Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Good Assassin

It’s the good old days of 1950s Cuba, where the CIA, the FBI, the State Department and everyone else is trying to influence the outcome of the revolution as the Batista regime heads for its final fall. Into this social and political soup, author Paul Vidich sends his faintly disaffected former spy, George Mueller, to find out what a onetime colleague is up to. The Good Assassin, published last month by Emily Bestler Books, is Vidich’s second novel, his debut being the well-received An Honorable Man. Vidich will be at East City Book Shop in DC’s Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 25, 2017, at 6:30pm, and also at Head House Books in Philadelphia on Thursday, June 22, at 7:30pm. Our excerpt comes from the chapter “Daiquiris and Bombs.”

DRENCHING RAIN pulled a veil over the face of the city. Mueller stood just inside the bar’s door, as did a jolly, middle-aged American couple, who had also been caught in the sudden downpour and laughed brightly at the indignity of their misfortune. One week in Havana had bronzed Mueller’s face and worn thin the novelty of the place.

He slapped his sturdy straw hat against his thigh, knocking off water, and his darting eyes made a confirming survey of the customers. Ever since he’d left the agency Mueller had tried to unwind his habit of surveying a bar before he sat down, but now he was glad he had the old habit. His eyes drifted from one table to the next, as he raked his hair, taking in each face to see if he knew the person, or to discover if a customer took an interest in him, and if one did, because of some chance encounter, Mueller was prepared to account for his presence, and he had an explanation ready.

It was too early for cocktails, except for the sullen man alone at the bar, whose drinking had no clock, and several sailors on shore leave from the U.S. Navy frigate anchored in the harbor. Across the room half-a-dozen Cubans were gathered around a table, and they had taken notice when Mueller arrived, but they’d gone back to their conspiratorial whispers. A radio played “Volaré.”

Mueller glanced at his watch. Toby Graham was late. Graham had been abrupt on the phone—after he got over his surprise—and he asked if they could talk in person at El Floridita. One of those shoddy Havana saloons where the food is cheap

Author Paul Vidich. / Photo by James Clark.

and the drinks generous. The word ‘shoddy’ had stuck in Mueller’s mind, and it repeated itself as he took in the place. Red velvet cushions on the banquettes were worn thin, or missing, and the ceiling fan made a labored squeak with each slow revolution. Framed celebrity photographs hung askew on a wall of flies.

Mueller’s eyes wandered across the gallery of Hollywood actors. He liked to think of himself as someone who could quote both Hamlet, and put a name to that year’s popular movie stars. His little private conceit. There was Errol Flynn from The Sea Hawk, a movie he knew only by reputation, and there was Ava Gardner, her bare shoulders and alluring smile from The Killers, which he had seen, but had not liked. And he picked out John Wayne, George Raft, Stewart Granger, Orson Welles, Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton, and he felt good about his score, but then he stopped at the last photograph. There was a burly man, bordering on heavy, on a dock, whose face was obscured by the shadow of a wide straw hat.

“Hemingway,” a voice said. “He’s standing next to a big dead fish.”

Mueller turned. He recognized all at once the buzz-cut, the wrinkled white linen suit, the big man thick in the waist like a tree trunk who stood before him as if he’d taken root.

“You look surprised. Some people aren’t good with names.”

“Frank Pryce,” Mueller said civilly.

Pryce laughed.  “I meant Hemingway.  I suppose you could have forgotten my name.”

Mueller didn’t let Pryce see that his surprise had nothing to do with names.

“Grab a drink,” Pryce said. “Wait out the storm. Or, a sandwich, if you haven’t eaten.”

Mueller struggled with the algebra of rudeness, but the FBI man coaxed him forward and Mueller found himself face-to-face across a table with the one man with whom he didn’t want to be seen. He glanced at his watch again. Think.

“Papa doble,” Pryce said to the waiter who’d appeared as soon as they were seated. “Papa doble. Understand. Comprende.”

