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— The Washington Post
"Taut and sharp-edged....Raw and graphic."
— Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
"Lock and load. Strap yourself in. Earl Swagger is back."
— The Denver Post
It was a perfect O.
It floated from the smoker's mouth, an amazing confabulation, and then caught a small charge of wind and began to drift, widening, bending a little, until at last, high among the buildings, it atomized to wisps, and then nothing.
"How the fug they do that, Lenny?" Frankie Carbine asked.
"It's a machine, Frankie. They have machines for everything now'days. You got a machine there too, Frankie."
It was true. Inside his overcoat was a machine from across the seas, Denmark, a place so far away Frankie couldn't begin to imagine it. Not that he would have tried. Frankie didn't care much for stuff like that.
Anyway, this machine was a gun, just an assortment of tubes and housings and plastic handles and prongs and things that slid in and out. It was a Danish Model 46 9mm submachine gun with a thirty-two-round magazine, though Frankie, not interested either in the technical, didn't know that. Someone who knew guns somewhere in the thing said this was the best gun made for the kind of work the thing did. Frankie had no imagination for the theoretical: he just knew that it was much lighter and more concealable than the old-fashioned tommy guns because its stock was a bent metal shape on hinges -- which meant it could be folded and made smaller -- and that it fired faster, kicked less and was easier to use. You pointed it, you sprayed, you walked away. That was his job.
Frankie -- born Franco Caribinieri forty-three years earlier in Salerno, moved to Brooklyn when four, a common enough trajectory for a midlevel soldier -- idly watched as another vaporous O was manufactured and dispatched into the loud air near Times Square, courtesy of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Camels, said the launching platform, a billboard that sheathed the entire front of the building between 44th and 45th right on Broadway, NO. 1 FOR SMOKING PLEASURE. The hole that belched the ring was cleverly situated at the mouth of the painted face of a movie-star handsome fellow, while over his shoulder some classy blonde dame with lips like roses looked seductively out upon the anonymous masses who hastened by foot, automobile, bus and cab through the great metropolitan space. The air was almost blue with smoke, the people were gray with exhaustion, worry or hurry, the cars were still mostly black except for the cabs which were yellow, and everybody was in a hurry. It was also loud. Honks, squeals, yells, the roar of engines, all of it pounding away. It gave you a headache. Frankie loved it.
He sat in the back seat of a freshly stolen '47 DeSoto, black; he shared the cushion with a teddy bear, a doll and a Lone Ranger comic book. He wore a blue serge pinstriped suit, a black wool overcoat (to keep the gun hidden, not to keep him warm; it was spring and in the sixties) and, because everyone he knew and respected did, a black fedora pulled low over his eyes.
"I wonder, I got time for an Orange Julius?" asked Lenny.
It was an easy reach; the OJ stand was just across the sidewalk from the parked car, sandwiched between two theaters (Roman Holiday at one and Target Zero at the other), a souvenir shop, an entrance to the commercial floors above, and then a shabby bookstore with FRENCH BOOKS in big letters above it.
"No," said Frankie. "You can get an OJ another fuggin' time. I don't want to come out of that place and find you wit' an OJ in your hand and the car turned off."
"Frankie, it's an easy one. You get close, you squeeze, you see brains, you turn, we drive away."
"It's always easy, until it's hard," said Frankie.
Someone tapped on the farside window. It was a kid, Dominic's boy, fifteen, and he'd spotted the mark coming down the street. He made brief eye contact with Frankie, who repaid the gesture with a wink and a smile -- the boy loved Frankie, seeing him as one of the coolest guys in New York -- and departed.
"Yeah, I got him too," said Lenny. "You see him, Frankie?"
"Yeah, yeah, I got him."
The mark was a tall sprig of a guy in a raincoat. He had two salesman's bags under his arms and two black bags of approximately the same size under his eyes. His name was unimportant, his background meaningless, his identity unworthy of attention. He was hawking California wares in New York territory and he'd found a clown dumb enough to consider buying at quite a discount for being first, only he didn't know that someone in his own little fiefdom had already ratted him out.
It was nothing a great one would be involved in. All that was finished now. Those had been great days, but somehow Frankie never got close to the action; he was just a mechanic on the outskirts, a gun toter for a crew that was affiliated to a mob that was affiliated to a bigger mob. He went, he did, he managed. But once at a club he'd seen them: the great Bennie Siegel, now dead, the great Meyer Lansky, now exiled, the great Lucky Luciano, with the one dead eye, now deported, such movie-star men, men of charisma and grace and beauty, the center of the universe.
There was the romance of the life he loved: the power, the women, the way men made room, the respect, the way people acknowledged your importance. He loved that. He'd never had a fuggin' taste of it, not even a smell; he was just a cheap fug with a gun. So he was waiting outside a dirty-pix store to do a quickie, and get out. Five hundred bucks in the till, a yard for Lenny the driver, that's all.
They watched as the mark slipped into the door beneath the FRENCH BOOKS sign and disappeared.
"I'll smoke a ciggie, Lenny. Let 'em get comfy, get set up, get cool. Then Frankie Carbine transacts his business and we're home by noon."
"A great plan, Frankie."
So Frankie lit another cigarette, and tried to blow smoke rings for a few minutes, and his never quite cohered like the giant masterpieces floating above: another frustration, and the perfect illustration of the life he had as opposed to the life he wanted.
"Okay," he finally said.
"Good luck, killer," said Lenny.
Frankie left the car and walked swiftly to the store, making eye contact with no one. No one noticed him, which was not a bad thing, for he was, he knew, an odd customer: a fellow in a heavy overcoat on a warm day, with one hand deep in his pocket, where it actually slid through the slash in his coat so it could grasp the grip of the Danish submachine gun. His coat hung too straight, because in the other pocket were two more thirty-two-round magazines, each weighing a pound and a half. His hat was too low, like Georgie Raft's in a picture. His suit was dark, he was a glowering death figure, a movie gangster, come to call. But no one noticed. It was New York, after all; who notices such things, when there is so much else to notice?
