A Good Day to Die: A Novel

A Good Day to Die: A Novel

by James Coltrane


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A gripping novel of a doomed attempt to retake Cuba, written in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Robert Stone. War-weary and emotionally shattered after years of shadowy Company existence in Beirut, Belize, and El Salvador, Jorge Ortega finds himself installed as the expendable americano leader of a small guerrilla band of Cuban revolutionaries in the months after Fidel Castro's death. Eager to avenge his grandfather's demise during the Bay of Pigs invasion, Ortega is sent to lead a fragmented group of men and women whose uncertain allegiances seem to hex the mission --the seizure of a Cuban radio station --before it can even begin. More ill omens soon surface. Forbes, Ortega's Agency superior, has guaranteed to support the offensive with a massive landing that Ortega begins to doubt will occur. Meanwhile, Ortega's affair with Gloria, the beautiful but disfigured girlfriend of one of the soldiers whose trust he desperately needs, churns up stark memories of a death for which Ortega cannot forgive himself. Rich with astonishing verisimilitude, unbearable narrative tension, and pinpoint moral focus, James Coltrane's A Good Day to Die is a remarkable novel --a Nostromo for our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393336665
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 05/31/1999
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

HE CROUCHED BEHIND the shattered sill of the window, his legs folded beneath him, the old man by his side. High overhead a quad-prop Tupolev slowed above the harbor. The hotel was old, built for tourists before the first revolution. A rocket had taken off a good part of the roof; behind them the hallway gave on space, a sheer drop through rooms comically cross-sectioned, furniture still in place, picture frames cocked sideways. Across the boulevard, the roofs of burned-out apartment houses lay dark; below, ancient Chevys and a few Russian coupes flitted between the dead stoplights. Far down the boulevard he saw the white high-rise and the forest of antennas, gray in the fading summer light.

    "That's the station there?" Jorge Ortega asked.

    "The tall one," old Felipe said.

    "I don't remember it."

    "It's new. The old one's further down, below the ballpark."

    Jorge spread the acetate map on the carpet. It was only half accurate, taken from a recon plane a decade ago. Santa Rosa was a small city, obscure, on the far side of the island; Jorge supposed that was the reason the Company had picked it, and therefore him.

    The old man looked over his shoulder, muttering. He was tall but solid, in a navy Detroit Tigers windbreaker and baggy jeans and scuffed workboots. In his face you could see he'd been a drinker but had come back from that. He wheezed from the climb up the fire escape and his cigarillos. He reminded Jorge of the professor in El Salvador, the slight stoop, the nonchalant acceptance of hisduty. The professor, poor bastard. He did not want to think of El Salvador, especially now. It was only a year ago but it seemed another life. That was when he still believed in something. What? And why? There was no reason to.

    He clamped the thought off, concentrated on the station, let his expensive Langley training kick in. Objective, strategy, tactic. Break it down, fit it together. First, they needed a way in.

    "You can't see the entrance from here."

    "Behind those trees," the old man said. "There's a marquee over the doors and a park across the street." It was an obscure peasant dialect, more formal, and Jorge had to pause and process it.

    "I remember."

    "There's a second entrance on the far side, and a freight elevator in back we can use for the retreat."

    It was too early to think retreat, but even he began to picture the elevator. A mistake. First things first.

    "Can we come back tonight for a better look?"

    "It is done," Felipe said.

    "The guards don't sleep in the building."

    "They're stationed at the armory, under Lieutenant Clemente." The old man pointed, careful not to lean too close to the window. There were rumors the government had snipers positioned throughout the city.

    Jorge took his night-vision glasses from the brushed-steel case and flicked them on. They hummed like a flash attachment and the outlines of the buildings shimmered a brilliant green. Castro had been dead nearly a year, and tattered black bunting still hung from every facade, even those halved and blasted away. The sea breeze gave the cloth a false motion Jorge could not afford to ignore. He adjusted the ridged wheel until bits of letters on the marquee showed through the waving trees. He thought he saw the toe of a boot, the striped leg of a dress uniform. He swung the glasses across the street and the world blurred, then snapped back again. The armory had concrete highway dividers drawn up in front of it, like the White House.