Mueller waved off an order when the waiter looked at him.

“I’m not interrupting anything, am I,” Pryce asked.

Mueller shook his head rather than invent a lie. Pryce had the square jaw of a high school linebacker who’d gained weight in a desk job. A small gut folded over his tightly cinched belt and his linen suit had darkened from moisture. Beads of sweat dotted his hairline and his teeth clenched a cigarette that looked small on his puffy face. Mueller had formed a view of Pryce in their one meeting together, and this second encounter reinforced the first impression that Pryce was of that loud class of overseas Americans who felt entitled to order a drink in English and to be irritated when the waiter didn’t understand. There was that other thing too from the meeting held in Pryce’s cubicle in the embassy where he’d summoned Mueller and then made him wait half-an-hour. That had put Mueller in a foul mood, and none of the smiling, pretend friendliness Pryce later professed got Mueller to recover his goodwill. He listened to Pryce’s summary of the state of play in Cuba. Castro’s forces had turned back Batista’s summer offensive in the Sierra Maestra mountains so now the chaotic opposition forces had no choice but to follow the lead of Castro’s July 26th Movement. The name, he said, when Mueller asked, commemorated the date Castro attacked Moncada Barracks in 1953. Not much was accomplished after his brisk report. A goal agreed, the rules of the game set—when and how to communicate, keeping each other informed of what the other did. Easy promises of cooperation.

Pryce nodded at the tall, cold drink that landed on the table. “Papa doble. House specialty. Hemingway sits over there in the corner and orders three at a time. One puts the ordinary drinker in a blissful state, but he does three. Immense daiquiris with grapefruit juice instead of lime. Sailors approach him having read his books on a long ocean voyage hoping to shake the hand of the man who won the Nobel Prize.”

Mueller shook his head when he was offered a taste.

“I read your novel,” Pryce said. “What’s it called?  Judas Hour? Not even the tradecraft was believable. Poison toothpaste?  It made me wonder if you’d ever worked in the field.”

Mueller felt his cheeks flush. The incident Pryce brought up only to disparage was from the beginning of the novel when the main character is dispatched on a mission to assassinate a popularly elected African president. Mueller had struggled to fill the lacunae when a stubborn agency censor deleted a classified killing technique.

“The false detail spoiled the rest of the book.” Pryce affected preoccupation with his cigarette, holding it before him, studying it, then again put it between clenched teeth. Mueller watched him finish the entire cigarette without removing it, ash lengthening, drooping, falling in clumps on his cotton shirt as he spoke. Sometimes he brushed away the ashes, but he continued to offer his literary critique with the cigarette dangling from his lips. When he accused Mueller of being inauthentic he snatched the cigarette with his fingers so he could apply the full force of his speech.

“I expected something better from you.” Pryce set his drink down carefully on the coaster, centering it, then slowly raised his eyes.  “I followed you here, you know.”

Mueller raised his eyes.  “Oh.”

“I was across the street. I saw someone leave the portico and run with a newspaper over his head. Then I saw it was you. I lowered my car window and yelled, but you didn’t hear me. I wondered what was so urgent that you’d leave a dry spot. I thought, hell, he’s got his interview with Hemingway.”

Mueller remembered what Lockwood had said. He’s a homesick man trying to keep busy. He felt the conversation lengthening. “Nothing better to do? No crooks to shakedown.”

“No shortage of things for me to do, George. Plenty to keep me busy. The mob. You guys keep me busy.” He paused. “Toby Graham keeps me busy. He’s stationed mid-island but I hear he’s in Havana now. Have you caught up with him?”

Mueller was silent.

“Remarkable man. Dangerous man. Hard to pin down what he does, but by what people say of him, all the things, he could be two men. One person couldn’t do all of it. Men like him are put in the field and expected to use their judgment. It’s their willingness to push the edge of things that makes them good. Has he crossed the line? There’s talk he’s a hit man.”

