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Authors: Stephen Hunter

Havana (5 page)

BOOK: Havana
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“I see where this one is going,” said Sam. “Harry's seen how much ink old Estes is getting and wants a big bite of gangster pie, too. They're saying Estes might run against General Ike in '56, that's how famous he is. Well, not if Harry has his way.”

“Mr. Vincent, Harry's commitment is to the people of his district, and his state. He's not anxious to give up representing Arkansas.
But
—”

“Here it comes, Earl. You watch yourself.”


But,
” continued Lane, “Harry ain't content to sit back and let the gangsters do what they want. Now it happens they're at their boldest on a little island just off of Florida called Cuba.”

“Woooieee,” said Sam. “Earl, Cuba's so hot it makes Hot Springs seem like a Baptist church picnic.”

“We can't hold hearings in Cuba,” said Lane. “It's not our country, though we cooperate closely with its government. But there is a large naval base called Guantanamo. Marines are there, too. Now there are allegations that the gangsters from New York might be muscling in on the contracts for all the service to Guantanamo: you know, garbage, laundry, that sort of thing. We can't have gangsters living off our servicemen, can we, Earl? So the congressman proposes an investigation.”

“Where do I fit in?” Earl asked.

“Well, sir, the congressman needs a bodyguard. It's a dangerous town, Havana. He needs someone who can talk to the military, whom the military respects. He needs someone who's been out and about in the world, someone who's been the world over, say, in the Marine Corps. He needs someone who's been up against gangsters, beaten them down, knows how they operate. Any of these seem like anybody you know, Earl?”

“What does Colonel Jenks say?” asked Earl.

“Well, Earl,” said Colonel Jenks, “the governor wants us to cooperate with the congressman, and so it seems we could easily enough detach you on special assignment to the congressional party that's headed to Cuba. You'd go down there with the congressman, help him in any way you can, report to Mr. Brodgins here, and of course the state of Arkansas will continue your pay, and you'd be back in a few weeks. It's a great opportunity, Earl. You could do well for yourself.”

“You've noticed, Earl, how them who help the congressman get helped themselves? It can happen to you, Earl.”

“Sounds to me,” said Sam, winking at Junie, “like this deal's been signed, sealed and delivered for a month. These here fellows are just bringing the word.”

Chapter 5

“That's
him?
” Roger asked.

“Yep,” Walter Short replied.

“Hmmmm. Somehow, from your descriptions, I was expecting Superman.”

“Don't get him mad. Then you'll see Superman.”

The two of them were huddled like junior G-men behind a sofa on the balcony above the foyer in the ambassador's residence in the American embassy complex in the posh precinct just west of Centro Havana called Vedado. It was an old sugar millionaire's place converted from opulence to mere luxury, and down below candles glinted, potted palms waved and a warm sea breeze cascaded in through the open marble atrium. A three-piece combo beat out one of Desi Arnaz's softer rhythms.

The reception for the Honorable Congressman Harrison J. Etheridge and staff was well lubricated by ample rum from the folks at Bacardi, which bought so much of the sugar Domino milled from the Cuban cane. But all that labor against the good earth was far from view. Men in dinner jackets swirled about; women, brown and quivery, laughed gaily. Congressman Etheridge could even be glimpsed—that is, when he slowed down: a heavyset man with great, carefully tended mounds of white hair. But his dinner jacket was bespoke, from a fine Savile Row firm, and he cut a surprisingly dapper figure for a man whose Arkansas accent, amplified theatrically, seemed to come from a radio humor hour hosted by Lum and Abner. That mighty, booming voice cut through the air above the laughter and the music.

But neither Roger nor Walter watched the congressman. The congressman wasn't nearly as interesting as he thought he was. They watched instead the congressman's bodyguard, the large, dour, flattopped man in the khaki summer suit standing near a pillar, almost at parade rest, his piercing eyes glancing around the large room.

“He doesn't look capable of making the Big Noise we need. He's so banal,” said Roger.

“He won the Medal of Honor.”

“Not banal, admittedly. But he could be any cop. He looks so cop. The brush haircut, the size, the wariness, the solitude.”

“He was a marine sergeant.”

“Well, yes, a sergeant. I do see that. Not the college polish of your typical officer. Walter, really, this isn't a mistake, is it? A state cop with a good war record? We've bet a lot on this fellow, and engineered our butts off to get him down here.”

“Take it from me, he's not just a cop. Put a gun in his hand and he's something you would not believe. Ask the Japs at Iwo, they found out the hard way. Ask the thugs of Hot Springs, if you can find any above the ground. He made plenty of Big Noise in those places.”