    "There's no one in the guard booth."

    "They're there," Felipe assured him. "Clemente's got them hidden."

    "You sound afraid of him, hombre."

    "Don't make fun of me. I've seen the others and I've seen Clemente."

    Jorge followed a gray Saracen down the boulevard, its turret swiveling. A woman on the sidewalk covered her face with her purse and ran for a doorway. "How many sleep in the armory?"

    "Sixteen, not including the corporal. At night he goes home to his wife."

    "The airfield barracks?"

    "A hundred twenty-five, half of them professional."

    "How many do we have?"

    "Over a hundred, but we're in small bands and our weapons are garbage. How many will you need?"

    "I'll tell you when I get a better look at the station. It's not getting in I'm worried about, it's getting back out."

    "You really believe that will happen?"

    Jorge Ortega surveyed the street, the armory. Far across the city rose the lights of the ballpark like giant flyswatters. In the distance, an ancient MiG screamed up from the airfield. "No," he said, "but it would be nice."

    They climbed steadily up the mountainside, old Felipe in the lead with his walking stick. Palm fronds and the waxy leaves of banana trees nodded, but no breeze reached them. The jungle had the same feel as El Salvador—the humidity, the same stench of decay—and he didn't like it. He could take it though, as long as he didn't start seeing Catalina. As long as he didn't start remembering.

    There was no trail that he could see. The straps of his pack cut into his shoulders; it was a rule that those coming up from the city should bring as much as they could. Along with Jorge's equipment, Felipe's pack was stuffed with flour and cornmeal and several dozen boxes of shotgun shells. In his, Jorge had the PRC-60 radio; the plastique was hidden in a hollow battery pack.

    They met a dribble of a rill and the old man led him up the bed, his boots splashing among the mossy rocks. The face of the mountain grew steeper until finally the stream stopped at the base of a sheer cliff, the water shattering on black rock, pricking his face. Felipe squeaked as he breathed, yet his face was the same, not at all red, and unlike Jorge he wasn't sweating. He sloughed off his pack and set it on a rock, cupped his hands and took a drink.

    "Wait here," he said. "I'll give them the signal."

    "How much further is it?" Jorge asked. He didn't like the idea of sitting defenseless in the middle of the jungle. He'd done that enough in Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua. He'd signed on after the Marines, hoping he would end up here, had kept his eye on Castro's fading health like a thief watching a house. But Castro hung on, and with every mission the job came to take on a sameness he hated, if only because it blunted his true ambition. Even the edge of danger no longer motivated him, only proved the people above him had underestimated his risk, left him to correct their paper mistakes with blood. Only minutes ago they'd passed the steaming droppings of some government cavalry. The Fidelistas recruited peasants who knew the hills from childhood; it didn't give Jorge confidence.

    "Not far," Felipe said. "Rest. I won't betray you."

    "I know, uncle."

    He watched the old man disappear into the underbrush, the tangle of lianas. In all honesty he did not trust Felipe, for Jorge Ortega had learned even before leaving Miami for the war—even before Catalina and the professor—to trust no one. His father, a good cop, had taught him that. His mother had left early on, and when his father was satisfied that Jorge had become a man that would never forget that lesson, he locked the basement door and went down the stairs and sat in his BarcaLounger in front of The Game of the Week and fit the barrel of his service revolver into his mouth and blew the back of his head all over the striped wallpaper. So being alone did not bother Jorge; it was the idea that promises might actually be kept that worried him.

    His promise to take the station was not his own. Forbes had assigned it to him, knowing Jorge's family had come from Santa Rosa, that he'd spent a sentimental winter here undercover as a minor-league scout, and that he had the requisite communications experience. He'd been a DJ in college, and that had clinched it for Forbes. They met alone in a hotel room above West Palm Beach, the waves breaking white in the distance. Forbes came in street clothes and smelled of cologne. In the Corps he was only a major, but since Peña's helicopter had been shot down he was the rebels' best general.

