The beauty parlor, Peluquería Mi Amor. I’m assaulted by hot air thick with hair spray, spicy Caribbean love ballads, and three brats screaming in chorus.
Behind me sweltering Barcelona heat. Bochorno.
This joint. Belongs to Sócrates Sánchez. He’s a pal of mine from many moons ago. We used to sail together. Merchant marines. Across this mudball. A thousand ports. A thousand venal dens. The language of Russian roulette. And I’m not talking about putting a rod to your dome in a Cambodian gambling parlor, though I’ve seen that too. I’m talking pure chaos and cesspools of vice.
Sócrates is like a brother. Went through some hard ass luck together. That’s why when he left me a message at the hotel saying he had trouble, I came right over.
Gypmeisters, guiris in distress, they can wait. Only so much Kovaks can do.
Sócrates is doing pretty good for himself. After twenty some odd years he retired to this burg. Opened this hair styling joint for one of his ladies. Peluquería Mi Amor, near the Santa Caterina market. Now he’s got Peluquería Tu Amor, Peluquería Su Amor, and Peluquería de Usted. But Peluquería Mi Amor is his baby. It’s his hang out.
Those screaming kids. They’re his. He’s got twenty-eight in all. The ones he knows about. Sócrates. Always been a big hit with the dames.
Bachatas. Blasting so loud I can’t hardly think. Warbling lyrics about amor. That’s all I know. The barbress is this broad with a nice big round karina. I nod to her, ask for Sócrates. She looks up from her work. A head full of half finished braids.
“Hooola, mi amol! Señor Kovaks, Sócrates eeen da back!”
I walk by three chairs occupied by three kids. No more than a year or so apart. They’re playing those electronic dinguses kids are always playing with.
Past the cloud of hair spray and spicy love ballads. Groggy from the fumes, I swipe back a beaded curtain. Multicolor. Sócrates is sitting next to a fan on maximum. At a round formica table. Playing dominoes with a couple older guys. Seen them in the barrio.
Anyway, Sócrates. He’s about as big as I am. About 200 pounds of brown Caribbean brawn. Thick guy with a gray afro and round gold spectacles. His aura lives up to his namesake. But his grandfatherly looks belie his other side.
He owns this beauty parlor. But he’s also a pimp since retiring from the mariners. Owns one of the busiest bordellos in this burg. Frequented by Catalan oligarchs and guiris and garrulos.
The two old guys get up and leave me with Sócrates. He says:
“Larry! Hermano. Qué hay viejo, you want some rum?”
I say why not. He reaches behind him and lifts the lid to an industrial freezer. He pulls out a bottle of Brugal. Cold steam rolls off it. He pours me a tumbler. I thank him.
“Yesterday I send you a mensaje, viejo, because me having problemas …”
I sit down in one of his flimsy folding chairs.
“… you see my house with the girls, Isla de los Melocotones. Los hombres, they be dying.”
I swish the Brugal around the old bocarino. Syrupy. Like nights in the DR. My nostrils flare. He goes on:
“It start for two weeks …”
Two weeks ago, I think he meant.
“For two weeks this hombre, he come in. Un viejo. German old guy. Eighty or something.”
“Even seniors gotta get their kicks.”
“My girl Katy take him because the girls no like the old mans. Ella es professional. Chingadora. She make …” he makes an O with his right hand. Strokes an imaginary skin flute. “… she make even estrella del porno happy in ten segundos. I call her magic hands.”
Old Sócrates rolls with laughter. Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! So much he almost falls out of his folding chair. He wheezes. The bachata in the parlor switches to another track. Sounds exactly the same. Brats screaming in the background.
“So what gives? She couldn’t play Mozart’s magic flute?”
Sócrates removes his spectacles. Dabs his forehead with a rag he took from his pocket.
“Ah Larry, viejo. This day, She about to chingar with her magic hands and the old guy he falls down …”
“Must have been her melocotones.”
“No Larry. He dead. But still parada like bull, with big smile.”
I nod. Lift my hat and swipe sweat from my forehead.
“Maybe the old bag of bones was happy to go out like that.”