Frankie evaded a popcorn cart, slipped behind a nigger working a three-card-monte con on stiffs, smelled hot dogs from another vendor on the street, wished he had time for a chocolate Yoo-Hoo, a favorite of his, and turned into the store.
He had been in such places before and so nothing shocked him, except that every week it seemed they were getting more and more bold in what they sold. The windows had been painted black for privacy, and the interior lit by fluorescent glow, which cast a dead-bone color on everything and dazzled off the cellophane. There was a lot of cellophane, and behind it, flesh, everywhere, saggy and pale and raw, things you could see nowhere else. This broad had oval-shaped nipples, that one bad teeth and stretch marks, this one was a hot piece, the next your mother's mother's sister. Packets of cards lay on tables, sealed but promising whores showing off butts or coochies. The nudist camp stuff occupied its own tables, most of it from Germany, where dumpy blonde dames stood with towels covering their hair-pies, smiling as if photographed at a church picnic. Over on that wall men's magazines sold war atrocity laced with sex, where Japs were torturing busty American nurses behind screaming red headlines like BUNA BLOOD BATH! Behind the counter, reels of 16mm stag movies in boxes blank but for numbers had been filed, and maybe they gave you a glimpse of something you never saw anyplace except Havana, but you had to pay big for it. The smell of disinfectant hung in the air, and a bruiser cruised the aisles looking for dirty boys who were jigging themselves under their clothes; that was never permitted. They had to be tossed.
But Frankie knew the big kid wouldn't stand in his way, not once the fun started. That was the point of a subgun, even a Danish one: it spoke so loud and powerfully, Joes just melted into puddles of nothingness in its presence.
Quickly, Frankie checked the place out, seeing only furtive men locked on what they were considering buying and sneaking home in lunch buckets or briefcases. Nobody would ever admit to being in such a place so no witnesses would come forth and no statements would be signed. That was what was so great.
Frankie edged through the throng, bumping into a guy gazing yearningly at Black Garters magazine, and another, a homo, in the homo section where Male Call seemed to be the big item. At the cash register a surly creep reigned supreme and guarded access to the stag movies; behind that was the window of the office. Frankie might have to pop the creep first before he had a clear shot at the two in the office. He could see them, bent over the new product line from the sample cases. Shit, color! These California pricks had gotten so well established they could print out in color. Frankie's understanding of the business -- any business -- was limited, but he understood that color was the next big thing in nudie books and pix.
No wonder the big boys were so interested in sending a message to California: deal through us or stay off our turf.
"Hey," said the clerk. "You here to buy or just to poke your pud? Get your goddamned mitts out of your pockets, pally, or take a hike."
Frankie decided the man's fate in a second. It pissed him off to be dismissed so roughly. This fug thinks he's tough?
"Yeah, here's your hike," said Frankie.
He shrugged to spread his coat and raised the muzzle of the gun, his left hand coming around to grab the magazine, clamping down a safety lever behind the magazine housing. The clerk's face went numb and he just froze up, like a guy who sees the car coming and knows there's no point. There wasn't one, either.
Frankie fired. Three shots, but they ripped out in a millionth of a second or so it seemed, that's how fast the fuggin' gun fired. The light -- not much was there to begin with, but there was maybe a little -- left the clerk's eyes as the bullets speared him, and he said "Thelma!" to Frankie as he slid down.
The moment froze. It was dead silent. Nobody moved, nobody looked, nobody even farted. The echo of the three shots seemed to clang through the smoke and the only noise was the light metallic grind of the spent casings rolling on the floor. The acrid smell of the burned powder overpowered and dissolved the disinfectant stench. The two men at the desk through the window looked at Frankie, who now transacted his day's labor.
He fired through the glass, and watched it fracture into sleet, like the glinty spray of a Flatbush trolley through new snow on a winter afternoon in a long-lost childhood, all chaos and sparkle; and the bullets were like the arrival of a tornado, for as they dissolved the glass, they dissolved what lay behind the glass. The desk erupted in a riot of splinters and dust and smoke and nudie books flew into the air as if seized by a whirlwind.
You couldn't say the two stiffs didn't know what hit them, because Frankie knew they did, in that split second when they'd looked over to him and seen their deaths in his eye. But in another second they were gone, for the bullets bullied them relentlessly, causing them to jerk and twist and lurch. One fell back into his chair and went limp, the other rose, twisted as if on fire, and beat with his hands at the things that tore him up, but then he slid to the ground, his skull hitting the linoleum with a thud.
Again, silence. Each man lay still. Then not still: as if dams had been burst, a sudden torrent of blood began to empty from each penetrated man, from a dozen new orifices. So much, so fast; it soaked them, running from broken face to burned shirt to twisted arm to splayed fingers to hard floor, spreading in a satiny pool. Frankie squirted them again, to make sure.
He turned, realizing the gun was empty, and hit a little lever to drop the one mag. Neatly he fitted another one in, felt it snap in place. Then he looked up.
This was not working out.
There before him, with a stunned look on his face and a copy of Gal Leg in his hand, a uniformed New York City policeman stood in stupefaction equal to Frankie's. The two armed men faced each other.
"NO!" Frankie screamed, imploring the cop to cooperate as he knew clipping cops led to career difficulties, but the cop refused to cooperate, and his hand went inside his double-breasted coat and tugged the cop Colt out, and Frankie watched, as it seemed to be taking forever. He should have smacked him hard in the head with the gun barrel, but he didn't think fast enough, and about an hour later the cop got the revolver unlimbered, actually paused to cock the hammer with his thumb, and raised it onto Frankie, who again screamed "NO!" except that the word was lost in the thunder of the gun. It fired so fast, it slithered and twitched like a snake in his hands, desperate to escape.
