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Authors: Stephen Hunter

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BOOK: Havana
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“Now there,” said the boss, “goes a right fine piece of pootie.”

She was a right fine piece of pootie, too.

“She sure is,” said Lane. “Yes, sir, that she is.”

“Si, señor,” said Pepe, who immediately got what was going on.

“Is she a nigra, do you suppose, Lane?” asked the boss.

“Well, sir, she does have a caramelly skin and that behind of hers shakes just like a negro gal's. I'll bet she rattles around in bed like a negro gal, too. Don't you, Earl?”

Earl had examined the flowing clothes of the señorita only briefly, pausing not at the quivering abundance of the flesh of shoulders and rather awesome breasts, nor at the undulations of high, proud buttocks, nor at the firm, luscious legs held just so tensely atop a pair of spindly black heels, for he had ascertained that so dressed, she probably didn't conceal a machete or a hand grenade, and had passed on to other concerns.

“Yes, sir,” said Earl, in his dullest cop voice.

“Let's see where she goes,” said the boss, still consumed by the presence of the undulating brown woman. “Just, you know, for the damned heck of it.”

“Yes, boss.”

The car oozed down the narrow street, over ancient cobblestones laid by slaves in the previous century or two. Lights danced or sparkled, illuminating the brown flesh.

The woman, all ajiggle on staked heels and thongs that cut into her ankles, at last found her destination, and saucily halted. She turned to confront the men in the close-by Cadillac, and threw a lascivious wink right at the boss. Then she opened a door bathed in red light, and slipped inside.

“Boss, I think she likes you.”

“I think she do, too. Don't you, Earl?”

Earl thought: she's a whore. She's paid to like you. That's what whores do. That's why they're whores.

“She looks available,” was all Earl could think to say.

“Pepe, you pull over here. You follow her up, Pepe, and see what's what. You give me a good report.”

Pepe started to get out.

“Now hold on, sir,” said Earl. “Mr. Congressman, this is not a good idea. This here is a very tough part of town, that I know. That gal is a whore, sure as rain and heat. You don't know who's up there, some pimp fellow with a knife, some robbers, it's all the kind of thing a man in your position cannot be involved in, let me tell you that. Nothing here for you but bad trouble, sir.”

“Now, Earl,” began Boss Harry, but it was Lane Brodgins who took over.

“Damn, Swagger, it ain't up to you to judge and call shots. This here is a United States congressman and he will go and do as he pleases and your job isn't to second-guess him but to make goddamn clear and sure he is safe. That is your only job, goddammit.”

“Earl, you go with Pepe and you see what's what. We'll wait here. Pepe, come here a second.”

The tough little Cuban leaned close, and Harry whispered something in his ear. Pepe nodded sagely.

Earl didn't say a thing. Didn't seem like there was much to say. His hand fled to the big Colt Super .38 resting in the holster hung under his left shoulder, to remind himself, yep, it was there. Then he went along with Pepe, under the glow of the red bulb, and watched as Pepe knocked. In time, a small square hatch in the door opened at eye level, and someone examined them from within, up and down. Then the hatch snapped shut, the door opened, and in they went.

Chapter 9

Speshnev never followed directly. He had learned that lesson the hard way, in Barcelona, in 1937, when two members of the Anarcho-Syndicalists had observed him, counter-ambushed, and sent him crawling through the alleys with a Luger bullet in his belly.

So he ran his operation carefully using classic technique, drawing on a hundred years of tsarist and Cheka-NKVD collective espionage experience. He still did the small things well. He never went out of town. It was impossible to follow on the dusty Cuban roads. But in Havana, it was different. He trailed by taxicab, but never directly. Sometimes he paralleled, other times, if streets were busy, he crosscut and switched back. He had a bagful of hats and changed them every hour, from the white straw boater so popular in the streets to the more elegant felt fedora, to a shapeless straw rural head cover, to, finally, a red bandanna, knotted tightly about his head. He never wanted to stay in the same profile. He had two ties and a bolo, which came on or off as circumstances warranted; his jacket too was on or off, buttoned or unbuttoned, collar up, collar down. Then, at random hours determined by predesignated unpredictables—like the appearance of a pigeon with gray wings, or of a rare woman seller of
bolita
tickets (as the unofficial lottery was called)—he'd abandon the cab he was in, or he'd make a guess as to destination based on good professional instincts, and zip ahead, not to follow them but to foreshadow them.

It was expensive, of course; too expensive for the annoying Pashin, who would not cover the taxi expenses, would not hire a car and driver, yet would not alter the nature of his assignment either. Make do, Speshnev. You are supposed to be so good, simply make do.