“This not it, brodel. Another, he also die. La policía asks too many questions. Demasiadas.”
“Both old guys?”
“No. El otro un tigre..”
“Un jovencito. A younger.”
I nod my head. Pull the last drops of Brugal, then say:
“And they both died like that? Big smile and …”
Sócrates thrusts the underside of his forearm at me and slaps it. “Like that!”
I slide my glass towards him. So guys are kicking it while doing the dirty. Once happens. But three in a row. That’s suspect. While he pours me another rum he says:
“I want you to check my house. Isla de los Melocotones. I must to stop this.”
I take my drink and tell him I’ll get the dope on this affair.
It’s a damn dirty shame.
“Sócrates, my brother. Kovaks is on it.”
I pull a pack of Ducados from my coat pocket. Slide one up and offer it to him. He refuses. I tip the filter to my choppers. Light fire to it.
Behind the curtains. Bachatas blaring. Screaming brats. Mucho amor.
Besides the rundown from Socrates, I had nothing else to go on.
First things first. Where exactly was the Isla de los Melacotones? Certainly was in no telephone directory. I hadn’t asked Socrates. Of course, I knew about it. Socrates could have gotten me freebies even. But being a gumshoe is a full time racket. Pay-as-you-enter broads don’t fit in.
I hit the smooth, pissed-on alley outside my hotel. Walked down to Plaza George Orwell. Across it, past some hippie burnouts, I saw one of my moles. One of those guiri-gone-native cases called Johnny-Half-A-Gram. His head was twitching this way and that. Like a sparrow’s head on his short, rawboned body. His mandibles moved like rubber. Probably ripped out of his gourd on pow-wow powder. Laxative-laced coca. And bottom shelf vino.
That’s what happens to these fellows. They come here when the dollar is king. The dames and the easy life tempt them. Soon they’re trapped. Years down the line they’re living and earning like a local. Only with the big league designs of a rich yank. Sad. I won’t shed any tears.
I copped the sneak on this rat.
“Hey Half-a-Gram. It’s your pusher coming to collect!”
I came in at an 85 degree angle so he didn’t anticipate me. I grabbed the front of his shirt and balled it in my fist. Jammed my typer finger into his scrawny flanks. His face was a gray, taught thing. His foggy red-rimmed eyes popped out of two greenish sockets. I dropped him and he jumped back. Swiped his nose then began laughing. Baring a set of teeth covered with yellow film.
“Kovaks! Jesus man! You’re gonna give me a heart attack!”
This guy. A real piece of work.
His vino tinto stained tongue lashed out. I noticed his gums were too high. And how his jaws still moved even when he wasn’t talking. Kind of disconcerting. Like a badly dubbed kung fu flick.
“Half-A-Gram. Want a treat?”
“Depends on what you got.”
“I’m trying to find a place called Isla de los Melocotones. Supposed to be in the Chino.”
He grabbed his maw with his grimy mitt. Stopped the confounded thing from moving. The extra juice not going to his jaw went to his ticker. From his ticker to his little bird brain. Something way in the back lit up and he managed a smile. For normal people that smile would be considered a grimace.
“Oh yeah brah! Fo’ shizzle! I know that place! I been there once or twice. You want a little acción eh?” He crooked his elbows and thrusted his pelvis forward.
“Half-A-Gram. I hope I can trust you this time. Not like the time I asked for directions to the Basque tapas bar. You sent me to that stripper joint. Damn near cleaned me out.”
“Ah brah! It’s all good! I thought you said best topless bar!
I followed Half-A-Gram’s wispy form up Escudellers past the levantine gypmeisters. Past distraught guiris. Past the rotisserie chicken. We cut through the Ramblas and entered the Chino. Dime whores were coming out of the walls. The sun was all the way down. Smelled like curry. Indian pop music came from a window two stories up. We kept going.
Half-A-Gram tried to bamboozle me with a fly’s pattern. Zigzagging, double tracking. Down one alley, back down another, back again. Typical small-timer technique. Finally we got to l’Arc del Teatre. Where the chicas con sorpresa ply their trade. We headed down that, made a left on Carrer de la Guàrdia. Half-A-Gram stopped in front of a locale with rolled down metal shutters. There was no sign on this place. Just a faded plywood dingus saying Casa Manolito. No Melocotones in sight.
