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Authors: Stephen Hunter

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BOOK: Havana
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This was fine and good and spoke of Lane's love, devotion and admiration to his boss, but it did Earl no good whatsoever, for evidently on the instructions of the madam, the two beefy policemen advanced on Earl and began to beat him.

Taken by surprise, he covered up and had a brief respite when the three whores ran to the cops to implore them on Earl's behalf in their own form of hysterical Spanish. But mamasita had the stronger will, the louder voice and presumably paid the biggest bribes, so the two coppers—now three, now four, now a whole mob—closed on Earl and the blows rained down.

As he fell, he saw Lane and Pepe gently guiding Congressman Etheridge to the steps, but at that point someone hit him expertly on the elbow and the pain was so intense, he uncovered to rub the spot of the blow. The next one hit him flush to the jaw, the knockout punch, and down he went, into swirling darkness.

Chapter 11

Earl's head felt like Esmeralda had it between her thighs and was crushing it to pulp. The place stank of piss and shit and sweat, and Esmeralda—he thought she had liked him!—just crushed away, squeezing his temples toward nothingness, while meanwhile the other whores rifled his pockets.

He fought to be free, and only upon opening his eyes did he realize he was in a holding tank in some Centro police station, and Esmeralda and her two pals were nowhere near. The crushing sensation was just the residue of the cosh's solid thump against his jaw.

He shivered, and the magpies scattered. They had been looting him, not that the cops hadn't already picked him clean. His shirt was gone, his jacket and tie, the gun and holster of course, and his shoes and socks. Only his pants remained, though not the belt. But his cellmates were searching him for what few remaining dollars they thought he might have. He had none.

“Get out of here!” he screamed, kicking one away, shoving several others. They scampered to the other side of the room, where they joined the larger night's haul of street scum, pimps, grifters, pickpockets, strong-arm men and what have you that the Havana cops had rounded up that night on Zanja Street or other dark corridors of the city. They watched him suspiciously, muttering among themselves.

Earl's head hurt bad. It hurt extremely bad. This had to be concussion ten or so. A few more and he'd start to go punchy, like some old fighters he'd seen. He touched where the hardest blow had landed and found that someone had taped a grapefruit to his face. But it wasn't a grapefruit on his face, it was the grapefruit
of
his face. It hurt also to the touch.

He touched the gash on his arm, found it secured tightly by a linen strip. The blood had blackened on his skin where it congealed. He could hardly move it. He needed stitches bad; it could reopen at any moment.

He pulled himself upright. He was in the back of the biggest cell in the back of the biggest cop shop in the town, him and twenty or so of his best friends. They eyed him ominously. These boys didn't appear to care for Earl. Perhaps word had gotten out that he'd whacked the shit out of two bad boys and these fellows in here thought they'd score some points with bossman El Colorado, whoever that nightmare might be, by giving Earl a little taste of same. But that's what the cops had already done. He spit something on the floor and saw that it landed and splattered red. Somewhere in the night's squalors he'd cut open his tongue on a tooth. He reached in, and felt, and all the teeth remained, but the jaw was swollen on the left side and crowded the choppers, and several teeth wiggled loosely even as they jacked in pain. He drew his hand smartly away, and the fingertip too was red. He needed three weeks leave at the beach somewhere, and a diet of Jell-O and Coca-Cola.

“Hey!” he screamed, and there was no answer from wherever officialdom concealed itself. Outside the bars was only a deserted stone corridor and way down it some light, where perhaps the office was. He knew this was the tank. Every city had a tank. You dump the shit in the tank: that's how it worked. In the morning you flush it out and let all the scum that are still alive run free, knowing they'll be back in the evening, or if not them, then their twin brothers. Nobody cared what happened back here.

“I demand you call the American embassy!”
he tried again.

No answer and then, “Eeeye deman choo call Americana eeem-buzzy,” a not-bad imitation of himself from one of the concealed comedians, and everybody laughed.

“Hey, Charlie,” someone said, “choo inna lotta shit, man.”

Earl said nothing. What was there to say? His head hurt too much to think, it was so dark he could hardly see a thing, and the boys were roiling themselves toward violence. Not good. He drew back. He'd been in a prison before but there he'd had the righteous wrath of hating it and what it stood for and the dream of its destruction to impel him onward. He had none of that now. He felt tired and old, and his wife and son were oh so far away in Arkansas, as were his friends, his hopes, his ambitions.

Fuck, he thought. I am going to die in a prison.

Maybe the cavalry would get here in time, maybe it wouldn't. But for now he could do nothing but wait and ache and pray.

 

Some time passed, though here in the Centro tank no sense of a concept called “time” truly existed. He may have passed out. Possibly it was near dawn. He wasn't sure. He felt human warmth, and blinked.

He looked up. Three men loomed over him. They dangled shivs from hands, blades formed from spoons or screwdrivers or whatever. Their eyes had the blank look of killers. The pride they had in what they were capable of doing—anything—radiated off them. Two of the three had scars, which meant that the one without was really dangerous.

Earl was flat against the wall, on a bench that passed for a bed. He had no room to maneuver. They towered over him, pressing in, all advantage to them, none to him. If he rose, they'd gut him quickly enough. If he stayed down and balled up, they could cut him bad enough that he'd lose his strength, then pry his limbs away in that fashion, longer but going the same inevitable destination, and get their blades into his guts.

“Hey, Joe,” said the scarless one, “choo got money?”

“I don't have nothing, friend,” said Earl.

“Oh, that is very bad. I want to help you, but my friends here, they want to cut you now.”

