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Havana: An Earl Swagger Novel

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Chapter 1

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
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

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

"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

"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

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

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

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

"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

Excerpted from HAVANA © Copyright 2003 by Stephen Hunter.
Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster. All rights


Havana: An Earl Swagger Novel
by by Stephen Hunter

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743238087
  • ISBN-13: 9780743238083