The cop fell sideways and back, the revolver clattering to the ground. He too immediately began to issue copious amounts of liquid from new openings.
This was the one that unlocked the frozen customers. Now, frantically, they broke for the door, fighting each other to escape the madman's bullets. Someone broke the black painted window and rolled out, admitting a sudden piercing blaze of fresh light, which in turn caught the smoke and dust heaving in the air, glinted off of tits and coochies. The panic was contagious, for now it struck Frankie, and he too lost control and ran, as if fleeing a mad gunman, utterly forgetting the fact that he was the mad gunman.
Again, it took a while. But eventually, the passage cleared and Frankie stepped out.
He saw two things immediately.
The first is that there was no Lenny and no car and the second was that there was a horse.
It wasn't a cowboy horse at all, though for just a second that's what he thought, because cowboys were all over the place on the television now. It was a police horse, and on its back was a policeman and it cantered through traffic down Broadway, right at him, amid a screech of horns, and the screams of people who dived this way and that.
Fug, thought Frankie.
The officer on horseback had possibly himself seen a lot of television, for he had his gun drawn and he leaned over the neck of the plunging horse and began to fire at Frankie. Of course on the television or in the movies, somebody always falls, usually shot in the arm or shoulder, when this one is pulled off, but in real life nothing at all happened as the bullets went wild, though Frankie had a impression in his peripheral vision of a window breaking.
Onward, onward rode the horseman, though nobody knew the reason why. Possibly it was stupidity, possibly heroic will, possibly an accident, he just rode right at Frankie through the traffic, cut between cars to the sidewalk and cantered on as if to crush Frankie to the pavement.
Frankie watched in horror, seeing the wide red eyes of the animal, filled with fear, the lather of foamy sweat, hearing the clatter of the iron-shod hooves against the pavement, and the heavy, labored breathing of the animal which was, he now saw, immense compared to him, and just about to squish him like a bug.
He never made the decision because there wasn't a decision to be made, but Frankie found himself the sole proprietor of a rather angry Danish machine gun, which in about two seconds flat emptied itself into the raging animal. He himself heard nothing, for shooters in battle conditions rarely do. He felt the gun, however, shivering as it devoured its magazine, and sensed the spray of spent cartridges as they were spat from the breech this way and that, hot like pieces of fresh popcorn.
The animal was hit across the chest, and, opened up in the process of the slaughter, it reared back in pain and panic, flipping its tiny rider to the pavement with a shudder. Then, huge and whinnying piteously, it fell to its forelegs, awash in blood from the sundered chest, and from its mouth and nose where blood from its lungs had overwhelmed its throat and nasal tubes. It thrashed, tried to rise because it had no clear concept of the death that now stalked through its body, and then its great head slid forward and it was still.
"Fungola!" cursed Frankie, tossing the empty gun. He looked and prayed for Lenny but Lenny had long since quit the field. Sirens arose and it seemed that several brave citizens were pointing at him.
"You killed a horse!" a lady spat.
Frankie did not think it the right time to offer explanations, and turned toward an alley and began to run like holy hell.
Copyright © 2003 by Stephen Hunter
In the early spring of 1953, a big noise from Winnetka dominated the diplomatic tennis circuit in Havana. That was what they called him, after the famous hit tune from the '30s. It summed him up: big, powerful, American, unbeatable. And it didn't matter that he actually came from Kenilworth, a whole swank town down the North Shore from Winnetka. He was close enough to Winnetka. His name was Roger St. John Evans, and to make him all the more glamorous, it was rumored he was a spy.
He was in demand that season. He played at least three or four times a week, on his own courts or at some other embassy out in leafy Vedado or, even more frequently, at the Havana Country Club, or even occasionally on the private courts of the big Miramar houses out La Quinta owned by Domino Sugar executives or United Fruit Company bigwigs. In all those venues, the embassies, the big northward-facing houses in Miramar and Buena Vista, the courts behind the Vedado embassies, out as far as La Playa and the Yacht Club, the country club, his beauty, power and smoothness made him many a wealthy young lady's dreamboat, a sought-after dinner guest, a real catch.
So on a certain late spring day -- the sky was so blue, the summer heat had yet not attacked the Pearl of the Antilles, a breeze floated across Havana, just enough to lift flags and palms and young girls' hearts -- Roger tossed the ball upward for service, felt his long body coil as pure instinct took over, and the strength traveled like a wave up and through his body and the complex computations of hand/eye circuitry functioned at a rate far more efficient than most men's. As the ball was released he tightened, then unleashed and his arm ripped through an arc, bringing the racket loosely with it in the backhand grip for a bit of English. He caught the ball full swat at its apogee -- the nearly musical pong! signifying solid contact was so satisfying! -- hit through it at a slight cant, and nailed a bending screamer that seemed to spiral toward the chalked line on the other side of the net. It hit that target square, blasting up a sheet of white mist, and spun away, far beyond his poor opponent's lunge.
Game, set, match.
His two opponents, a Bill and a Ted, executives for United Fruit, accepted the inevitable.
"That's it, boys," sang Roger, allowing himself a taste of raptor's glee.
"Well done, old man," said Bill, who though not an Ivy had picked up certain Eastern affectations from the many who dominated the island's American business culture.
Roger's doubles partner, his eager young assistant Walter, who played a spunky if uninspired game of tennis and always seemed a bit behind, gave a little leap and clapped a hand against the base of his racket face, in salute to his partner's brilliance and victory.
"Way to go, Big Winnetka! Boola-boola!" he chanted, in a voice clotted with affection and admiration.