“This is it.”
I looked from the metal shutters to Johnny. “You’re kidding me, right? Casa Manolito?”
“Kovaks. Who do you think you’re dealing with? This is Half-A-Gram bwoy!”
He pressed a button I hadn’t seen before. On a column between the locale and the adjacent building. Through a crack between the metal shutters and a little inset door, I saw a reddish light dim. It got brighter when Johnny depressed the button. About 30 seconds later I heard some scraping. The little door opened up. A fat, jovial looking lady with rouged lips and raccoon eyes peered out. “Entren!” she said, and twitched her head back. “Dense prisa!”
Half-A-Gram grimaced in his peculiar way. “I tell you I delivah!”
For some reason he always tries to talk like a jive brother. One of his coke-addled delusions. “Allright Half. This better be the place. Here’s some chump change.” I dropped a fiver in his upturned mitt. “Go buy yourself some gummy bears.”
He cursed something in American and scurried off while I ducked into the local. I barely fit through that little door. Once all the way in I rose up to my full height.
“Perdoname Señora. Estoy en la Isla de los Melocotones?”
She clicked the mini door shut. Nodded and pushed me forward.
A little lobby with red velvet carpets. Plastic bird of paradise flowers. A greek-corniced pedestal with a Venus sculpture on top.
Then a blood-red crepe curtain. Should’ve taken it as an omen.
The rumpus died down for a brief moment, then came back to life. I noticed the eyeballs first. Behind a fog of Ducado smoke and no-good intentions.
Thing is, I cut a mean figure in the right kind of light. I’m what you call a seductor. Un soltero de oro.
Who would have thought. Behind the metal shutters, there’d be a place like this.
A room full of mirrors, pleather-lined booths, black-lit ambience. Guys throwing down smacks for booze and broads like they just got their paychecks. I passed a Chinese kid sitting with three thick-bosomed dames in a booth on the right. Horse grins and loud convulsions of laughter. Looked like Hu Yu from T Street. So, I thought, this is where he spends the jack he gets from the tragaperras.
I took a seat at the bar. Next to a squat fellow. Had the mien of a telephone repair man on his big night out. Hair looked like it was greased back with olive oil. Sly looking eyes probed me, then wrinkled into two Vs pointing inward. Over a droning love ballad he growled:
“Oye, compadre, ese es mi asiento.”
“It is my place,” he said, nodding to the stool I was occupying.
I couldn’t blow my cover over this heel. So I got up and let Compadre take the stool. I figured he was some kind of fanuck the way he sat there alone, with no female company.
The barmaid stopped talking to the deadbeats and made for me. Naturally. An imposing figure like myself. I lit fire to a Ducado as she approached. Through a green nimbus I made out a red silk dress, unos globos descomunales, and a mouth smeared with lipstick asking what I will have. I ordered a Brugal.
The sound system. Some jerry-rigged thing consisting of two speakers sitting on a mirrored bar with blue neon rims and ten kinds of rum. There was this song about amor:
Por la mañana, hasiendo el amor,
y por la tarde, hasiendo el amor,
y por la noche, hasiendo el amor,
hasta en el coche, hasiendo el amor…
I dragged on my cig, fumigated my brains. I thought of the deeper meaning of the song. I leaned on the bar and peeped behind me.
Couples, trios. About a dozen heads in all. Made up of weekend warriors, wayward family men, working girls with the whole come-nail-me regalia. High-heeling around in their micro skirts. These are the kind of rameras and goldiggers I have to fend off daily.
They’re everywhere. This burg.
Globos Descomunales slid up my rum. I tilted my head in to confide. She leaned forward conspiratorially.
“I’m looking for a girl.”
She paused, stepped back. “Oh you mean Katy? She very funny.”
“Katy. Yeah. I’m looking for Katy. The funny one.”
Globos turned around and picked up a telephone. After chirping something into the receiver she turned back around and said:
“Ahora viene. Now she come.”