So early in the mornings, when the congressman and his more interesting companions had tired out, he went to a smallish casino, lost a little money playing blackjack, and then, when the decks were charged with face cards, made a swift big hit, pocketed the excess and left. He never hit the same place twice, he never wore the same hat twice, he never won too much to get himself beaten or robbed. He just knew the numbers and held them in his mind with an eerie concentration, made his profit, and retreated quickly, before he became known, before his card-counting could be classified a professional's skill as opposed to luck. He'd already made $10,000 that way, in a few nights. It was a shame he didn't defect, he thought, and make the numbers work for him in the world's gambling spots.

But fool that he was, he did his duty, for men who despised him, for a system that had almost murdered him, for cynics and scoundrels and sociopaths that ran the intelligence service. His duty: it was all he had.

He followed them for the better part of a week and had reached some kind of provisional judgments already. The first was that the American congressman, showy and vain about his hair, was a man of great strengths but equally great weaknesses. The man was a drinker and if Speshnev still had instincts for such things, a whoremonger as well. He loved to dominate and to be obeyed and he sat back and watched people scurry, enjoying every second of the theater of fear. Of those around him, most were of the sort familiar in political circumstances: little factotums who did what the Great Man ordered and sought to acquire his favor and avoid his rage whenever possible. An assistant seemed to be the chief of these pathetic creatures, and he never ventured far from the Great Man's elbow, which made him the prime subject of those compliments and those terrible rages.

There were a few others, a Cuban driver, an embassy babysitter, a secretary, who at various times accompanied them. But mainly, there was the bodyguard. This was Speshnev's true quarry, the first American he'd ever been assigned to evaluate from a professional point of view, and the man whom he might in fact have to eliminate.

Speshnev knew the type. He had something. Some tankers had it, some ace aviators. Old infantry sergeants had it, and the snipers, the really good ones, who scored kills in the hundreds, they had it. He'd seen a lot of it in Spain too, in some of the crazier advisors who had to go on every attack, so burning were they with fervor. Death truly meant nothing to such men. It was courage and cunning, but those alone weren't it.

Speshnev picked it up at once. No word really existed in English; the Russians had one however,
tiltsis,
expressing a certain unmalleability of character. This chap could not be bent, influenced, seduced, tempted. He simply was what he was.

Speshnev read body language. In the separation, the isolation, of the bodyguard he saw the man's bull-pride. He would not be one of them, “them” being political operatives of a parasitical nature. He had a quality of stillness to him. His body was under discipline at all times, his arms always held in. He carried some kind of big American automatic in a shoulder holster. Through opera glasses, Speshnev studied his hands, and saw that they were huge. Typical: the good pistol people always seemed to have large hands, and manipulated the guns so much more surely than the rest.

But mainly it was his shrewd eyes. It wasn't that the fellow craned his head this way and that, and made an extravagant show of checking things out at every opportunity; rather, it was that the eyes, disciplined by battle, were always moving. They roamed, probed, pierced, incised. They made quick discriminations and quick judgments. His face never changed, his emotions never showed, but he was watching everything, always on the scout.

Speshnev knew from the first and his further observations only convinced him further: this man is dangerous.

Kill him now.

There were no other options.

He would slide closer. He had a .25 caliber Spanish automatic in his left sock. He would meander close, never approach on a line, he'd fall back in a second if detected. The man had a natural radar for aggression, fear and turmoil. You had to approach under camouflage. You had to believe in the benevolence of yourself and sell that message through every pore in your body as you floated ever closer, ever more slowly, ever more gently, and then, at the very last second, only then commit to murder. The gun would come out swiftly, for to hesitate was to die. The gun would come out, cupped in the hand, and with extravagant nonchalance, the nonchalance of a confident lover, sweep upward until the unseen muzzle touched the base of the neck. The small pistol would fire its small bullet into spine or brain, he would melt away, and the American bodyguard would topple, not even aware that he had been stalked and murdered.

That is what I must do, Speshnev said. I must do that, and prevent the complications this sort of man can bring to my mission and in that way guarantee myself a freedom from the gulag. It is a simple proposition: I kill him, I am free forever of the gulag.

He sat at a sidewalk table outside the Bambu on Zanja Street. It was late, but not so late. The street still seethed with action, the lights blared garishly from the enticements along Havana's most notorious boulevard. He sipped a coffee, so strong and black it would kill the unprepared. He saw them.