The players gathered at the net, to shake hands, exchange respects and towel off.
"A drink, I think," said Ted. "Pedro, mojitos please. At the pool. And tell Manuelo not to spare the rum. I think we can afford it." He winked at Roger. "I have an in at Bacardi."
"Si, señor," said Ted's senior servant, who trotted off to fetch.
"Walter, help him, will you," said Roger.
"Sure," said Walter cheerily.
"No, no," said Ted, "it seems compassionate, but you spoil them and there's problems later. Let's go to the pool."
They walked through the garden to the shimmering blue reservoir behind the great house. The men sat at a table under an ancient pruned palm, close to flowers, hedges, tropical bouquets and recently turned earth, in the shade of a vast umbrella, and Pedro brought the drinks. They were expertly made, the rum soaked in dense sugar, the mint sprigs crushed to loosen that herb's magic, the gassy water aboil with bubbles, all mixed to swirl and the ice cubes giving the whole an intense chill. The pleasing ritual of men drinking: the booze took the sting from the losers' loss and spread the glow of the winners' win. Cigars, Havana Perfectos in fact, came out, were lit and sucked and a warm fog settled upon the four.
Blah blah blah and more blah blah blah, all pleasant if pointless: a little embassy gossip, a little business climate analysis, a little on current politics and what a good job the new president Batista was doing, he was really on the team, and on and on --
But then it seemed a shadow passed over the sun. No, it was Pedro. He whispered something to Ted, who nodded.
"Well," he said, "this is so pleasant I wish it would never end. But now it must. There's someone you have to see. Will you follow me please? He's just arrived."
Roger shot Walter a look. What's this? it seemed to say. Who are these boys to be playing so mysterioso? Being mysterioso: that was Roger and Walter's profession. And the locution was so strange: someone you have to see, as if it were a professional situation, not a post-match social obligation.
But, of course, they both rose with their host and followed him into the big house with its gleaming floors and up marble stairs. United Fruit knew how to impress. Not even El Presidente, as Batista was mocked by the Americans behind his back, lived quite so grandly as United Fruit's most important executive.
"That way. The library. I'd hurry. He's expecting you."
Roger led the way through French doors and into a vast room, lined with books that had never been opened, and furniture from somebody's empire, and silk and damask and the usual gewgaws of conquest, a bronze telescope on a tripod, a Brown Bess hung on the wall, lancers pennants tripoded in the corner. Both men blinked, for the doors to the balcony were open and the light of day blazed in unrepentant and powerful.
"Well hello, boys. My, aren't you a sight? Sweaty but unbowed, athletes of the moment."
Roger recognized the voice, thought no, no, it can't be, and squinted as from a dark corner a man came into the light. He was not remarkable in any way and wore a simple khaki suit and a white shirt and black tie. He wore black plastic-framed glasses, was quite bald, if a little tall and rangy. No charisma, no attraction, no drama. The face so regular as to instantly vanish from memory. He looked like a salesman or possibly a minor attorney. His name was known but to a few, though to those few it had acquired legendary status. Roger was one of the few. That name, however, was not spoken, and had never appeared in print. Instead he was called Plans, for he ran the Directorate of Plans, on the Agency's clandestine side. He didn't fight the Cold War, he was the Cold War. To his face he was called...well, nothing. It was awkward, but nothing could be done about it. Sir, uttered by the subjects of his attention, clumsily facilitated his face-to-face transactions.
This was a highly unlikely situation. Plans normally functioned out of the station, as the slang had it, in the embassy. He never just, er, showed up like this, in some private house miles from the embassy, unless something really interesting was about to happen.
"Sir, do you know my assistant, Walter Short?"
Walter bowed nervously; he could not have known himself who this fellow was, but as a quick study had intuited from pal and supervisor's gravity that he was important.
"Hello, sir, I -- "
"Yes, yes, Short. China, no? Some military stuff, advising Chiang. Is that right?"
"Yes, sir, I -- "
"Well, Roger, and, uh, Short, sit down, we must have a chat."
And so they sat.
"How are your parents, Roger? Is your father still prospering?"
"Sir, Dad's fine. The heart attack slowed him down, but Mom says he's back at work now. Nothing can stop that man."
"Yes, I know. I crewed with him at Harvard. But I was never an athlete like him. I wonder if he remembers me. He was a fine athlete."
"Yes, sir. Dad was. He still has a three handicap."
"That's remarkable. Now, anyway, Roger, I am here -- "
"Roger, should I take notes?" whispered Walter.
"No, no, we don't want any of this on paper," said Plans.
"Yes, sir, I -- "
"That's all right. Now, Roger, I just looked through your OSS record. Very impressive. Then there's your medal citation. Silver Star. Very impressive. You were part of a team that hunted down a German sniper in Switzerland. You killed him. I like the finality in that. No ambiguity to it at all. You blew the bastard out of his boots, you recovered some advanced technology that was very helpful. Short, did you realize you were working for a genuine war hero?"
"I knew -- "
"So, Roger, you were, in a sense, a manhunter."
Roger swallowed, ever so gently. It was all true, but just barely. He'd been a child. An officer named Leets did all the work. At the end, when they killed the German, Roger was aware that most of his burst of .45s had missed. He had just hosed the tommy gun away, running through thirty rounds in three seconds, the only bullets he fired in the entire Second World War.
"I suppose," said Roger.
"Good. A taste for it? Like it dark and dangerous? Like the guns, the excitement? Like the thrill of the hunt, the satisfaction of the kill? That's what we're looking for."
"It was necessary," was all Roger could think to say.
"Like to run another operation like that, Roger?"