The words made the nerves on the back of Mueller’s neck constrict. They were rarely seen in agency memorandum, and if used at all, it was done allusively. No one wanted to acknowledge or admit to state murder. The director had not suggested it. Lockwood raised doubt without passing judgment by using the anodyne: our options are limited.

“Sounds like you know what you need to know.” Mueller felt himself being tested. Mueller looked directly at Pryce. “I’m not sure what I’m doing here. Maybe I should take the next flight home.”

Pryce exhaled from the corner of his mouth. He affected pleasantness. “You guys in the CIA are a smug Ivy League bunch.”

“I’m not one of them,” Mueller said coldly. “I don’t have a stake in this. You want my help? Happy to help. Happy to let you figure it out by yourself too. But don’t mistake why I’m here. Or who I am.”

Mueller looked at his watch again and made no effort to hide his impatience. “I think we’re done here.”

Pryce stared. He looked around the bar and his eyes settled back on Mueller. “You’re meeting him. Is that what’s going on?”

“He asked to see me.  Alone.”

Pryce stood.  He hitched his belt over his lumpish gut and thrust his shoulders back like a displaying turkey. He looked at Mueller, then glanced around the bar again. “You don’t know half the trouble he is in.”

On the radio, a Mexican song with bright brassy instrumentation and whoops and whistles had just ended. There came a sad song of plucked and strummed instruments accompanied by tenors singing melancholy lyrics with the refrain, Mama son de la loma.  The bartender reached over to the radio and raised the volume.

Suddenly a Cuban among the seated group leapt to his feet. He was a slight man in a baggy suit, young, gentlemanly, a bit reserved with a trimmed moustache, and beaked nose. He had sprung from his seat like a jack-in-the-box. His wiry frame was board stiff, his voice strident, and he yelled towards the sailors, “Abajo el tirano.  Abajo el dictator.”

“Now there will be trouble,” Pryce said laconically. He dropped his cigarette to the floor and ground it with his heel. Startled customers became alert. The American couple looked up from their Havana guide book. Other Cubans at the table rose from their chairs, and added a loud chorus of Abajo el dictator.

A burly waiter hustled the Cuban provocateur out of the bar. Waiters moved among the tables solicitous, chagrined, apologizing.  “He was referring to Franco, of course.”

Suddenly, a detonation rattled the quiet of the afternoon. A brilliant fiery flash went off outside the bar. It was followed instantly by a massive concussive blast that blew out the bar’s plate glass window and left the floor littered with broken red and white wine bottles so the floor was the color of rose. A hint of alcohol in the air mixed with the sweet Sulphur odor of explosive.

A profound quiet settled around Mueller. Anguished faces of the injured in the room were mute. And then the knobs inside his head that control hearing turned up and everywhere he heard desperate pleas for help.

Pryce touched his shoulder.  “You okay?”

Mueller realized he was sitting on the floor and he had no memory of how he’d gotten there. He cupped his ears and gently rocked his head to silence the ringing. He was surprised not to find blood.

“Don’t go out,” Pryce said. “They time the second bomb to follow the first.”

Waiters had gathered at the smashed window and cautiously looked beyond jagged glass that formed the hole. The American held his wife’s hand, which bled profusely, where a projectile of flying glass had neatly sliced through the wrist so it now hung by a tendon.

Mueller rose and made for the door, to escape, or observe, he wasn’t sure.

“Stay put,” Pryce shouted. “No one should go out until the police have cleaned the street. You can’t be of any help. The country has to burn a little before it gets its sense back.”

Mueller saw Pryce use his belt as a tourniquet on the woman’s arm and to settle the numbed husband with a few calming instructions. Mueller paused, surprised by Pryce’s gesture, and seeing that side of the man made Pryce more human—more dangerous.

Mueller stepped outside. Already it was chaotic in the street. The grim tableau of violence was softened by steaming vapor of the drenching rain rising off the hot asphalt. A milk truck had been reduced to its axle and the rest of the vehicle was gone, vaporized. Radiating from the mangled chassis were crates, broken bottles, and pooled milked thinned by the rain.  Overturned cars formed a perimeter around the blast zone.