The Cadillac had been halted now for some time. Other cars maneuvered wretchedly to get around it, and people yelled and cursed and honked. But the Cadillac, like the great American empire it represented, refused to acknowledge an outside world. Speshnev could see there was an argument of some sort with the bodyguard holding forth against the no. 1 assistant, who was clearly out of control. Obviously, this no. 1 fellow had a problem with the bodyguard, for the bodyguard, by his body language and head placement, refused to accept the no. 1's authority and clearly, by a thousand subtle clues, let his contempt be known.

Speshnev had a laugh. As he himself had, the no. 1 assistant had discerned how dangerous the bodyguard was, and was now moving to kill him. Unlike Speshnev, he hadn't the courage, the decisiveness, the ruthlessness to kill him literally, but he was trying to do the deed bureaucratically, symbolically. What a fool.

Speshnev took another sip of the black sweet Cuban coffee. The Spaniards and their bean artistry! The brew was so thick and powerful and relentless it would keep him awake for another thirty hours, which is exactly what he needed. The sugar would keep him jacked and primed.

And now at last, some movement. The bodyguard and the driver got out of the car, endured the ritual of examination at the door in the red glow, then headed inside. Speshnev knew negotiations were being made. And soon enough, the bodyguard came back down, and leaned into the car. The congressman, his white hair pinkish in the glare of the red lamp, rose from the car, looked about nervously, slicked back his hair, and headed inside. The bodyguard, his eyes ever watchful, his hand never far from his automatic, his movements lightfooted and prepared, shadowed him in.

Another ten minutes passed.

Speshnev had another cup of coffee and a Cuban sweet roll. It was delicious.

And then, the door of the brothel flew open and a bleeding man crab-walked out groggily, holding an arm atilt from breakage.

Oh, my, thought Speshnev. Somebody tried to get tough with the wrong fellow.

Then, its sirens bleating savagely, its red lights pumping illumination into the night, the first police car arrived. And then another and another. The no. 1 assistant rose to intercede from his place in the car, but was rudely pushed aside by the Cuban coppers as they assaulted the stairs, clubs and guns at the ready.

Chapter 10

Why are they always green? But they are, and he should know, having been in whorehouses in Shanghai and Panama City and Nicaragua and Pearl Harbor and San Diego and Hot Springs. They were always green, but a thin wash of green, pale and sloppy enough so that the grain of stucco or stone or drywall shone through. The Asian ones were smokey and sedate and dark, as if sex were a form of narcotic. The Spanish ones all had crucifixes, gaudy and wracked, hanging on the walls, while in America the tendency was toward calendar art, with preposterous hourglasses of womanflesh showing garters and thighs and a hint of pink-tipped breasts. This one had the crucifixes, the candles, the stench, the beaded curtains, the dark corridor leading back to small rooms, a toilet somewhere—you could smell it—and a mama and her girls.

Earl checked it out, wondering if there was a bouncer somewhere. If so, he wasn't visible. He poked a look down the dark hall and saw nothing, and peered into a small kitchen and again saw nothing. Maybe he was downstairs, maybe he was on the roof. But he would be there.

Meanwhile, Pepe negotiated. It was brief and intense and it turned out that Pepe had talents along these lines, suggesting that he'd done this ten or possibly fifteen thousand times before. It was all done in advance, so that when the boss arrived, all the embarrassing financial details would be worked out, all questions settled, all bills paid in full, and only the pleasure remained.

There were three girls, the one the boss had chosen and two others. Mamasita told the two others to take a hike and they disappeared down the dark hall, leaving Esmeralda, as she was called, to face her fate, which was Boss Harry the American humanitarian politician. The yellow negress had rolling shoulders, breasts and buttocks; in fact everything about her was somehow rolly and quivery, fleshy and powdery and sweaty meat, and dankness and moisture. A sheen of wet glittered on her forehead. She looked nervous and forlorn. But the boss wouldn't notice.

Earl heard Pepe, after some lengthy hassles in Spanish, divert to English.

“Drink the Coca-Cola bottle, no?
El Coca, si?
That's what he wants.”

“He pays the extra, he gets.”

“Then it's done, Mama?”

“It is done.”

He turned to Earl and just nodded. No expression at all lit his eyes, the mark of a professional.

Earl went down the dark stairs, opened the door and went to the car, its engine still running to provide the power for air conditioning. A window wound down under the power of a miraculous modern pushbutton.

“He says it's set,” Earl said to Lane.

“You sure, Swagger?” asked Lane.

“I'm sure that's what he said. What that means, I don't know and can't say. This ain't a good idea.”

“Just do the job, Swagger.”

The window clamped shut.

