The first time I saw this crooked kitten she was falling into a cab, oiled to the gills, blathering something in French. She was a dream. A deluxe hustler whose tomatoes got my motor racing every time I peeped them. I watched this all go down in front of a bar near the Liceu subway stop.
It was early evening and getting nippy, but she was wearing a teeny lamé dress and large oval-shaped shades. The kind uptown sharpies wear. She had long wavy cornflower-blue hair, mussed up by the breeze from the Med. Sidling in after her was a little bit of a man in his early thirties. Shaved dome to dissimulate his bald spot, sharp-looking plastic framed glasses, brown suit. He was chinning something in American.
“You just tell me where you wanna go …”
“Izz too much. It izz too much. Monsieur, are you sure?”
She pronounced “sure” with a hard “s”. I knew something was wrong. This sweet-looking jane and this young sprout without clout. Takes no genius to tumble to it. Before the hackie shut the door I heard: “Merci, merci monsieur. How can I ever repay you?” I made a mental note. I remembered that figure.
The second time I saw her she was near the Drassenes subway stop. She had a bleach-job or some kind of blonde hair piece on, a zebra-patterned charmeuse dress with one of the shoulder straps loose. I recognized her by her oversized shades and those mesmerizing curves.
I was leafing through some girlie mags in the kiosk. Next to me this forty-ish English tourist with a Liverpool football jersey. She wedged herself between me and the Englishman and went into her spiel. This time she shed her French accent for a German one.
“Entschuldigung, sir … entschuldigung … sprechen Sie Deutsch … no? You speak English?” She had a weird drawl when she jawed in German.
“Why … why yes, certainly,” he stammered.
“I am so sorry to bother you, but you look like a nice man and something terrible has happened. The Moroccans …”
She sobbed a story about how she got fleeced by members of the Track Suit Mafia. She was cleaned out until she could go to the embassy tomorrow morning. Her encantos were in full view. A bird flying over would’ve gotten vertigo and crashed just looking at that cleavage. The Englishman walked off with her. I had a date with Magic Hands that day. Otherwise I would’ve shadowed them.
The third time I saw her I was in a joint near the Parallel subway stop. One of those typical tourist traps with Spanish trappings and hooks on the wall for tourists to hang their Mexican sombreros. I was near the back corner, lighting fire to a Ducado and waiting for the camarero to bring my rye when this flustered tourist came in. You take a textbook example of what a perfect target would be for a gypmeister and he would be it: unwieldy “love” handles on the sides of his waist – which were obvious despite his blazer and baggy pants – and map in hand. Yup, this town is full of sheep ripe for sheering.
He ordered in some kind of Spanish. A “sir-vay-za”. Pulled the barstool out and plopped his fat derriere on it. Laid his map out on the worn varnished counter to study it. I blew out a plume of gray haze and tapped ash. A dame wearing big shades walked in at this moment. She had curves that could give an entire geriatric ward cardiac arrest. It was her all right, except this time she had a short bob hairpiece, jet-black, and she was wearing a navy-blue airline stewardess uniform. Walked right up to the tourist fellow and shimmied her fine behind onto the barstool next to him. Then she started weeping gently.
The tourist gent stopped studying his Rand-McNally and looked at her. Seeing her teary expression he asked:
“I … I’m sorry … is anything wrong? Oh … how terribly rude of me … tu … tu hablo ingles?”
“Yes … yes I do … I’m American.”
I was starting to get ill. The camarero brought my drink and I knocked it back and took a deep drag. Instead wringing her gold-digging neck I clenched my teeth. Blew out another long gray plume.
“Oh really? I … I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to assume … Heh heh … what on earth is the matter?”
With tears streaking down, making grayish trails on her mascara, she replied:
“Oh I feel so silly. I really don’t want to bother you …”
“No .. no …”
“I just flew in from New York with a two-day layover. I left the airport and took the train and everything was fine until I got to Plaça Catalunya. Then, when I was leaving the train I was distracted by this Spanish guy. Maybe he was a gypsy or a Moroccan, I don’t know! He kept pestering me for directions to the Sagrada Familia, and he was like really insistent, with this map that he kept shoving in my face. I kept telling him I didn’t know and finally he left, but by that time the train had left and I was standing on the platform like a total idiot! My travel bag was stolen. Everything, my laptop and even my personal diary …”
“Oh dear …”
Her story got better. She was booked in this fashion boutique hotel nearby in the Raval. Fashion boutique being a modest hotel outfitted with expensive gear and a catchy looking logo. Some pricey dump called Hotel El Cool. The poor tourist asked her if she couldn’t call the American Embassy, and she said it was too late. She would have to try first-thing tomorrow morning.
He said this situation was “absolutely disgraceful” and agreed to help her out with some scratch until tomorrow. At least, he insisted, she should have a good night’s rest in her hotel after this “terrible ordeal”. They pushed off their barstools and he left a couple euros on the bar. I dropped my cig and stamped it out. I threw three euros in shinies on the bar and set out after them.