    "Taking the station doesn't mean a thing," Forbes said, sweeping his hand over the whole valley. He only had three fingers, and his thumb was a nub, flat as an eraser. He'd been in everything since Korea. "Taking the station and being on air providing the latest, most correct information after the first wave is breaking even. It's the least we expect."

    "Yessir," Jorge said, unsure what else he could do.

    "All news all the time, that's what we're talking about. It's got to be fast and accurate. I need fifteen minutes of clear transmission." He checked Jorge's eyes. "How many minutes do I need?"


    "Negative. Give me forty-five and I might get fifteen. Okay," he said, rapping the map. "You'll have to get through a few guardia but they're nowhere near first-line troops. Your contact is in touch with indigenous forces—the hills are literally crawling with them. Intel hasn't got dossiers on any of them, so use as few as possible. I want this small. I want this clean. My real people need to know what's going on in the first fifteen minutes or I'm not going to commit, it's that simple. We get the harbor, we're on—we pull everyone out of the woodwork. If we can't get landed, there's a real possibility for a slaughter, and you know everyone's going to say Bay of Pigs, and that'll be all she wrote, understand me?"

    "Yes, sir."

    "You are going to make sure that doesn't happen—you, not your people. You don't have people, you don't have anything. They say you like it that way, is that right?"

    "Yes, sir."

    "I like it that way too. Semper Fi doesn't always cut it." He rose and gave Jorge his hand; the missing fingers made it feel stiff, like a mannequin's. "You doing this for me or for your country?"

    "My country," Jorge said.

    "Which one is that?" the general asked. "Be careful how you answer."

    "Both," he'd said, but now, waiting for Felipe, Jorge wondered if he belonged to either. He didn't trust Felipe or Forbes, yet here he was, a year after Castro, the state grave still heaped with flowers, the tribute of a grateful nation. Unavoidable, really, being here. Fate. He picked up a pebble and flipped it into the stream, then did it again, thinking.

    From below came a high-pitched whinny. Jorge stayed his hand and faced the sound but there was nothing but green. For an instant he pictured himself killing the old man, his K-bar slipping through the tendons of his wattled neck, his dead weight in Jorge's arms. He remembered hauling the professor off the back of the pickup, the sound the escaping gas made, then shook his head to clear it.

    He listened, and in a minute heard soft, professional steps—no swishing leaves, no clash and rattle of a rifle sling, just the considered pad of feet against earth. He drew his pistol and backed against the cliff. The steps were coming from his left, the path Felipe had taken, but there was more than one person. Jorge knelt and braced his elbow on his knee, leveling the weapon where a man's chest would appear. The footsteps were louder now, less thoughtful. The trigger bit into his finger, and then a single tan workboot cleared the rock face.

    It was Felipe. Following him was another man, also—ridiculously—in a Tigers windbreaker, with an M-16 slung across his back; his nose was smeared across his face, and a scar disappeared into his beard. The two began to laugh at the pistol, but Jorge put a finger to his lips and tipped his head down the mountain.

    In a single motion, the man with Felipe unslung the M-16 and hugged the ground. He had the barrel pointed at Jorge's face.

    Behind him, Felipe shrugged helplessly.

    "You are El Tiante?" the man hissed.

    "I am," Jorge whispered.

    "You have identification to prove this?" He pulled from his windbreaker half of a baseball card, the right side of Luis Tiant—except to Jorge's surprise the great pitcher was a Cleveland Indian and not the Red Sock on Jorge's matching half. Was it a bluff, a setup?

    Jorge dug in his jeans and offered him the card.

    As the man lowered his rifle to take it, Jorge ripped the weapon from his hands and turned it against him.

    The man ignored him, more interested in the cards. They fit together perfectly; the Cleveland Tiant looked backward while his Red Sock body rotated toward home plate. "You're him," the man said grudgingly.

    "You have identification for me?" Jorge challenged him.

    The man tossed the cards in his face and got up and walked away.

    Jorge jerked the bolt back, but the weapon was empty. The man vanished up the path. "Culo," Jorge swore.