Earl looked about and around. It was a familiar whoretown scene: when a customer came to call, it was as if he entered a bubble. The commerce was sacred and invisible, and the Cuban throngs massing along the sidewalks of Zanja walked blankly on, watching nothing. Earl looked about for photogs—you never knew—and saw none, saw no sailors from Gitmo or the Merchant Marine, no American college students out raising rum-soaked hell. Just Cubans, who lived here, and, down and across the street, a few late drinkers at a cafe, maybe some diners headed down to the Pacifico in Chinatown, the best Chinese eatery in town.

“Okay,” he said.

The door of the Cadillac opened and the congressman stepped out, wobbled slightly under the influence of his own rum consumption, ran his hands through his magnificent white hair, tightened his tie as if the Duke and Duchess of Windsor awaited upstairs, and started unsteadily forward.

Earl thought he might fall, even pass out, which would make things easier all around, but no, he was set in his course and he made it to the red-lit portal, Earl opening the door to admit the man, nervously following and scanning. Both headed up the stairs.

The congressman's brogue-shod feet pounded heavily on the ancient stone, as they rose a story under the illumination of a single bare bulb at the top. Up, up, up they went, until at last he stopped.

He turned to Earl.

“Now don't judge me harshly, Earl,” he said.

“I have been in a cathouse or two myself, sir,” said Earl.

“I know I have a beautiful wife, a handsome young son and a blossoming career. But sometimes a fellow has to have what he wants, and gol-dang it, here is such a time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I have an idea about a certain thing, Earl, god help me. It's a thing you can't get no white woman to do. I've had a few girls in my day, but there's a thing I've never had. Tonight I will have it, by God.”

“Many a man feels the same way, sir, and don't you think nothing about it. Now I am on your six o'clock, and will keep a watch.”

“Good work, son. You are a true man of Arkansas, I can tell. All that stuff about how hardheaded you was—no, sir, you are a fine young man.”

The congressman smiled, seemed almost to pass out, and Earl made to catch him, but he got hold of himself in the instant before his knees buckled, then turned to continue his advance on paradise.

Earl waited a second or five, or even ten. He didn't want to see the man's exchange with the woman. He heard muttering, her nervous laughter, the madam's admonitions in harsh Spanish, and the swish and tinkle of the beaded curtains as john and whore sought privacy for their commerce. Only then did Earl enter, finding a bored Pepe lounging on a couch, the mamasita sitting at a table working on financial accounts, and a radio blaring from a shelf, chronicling the narrative of some mambo-rama or other, with excitement from the male and female hosts but nothing he could pick up, though he knew a form of brothel Spanish from his years before the war.

Pepe made no room for Earl, who in any case didn't want to be on his butt, but on foot, ready. So Earl leaned, arms crossed, the interior hand not far from the Colt hanging under his shoulder. Time passed, one mambo became another and then another, Pepe said nothing, Earl saw nothing, mamasita added columns and columns of numbers and then—

“AIEEEEEEEEE! No, please, no!”

It was Esmerelda, screaming as if the devil himself had forced himself upon her, and then came the unmistakable thud of a hand hitting a face with considerable velocity.

“Damn you, you thief! Damn you, damn you, damn you to hell's fires!” There was the sound of another slap, and another.

“Do you know who I am!
Do you know who I am?

Earl was there in an instant. The congressman was atop her in the flickering candlelight, slapping her hard in her bloody face. Earl grabbed him in a bear's iron grip and hoisted him from her, aware that his pants were bunched around his knees absurdly, that his stiffened member was jousting crazily, his face as wet with sweat as hers was with her own blood, his fabulous hair a nest of silver thorns and curls.

Earl heaved him into space but not against the wall, and put himself between him and the sobbing woman, who had gathered herself up in bedclothes and was shivering violently, her blood filling the fibers of the sheets and turning them purple in the flickering light.

“I paid,” the congressman was screaming. “She wouldn't, she wouldn't, but I paid,
I paid!

Earl spread his arms like a crossing guard to keep the congressman away without hurting him.

“Now, now,” he counseled, “now, now, now. You don't want to be doing something you will regret. It ain't worth it, sir. You just settle on down and we'll get you to the embassy and you can have a nice shower and—”

Pepe was beside him now, saying, “But, señor, she is only a nigger whore, is no matter, the whore must do what—”

And mamasita went over as if to comfort Esmerelda but in the inverted madness of the moment didn't hug her at all. Instead—WHAP!—she hit poor Esmerelda harder than the boss ever had, and with a fistful of rings.

Earl grabbed the madam, threw her hard aiming for the wall, so that when she hit her arms flung wide and her mouth and eyes popped. Then he shoved Pepe for good measure too, just because he was in a shoving mood.

