Read Havana Online

Authors: Stephen Hunter

Havana (10 page)

BOOK: Havana
11.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
Chapter 14

“I must say, Speshnev, you've quite a queer notion of doing business,” said Pashin.

“How so?” asked Speshnev. They sat at a disagreeable cafe in Centro, just off Zanja Street, just down from the Barrio Chino, for their weekly. The coffee was strong and sweet, the smell of tobacco stronger. All about them throbbed the Cuban working classes, in whose cause they so energetically labored.

“You were assigned to shadow a man who could be an opponent. And, if necessary, kill him. You establish surveillance, you penetrate the target, you even manage to enter the zone with an automatic. Then, astonishingly, you save his life when fate is about to give you exactly what we needed and expected of you. I wonder what the meaning of that decision is?”

“Oh, that. Yes, well, he seemed rather too impressive a man to end up with his gizzard cut in a Havana drunk tank. The theater of the moment demanded that I intercede. One has to have a feel for such things.”

“His records have been found. We have sources in Washington, you know. Here, take a look.”

Pashin slid the documents over. They were photoed copies of the Marine service record of Earl Lee Swagger. They told of many wars, much battle experience, many wounds, many lost friends, and a few moments of insane heroism. The list of medals was impressive.

“As you see,” said Pashin, “a man of great talent. A formidable opponent, one they could not easily replace. And so…you
save
him?”

“I thought he had a salty look to him. Like one of the old zeks sent to the camps to perish who instead flourish. Zeks are one thing I know all about.”

“Yes, well, if you fail, it's a zek you'll know about again, 4715.”

“Ah, yes, the magic number, 4715. Why, how sweet to hear its rhythms again.”

“If he determines to move in a certain way, how will we stop him? It would have been so much better to deal with this now.”

“He doesn't know Cuba well enough to do us any harm yet. And the men with him, they are idiots. So I will watch him, while I become an intimate of this Castro, and all things will develop as we hope. I will perform magnificently.”

“You know, Speshnev,” said the younger man, leaning forward, his face empty of humor or irony but filled simply with aggression, “I grow tired with your whimsy, your poetics. I'm sure all your Comintern colleagues at the Hotel Luxe in Moscow found them amusing, but out here, we've no room for romantic gestures. This is a war, and we must win it.”

“Little Pashin, I do believe I know more about wars than you do. After all, I have fought in all the ones you only read about.”

Chapter 15

“Cigar, Marine?”

It was the fifth one he'd been offered tonight, a huge, dense thing, expertly woven into the perfect tube.

The offer came from a little man in a dinner jacket, his tanned face alight with pleasure. He had to be Somebody Important. Everybody here was Somebody Important.

“Damn fine,” he continued. “These people know their goddamned tobacco, I'll say.”

“No, thank you, sir,” said Earl. “I'm pretty much a Camel man.”

“Fine smoke, a Camel. But these Cubano torpedoes, they're sweet and dense, like a great whiskey.”

“All the same—”

“Well, no matter. Hell of a job, I hear. These politicians, children in my experience. Glad a fellow like you was along to handle things. That's my line of work too, by the way. Son, if you're ever looking for a job, I'm always in the market for a certain kind of talent. Here, take my card, and think about it. We pay top dollar for the right man.”

The card gave a name and said underneath “Director of Security, United Fruit, Caribbean Division.”

Earl was a star as he stood there in a new dinner jacket himself, courtesy of Congressman Etheridge; it fit tight and beautifully, the black striped trousers perfect, the shoes a marine-bright shine. He sipped a rumless Coca-Cola, now and then lighting a Camel. He could hardly move, because people kept coming by to see him and say nice things. He wasn't sure how this had happened, but happened it had: in the American community, the word had gotten round.

It was the most fabulous party ever thrown at the embassy in Havana. It had been less smokey on Iwo, an island made of ash. The vapors rose but didn't dissipate; they hung in the vault over the merriment, seething, dense, caught in the light. It was a party in a dramatic fog, men in white dinner jackets, tan women with sleek white breasts peeking out of tight-cut dresses, the tinkle of glass and ice, the pulsations of a mambo combo beating Desi at his own game, the closeness of the tropical night and whatever it concealed just beyond the swimming pool. Even the congressman seemed to get it.