    Felipe tipped his head for Jorge to follow, then set off. Jorge hefted his pack and hustled to catch up. The other was far ahead, just a shape moving through the lush jungle.

    "What's your friend's name?" Jorge asked.

    "He's not my friend. He's Aurelio, the section commander. He's afraid you'll take his best men from him and waste them on this one mission. He wasn't always such a rabbit. You're not our first americano, or didn't the generalissimo tell you?"

    "How many have there been?"

    "You're the third since Fidel."

    "Should I ask what happened to them?"

    "They were blancos, not one of the people."

    "Does that matter?" Jorge asked.

    "Who you are matters. Forbes told me. I knew your grandfather. He was my generalissimo when we first fought the Fidelistas. I was there at Mariel, working the guns for him."

    "You're too young for Mariel."

    "That morning I was a boy, and that evening I was an old man."

    "You have my respect, Don Felipe."

    "He said you were in the desert war."

    "It was over in a month," Jorge said. "We had to take pills in case of a gas attack. Nerve agents. The enemy was in bunkers. First our planes bombed them with napalm, then the engineers bulldozed what remained, then we came in behind our armor."

    "So you've learned respect."

    "No," Jorge said, "I learned not to look."

    "That's respect, no?"

    "I suppose. And Aurelio, has he learned this?"

    "He's learned not to trust americanos. He doesn't like to lose men."

    "Who does?" Jorge said.

    The old man stopped and Jorge had to. Around them the jungle was quiet. Felipe looked him in the eyes. Yes, Jorge thought, the professor, a true believer. When had he lost that? He was like a fighter who had given up but still heard the bell, wandered out splay-footed to meet his punishment.

    "Sometimes it's a necessity. Your grandfather knew that." Felipe kept looking at him, as if letting it sink in, then turned and planted his walking stick and trudged up the mountain.

    Aurelio was waiting for them in a clearing, Felipe's pack at his feet. He was drinking from a canteen. He held it out to Felipe. "El Tiante," he said, "I'll take my rifle."

    Jorge unslung it. He wanted to throw it at the man, but he knew he'd have to work with him. He handed it to him, careful of the barrel.

    Aurelio pulled up one sleeve of his windbreaker. On his arm, beneath the skin, a set of green numbers bled into each other—a prison tattoo from the federale. "Here's your identification. Now why have you come to my section?"

    "A small operation, which is my business."

    "If it's in Santa Rosa, it's my business."

    "I didn't say it was in Santa Rosa."

    Felipe wiped his lips with the back of his arm and handed the canteen to Jorge. Aurelio looked to the old man, but he said nothing.

    Aurelio stood. "We haven't been here three years by pissing in our own well. We operate beyond the mountains, in the hills around Arriaga. You can't live and operate in the same place. It's fine for Americans who can fly to Miami and live in apartment buildings, but not for us. This is our home. I've got to make sure we'll still have an operation when you're gone."

    "I understand." He handed the canteen back, and Aurelio capped it.

    "I don't think you do, but it's not my place to say. Forbes says we'll assist you, we'll assist you." He patted Felipe's pack. "You're a radioman, no? You're interested in the station, possibly to coordinate a landing."

    Jorge could feel his eyes narrowing, a scowl crossing his mouth.

    "My young Tiante, a revolution is either all secrets or none. None is sometimes better." He shouldered the old man's pack. "Here, I'll show you our secret. It may save us both some trouble."

    He led them over a bald rock ledge speckled with moss and into a dusty gully. It was quiet here, insects tangling in front of their faces, birds sailing from limb to limb. Far off, Jorge could hear the thrum of a big prop plane, a newer Tupolev from the sound of it. The Company flew Spookys—C-47s with electric miniguns mounted at the waist ports; their old Allisons made a higher, whinier buzz. They also ran decommissioned Cobras and Hueys out of the DEA field on Key Largo, a completely black operation. Supposedly one would come on Monday to pick him up at the ballpark, landing in straight center field. Though it was only three days away, Jorge couldn't picture it. Strangely, it didn't trouble him.

    The path dead-ended in a wall of bougainvillea. Aurelio lifted it aside like a curtain to reveal a crooked hole. They had to take their packs off to fit through.

