“Lime’s on me.”
Amber is pretty but getting a little hard behind the bar. Like nearly everyone here in what we call the Conch Republic, she’s from someplace else, and she has a story.
I, too, am from someplace else—Maine, as I said, specifically Portland, which is directly connected to Key West by U.S. Highway One, or by a cruise up the coast, but Portland is as far from here as Pluto is from the sun. FYI, I spent five years in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer and got blown up in Afghanistan. That’s the short story of how I wound up here. The long story is a long story, and no one in Key West wants to hear long stories.
It was about 5 p.m., give or take an hour. The citizens of the Conch Republic are not into clocks, which is why they’re here. We’re on sun time. Also, we have officially seceded from the United States, so we are all expats. I actually have a rainbow-hued Conch Republic passport, issued by the self-appointed Secretary General of the Republic, a guy named Larry who has a small office over on Angela Street. The passport was a gag gift from my first mate, Jack Colby, who like me is an Army vet. Jack got screwed up in ’Nam, and he’s still screwed up but in an old-guy sort of way, so my customers think he’s just grumpy, not crazy. His favorite T-shirt says: “Guns Don’t Kill People. I Kill People.” Maybe he is crazy.
I wasn’t sure of the time, but I was sure of the month—October. End of hurricane season, so business was picking up.
Amber, who was wearing a tank top, was sipping a black coffee, surveying the crowd. The Green Parrot’s regular clientele are eclectic and eccentric and mostly barefoot. The owner, Pat, is a bit crazy himself, and he tells the tourists that the parachute hanging on the ceiling is weighed down with termite turds.
Amber asked, “How’s business?”
“Summer was okay. September sucked. Picking up.”
“You were going to take me for a sail in September.”
“I did a lot of maintenance on the boat.”
“I thought you were going to sail to Maine.”
“I thought so, too.”
“If you ever go, let me know.”
“You’ll need a sweater.”
A customer called for another and Amber moved off.
I’ve never actually slept with Amber, but we did go skinny dipping once off Fort Zachary Taylor. She has a butterfly tattoo on her butt.
The place was starting to fill up and I exchanged greetings with a few people. Freaks, geeks, loveable weirdos, and a few Hemingway look-alikes. He used to live here, and you can see his house for ten bucks. You can see mine for free. Bring a six-pack. Anyway, Key West’s official motto is “One Human Family.” Well, they haven’t met my family. And they haven’t been to Afghanistan to see the rest of the human family. Or, like Jack, to Vietnam. Or if they have, they’re here, like me and Jack, to float in a sea of alcohol-induced amnesia. I’ve been here four years. Five is enough to forget why you came here. After that, you’re not going home.
But, hey, it could be worse. This is paradise. Better than two tours in Allfuckedupistan. Better than freezing my ass off in Maine. And definitely better than 23 Wall Street, where I worked for a year after graduating from Bowdoin College. If I’d stayed with Hamlin Equities I’d now be dead from boredom.
Instead, I was captain of The Maine, and a former captain of infantry with a fifty percent combat disability and a quarter-million-dollar bank loan on my boat. The fifty percent disability is for pay purposes and I have no physical limitations except for housecleaning. The bank loan is a hundred percent pain in the ass.
But when I’m out there on the sea, especially at night, I am free. I am captain of my own fate.
Which was why I agreed to meet Carlos the Cuban, who was not interested in fishing. That much I understood from our short phone conversation. And I wouldn’t be the first sea captain who got involved with these people.
Well, I’d listen and see if I could make an intelligent decision— like I did when I left Wall Street and joined the Army for adventure. How’d that work out, Mac?
Being captain of your own fate doesn’t mean you always make good decisions.
A well-dressed man came through the open double doors and I knew it was Carlos. He was good-looking, maybe late thirties, with a full head of well-styled brown hair and pale skin. He wore neatly pressed beige linen slacks, Gucci loafers, and an expensive-looking Polo shirt the color of my lime wedge. I had the impression of a man who had stood in his air-conditioned walk-in closet this morning trying to figure out what to wear to Key West to blend in. Unfortunately he failed. But no one here is judgmental, and in fact some of the gay clientele seemed intrigued.
I’d chosen to dress up a bit for the meeting and I wore clean jeans, boat shoes instead of flip flops, and a designer T-shirt that said: “Designer T-Shirt.”
I knew Carlos hadn’t picked me out of the Yellow Pages, so he knew something about me and he’d determined that Daniel Graham MacCormick might want to work for him. Well, maybe I did, but I damn sure wasn’t going to make a midnight run to Cuba.
Carlos spotted me at the bar and walked toward me. He put out his hand. “Carlos.”
“Mac.” We shook.
“Thank you for meeting me.”
When someone thanks me for meeting him, he has something to sell me. Or Carlos was just a polite gentleman. He was probably third generation and he had no Cuban accent, but you can tell that these people are bilingual by their well-modulated English and their slightly skewed syntax. Also, a lot of them used their Spanish first names, so he wasn’t Carl. I asked, “What are you drinking?”
He looked at my Corona. “The same.”
I caught Amber’s attention and ordered two Coronas.