Well...here it was. Roger knew that if he said no, it would be a dark mark against him. Plans didn't come this far, enter through the back door, and fly home tourist class to hear a rejection. But if Roger said yes, well, that had its problems too: one didn't want to get caught up in something sticky and illegal that couldn't be controlled. He smiled, and said, "Of course I -- "
"Oh, I don't want you doing anything violent. We are not gangsters, after all. We plan, we make sure things happen, we liaise, we coordinate, we administer. But you know how to put something like this together? You've done it. Part of it, of course, would be finding a man to do the actual work. Someone from outside our organization, but someone who could be trusted. Someone reliable. We both know there are elements in Cuba who would do such a thing for money or self-interest or a dozen other motives. But they are not reliable and we don't want anything coming back to haunt us, do we? That's why I rely on your discretion. You could find a man, no? You could supervise the operation. You could make it happen?"
"Good show! I knew you'd say that. Short, you aboard? You can play this sort of game under Roger's supervision, can't you? You won't let us down?"
"Yes, sir," said Walter, "and I -- "
"Excellent," said Plans. "Now, you are wondering, who is all this about? Well, it's a young Cuban lawyer," said Plans. He pushed a manila envelope over, and Short opened it to find the usual run of documents, plus a photo of a young man with an oval young face, a Spanish darkness, an intensity to eyes that could not yet have seen very much.
He turned it over, said the name aloud, feeling its newness on his tongue: "Castro."
"That's him. Very charismatic, an orator. He might be a problem."
"A problem?" said Roger.
"A problem," said Plans. "People are talking already. I'm getting serious inquiries from our own Caribbean Desk, from all sorts of people at State, from the Brits and the French, from the Mexicans and the Canadians. He was involved in anti-American demonstrations against John Foster in '48 in Colombia. When the Ortodoxo party founder Chiba killed himself, this fellow astutely put himself at the center of the mourning process and got on the radio."
"There are so many of them," said Roger.
"But this one is different. He may be a problem."
"Everybody wants this island to stay just the way it is, now that we've reinstated Batista. We don't want any applecarts upset, and we don't want our Red friends taking an interest in this sort of fellow. He's exactly their kind of man; they could play him like a Stradivarius. Too much money has been invested, and too much time has been spent. We can't let this get out of control. If we're not on top of it, it could be on top of us."
"Sir -- ah, I -- "
"Yes, Roger, go on."
"It's just that, well, isn't this a bit, you know, radical? I mean, there might be other methods: we could give him money, I suppose, or recruit him in some way. We could, you know, leverage him with photographs of some sort or other, we could acquire influence with one of his close associates so that we'd always have tabs on him and in some way could control him, why, there must be -- "
"You know, that's what some said in Langley. It's worked in the past, it'll work in the future. That's the American way and everybody's comfortable with it. You're comfortable with it."
"Yes, sir, I -- "
"But maybe just this once, as a kind of test case, we ought to not do the American thing. We ought to make a statement. Nothing bold, nothing flamboyant, nothing cruel, nothing attention-getting. But the right folks would notice: this fellow, he was about to upset applecarts, and then suddenly he was dead. Who? Why, not the Americans, they don't do that...do they? Maybe it's time to add that do they? to the equation."
"That's why I want to go ahead on this thing. I'm approving a budget and it gets tucked into a National Security Working Group, and a senior case officer will run interference at Langley and I'll supervise closely. We'll code-name it Big Noise. I like that. I love thinking up the right code names. I don't think an op can go unless it's got the right damn name. Anyhow, I'm clearing the decks for you on other assignments. You don't have to troll for sources at the country club any more. Though of course you should continue with the damned tennis. You can't just walk away from it and huddle in the office."
"Does this mean I can start winning faster? I'm very tired of throwing a couple of games to keep these people happy."
"Yes, it should get you in the right mood. Kill them, crush them, stamp them out. In the meantime, I want to see you put together a scenario, find the personnel, develop it plausibly, set up a timetable, and we'll run it by the Director and see if we can make it happen. I don't need to tell you how top secret the operation is. That's, of course, why I'm not operating out of the embassy station. You can't keep anything secret in an embassy. Are we together on this? Roger, you're with me now?"
"I'm just concerned about finding a fellow," said Roger. "The whole thing would hinge on that. The wrong fellow, the wrong result. It has to be someone you can trust, who is heroic, capable, and patriotic. Where do you find such men?"
"Well, Roger," said Plans, "the Agency has resources. We will -- "
Walter Short interrupted.
"Excuse me," he said, louder than Roger had ever heard him speak before. "I know where you can find such a man."
They looked at him.
"There's a man in Arkansas," he said finally. "Strong, tough, smart, capable. A real hero. A genius with guns and in fights. A man who's killed, who's good at it, but who hasn't been made crazy by it and doesn't need to do it. And a man who knows how to get anything done. If you could get Earl working for you, you'd have something. I mean, something."
Copyright ©© 2001 by Stephan Hunter
Sautéed en beurre, then served with a complex red, possibly a St. Emilion, a '34 or a '35, the cockroach would have tasted delicious. Why red? Because red goes with meat. A cockroach certainly isn't fish, of that you may be sure.
But Zek 4715 did not have a St. Emilion, a '34 or a '35, or a pan or any butter, or anything much at all, except the cockroach.
It was not even much of a cockroach. But cockroaches were hard to come by, and so this one, as runty and pitiful a specimen as it was, would nevertheless have to do, and the zek held it between his long and elegant fingers and considered it carefully.
Little bug, he thought, you and I, we are brothers. So it is entirely appropriate that you nourish me with your little pinch of protein. I salute you. I admire you.
"Just eat it, damn you," said Zek 5891, known to be Latkowsky, the Polish saboteur and wrecker. "Don't torture us with your exquisite manners."
