Charles Fleming

After Havana

Excerpt

The black Cadillac blew out of the driveway at the Tropicana, tires squealing, and shot down Calle 72 toward the water. The car was huge and shiny, a brand new model with big fins, and it lunged through the night like a shark through water. The man at the wheel was Del Stevens, an American film actor who had been drinking daiquiris since noon. At his side was a Mexican actress who had been drinking daiquiris with him and was now trying to raise a rumba on the radio. They had met at the Hotel Nacional in the early evening, when they were both still well dressed and well mannered.

They had later been joined at the Tropicana by an American banker and his wife and another couple, who said they were Americans from Florida. The Mexican actress didn’t believe it. The man was small and dark and obviously Cuban, from his rat-a-tat Spanish to his perfectly polished two-tone shoes. The girl was a blowsy redhead, worn and cheap and about as American as a cheese enchilada.

The little dark man was sitting in the front seat now, pointing through the windshield as the Caddy careened down to the coast. He shouted at Stevens, “Number 7, my freng! Turn on number 7!”

Behind him, in the back seat, the cheap redhead said, “Jimmy! Ain’t we goin’ to El Cruz Azul?”

And her boyfriend said, “Sure, but he have to turn on Calle -- ”

“I’m turning,” Stevens growled, and whipped the steering wheel hard and brought the big Cadillac around like a schooner. He accelerated all the way through Miramar and blew a red light going across the river. The radio blared something that sounded hot, but then lost it. The Mexican actress cursed quietly.

A black Security car had been following the Cadillac since it left the Tropicana. Stevens hadn’t seen it, but he saw a black-and-white police cruiser come up behind him just after the blown red light. The officers in the black-and-white cranked up the siren.

Stevens said to the Mexican actress. “Get a load of these jokers. And gimme a cigarette.”

She lit one without turning to view the Cuban police car. “You going to stop?”

Hell, no.”

The small, dark man said, “There’s a Security car coming, too.”

Stevens checked the rear view mirror, and saw the unmarked black sedan, and cursed. He stomped on the gas, and blew another red light coming into Vedado, and clipped the front tire off a bicycle that was just entering the intersection. An elderly shopkeeper went down on the pavement. The Caddy skidded in a bit of water, turning onto the Paseo, but soon was on the Malecon, the broad crescent of coast road that fronted Havana Bay.

For one long, clear minute they were alone on the Malecon, open road ahead of them, waves crashing over the sea wall. The two Cuban cars and the siren were lost in the splash of the waves on the pavement. The night air, even by the coast, was terribly warm. Stevens was boiling inside, flushed with speed. He tilted his head back slightly and got a lung full of salty air. Far up ahead, the lighthouse at the Castillo shot its beam out over the ocean, cutting like a machete into the dark.

Coming off the Malecon, Stevens hit the gas hard and turned away from the water and into a broad plaza surrounding a small park with a fountain, a block or so from the Presidential Palace. The actress was still fiddling with the radio, but had lost the rumba. Instead came the sound of Radio Rebelde. A gravel-voiced speaker said in Spanish, “No cause will be lost while there is one revolutionary and one gun. No cause --.”

Another carload of American tourists was just pulling out from the curb. The driver shot into the plaza in front of the approaching Cadillac.

Stevens cursed and swerved, and said, “Turn off that goddam radio.”

But the Caddy lost its grip on the pavement. The big car slid sideways across the plaza, struck a curb and then jumped onto the lawn that fronted the fountain. Stevens spun the wheel and got the car straight, but it was moving too fast. The big machine slammed into the fountain and with a roar collapsed into itself.

The Mexican actress and the small, dark man named Jimmy died upon impact. The banker and his wife were crushed to death in the back seat. The redhead from Florida was hurled through the windshield. She struck her head on the pavement with such force that she was unconscious and not even aware of death as it took her. Stevens was thrown from the vehicle, too, spun like a rag doll onto the cobblestone plaza.

The cops in the squad car almost rear-ended the Cadillac as it swerved to miss the carload of fellow tourists. The driver hit the brakes and brought his black-and-white to a halt just as the Caddy crashed into the fountain. The cops were out with their guns drawn, standing in the night as the Cadillac radiator hissed and the front wheels, lifted clear above the edge of the fountain, squeaked to a halt. The cops waited while the black Security car pulled to the curb and stopped. The cops were out-ranked, and they were scared. They had Americans on their hands. Dead Americans. They held their weapons steady while the Security men got out of their car and stuck their hats on their heads and walked across the plaza to the fountain.

The younger of the two Security men, Cardoso, scanned the accident and the victims as he moved forward. Que lastima! So many bodies! And so close to the Presidential Palace. The senior partner, Ponce, stood beside the black Security car. There was blood all over the place. The Cadillac was ruined, but the radio still blared the voice of the rebels, broadcasting from their outpost somewhere in the mountains. “We cannot fail, for we are the heart of the people! There is no turning back! The government of the tyrants must fall …” And so close to the Presidential Palace.

But the driver was sitting up on the pavement, looking dazed, moving his mouth as if he were trying to speak. Something about his face was familiar. An athlete, perhaps. So many of them came down to Havana, baseball players, and boxers, to gamble on the roulette wheels and to violate Cuban women. Or maybe he was an actor. Havana got many of those, too. Any night at the Hotel Nacional they were crowded into the bar, drinking daiquiris and laughing too loud. One night Cardoso had watched Mickey Mantle introduce John Wayne to Rocky Marciano, who had been brought into the room by Ernest Hemingway. Maybe this American knew those men. Maybe he had just left them at the Tropicana.

It did not matter. Cardoso’s partner pulled a revolver from under his suit coat. He fired two shots into the American’s chest. Cardoso watched as he slumped backwards and lay flat. A pool of blood spread quickly beneath him.

Putting the weapon back inside his coat, Ponce turned to the uniformed policemen. “Get a wagon for the bodies. Fatal automobile accident. Too much rum. Leave Security out.”

Selected Works

Non-fiction, biography
The heart-breaking, award-winning National Public Radio story of childhood lobotomy survivor Howard Dully, now grippingly told in book form.
Fiction
Explosive story of 1950s Las Vegas; "Impressive, sure-bet thriller,"
Pre-Castro Cuba catches fire in this sequel to The Ivory Coast.
Nicky Deuce returns with more meatballs and mayhem.
Thrilling young adult adventure story for boys and girls aged 8 to 18.
Non-Fiction
Riveting autobiographical story of the chief who caught the DC snipers
How to live like a guy from the neighborhood ...
How to make amore like a guy from the neighborhood ...
The fast life and ugly death of Hollywood's most notorious film producer
Travel Essay
Ten damp days in Havana