They didn’t have far to walk. Past the usual miscreants and the paki food joints there was this nondescript building with “Boutique Hotel El Cool” on the door buzzer list. They hit the buzzer and waited while I loafed around like a drunken louse at the street corner. Seconds later they pushed the door and went up. In five minutes I was accosted by a churriana and saw two JDLRs. They still hadn’t come out. I beat it.
That night in my room I couldn’t get this multi-faced frail out of my thoughts. It needled me something bad that she was pulling fast ones on tourists in my jurisdiction. I couldn’t even send her to the sneezer because legally she wasn’t doing anything wrong.
I needed a slant on this case. I had glow on and my dome wasn’t 100%, but slowly a pattern emerged. I had seen her as a French mademoiselle near the Liceu stop, a German fraulein near the Drassanes stop, and as an American flight attendant near the Parallel stop. Then I remembered the camarero complaining about all the tourists in town because of the big 3GSM convention. That meant fellows with moola and a free night on the town who had no clue whatsoever about the dangerous criminal underbelly.
I knew just where and how this dish was going to strike next. I couldn’t wait to put the sock to her pretty yapper!
I spent the next two days deep cover. These were the last two days of the 3GSM mobile phone convention so I knew I had to make it sudden. I left my gabardine in the hotel and wore my short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt and some shorts. Mid-February and I felt like a world-class chump, my nads shrunk to the size of a cacahuete. The first day I beat it around the Poble Sec stop. Nothing at all except for some polychrome putas and some members of the Track Suit Mafia. The disguised dame somehow slipped through my fingers.
The next afternoon I hoofed it around Plaça Espanya. It was a nightmare. Tourists were everywhere and the gypmeisters were out in force. I was caught between the urge to blow my cover and send some of those flimflammers to the cooler, or put the screws on this kitten. Finally it was early evening and my dogs were barking. I hit a joint across the street from the 3GSM convention center. I needed a slug of Mascaró. Liquid heat.
The place was a fluorescent-lit bar/cafeteria, filled with smoke. The patrons yapped like a pack of squirrels on methamphetamines. I sat in a booth near the streetside window and placed my order. I had burned through a Ducado and finished my booze when she walked in. She was sporting an ankle-length sable fur stroller and matching fur hat. Wearing her oversized shades. A mysterious Russian diva. This cagey kitten thought she was going to do some bigtime fleecing. She had another thing coming!
I whipped out my map and walked directly to the camarera behind the bar. I made sure my voice was loud enough to cut through the brouhaha and asked the camarera how to get to the Ramblas. Sure enough, the good-looking frail approached me and said in a phony Russian accent:
“Previet meesterrr I … I am sorrry. You speak a leeetle English, no?”
I blew out smoke and smashed my cig under my sneaker. I glanced at her wise-like and said:
“Tee vidyelish moyio vodkoo?” *
Her jaw went slack. “I … I …”
“You thought you had it all doped out, didn’t you. Thought you had all the angles on the suckers in this burg. You thought wrong!”
Then she changed tack and tried to wile me with her encantos. She subtly opened her coat and revealed a bod that practically changed the shape of my shorts. She took off her shades and for the first time I saw her eyes. Ice-blue, pinpoint pupils which belied the phoney smile she was spreading for me. Her eyes. Wild-looking. Unpredictable.
“So you have me, Mr. Kovaks. I didn’t recognize you in your clever disguise. Ha ha!”
“I don’t care how you know me. Now I know your angle and …”
“Mr. Kovaks. Don’t be ridiculous. Every peanut grifter in this barrio knows who you are. You have nothing on me. I have not broken the law.”
She was right, but I swear if she wasn’t a dame I’d have massaged that smug little chin. “You’re good sister. But not that good. I’ll be on your tail wherever you go.”
“But how did you …”
“It was easy. I knew you had to strike tonight because it was the last night of the mobile phone conference and the wideboys with big scratch were going home. I knew you would strike here because it was the next stop on the green line. You could’ve left a trail of bread crumbs sister, it couldn’t be easier. Liceu, Drassanes, Parallel … next stops were Poble Sec and Plaça Espanya. You shook me the first day, I don’t know how. That left one stop, kid. The only thing you fooled me on was your disguise. I had you figured next as an Italian bombshell.”
“I admit Mr. Kovaks, you’re good, maybe the best I’ve ever seen. The Russian disguise was a last-minute decision. My Italian bombshell outfit is at the cleaners and I didn’t have time to get it. Well, how ‘bout some hooch?”
She laughed scandalously and several of the patrons stopped talking and looked at us. Mostly her. We pattered into the night. The neon buzzed, the voices got louder. Turns out this dame was a rich American heiress who scammed men for a kick. A soiled dove who made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up with her fingers in a wedge of gypmeister pie. What was I to do. She gave me her word the next time she hit this burg it would be to park with me, not to fleece some tourists. The next day she skipped town and headed south. I’ll toss a mental nickel and say she’s in the Costa del Sol. It’s bursting with tourists!
* Translation: “Have you seen my vodka?” A little something I learned when I was in the merchant marines.