Amber checked out Carlos, liking what she saw, but Carlos didn’t notice because he was checking out the Green Parrot, not sure of what he was seeing. I could have met Carlos on the boat, but something told me that I should meet him in a public place, and he had no objection to that, which was good for starters. Plus, he could pick up my bar tab.
Amber gave Carlos his Corona with a lime and a smile, and slid mine across the bar.
Carlos and I clinked and he said, “Cheers.”
I noticed he was wearing a Rolex. I asked him, “You been to Key West?”
“How’d you come?”
It’s about a four-hour drive from Miami, down U.S. One, known here as the Overseas Highway, which connects the hundred-mile-long archipelago of islands, bridge by bridge, until it reaches Key West, the last island, ninety miles from Cuba. Some people say it’s the most scenic drive in America; others find it a little nerve-wracking and take a boat or plane the next time. Or never come back. Which is fine with some of the full-time residents of independent means. I, however, depend on mainland customers. Like Carlos. Who drove four hours to see me. “So what can I do for you?”
“I’m interested in chartering your boat for a cruise to Cuba.”
I didn’t respond.
“There is a fishing tournament, sailing from here to Havana in a few weeks.”
“Does the Cuban Navy know about this?”
He smiled. “This is an authorized event, of course—the Pescando Por la Paz.” He reminded me, “We are normalizing relations. The Cuban Thaw.”
“Right.” I’d heard about the new fishing tournament with the double-entendre name—Pescando Por la Paz, Fishing for Peace— but I wasn’t involved in it. Back in the Nineties, before my time, there used to be regular fishing tournaments and sailing regattas between the U.S. and Cuba, including the seventy-year-old Hemingway Tournament, but George II put a stop to all that. Now it was opening up again. The Cuban Thaw. The Key West Chamber of Commerce even had a new slogan: “Two Nations, One Vacation.” Catchy. But not happening yet.
Carlos asked, “So, are you interested?”
I drank some beer. Well, maybe this was all legit, and Carlos didn’t want me to sail into Havana Harbor and blow up The Maine, or rescue some dissidents or something.
I had some questions for Carlos—like who was he—but questions mean you’re interested. And that means the price is open to negotiation. “I get twelve hundred for an eight-hour day. Tournament rates depend on variables.”
Carlos nodded. “This is a ten-day event, beginning on Saturday the twenty-fourth, and returning on Monday, November second—the Day of the Dead.”
“The . . . ?”
“What we call All Souls’ Day in the U.S.”
“Right. Sounds better.” A fishing tournament is usually four to six days, but Carlos explained, “The tournament fleet first makes an overnight goodwill stop in Havana, then the fleet sails to the tournament in Cayo Guillermo, a day’s cruise east of Havana. Do you know this place?”
“It was the favorite deep-sea fishing place of Ernesto.” He smiled. “Hemingway, not Guevara.”
That must be an old Cuban joke.
He continued, “It was the setting for his famous book, Islands in the Stream. Have you read it?”
“So you know the place already. Some of the best pelagic fishing in the world.”
I was impressed that he knew what “pelagic” meant. The price just went up.
“The tournament is for bill fish—sailfish, swordfish, and marlin. Are you available?”
“Maybe. That’s a lot of diesel. Let’s say three thousand a day.”
He seemed to be doing the math, and if he was good at it, that came to thirty thousand. Which I could use. I don’t usually do a pitch, but I told him, “The Maine sleeps four comfortably, or five close friends. My first mate and I give up our berths. Price includes fishing gear, fuel, bait, and whatever. I assume this is catch and release, because I can’t keep big fish on ice. You supply the food and drink, and I need to see your license and permits for Cuba.” I reminded him, “Florida does not impose a sales tax on charter fishing, so thirty thousand is the total with no extra charges except a tip for the first mate at let’s say ten percent. I don’t take tips.” I also told him, “I’d have to cancel some previous bookings.”
“Your website shows only one booking in that time period.”
“Really? I need to update that. So, that’s the price.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Mr. MacCormick.”
“Captain.” He glanced around. “Let’s get a table.”
“There are some other details you need to know.”
Well, I was afraid of that. “Look . . . Carlos, I do charter cruises. Fishing, sightseeing, sometimes a party cruise. I guess I can do a tournament— even to Cuba—but I don’t do other things. Understand?”
Carlos didn’t reply and his silence said it all.
“But thanks for thinking of me.” I asked Amber to give the bar tab to Carlos and I wished him a safe trip back to Miami.
He replied, “Two million.”
“You heard me.”
I said to Amber, “Hold that tab.” I said to Carlos, “Let’s get a table, amigo.”
We took our beers to a back table and sat.
I can’t imagine how many shady deals have gone down in this place
over the last hundred and twenty-five years, but if the Green Parrot
could talk, it would say, “Show me the money.”
“Two million,” I said.
“For a fishing tournament.”
“No. That’s thirty thousand. Certified check up front. The two million is cash, payable on completion of a job in Cuba.”
“Sounds like a tough job.” I asked, “With whom would I be doing business?”
Carlos took a business card out of his pocket and slid it across the table.
I looked at it. Carlos Macia, Attorney. He had a good South Beach address, but there was no name of a law firm.