“They can cut me all they want, but they're not going to get any money, because I don't have any money.”

“Then maybe they cut you for fun.”

“I ain't done nothing to you. Please leave me alone.”

He had decided on the balled-up defense. It wasn't much but it was all he had. Now it was a question of how quick he could get his knees up to his chest and bury his face and throat in them and lock his arms around his legs.

“We don't like Yankees. El Colorado tells us choo people come here and fuck our women and steal our crops and make us your monkeys, and we don't like it nohow.
Cuba libre,
motherfucker.”

“Just leave me alone,” said Earl. “I ain't done a thing to you.”

“I think we have to teach
norteamericano
a lesson. Charlie, you are the history lesson of the evening.”

Suddenly a fourth party joined the exchange.

He said, “Excuse me, gentlemen, but would any of you be interested in purchasing a very fine vacuum cleaner?”

 

“He's
where?
” said Walter Short.

“The police took him,” said Lane Brodgins. “I don't know—”

“You idiot! You moron! Who the hell gave you authorization to head to Zanja Street?”

“Congressman Etheridge doesn't need authorization, Short. Who the deuces do you think—”

“You moron! If anything happens to Earl, I will personally see that your career is so completely destroyed you won't even be able to get a listing in the phone book!”

“You cannot—”

“You were to get him here so we could develop him. That was the
point.
That was the
only
point. This wasn't a let's-get-Boss-Harry-laid mission.”

“You try and tell a United States—”


You
had an obligation to us. We put money into this, we are picking up the tab, we are getting you great press, you had one job to do—”

But it was pointless.

He slammed down the phone. Then he deslammed it and quickly called Roger, who answered groggily. He explained.

“Oh, Christ,” said Roger.

“We can handle this. I have friends in the Cuban State Police.”

“You would, Short.”

“Roger, I have to do the shit so you can be the golden boy at the Yacht Club tennis tournament. Now please get dressed, get a cab, get over here. Meanwhile, I have to think.”

He hung up, then started dialing.

 

There was a moment of dumbfoundment.

All eyes—the three thugs', Earl's—went to the vacuum representative, to discover a scrawny scarecrow of a man with a bristle of gray hair, wearing a baggy linen suit. His face looked as if history itself had marched across it several times in several climates. He spoke with some indeterminate European accent and had the palest eyes Earl had ever seen.

Then he smiled.

“Hey, you, get the fuck outta here!” screamed one of the assailants, drawing himself up to full power and stepping forward to thrust his bull-chest against the skinny man. “You, go, I cut your—”

That assertion was halted by the evening's biggest surprise: what could only be the sound of a small pistol firing.

Everyone looked down to discover that the European vacuum salesman had just shot out the knee of the knife-wielder, who collapsed. As he fell, the European caught him, twisted an arm behind his back, and stuck the muzzle of the small gun into his throat.

He spoke in a commanding Spanish of such intensity it was amazing, not only in fluency, blasphemy and eloquence but also force, for the seriousness of his argument was instantly recognized, and the others backed off.

The wounded man crawled away, howling.

Earl, astounded, watched them go.

The man sat next to him.

“As I was saying, I have a very nice upright model, superpowered, what we call the Atomvac 12. It's not atomic-powered of course, but you know how sales brochures love to exaggerate. Anyhow, it's new to the island, has a thirty-foot extension cord and—”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Ah, yes. Of course. Vurmoldt, Acme Vacuums. This is my territory. I don't seem to have a card on me. Perhaps you have one on you and I could call and make a more formal presentation.”

“A vacuum salesman with a gun?”

“It comes in handy.”

“I'll say, bub.”

Earl stared at him in the darkness. What astounded him was the utter finality with which the vacuum salesman had just shot a man, then forgotten about it. That was the first mark of a professional. Shooting a human being isn't an easy thing and some people never come back from it and you see it in their eyes forever. Yet this Vurmoldt, of Acme Vacuums, had done it precisely, even scientifically, and had not wasted a single breath on it. It was necessary, he did it, and now he had moved on to other arguments.

“You seem to have been in some scrapes, if you don't mind my saying so,” Earl told him.

“The recent ugliness. Oh, it was quite unpleasant. I was shot at in France by French, in Russia by Russians, in Italy, then France again, and finally in Germany itself, all by Americans. Quite annoying, you know. Possibly you and I exchanged shots at Normandy or the Ardennes offensive?”

“I was in the Pacific killing Japanese. Though I'd have been happy to shoot you too, if you'd given me the chance.”

The man's face lit in laughter.

“Say, you are a scamp!”

“My name is Swagger, Mr. uh—”

“Vurmoldt. Lower Silesian. An old family of mercantile disposition. The vacuums, by the way, really are quite an excellent product. You would be pleased.”

“Earl!”

Earl looked up. It was Roger St. John Evans, rushing down the corridor, flanked by nervous-looking Cuban policemen and various embassy assistants. Keys rattled, men bustled with urgency. It was a little war party come to rescue Earl. They weren't as quick as the vacuum salesman, but they had finally gotten there.

“Earl, Jesus, I had no idea until that idiot Brodgins called the embassy to complain about the Cubans. Good god, are you all right?”

The doors were flung open.

“I'm fine, I'm fine. This here fella saved me. I—”

But Vurmoldt had disappeared into the dark mob of Cubans gathered in the corner, away from the husky guards with their clubs and automatic pistols.

“Hell, he was just here. Sir, I—”

But then Earl looked at the man next to Roger.

“Hi, Earl,” said Frenchy Short. “Long time no see.”

BOOK: Havana
5.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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