“Well, I must say, Earl, I am used to being the center of attention but it does my heart good to see that I'm just a footnote tonight. You done me a good turn and saved me a bad one, and so I am in your debt, now and forever. That's a card you can cash in on, and when I'm gone, my boy Hollis'll pay off on it too, that I swear. You have a son, don't you, Earl?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What's his name?”

“Bob Lee.”

“Well, I'd be happy to see Bob Lee and Hollis grow up together and go to fine private schools in Washington, D.C., and have lives of significance together. That's something for you to think on, Earl, you hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, Earl. You have been discovered. Not many are, and it's a sometime thing, but a smart fellow takes advantage. You be smart now, Earl. Don't you be stupid and bullheaded. Look, enjoy, partake, and you can move up.”

With that, the distinguished southern gentleman was gone, off pressing flesh, bumping into women's plush butts, hugging and charming his way across the room. That everyone knew he'd been whoring and almost gotten in a hell of a mess didn't seem to plague him in the least. He was who he was and that was that for Boss Harry Etheridge.

“You know, Earl,” someone whispered to him, “you belong here.”

It was Frenchy Short, of course.

Earl merely grunted.

“Earl, look around. These are people who matter. These are the cream of the cream. A lot of 'em got here by luck. Roger, for example. Son of wealth going back five generations. All the advantages. Best schools, people looking out for him all the way, connections, mentors, teachers. On top of that, he's handsome as a movie star and a hell of a tennis player. Some guys get all the breaks, huh? But you and me, Earl, we got here on our talent alone. We've earned it.”

Earl looked over at Frenchy, so neat and shiny in his dinner jacket, his crew cut glistening with butch wax so that the hairs all stood up straight, like a platoon at attention.

“You're talking about yourself,” said Earl. “I never wanted this shit. I just wanted to make an honest living and go to bed tired and honest, on nobody's take. That's enough for me.”

“Earl, don't throw this away. Think of what it could mean to your family.”

Earl had a laugh at that one. He imagined poor Junie trying to fit into this crowd, or Bob Lee hitting a tennis ball around in short white pants with Roger the Big Noise from Winnetka.

“Earl, you—”

“Excuse me, sonny.”

Earl pulled away from the grasping young man, and somehow negotiated his way across the crowded room. He needed some air. This was getting him down. He stopped at the bar for another Coca-Cola, spied an opening to a porch, and slipped out.

The night was cool. There was no moon. Even with the back-wash of light, he could see a spray of stars across the dark. He tried to breathe cool air and relax. He checked his Bulova, saw that it was after eleven, and felt that by midnight he could be in bed to catch some sleep for whatever else this trip had in store for him.

He reconstituted a bit, then figured he ought not to lose contact with his employers for much longer and turned to head back inside.

There was a man standing there.

“I know you,” he said.

“Beg pardon?” said Earl, stepping forward.

He looked at the fellow. His face was bunched in a dog's feral aggression. His hair was slicked back and the dinner jacket looked alien on a body so bursting with physical vitality. He needed a shave but he'd be the type that somehow always needed a shave. There wasn't a single thing tropical about him, and nothing smooth, nothing slick, nothing disciplined. His eyes were tiny and dark and fierce, his nose a vertical blade beneath them, his mouth a horizontal blade beneath it. Eyetie in spades, city in aces, tough in queens and kings. He was pure-D mob, down to the bone level, exactly the kind of gangster gun boy so prominent in Hot Springs.

“They're saying you were in Hot Springs,” the man demanded, and Earl was not surprised.

“What's it to you?”

The man smiled, but it wasn't a smile of love or friendship. It was a smile of release as a man tries to relax his face just before the shit begins.

“I heard about a guy there. They're still talking about him. He supposedly punched out a big famous mob gun down there and got free lunches for years on the story. Yeah, I don't believe it for a second. Ben Siegel was tough as they come, and if anybody laid him out, he must have sucker-punched him, that's what I think. You know anything about that, bud?”

Earl said, “You know what? I don't explain things. That ain't my job around here.”

“You don't know me, but I know you. I been watching you eating all this shit up. Some kind of hero. Yeah, well, heroes go down too, mac, just in case—”

“Hey, let me tell you, bud. If someone takes a whack at me, I put him flat faster than a ghost's boo. If some hooligan face-boy thinks he's tough and wants to take a cold shot, I'm the man who shows him he ain't much but average. And I don't like it when some bunny rabbit in a dancing-lesson jacket sticks his nose in mine and tells me some business. You got that?”