Globos bounced off to a lonely john at the end of the bar. I watched my back through the panel of mirrors in front of me. You don’t want to let the alcohol die in you. Not in a joint like this. De mala muerte. Cold sober and the bar becomes a cheap comical affair. The dames begin to look like a thousand nagging regrets.
That Compadre. He was watching me on the sly. Sneering at me. I was convinced he was some kind of fanuck. Then I felt heat. Corporal heat. I looked down to my right. Between me and my sneering friend. And there she was.
Katy. AKA Magic Hands. Built like La Pedrera. Not one hard edge on her. Smallish chest but a karina so fat I couldn’t keep my jaw from dropping. A face like a celluloid dream queen. A face like ….. Lola. My Lola … ah, that’s another story.
“Soy Katy. Como me conosiste?”
“Perdon. Hables ingles?”
“Oh. I sorry. I am Katy.”
I bent down and gave her dos besos. Just enough time to think of an alias. “I’m Winfred Harrington. English professor”. I flipped open my wallet. Pulled out one of my fake business cards. Handed it to her.
We exchanged the usual formalities. She plied her trade like a true pro. In a quarter of an hour she got two thirty euro cocktails off me. Good thing I had that small retainer from Socrates. She just about took me to the cleaners with the drinks alone.
After some small talk, she convinced me to see the back rooms with her. I followed her, past Compadre’s evil eye. The same song about amor, stuck on loop:
por arriba, por abajo, delante, detrás,
por arriba, por abajo, delante, detrás
Past another portiere and we stepped into a smallish corridor. This one salmon colored. Pictures of tropical isles. You know the scene. She took my hand.
“Why you ask me that?”
“Ask you what, babe?”
“When we talking at bar you ask me if I know El Tigre.”
“Just a kid. Owes me money.”
“Here. We go here.” I followed her up a narrow staircase that twisted around in anything but a right angle. One floor up and she opened a door. I tried to follow her in. But those stairs. I never felt so exhausted. My unnatural girth makes climbing difficult. I admit that. But this was looking sketchy. Things were getting foggy. And it wasn’t an alcohol glow. I palmed Katy’s shoulders. Shoved her back against the open door with the strength I had left. A chore I never thought would be so laborious.
“Listen … babe … what the hell … is going on? Dime!”
“Why nahting Sr. Kovaks.”
“How. How do you know. My name?”
This dirty goldigging ramera. Maybe she did look like my Lola. Maybe she had the goods and then some. More than almost any dame I’d ever seen. But I had the sneaking feeling she double crossed me.
Through the narcotic haze I pieced it together. Magic Hands and Globos Descomunuales were in cahoots. They slipped me a mickey finn because I asked too many questions. But how did they know my name?
I couldn’t hightail it. I was up to my grizzled cheeks in big league trouble.
My legs wobbled like a flan cake. I hit the tiles like a sack of patatas.
That Katy. A good looker. About as good looking as a weapon of mass destruction.
Brother, they slipped me a pretty dose.
I had these visions …
I was on the Ramblas … the Track Suit Mafia … Hu Yu and the T Street Gang … the con with the bouncing cartoons … common gypmeisters … everywhere … thousands of them. Some wore shiny blue and crimson polyester … greasy hair … filthy mitts. All scrambling towards me.
I planted my feet. Braced myself for the onslaught.
They were within arm’s reach. I could tell they had a leader. Johnny-Half-A-Gram.
So the turncoat guiri was scotch with my foes. I should have known. That mandible-grinding fool. I thought I was historia.
Then everything faded into gray. Went to the background. Like theater. Or a bad dream. From above came a god-like thing. Hanging from a crane of sorts. Like a mechanical angel.
The angel was Katy. Magic Hands. Only this Katy wasn’t a double crossing ramera. She had the voice of a goddess. She was pure light. She said everything was going to be all right. The gypmeisters would end up in the squirrel cage. She and I would go to a pretty Polynesian island.
Happily ever, and all that hooey.
I came to. I tried to move. My hands were stuck.
It took monumental effort, but I opened my eyes. Things swam in front of me. As if through gasoline vapor. Like things at a distance on a hot summer day.