Mueller walked in the soaking rain among the injured. The face of terror was always the same. Injured bystanders sat stunned on the sidewalk and he moved from one to the next with his offer of help. The dead were obvious. Body parts were scattered about, as if left by a tide—a naked leg severed at the hip still with its high heel shoe. A pregnant woman with a gash on her cheek. Her dress had lost a strap and one breast hung free. Mueller covered her shoulders with his sports jacket.

Pouring rain blurred the edges of violence and only approaching sirens brought Mueller back to the moment.

Police arrived first, and within minutes the ambulances, and then shortly afterward the green Oldsmobiles of the Servicio Inteligensia Militar. SIM officers went about cordoning off the blast site with a perimeter to hold back the crowd gathering under the portico. They wielded cudgels against bystanders who ventured too close to the smoldering debris. From time-to-time one of these men in tan uniforms culled a bystander and dragged him to a paddy wagon. Pale blue uniforms of the regular police inspired respect from the crowd, but the tan uniforms of SIM inspired fear. One or two young boys knew what to expect and backed away. The crowd knew how react to the threat. Everywhere cautious people hung back.

Mueller saw a young girl barely to puberty grabbed by a SIM officer. Her sly retreat toward a side alley indicted her. The thuggish officer struck once on her back with the sound of a crack. Her face curled in pain. She wore sandals, a loose dress, and long hair that he pulled. Mueller thought she was his son’s age.

He saw the officer strike again. She was too small, too frail, too child-like to resist. The sight stirred his complacency. He turned away from the girl, but her screams continued. Mueller cursed the impulse that rose in him. He had trained to be indifferent, to be cautious, to inure himself to the terrible things in the world.

“Enough,” he said. He stood tall, dignified, a surprising authority over the stocky officer. “She is a girl. Un joven.”

The officer startled at the intervention and he paused to take the measure of the man challenging him.

“She did nothing,” Mueller said, seeing he had the officer’s attention.

The officer gave Mueller a blasphemous look that said he could do what he wanted to the girl. She had already hunched over against the coming blow. Mueller grabbed the officer’s forearm and stopped his swing from landing.

He was promptly arrested. Tan uniformed SIM surrounded Mueller and handcuffed him. He tried to be calm as he was dragged to the paddy wagon and placed among other handcuffed men. Mueller saw the girl lying on the sidewalk like a broken doll. He also saw Frank Pryce, who’d seen the whole episode from the bar. He stood in the doorway, arms akimbo.  His face had a flat expression that revealed the burden of his contempt.

Gray light in the paddy wagon was extinguished when the double doors were slammed shut. Faces of men inside were illuminated only with the cab’s peep hole. The closeness of their bodies, dank with sweat and rain, made the men less human. Faces around Mueller were grim, eyes wide, fear palpable. The man across from Mueller had the toughened expression of a prisoner rallying courage against coming indignities. Mueller saw he was the same man who’d jumped from his seat like a jack-in-the-box.

Mueller knew there was nothing to do but allow himself to go through with the arrest. Press credentials in his pocket would provide some measure of protection.

Mueller recalled Pryce’s comment that the country had to burn a little. It was the sort of thing Toby Graham would say, to justify the violence. Graham had always been one of those men whose dedication to work took him into the darkness, and as a matter of course, doing the work he did, he brought some measure of darkness into himself. How do you keep the darkness from consuming your humanity? Mueller had seen it, he’d feared it, avoided it, and he recognized it. There were rumors about Graham. Terrible things he’d organized, administered, deployed, carried out in Guatemala. Did he have a hand in this?

Paul Vidich

Excerpted from The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich. Reprinted with permission of Emily Bestler Books, part of the Atria Books Publishing Group, a division of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2017 by Paul Vidich.

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