“Well, I hope you're right. Let's go start the dance.”

But Roger immediately sensed something from his younger assistant: reluctance, possibly fear. At least awkwardness. It was odd coming from a perfect no. 2 like Walter Short.

“Well? You're the one who knows him. It's your job to smooth this thing out, facilitate, make it happen.”

“Yes, but…”

“But what?”

“Well, we parted under ambiguous circumstances.”

“Now is a fine time to tell me.”

“I did tell you, Roger. Possibly you weren't listening.”

“Oh Christ, of course it's
my
fault. So you were sacked?”

“Sort of. A long story. Not worth retelling. Then, a few days later, that outfit had a catastrophe and some men were killed. I had nothing to do with it, of course, but you don't know how some people may see things.”

“So suddenly you're frightened? Excellent timing. My compliments.”

“I just feel a little off tonight. If I'm there, you won't get a sense of who he is and how to handle him. My presence will throw the dynamic off. I'll make myself known sometime later.”

“God. You sound like a schoolboy with a crush afraid to ask the girl out.”

“It's complicated. Don't stare at him.”

“We're way up here—”

But down below, it was as if Earl Swagger sensed that he was being examined, and from what angle. He immediately flicked his eyes up to them, and they were barely fast enough to recede into shadow before he locked on them.

“See? He has incredible reflexes. He
feels
things. It's the predator's sense of danger. It's his natural aggression. You stare at him, he feels it. It's what kept him alive in the Pacific.”

“You are so ridiculous,” Roger said. “All right, Walter, hide up here from your love object. You be Cyrano, I'll be Christian.”

“Go, Big Winnetka,” said Walter.

 

“Good lord, Sergeant Swagger, you don't have to stand at attention,” said Roger heartily, turning on his best and most blazing Indian Hill Country Club charm. It had served him well there and at Harvard, in the army even, and most certainly in the Agency. He had no doubt that it would help him here, too.

“Sir?” said Swagger, turning his direct gaze upon the younger, thinner, far more glamorous man.

Roger saw less a face than some kind of Spartan shield with eyes: bronze, bone and leather, baked in the sun until brown, dented, battered, hooding gray eyes almost serene. Roger hurried onward. “I mean, the place is guarded by U.S. Marines. And it's Cuba, for God's sake, the forty-ninth state. It's practically Miami.”

“Sir, I'm just trying to pay attention,” said the state policeman.

“Let me introduce myself. I'm Roge Evans, I do a little something in the codes department upstairs.”

“Yes, sir. I guess you'd be the spy.”

Roger laughed.

“Say, I
wish
it was that exciting. No, I just make sure the private messages to Washington stay private. I button things up for later unbuttoning. That's all. It's easy work, and it leaves me a lot of time to work on my tennis. You don't play?”

“No, sir.”

“Please. A man with your combat record should not be calling a man with
mine
sir. It should be the other way around.”

“Sure, but don't
you
know a lot about me.”

“Sergeant, you can't keep a secret in an embassy, let me warn you of that right now. So everyone knows about the medal on Iwo Jima, the five battle stars. Why, I only have
one
—”

“All that was a long time ago. I hardly ever think of it.”

Great! Roger had played what he assumed would be his best shot, the brotherhood-of-arms angle, and this Arkansas guy hadn't even noticed. But Roger wouldn't let it go without a struggle.

“Well, I think of it all the damned time,” he responded. “Nothing that big ever happened to me before or since. I'm no hero, Sergeant, not like you, but I tried to do the right thing. I even got shot at a little, over in Europe. I was a sergeant, too. Look, if you feel you must stand here, let me get you a drink or something. You look so damned rigid.”

“I don't drink no more. I'm fine. I'm not a man for parties, that's all. I just stand around like a dumb ox and maybe sneak a peek at a gal now and then. The congressman seems to be enjoying himself.”

Damn!
Roger was disappointed that the man hadn't picked up on his war-service gambit.

“Yes, well, if certain people are to be believed, he has a
history
of enjoying himself. Anyhow, you'll be happy to know that this is just the warm-up. The ambassador likes these intimate gatherings to show the staff and his millionaire pals how important he is. But next Monday, he's got the whole island coming in for a more formal thing. Oh, it'll be something. Movie stars, some athletes, Hemingway, newspaper joes, probably some actors, lots of corporation big boys, and the best kind of beautiful women: those of dubious morality. Some mobsters, some gamblers. They call themselves ‘sportsmen.' If you don't like
this,
you'll hate
that.