Then, finally, he turned to the congressman and somehow gathered him without actually touching him, as if to get him out of there with a minimum of damage, and if Pepe's back were broken from the way he went over and through that table, so be it; he, Earl, would drive the big Cadillac and get the congressman back to the embassy.

It seemed to be going quite well, at least for a moment or so, and he actually had the congressman under control, his pants up if not yet belted, as they headed to the door—and that's when Earl saw the man with the knife.

Where had he come from? Earl would never know. And worse, behind him was another, also with a knife, a Spanish thing with bone handle that had just flashed outward, spring driven, from its concealment.

“Hey, hey,” said Earl.

“Oh, Jesus,” said Boss Harry, and commenced to slide pitifully to the floor, as if that was a form of escape.

“Motherfucker,” said the first knifeman. “Going to cut choo bad,
cabrone.

Well, Earl didn't think so, and he hit the fellow square up in the nose with a shot so fast and hard no camera could possibly have caught it. He felt the satisfactions of the perfect impact. That man's head jerked back and his eyes rolled up even as his nose, now squashed, began to spritz blood. He wheezed wetly and large numbers of shattered teeth came out of a suddenly slack mouth. He turned ash gray, his knees melting, his eyes rolling skyward. Then he went with a thud, landing next to the balled-up congressman, and then the other man came around and jabbed at Earl with his knife.

You can't fight a man with a knife and not get cut and when you get cut you can't let the sight of your own blood scatter your mind. The man, clearly a knife expert from his balance and precision and the backwards grip with which he clenched his weapon, got a good two-inch diagonal gash across Earl's parrying left arm, which began oozing its own red through the cheap suit, a garment that offered no stanching qualities at all.

Pleased at what damage he had wrought on one pass, the man stepped back to admire his work and accept the plaudits of the audience, a mistake, because Earl caught the bottom of his wrist with his good hand, twisted and pivoted, stepped under the raised arm with a nifty jujitsu thing he'd picked up somewhere eastern, and brought his man under control, though his cut had begun to hurt like hell. Now, what to do with him? That was the question. The stairs: that was the answer.

Earl, controlling him roughly, though he squirmed like a fish on a line, monitored him to the head of the stairs and without giving it a second thought pitched him down. He yelled and clattered as he went. He limbs went this way and that and his head hit stone stair or wall several terrible times, each with its own particular thunk.

He came to rest at the bottom, arms akimbo, eyes closed, small patches of blood from the abrasions of the fall beginning to seep through his clothes and mark his face.

Oh, shit, thought Earl, thinking he had killed him and wouldn't that be a pretty pickle. But the men who guard whorehouses as a profession tend to be a hardy lot, and this one opened his eyes, shook his head and rose unsteadily. He looked up the steps at his conqueror, gripping his own now weirdly twisted arm, screamed a Spanish blasphemy, pushed open the door and headed out into the night.

Earl turned, gripping his arm to hold the bleeding in. Now it really stung.

From the floor, Boss Harry looked agape at him with eyes full of love.

“Sir, get yourself dressed and we will git the hell out of this place. You, goddammit—” this to hapless Pepe, still stupefied on the sofa, “—you help him and get him out of here. I have to get this cut stitched before I bleed out.”

“Oh,
si señor,
yes, sir,” said Pepe, jumping into action.

And suddenly, like three goddesses from some old Greek story, Esmerelda and her two colleagues were on Earl, one cleaning, one pressing, one wrapping tightly. They gazed at him with adoration too, and were nattering away in Spanish at a mile a minute.

“They say
mucho hombre,
much man. You have defeated two of El Colorado's worst fellows, Scarface and the little one you tossed down the steps, he was Mulatto Sam. They beat these girls and so many of the girls often and on Zanja Street are very well known as the Dark Angels of El Colorado.”

El Colorado. Now who the hell could
that
be? It didn't sound promising.

“Just help the congressman, you,” said Earl. “Ladies, thank you for your help, but this will hold me fine till I get to a hospital. You are very sweet and kind and—”

The clambering on the stone steps announced the arrival of the local constabulary, and come to think of it, Earl had heard sirens, he just hadn't affiliated them with his current situation.

He turned, and began to smile at his rescuers, but it was the madam who dominated the action. She suddenly stepped from behind the curtains and began pointing at Earl, and shrieking. Behind them, rushing to the fallen congressman who Pepe now had more or less dressed, came Lane Brodgins, the color of dry leaves, and he bent, screaming hysterically, “Oh my god, oh my god, sir,
sir!
Harry, dear God, what has happened? Oh it is so
awful.

BOOK: Havana
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