“Oh, well, say, ain't we got us a hero here, but ever notice how outside the movies heroes end up cold and still? Why—”

But then another man was on the porch, slicker, older, comforting, smoother.

“Frankie, Frankie, there you are. Oh, sorry, sir, Frankie's been drinking too much and he gets cranky. He doesn't mean a thing by it, don't pay any attention to him.”

He pulled Frankie away but Frankie broke free, not to assault Earl but to whisper.

“Somebody killed Ben Siegel on his own sofa. Shot down while reading a newspaper. If I get my hands on that guy…”

But the older man reigned him in with surprising force, and sent him on his way. It was as if the younger suddenly realized the power of the old, and slumped and dejected, he exited.

Earl looked at the old man: he saw sadness, wisdom, smart eyes, a nose both huge and beautiful at once. He saw something he recognized, if not by name, by instinct.

“Mr. Swagger, please don't pay any attention to my associate. He's in his cups, he has dreams of glory, he spent too much time at lousy tables in New York nightclubs. He plays the gangster when he's the assistant to the assistant. Sober and free of his fantasies, he means you no harm at all, believe me.”

“He's way out of line.”

“He gets that way when he drinks. I'll have words with him. By the way, I run a casino. It's called Montmartre. Come on by and spend a night gambling on my tab, just to show there's no hard feelings. You can't lose and what you win is yours to take. It's owed you. You're quite a hero. My name is Meyer Lansky.”

A king gangster! A big gangster! The biggest of the big!

“I'm not a gambler, but thanks anyhow.”

“Whatever makes you happy, my friend. The house will always be open to you and I think you'll find the cards run your direction.”

He smiled, and slid back, and with that smooth way of his seemed to vaporize into invisibility.

Chapter 16

The young man studied the board. Now this was interesting. It seemed that the force was setting itself up to the left, where the queen commanded doughty pawns, clever rooks, heroic knights and even the bishop, while the king languished, as was his wont, far away, shielded by a few disengaged pieces. The old lady did the work.

But the more he studied, the more he concluded that his opponent was lulling him. He was engineering what seemed to be an aggression on the right, but the real action would come suddenly from the left, and it would be blinding and clever and swift. He knew a possibility lurked here. In his mind, he struggled to unlock it, but no epiphany arrived for assistance.

Yet his faith was deep: he was convinced the right was a ruse, the left a trap. He knew he had to decide, to countermove, to show aggression and tenacity. So he—

“No, no, no!”
the older man screamed at him. “Have you learned nothing these days? Have you been sleeping? Have you been daydreaming! Ach, such an idiot you are!”

“But, sir,” said the twenty-six-year-old Castro, “it appeared to me that—”

“Go ahead, make your move, this is becoming boring.”

Castro moved, the older man countermoved insolently, a performance of abject contempt, and in the countermove Castro saw a seam open, an unexpected thrust of aggression rupture his defenses, and felt the steam go out of him.

“Damn!” he said. “Again.”

“Play it out, idiot.”

It was quick: three moves and for the sixth straight time and the ninth time in ten days, he was checkmated. He had but a solitary, lucky draw to show for his efforts.

“You have to have a feel for these things,” said the chess master.

“Maybe chess is not the game for you. There's no opportunity to give speeches or go on the radio. Perhaps that is what you are really good at. It's a tawdry talent, but I suppose it is what one has, and one must make the best of it. Let the smarter fellows make the decisions and figure things out.”

“No, no,” whined the young man, “I am smart. You will see that—” But then he stopped. He said, “That was last year. How did you know I was on the radio? You are not from Cuba.”

“I know some things. One thing I know: You need a better head for chess. That would be a wiser place to start than speeches, where you get paid in plaudits and end up the day with nothing tangible. What have I been telling you? Don't be so hasty. It gets you massacred every time.”

“At least it's a glorious massacre,” said the young man.

“Have you ever seen a massacre?” the older fellow asked.

“No,” Castro admitted.

“Well, I have. Not pretty. Certainly not glorious. Ugly, bloody, pitiful, pathetic, squalid. So all great crusades end up, if they are not carefully managed.”

“Who are you?” Castro asked. “You show up and suddenly we are playing chess every day. You speak our language too well, and with a European accent. You learned your Spanish in Spain.”

“Spain, it's true.”