It seemed rude to consume a sibling so quickly, however. Zek 4715 and the bug: both were held squirming against their will in the grasp of a larger organism, and would live or die according to the dictates, no, the whimsies, of that organism.
So be it.
Outside, a wind howled. This was not remarkable, as outside a wind always howled. It was Siberia, after all, where the wind was supposed to howl. It was Gulag No. 432, some twenty miles south of the arctic circle, not far -- say 150 kilometers -- from the big town of Verbansk, with its cosmopolitan population of thirty-five, and a railhead.
"Gentlemen," said 4715, raising the bug, "to you, the living, I dedicate this kindred soul."
The living included Latkowsky; Zek 0567, one Rubel, an oppositionist; Zek 9835, Menshov, the famous careerist who had murdered hundreds for Beria only to be sent just as far north as anyone else; Zek 6854, Tulov, the spy for the Zionists; Zek 4511, Barabia, the spy for the French and Americans; Zek 2378, Krakov, the deviationist and wrecker; and...well, on and on, a barracks full of former intelligence officers, diplomats and soldiers who had in one way or another disappointed the regime or, more likely, its boss, and were turned magically into zeks, sentenced to die out here amid howling winds, nourished on beet soup and the odd potato or bug.
"Eat it, damn you!" someone called.
4715 did. There had never been any doubt about that. The bug squirmed against his teeth, then went still as it was halved, then quartered, then ground by forces beyond its comprehension. A weird prick of flavor, extremely odd, flew to 4715's brain, reminding him of something. What, possibly? The paella in Spain in '36, full of crackly shrimp and squid and zesty tomato? Or the leek soup at Stalingrad, so delicious after a day's battle in the snowy wreckage? Or possibly the veal sausage and sauerkraut he'd had in a German city, ruined though it was, in '45, before his final arrest.
The bug vanished, leaving an aftertaste on his tongue to be savored for hours.
Applause rose, for the diversion of 4715 and the cockroach had been more entertainment than the barracks had seen since Zek 2098 died spitting blood and cursing the boss several months or possibly years ago.
"Thank you, my friends," 4715 said, and it was true: these were his friends, with their hollow faces and shaven scalps, cheekbones like bedknobs, eyes black and deep and exquisite with suffering. Tomorrow, the road, the eternal road on which they labored in the cold, a road that would kill them. It was being built against the possibility that the Boss would someday want to drive to the North Pole. Although the Boss had died recently, and would never drive to the North Pole, that hadn't seemed to affect the roadbuilders of Gulag No. 432, not even a little bit. Onward, to the North Pole, in salute to triumphant socialism!
So resigned were they, in fact, that when Senior Sergeant Koblisky entered the barracks with a loud thump and a bump, escorted by three men with rifles, it was an astonishment to all. The guards pretty much left the zeks alone on the one Sunday afternoon of the month they were not required to build the road to the North Pole, in case the Boss should come back from the dead and demand to be driven there. The guards didn't want to be at 432 any more than the zeks did. Only one person wanted all these humans to be out here at 432 and he was dead now and it still didn't matter.
"Easy now, move back, you bastards, or I'll have the corporal run a bayonet through you." That was Senior Sergeant Koblisky in a good mood.
It was so unfortunate that the Senior Sergeant, once a tank ace with Marshal Konshavsky's Fifth Shock Army at Kursk, had uttered a sentence of compassion for the poor German bastards he'd just machine-gunned as they surrendered (under NKVD orders of the day). That was enough to transfer him to 432 after war's end, a chestful of medals and twenty-eight Nazi Panzers destroyed or not.
"Let's see, where is he? I know you're here, damn you. You didn't die yet. I saw you yesterday, I saw you this morning, I -- oh, there you are. 4715, get your ratty little ass over here."
"What?" 4715 said. "Why, I -- "
"Goddammit, get over here. It's cold out, I want this over with so I can get back to my bottle. Wrap yourself up and let's go."
4715 blinked, stunned. In fact this event was unprecedented in living memory. Men came, men died, men cried, men were buried, but men were never summoned. There was no point. It was almost incomprehensible.
"Yes, Senior Sergeant, I -- "
"Here, wear this, dammit, it'll save time."
He tossed the spindly 4715 a guard's wool coat, something that weighed so much it almost crushed the poor man, who was used to rags stuffed with newspapers as a barrier against the cold. 4715 found the strength to wrap it about himself, wished he had shoes of leather instead of wood, and, escorted by his protectors, stepped out.
Cold of course. The eternal wind, the eternal pelting of pieces of grit and ice and sand and vegetation; a gloom that was endless, a landscape that, beyond the wire, was itself an eternal flatness of snow and scrub vegetation giving way in a distance too far to be measured to leaden, lowering skies.
It was spring in Siberia.
The party trudged against the blistering wind across the compound to its one well-constructed building, a headquarters house, of stout timber, with actual smoke escaping a chimney to signify the presence of fire and warmth within. Immediately the clever 4715 spied the anomaly.
Camp 432's motley of vehicles, consisting mainly of old trucks that had somehow survived the war, were drawn up in formation outside the headquarters building. These were the ancient contrivances that hauled the prisoners' food out to them, and brought back the bodies, as the road headed farther and farther toward the Pole, a foot or so a day. Success was expected in 2056. But parked immediately before the building was something astonishing: a black, gleaming Zil limousine, well-waxed and showing only mud spatters on the fenders and a thin adhesive of dust after the drive from the railhead.
But 4715 hadn't time to conjecture on the meaning of this strangeness; he was inside and felt absolute, pure, quite beautiful warmth for the first time in many a month, or year, whatever.
"This way. You must be clean, of course. Important men can't be offended by your stink and filth. Really, it's sad how you've let yourself go."
"True, I missed the morning bath. I decided on a second glass of tea instead, and a strawberry blintz with cream," said 4715.