Then I heard those confounded bachatas. Latin sex music. My head pounded with each percussive noise. The door burst open.
Compadre. The bastard from the bar. I should have known.
I tried moving. On my hands, cold steel. Nippers were twisted on tight. Realized I was handcuffed to this battered bed. I tried to kick. I had no shoes on. My feet were also bound. Que mala leche.
There I was. Tied like a hog. Compadre sneering at me.
“Señor Kovaks. I see you awake.”
I tried to speak:
“Yo…. yo no hablo …. no hablo … talk.”
My thoughts were confused. The effects of sodium pentathol all right.
“Sumtink for you.”
Compadre held up a glass syringe. There was blue liquid in it. Balling up, rolling off the needle.
I wanted to buy some time, ask him what he was about to inject me with. Instead I blurted:
“You. Little monkey!”
Then he answered my question:
“Viagra Kovaks. Quinientos miligramos. Puro. No man can say no.”
I tried to scream, but only managed, “Una … una …. cerveza por favor …”
Compadre stabbed my thigh and mashed the plunger in. I felt heat.
He slinked out, like he slinked in. The rat bastard.
I don’t know how much time had passed. My whole noodle was burning up. I could feel blood pumping up to my face. My crotch was ripe. Swollen. It was not a pleasant feeling. The room, the light …. everything got bluish. There was a halo around the light fixture on the ceiling. I heard footsteps.
Compadre, again. The swelling went down, slightly. The blood rushed to my dome. The most inhumane migraine you could imagine.
Compadre scraped up a chair.
“Oye, gringo… Leesin to me. You playing with wrong peoples. Now you tell me who send you. You tell me what they want. Or we pump you with more Viagras. Your verga …” He cupped his palms together, then moved them rapidly apart. “BOOM!”
“Sabes … where is …. mi …. suitcase?” I still couldn’t coordinate my thoughts and speech. The truth serum and the sex drug were too much. Even for me.
Compadre spat on the tiles. He got up and slid his chair back. He left the room and slammed the door. The dry cracking noise of the door was like a butcher knife coming down. On my head.
I could feel my strength flowing back. But Magic Hands – or whoever tied me to this bed – did an expert job. Must have been a sado-masochistic sex expert.
Time went by, as they say.
I think. I had no references. No ticking of a clock. No line of empty bottles in front of me.
I heard footsteps. Different from Compadre’s. A low, rolling rumble. The door opened again and it was Globos Descomunales. She was pushing a cart with a TV on it. She rolled it up to the foot of the bed. She plugged it in. Turned it on.
She left as she entered. Without a word. The door: click.
The TV screen lit up. The title: Les Exxxcursionistes Calentes.
No man should ever go through what I did.
Imagine, if your plebeian mind is able to:
1. You’re bound to a rickety four-poster bed, on a stained mattress, in a strange brothel, in the Chino.
2. Five hundred cc’s of pure liquid Viagra pumping through your veins.
3. Still reeling from the side effects of sodium pentathol. The most powerful truth serum known to man. A man’s defenses could not possibly be lower.
4. Then imagine being subjected to hardcore Catalan pornography.
My arms bulged. My fingers curled into tight, hard fists. The cold steel dug in. The goddamn nippers wouldn’t give.
I heard feet padding up to the door. Before it opened I knew it would be her.
Instinct. It’s a funny thing. Some say reason is king. I say, no matter how much reason you muster, you still can’t shake instinct.
A good sleuth understands this.
You have to be as close to instinct as possible. Close as a couple fingers.
So, in the space of a few seconds I worked this out:
Magic Hands. She was thick with the muckers in this crib. That’s for sure. But the mickey her partner had slipped in my drink was almost totally worn off. And the liquid sex enhancer they stuck me with. Well, I was impervious. They didn’t count on coming up against someone like me. A chump who’s been around the world five times and seen it all. From mujerones in Rio to flower blossoms in Klang that fit in the palm of your hand. The stories I could tell you.