“Thirty-six to thirty-nine? Where also you saw the massacre?”

“I have, alas, seen many massacres. Too many. I hope not to see another.”

The two sat in the park called San Francisco under palm trees in Old Havana, not far from a coffee stand, a shoeshine man, a fleet of
bolita
salesmen, two whores taking a time off from a busy morning, a woman rolling cigars, and many relaxing seagulls. The sun was hot, but a fresh sea breeze from the nearby harbor made the palms dance and kept the sweat from collecting.

“I think you've come a long way to see me,” said Castro. “You were interested in me from the start, that I could tell. I understood that.”

“I have some practical experience. Possibly you'd listen to my advice now and then. Sometime in the future, when you are wiser, you might even take it.”

“Where are you from?”

“What does it matter? What matters is that you and I believe in the same things and possibly the same methods.”

The boy began a hoary recitation of what he believed in. Meanwhile, Speshnev looked hard at him and, try as he could, only saw a familiar type, thrown up by revolutions and wars the world over. An opportunist with a lazy streak, and also a violent one. Not smart, but clever enough to get himself in real trouble. A minor gift for gab, but no real character or integrity. No vision beyond the self, but a willingness to use the vernacular of the struggle for his own private careerism.

Speshnev had of course read the documents. The boy Castro was only a third-generation Cuban, his father being the son of a Spanish soldier who, when Spain left in 1899, had decided to stay in the new country rather than move back to the old. The father's family was Galician, from that severe province in the north of Spain whence hailed conquistadors and other men of cruel disposition and rapacious appetite. But there was no evidence the boy was comprised of such fortitude. So far, beside the speeches, there'd only been mischief: he played at organizing demonstrations against the American secretary of state in 1948 and had gone on some mad pretend campaign to liberate the Dominicans from the strongman Trujillo, abandoning the quest when things got tough. No questions had been answered.

This was the sort of boy who—like dozens of others—ended up hanging on a meathook in Secret Police headquarters, or turned, compromised, made a parody of himself, trafficking in betrayal for a few dollars, a few more days of limited freedom.

Did he have the steel will? Was he able to kill and not die of guilt? Could he spy, torture, intimidate, betray to advance the greater cause? Who knew? Could he yield on the shabby bourgeois “morality” of his father, a petty landowner in Oriente province who had done well by groveling before American interests?

So the boy bobbed before him, a weird blend of gifts, ambition and vagueness, too romantic for anybody's good, particularly his own. He might have what it took, and Speshnev might be able to help him. But as for now: who could tell?

“Allow me to point out,” Speshnev lectured harshly, delineating another flaw, “that you lack curiosity. Day in, day out, I beat you. You don't wonder why, you don't try new tactics, you don't do research or make intelligent sacrifices. You attack, attack, attack. You find romance in the attack. That is a way to die young and bitter.”

“I am following my heart.”

“Ach, you're giving me a headache. So much passion, so little accomplished. Work steadily toward a goal that is immediately attainable. A seat in the legislature, a column in the newspaper, an endorsement from an older fellow. Reach out to them, so that they may reach out to you. In the arms of others shall you rise. The great revolutionaries all knew that. Thus far you have demonstrated that you know nothing.”

Castro now took the insults easily. Another man he would have killed for such an insult, but this dry old buzzard knew a thing or two.

“So, think. Think of a man who can help you.”

“Hmmm,” said Castro. “I know of such a man. Perhaps I should go to see him and make a strategic alliance.”

“An excellent start.”

“His name is Leon Lemus.”

“And should I know Señor Lemus?”

“He is a leader in the movement. He led the Socialist Revolutionary Movement in the forties, and worked hard to change things. He is still a power.”

“He has retired?”

“Not so much retired as changed paths.”

“And where does his new path take him?”

“Well, many places. But he has power and influence, he pays much in protection money, so the police look with favor upon him. He has gunmen, so they fear him.”

“He is a gangster, I take it. A killer, a robber, a whoremonger.”

“I suppose. He is known as El Colorado. I will go to him; is that a good idea? I will make an alliance and good things will come of it, you shall see.”

“El Colorado,” said Speshnev. “It sounds ridiculous, but you may have to learn that the hard way.”

BOOK: Havana
11.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

La tía Mame by Patrick Dennis
Star's Reach by John Michael Greer
A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
Sophomoric by Rebecca Paine Lucas
Dark Lady by Richard North Patterson