"See, men, how 4715 has kept his wit? Not like some I know. All right, 4715, there it is. Have fun and be quick."
4715 stood before a shower stall in the guards' quarters. He stripped quickly, stepped inside and turned on the blast of hot water. It scalded blissfully, grinding off years of filth. He shivered in pleasure, found a rough bar of soap and lathered. Possibly they were readying him for his own hanging; it didn't matter. This was worth dying for.
"Speshnev, Speshnev, Speshnev," came a voice familiar to 4715 from a thousand or so years ago. 4715 blinked hard in the newness of it all; yes, his name. His name spoken publicly, loudly, affectionately, when to utter it had been forbidden for so long. It was a weirdness so profound he had no idea how to comprehend it, but that drama was dwarfed by the next, when he encountered the speaker himself, large and blustery, but with shrewd eyes and glossy hair that only partially softened the brutality of his features.
It was his mentor, his teacher, his sponsor, his betrayer, his interrogator, his most reluctant torturer, his sentencer, the famous wizard of the service, one P. Pushkin, once a university professor and chess champion, then a secret soldier in the wars of Red conquest. P. Pushkin was the warrior incarnate, a kind of natural cossack who saw all opponents as manifestations of pure evil, fit only for obliteration. Though brilliant and even charming, his flaw and his genius was that he was without moderation in all things. He wore the dress uniform of a senior general of NKVD, and a chestful of ribbons that dwarfed even Senior Sergeant Koblisky's.
"How are you, my good man?" Pushkin inquired warmly, giving the spindly prisoner a bearish hug, as if Speshnev had just returned from a week in the country.
"Well, I am fine," said the man named Speshnev. "I just ate a delicious cockroach. I won it at cards from a Polish saboteur named 6732."
"I see you've lost none of your edge. That's Speshnev, always at the top of his game, no matter the circumstance. Come, sit down, have some tea. A cigarette? No, cigarettes are probably meaningless to you at this stage of your socialist evolution. I'm hearing now they may even be bad for your health, so you were probably lucky to find them unavailable."
He smiled, flipped a ciggie from a pack of American Luckies, and made a show of putting the pack away. Then he smiled, the cigarette wobbling in the tightening of his lips in that broad smile, and handed the package to Speshnev, who quite naturally adored cigarettes even if he hadn't had one in years.
Speshnev internally cursed himself for his weakness of character, but he could no more turn down a cigarette than the shower, or the fresh clothes and the actual leather shoes he now wore.
The lighter flared. It came to the cigarette Speshnev had inserted in his own lips; he drew the fire to himself, through the vessel of the tobacco, and his lungs flooded with the pure drug of pleasure. His head buzzed, his senses blurred, and for a second, he was happy.
Was this some plot? Make him see the things he had disciplined himself to forget. Get him to taste pleasure, comfort, warmth, which had all but ceased to exist except in the zone of the theoretical? Then to plunge him back to the bitter nothingness of the barracks? To return him to zekness? That would be beyond endurance. He would hang himself, there could be no other way.
"I know you may have some resentments, Speshnev," said Pushkin. "It can't have been pleasant out here, no indeed. And though no official apology will ever be uttered, I think you will begin to see people who will admit that mistakes were made. A shake-up now and then is good, of course, but the Boss went too far. I told him myself, yes, I did. Boss, I said, I'm all for discipline and commitment and keeping the fellows on their toes, but don't you think you've sent too many away? Well, you know the Boss, he always played his cards close to his chest. He just smiled in that mysterious way and went about his program."
This, of course, was apostasy; it would have earned any speaker a trip to the cellars instantly and a committee meeting with a Tokarev bullet behind the ear by dinnertime. But the Boss was dead; new things were in the works.
So Speshnev merely enjoyed his fabulous cigarette, feeling its smoke in his lungs, and drank the tea and felt the warmth everywhere.
Pushkin leaned forward conspiratorially. It was as if he were afraid men were listening and reports would be made, when in fact, if he so wished, he could order all the men in the camp shot.
"I will tell you this, Speshnev," he said in a whisper. "You may even have been luckier to be out here, though it can't have been fun. No, but Moscow in the last years of the Boss's madness was a terrible place. The fear, the paranoia, the betrayal, the burning out of whole bureaucracies, sometime three and four times, the brutal whimsy of the Black Marias as they took this one and left that one. No, it wasn't fun. A fellow hardly knew what to do. Here at least things were clear."
Pushkin could not have believed this even for a second: he was a man without illusions, a practical man in all habits of mind. It pleased him, however, to utter the absurd and know that it would be accepted without argument.
But Speshnev could not help himself. Merrily he said, "Yes, many a time, General, I woke at four in the morning for the long trudge across the snowy plains to work on that infernal road to the North Pole, telling myself, 'I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth, and thank the stars I have General Pushkin in my corner, looking out for me!'"
Pushkin ignored the irony, as was his whimsy of the morning.
"Speshnev, it's with great pleasure I have come all this way to announce your rehabilitation! Speshnev, so hard have I fought for justice in your case, so fiercely have I waged a campaign! I never forgot you, Speshnev, when all the others did. It is to me, Pushkin, that you should genuflect in thanks. I, Pushkin, give you your life back!"
"Does this mean -- unlimited access to cockroaches?"
"Absolutely. Now listen. There is a county, Speshnev, that has long been oppressed. Its trajectory is toward chaos, crime, filth, degradation. It is owned lock, stock and barrel by American criminal and business interests, who use it as their whorehouse, shitter, and sugar factory."
"Actually, it sounds delightful."
"It is. Quite. The señoritas! Muchas bonitas!"
"I take it this is a Latin country?"
"The island paradise known as Cuba."
"As there were in Spain. Same stock, actually, though with a tinge of negro blood for that extra paprika in bed."