“Thanks for the warning.”

“You sure I can't get you anything?”

“I'm just fine.”

There was no contact at all. Earl Swagger wasn't particularly interested in Roger St. John Evans, and Roger felt his coldness totally, despite the net of charm the young man had flung out. It secretly enflamed him. He was, after all, the celebrity of the station: handsome, debonair, a superb athlete, a war hero, the one everybody picked as the best boy, the fellow who'd go far.

But Earl just stood, in his centurion's stillness, his face wary but untroubled, his eyes steadily on the move, flicking this way and that, but nowhere near anxiety. He just watched.

He was completely ill-dressed for the dinner-jacketed formality of the evening, and if he'd noticed it—unlikely—it clearly didn't bother him a bit. His khaki suit was rack-bought, new, rather baggy and shiny at once, and too tight through the shoulders. Roger had to fight the temptation to give the man his tailor's name.

But then Roger noticed something, a lump under the coat, left side, under the arm where it oughtn't to be.

“You're
armed?

“Yes, sir. Today and every day.”

Roger sort of slid around and, looking across the chest, he could see the grip of a pistol protruding just half an inch from the shoulder holster that contained it. He brightened, because he recognized it.

“Oh,” he said, “your old .45? I carried one, too.”

“Close enough,” Earl said. “Yeah, it's a Government Model, but not a .45. It's what's called a Super .38.”

Roger knew just a little about guns.

“Super? It must kick?”

“Much less than a .45. The point is, it holds two more rounds. Nine. It shoots a little small bullet, about half the weight of a .45, but much faster. It'll go through most anything. I figured down here if I'm shooting—and I hope to hell I'm not—I'm shooting through or at a car. Sometimes a .45 won't even get through a car door.”

Roger suddenly lit up. He had it!


Say,
” he said, “I know! You're a shooter, a hunter. Would you like to shoot pigeons while you're down here? You know what, I'd like to put you together with Hemingway. He's a great shotgunner. Damn, that would really be something. You're a hero, he's a hero, he'd love you. I'll bet you're a great shotgunner.”

“I've shot ducks. In Arkansas, we flood the rice fields in the fall, and the mallards come in. Many a fine morning I've spent there with a good friend. I hope to take my boy duck hunting soon.”

“Hemingway,” said Roger, from his reverie. “Let me work on that! A little shooting party. You, Hem, possibly the ambassador, down at Finca Vigia. We'll hunt, then roast the ducks, drink wine, or rum punch or vodka. I've known him since the war. You'll love Hemingway. He's a man's man. Wait till you see his place, his trophies. He has a buff you simply
would not
believe. Oh, say, won't this be something?”

“Uh,” said Earl, “who's this…Hemingway?”

Before Roger could register incredulity at the fact the state policeman had never heard of America's most famous writer, a new presence swirled in on them. It was Lane Brodgins, a little drunk, clearly on a mission from Harry.

“Evans, Sergeant Earl, howdy. Great party, Evans. You boys know how to throw a hoedown and damn if Harry doesn't appreciate it.”

“Ah, yes,” said Roger. “Well, as I was telling Sergeant Swagger, this is just the warm-up. Next Monday, the stars come out.”

“Say, that's a great idea! Harry will like that one, he will. Earl, you should relax. You're off duty now.”

“I'm fine.”

“I have a feeling Sergeant Swagger will only relax in his grave, if there,” said Roger.

Swagger, for the first time, let a crease of a smile play across his face. Roger had been flattering him hard, not easy work but he was good at it, and finally the effort was beginning to tell.

“Tell you what,” he said, “maybe I'll have a Coca-Cola.”

“That's the spirit, old man!” said Roger. He snapped his fingers, a waiter appeared. “El Coca-Cola, por favor,” he said, sending the man off on his mission.

“I was just telling Sergeant Swagger I thought I could put an afternoon of pigeon shooting together. He's a great sporting shot, I hear. It happens I know Hemingway a bit and we could all go down to Finca Vigia and shoot pigeons. Hem's a shotgun man.”

“Who's Hemingway?” asked Lane Brodgins. Then he turned to Earl.

“Sergeant Earl, you'd better finish that Coke and then head back to quarters for your beauty sleep. The congressman has decided he has to see the Cuban criminality firsthand, for himself. So that means tomorrow we've arranged for a tour of certain areas. Who knows what we'll run into.”

“Good God, where are you going?” asked Roger.

BOOK: Havana
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