    Aurelio had a red-lens flashlight. The cavern was cool inside, the floor a fine dust. Jorge ducked and laid a hand on Felipe's back.

    "Be careful here." Aurelio shone the light on three small rocks.

    "It's mined," Felipe said.

    They turned a corner, and Aurelio stopped in front of an olive drab canvas thrown over two coffin-sized lumps. With one arm he drew it aside, and there in the glow of the flashlight sat two old PRC-25s still in their crates, the excelsior nestlike. In training, Jorge had seen films of them in Vietnam. Even their shorter antennas were an easy target; the narrator praised their durability, then called them obsolete.

    "Do they work?"

    Aurelio unhooked the headset and clicked a switch and the receiver filled with static. He seemed pleased.

    "You should disconnect the battery packs when you're not using them," Jorge said.

    "The other one is," Aurelio said. "I hooked this one up just for you."

    "You have the long antennas?"

    "Long and short. And look at these." He shone the light to one side, revealing a pair of Russian walkie-talkies from the late eighties. Jorge knew their range was too limited to be any real help, but picked one up to admire it.

    "We killed a pair of guardia," Aurelio said.


    "They stopped one of our trucks on the road between Segovia and Maria del Rey. It was a shipment of mortars. We had two men in the back."

    "Have you killed many of Clemente's men?" Jorge asked.

    "Oh no," Felipe said, "these weren't Clemente's."

    "No," Aurelio said. "We've found it best to leave him alone."

    "What about the airfield?"

    "There isn't much we can do without help."

    "You can't drop a mortar on the runway?"

    Neither man answered, and Jorge thought it better not to press. It was already starting badly. He could rely somewhat on the old man, but the commander obviously preferred his own security to even the least risky of missions. In the Corps they had a name for such officers—the walking dead. But maybe he was right. If Forbes didn't commit, it was a wash, any responsibility denied, the hardware buried, America's hands clean. There were any number of front groups in Miami poised to take the blame, the only consequence an instant visibility, a sudden windfall of contributions.

    Aurelio pointed hopefully to the radios. "With these you can reach your people offshore."

    "We still need the transmitter," Jorge said, though what the commander said was true.

    "Ay, you're determined to bring Clemente here." He looked at the radios gloomily, then flung the tarp back over them. "When it's just horses, that's fine, but if Clemente sends his helicopters we're finished here, and where can we go? Tell me that, Tiante."

    "You sound like a bureaucrat," Felipe said with distaste. "Worrying about your house."

    The vehemence with which the old man spoke surprised Jorge, but Aurelio only shrugged.

    "These aren't the only mountains," Jorge said.

    "What do you know of mountains?" Aurelio said, his voice filling the cave. "What right do you have, an American, telling us what to do?"

    "There are others, if you're afraid."

    "We're not afraid," Felipe assured him. "It's just been a hard summer."

    "It's not the summer," Aurelio said. "It's the war. It's been going on too long."

    "A year," the old man said, "the true war. Not even. You're just no good at losing. Why fight if you're afraid to lose? I don't understand. You weren't always like this, my friend."

    "We're wasting time," Jorge said, to stop their philosophizing. They both looked at him strangely, and he was sorry he'd said it. "I still need to go back after dark and take a closer look."

    "He's right," Felipe said. "We all know what we have to do."

    "It's not what," Aurelio said, "it's how and when and where, and most important of all, why."

    "And whom," Felipe said.

    "Yes," Aurelio said, "but don't ask me that yet. I haven't decided what we're doing." He turned as if it were a final statement, taking the light with him, and Jorge had to grope in the dark for the slippery nylon of the old man's windbreaker. As they shuffled through the dark, his feet stumbled over rocks, sank into soft spots. Felipe squeaked as he breathed. It was ridiculous, Jorge thought; here he was, in a country he loved yet which would never accept him, following an old drunk and a coward in the dark. For the first time since he'd dragged his pack ashore this morning, he laughed.

    "What's so funny?" Aurelio asked.

    "Nothing," Jorge said. "Nothing at all."

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