He said, “I’m well-known in Miami.”
“For being heavily involved with anti-Castro groups.”
I left the card on the table and looked at Carlos Macia. Odd as it sounds, I was happy to be dealing with a lawyer. Some of these anti-Castro guys were cowboys, sometimes hare-brained, and often dangerous to themselves and others. I looked at him. “Who recommended me?”
“Explain what you need, Counselor.”
He looked around the crowded room. “The walls have ears.”
“Actually, they have termites. And no one here cares what we’re talking about. Look, Mr. Macia, you have offered me two million dollars and it will not surprise you that I could use the money, but—”
“You can pay off your bank loan on The Maine.”
“But I will not do anything illegal for the money.”
“I would not ask you to. I am an attorney.”
“And your amigos? Are they attorneys?”
“No. But I can assure you, the only laws you’ll be breaking are Cuban laws. Does that bother you?”
“Only if I get caught.”
“And that’s the point. If you don’t get caught you are two million
dollars richer, and you have broken no American laws.” He smiled. “Unless you don’t pay your income tax on the money.”
On the subject of death, taxes, and getting caught, I asked Carlos, “How dangerous?”
“That’s for you to determine when you hear about the job.”
“How dangerous, Carlos?”
“Cuba is dangerous.”
“You expect me to risk my life for a measly two million taxable dollars?”
He looked at my bare arms. The shrapnel and burn scars didn’t tan well. “You risked your life for far less in Afghanistan.”
“It was a government job. Free medical.”
“You were awarded the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. So you’re no stranger to danger.”
I didn’t reply.
“This is why we thought of you.”
Again, I didn’t reply.
“And you have a good boat.” He smiled. “And I like the name. The Maine. Very symbolic. Part of our shared history.”
“I named it after my home state. Not the battleship.”
“Yes, you’re from Portland. And you have no family responsibilities here, and no one to answer to except yourself. Also, we know that as a former Army officer you are a man we can trust.”
“Sometimes I drink too much.”
“As long as you don’t talk too much. Also, you have no ties to the anti-Castro groups, and I assume you have no positive feelings toward the Communist regime. Correct?”
“Between you and me, Carlos, I don’t give a damn one way or the other.”
“So you say. But if I had to bet money—and I do—I’d say you’d like to see those Communist bastards gone.” He smiled again. “You could run charters to Havana.”
“I can do that when relations improve.”
“Don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, I have two million dollars on the table.”
I looked at the table. There was nothing there except his card and an ashtray. You can still smoke in this joint. I said, “The thirty thousand for the tournament sounds good.”
“Captain, I don’t really care about the tournament. That’s just the cover, as you know. In fact, you will not be sailing to Cuba on The Maine. Your first mate, Jack Colby, will. We will supply another crew member along with three avid fishermen. You will be flying to Havana on an authorized charter with one of my clients, and at some point after your job is done you will meet up with your boat and sail it out of Cuba.”
“With what onboard?”
He leaned toward me. “About sixty million dollars of American currency. Two of which are yours to keep.”
Carlos looked at me. “You’ll have to negotiate that with my clients.”
“Okay. And how’s my first mate compensated?”
“That’s up to you.” He informed me, “Mister Colby does not need to risk his life, and therefore does not need to know many of the details.”
“Who else is risking their lives?”
“A few others.”
“No. I am persona non grata in Cuba.”
“Right.” Well, I’d promised myself in the hospital that I’d be more careful in the future. But . . .
Carlos glanced at his Rolex. “I think I’ve given you enough information for you to decide if you’d like to hear more from my clients, who are available now.”
I thought about that. The mission briefing. I’d volunteered for dangerous missions because it was for my country. This was for money. A lot of it. And maybe it wasn’t as dangerous as Carlos thought. For Carlos, a Miami lawyer, driving back to Miami after dark was dangerous. But for me, the danger bar was so high that even now, four years after Afghanistan, I felt there wasn’t much I couldn’t handle. But maybe that’s how I wound up in the hospital.
Carlos said, “My client, who will fly with you to Havana, can speak to you tonight. She will be very honest with you.”
“Also, to be honest, we are interviewing others for this job.”
“Take the lowest bidder.” I stood. “And please take care of the bill.”
Carlos stood. “I can have my two clients at your boat in fifteen minutes. You should hear what they have to say.”
“I’ve heard enough.”
He looked very disappointed. “All right. I’ll let my clients know. Or . . .
I have an idea. You can let them know yourself. Can we charter your boat for a sunset cruise tonight? What do you charge for that?”
Carlos was slick. Or thought he was. I should have said, “Adios,” but I said, “Make me an offer.”
“How many people?”
“Three, including me.”
“Meet me at my boat in half an hour. What do you drink?”
“Cuba Libre.” He smiled.
“See you later. Give the barmaid a good tip.”
I walked through the noisy barroom, waved to Amber, and went out to Whitehead. Close by was the Zero Mile Marker for U.S. Highway One, the literal end of the road that started in Maine. I’ve had a lot of profound thoughts about that, usually fueled by a few beers. And I just had another thought: A journey of a hundred miles to Havana begins with a single misstep.