Havana, the sultry spring of 1953: gambling is expensive, sex is cheap, and death is free.
A half-hour by air from Miami, it's the world's hottest -- and most dangerous -- city. From the plush mobster casinos in Centro to the backstreet brothels on Zanja Street, you can get anything you want, for a price. The city is the linchpin of many empires: the Mafia's, the CIA's, numerous American corporations', El Presidente's, and even the vice lords' of Old Havana. It must be protected at all costs.
But now there's a threat. A young lawyer, a kid named Castro, is giving speeches. He speaks of reform, of change, of self-determination. He speaks of...of revolution even.
This danger must be dealt with. So, into the steamy, sunny climate of corruption come two men, both unafraid, both skilled, both tough as ball bearings. They would be friends in a sane world, for they are so similar in their capabilities and experiences. But now they have to be enemies, because the Cold War is at its apogee: one is American, the other Russian.
The American is named Earl Swagger. A Medal of Honor winner on Iwo Jima, a toughened gunman from adventures in Hot Springs and the swamps of Mississippi, Earl has been conned by two young Old Boys of the CIA to become Our Gun in Havana.
The Russian, Speshnev, also a veteran of tough battles (from Spain in '36 to Berlin in '45, with a few stays in the gulag just for seasoning), has a similar assignment: he too is sent by strategic gamesters to pay attention to that same young orator. But his job is protection, not elimination.
Neither man's assignment will be easy. For, like an orchid hot house, Havana's climate grows spectacular specimens: the wise old mobster king Meyer Lansky, who runs the casinos for his nervous New York sponsors; the syndicate hitman Frankie Carbine, Frankie Horsekiller of the famed Times Square massacre; the secret police officer called Ojos Bellos -- Beautiful Eyes -- for his penchant to interrogate at scalpel point; the beautiful Filipina Jean-Marie Augustine, who knows so much; and even those crew-cut, cheery young CIA fellows on the embassy's Third Floor, behind whose baby-blues and tender faces lurk all manner of deviousness. And everybody wants something.
In Havana, Stephen Hunter has produced a truly epic adventure story, shot-through with violence, eroticism, and the pressures of big money and big politics, set in a legendary time and place. His hero, Earl Swagger, fights his enemies, his superiors, and his own temptations and, in the end, has to decide what is worth killing for -- and what is worth dying for. He knows only one thing for certain: that he's a pawn in somebody else's game. But a pawn with a Colt Super .38 in his shoulder holster and the skill and will to use it fast and well is a formidable man, indeed.
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Simon & Schuster
December 31, 2002
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Excerpt from Havana by Stephen Hunter
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.