"In my mind, I'm there already."
"Speshnev, there is a boy. We have him spotted. He is clever, committed, ambitious, unbearably courageous. He could be the leader."
"You will study the documents on the train back to Moscow with me. But you already see where this is going."
"I see where I am going."
"This boy. He must be seduced, smoothed, trained, aimed, disciplined, taught to expect success. As he is currently situated, well, it's that Latin temperament. Romantic, unrealistic, too quick to act, too slow to think. He needs a mentor, a senior fellow of wisdom and experience. Speshnev, with your magic ways, your charm, your ruthlessness, I think this is a task for you. It was made to order. It is your redemption, your future, your rehabilitation."
"So I'm to help the regime that imprisoned me twice. Eagerly, willingly, aggressively?"
"Of course. There's only a paradox if you build it yourself. You can have a model contradiction in which we punish you unjustly, almost to the point of death, certainly to the point of misery, then we demand heroic service of you. A lesser man might find a source of resentment somewhere in the equation. It takes a great man to make the contradiction irrelevant on the strength of his will alone. Speshnev, I won't even ask you. Because of course I know the answer."
"There's really not an alternative, is there? Not after tea and showers and American tobacco. Who could say no?"
"No one, little 4715. No one."
Copyright ©© 2001 by Stephan Hunter
Posted November 8, 2003
Once again,Stephen Hunter,the author,has kept me from getting to sleep on time. Like Hot Springs;Pale Hoese Coming and Black Light,Mr.Hunter continues the Swagger story.I always say that Hot Springs is Hunter's best but maybe that was because that was my introduction to Swagger and his clan....TRUST ME! Once you start HAVANA you will not be able to put the book down.I know that's a cliche but I MEAN IT....Great action and suspense throughout.Early 1950's pre-revolution times are described well...Go get this book...NOW!
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Posted December 9, 2008
In 1953, the don¿t say his name boss arrives in Havana with a dossier on a charismatic threat to the currently American supported dictator. He orders Roger St. Johns Evans and Walter Short to eliminate Fidel Castro before he causes problems like regime changing and Communist government building. Walter suggests they use Earl Swagger of Arkansas on the assignment.<P> The Boss sends a loyalist to Siberia to reassign 4715 from the North Pole road building to mentoring Castro in Cuba. Speshan takes a shower for the first in seemingly centuries before, he, the former and perhaps future 4715, travels to Havana to indoctrinate Castro.<P> Though he only wants to go hunting with his son, when the Feds come recruiting, Earl accepts the mission and journeys to Cuba. However, nothing is quite like it seems and instead of a simple job, Earl is caught in global politics with little hope of expediting himself from this mess.<P> This is a powerful historical thriller that brings to life the era just before Castro takes over Cuba. The story line is fast-paced and filled with action, but contains much humor (Bill and Ted?). Earl is a great protagonist who also serves as a role model for a caring nurturing yet all male man. Stephen Hunter escorts readers back five decades in Havana in a numero uno tale.<P> Harriet Klausner
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Posted August 22, 2013
This is the third of the Earl Swagger series, although not his third book of the Earl, Bob Lee and Ray Cruz. Father, son and grandson. Well written, believable characters, great background work keeping this and all the other of Hunter's novels in a historical perspective.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 28, 2012
Posted June 29, 2005
I'm a big fan of Hunter and the Swagger series. However, this one was disappointing. Hunter writes that his agent comes up to him and says ' Swagger in Havanna '. Hunter decides to write a book about it. He should haver said ' What else ya got?'. I was on the verge of putting the book down before the last 100 pages really got me. Hunter knows how to write action. But between the action scenes, the Havanna story line falters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 29, 2004
This was the first Stephen Hunter book I read and it will surely be my last. I am sure his other books are better, but this book left such a bad taste in my mouth that I won't waste my time with any of the others. Everything about this book was hokey -- even Earl 'Swagger's' name. Everything Earl did was perfect and right, and everything the other characters did was stupid and wrong. You can predict what will happen in every scene -- many of which were so unbelievable that they were laughable. I've seen Mr. Hunter speak and he is quite entertaining and articulate, but this book was a big disappointment.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 25, 2004
I'm a huge Hunter fan, but this was a little much. The Earl thing has been played out to the max, and Hunter seems to have let that Pulitzer go to his head. He threw in countless big words that didn't add much to the relatively simple story. This book wasn't near as captivating as all of his previous works. Good insight on 1950s Cuba, but pretty predictable. Worth the paperback price, but not 20+ bucks for the hardcoverWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 28, 2004
Listeners can almost taste and feel the hustle of 1950s Havana in these superb vocal characterizations rendered by voice actor William Dufris. A master of phrasing and intonation he brings vibrant life to this powerful story. Hero Earl Swagger, topnotch gunfighter and former Marine Medal of Honor recipient, is as tough as they come. He'll need all the strength and prowess he can muster when the government asks him to protect a Congressman whose mission it is to check on purported wrong doings at an American naval base. Remember, this is Havana in the 1950s - Fidel Castro is in power, gang lords thrive, and every stripe of criminal activity is taking place. Rather than doing much investigation our Congressman seems more intent on sampling all the temptations Havana has to offer, little knowing that Swagger also has a mission - to dispose of Castro. Stephen Hunter writes as strongly and chillingly as he did in 'Hot Springs' and 'Pale Horse Coming.' William Dufris is his vocal equal.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 29, 2003
I knew better than to buy a book when I know how it ends. Castro can't die, so what is the point? Since I have enjoyed every other Hunter book, I opted to buy - big mistake. The book is extremely predictable and some of the jams for our hero are laughable in their solution. This is the first dud for Mr. Hunter and it is a big one. Save your money or stop by the library. In either case, a waste of time... and money.
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