Despite the evil blue stuff pumping through my veins I was beginning to think straight. Something told me Katy was my out. According to Socrates she was the last one who saw El Tigre. And she knew about the other john who had his last joy ride in the Isla de los Melocotones. She was going through the motions when she saw me. The compadre at the bar and Globos Descomunales. That’s where my money was.
I’ll tell you why: because after my intuition with the footsteps, and seeing Katy come through that door, I knew it. It was on that mask she was forced to wear. That stony expression. I knew Compadre and Globos were putting the screws on her.
This corrupt world. This rotton mudball. A beautiful waste. In my line of work you take a lot in. You can’t trust anyone. I know, it’s bleak. But there’s intuition. There’s faith.
Otherwise you’d sink in this morass. Wouldn’t be able to put your foot anywhere.
As I figured. It was Katy approaching. The door opened and she stepped in. She approached the TV. Ejected the infernal DVD and popped in a new one.
“Espera. Wait,” I said.
Katy looked at me. Her facial muscles were rigid. Rigid like they were about to fall apart the moment she got distracted.
“Socrates sent me.”
She blinked and twitched her pretty head. Eyeballed the open door. She rushed to it and shut it. Then I saw her face hovering over me.
“What you mean, viejo? You are working for him?”
“He said hombres were dying. People were asking questions. I’m here to find out why.”
She paused. Her eyes lingered on mine. I didn’t blink. I said:
“Sócrates y Yo. Hermanos de sangre.”
I could see the works spinning in her pretty little dome. Half a minute later she spilled the story. In what they call globe-ish. About two years ago a well-dressed gentleman came to the Isla de los Melocotones. He became a regular. Ran up astronomical bills. Soon he confided his story to every girl in the place. Estranged wife. Bad business deals. Apparently he was well connected.
Globos gets the clever idea to blackmail him after seeing his picture in the papers one day. The guy was better connected than they realized. In the picture he was right next to mayor Clos himself. Turns out he had a direct line to the Generalitat. Some guy called Jordi Jordi. They called him Jota Jota for short.
So Globos and her boytoy, Compadre, threatened to tell Jota Jota’s wife and the public at large about his dalliances. They had videotaped him in the act. Dressed up as a little school boy getting spanked. Among other, equally salacious things. They got it all through a two way mirror they rigged in another room. The Isla’s Sala VIP. El Paraíso, they call it. They were going to release the tape.
That is, unless he shelled out 30,000 smackers.
The guy didn’t like that. He sent people to find out the source of the blackmail. The first was the alemán. The German guy. Or at least the guy who was pretending to be German. When they found out he was a fake guiri they gave him a sodium pentothal cocktail. And the sex torture treatment they used on me. Only he couldn’t take it. Died like a toro bravo. When rigor mortis set in he was a human tripod.
Then came El Tigre. The wheel of misfortune was equally unkind.
Both were found at the crack of dawn on Robadores street by rameras getting off the late shift. Both needed special coffins to accommodate their third leg.
Katy said to me:
“I have no opción. They make me do it. Carmen y Francisco.”
Globos and Compadre, that is.
“I have no papers, viejo. If I not help they throw me in the street. Meester Kovaks I no want do this.”
“Magic Hands. I’ll help you. But first you have to undo these nippers.” I lifted my chin and pointed the back of my head at my cuffed hands. She snagged the keys off a coffee table in the corner. Freed me.
I was on my feet. A bit wobbly. In my choners.
Ready for battle, nonetheless.
Katy bent down, took a bundle of clothes from under the nightstand. My duster, fedora, shoes et al. She tossed it all on the bed.
My wallet. It was on top of the nightstand. I looked at it and her eyes followed mine. She took the wallet and threw it on the pile of rumpled clothes.
“I take when we in the bar.”
So that’s how they knew my name and trade. This kitten was good.
The overhead lights flickered, and the bachatas on the soundsystem went silent.
“Rápido, viejo. Put your thing on rápido.”
Frantic rapping at the door. I thought it was that weak sister, Compadre. But when Katy asked who it was, a woman’s voice answered. And it wasn’t Globos. Katy swiped the door open. Not surprisingly, a scantily clad dame. One I saw earlier yucking it up with Hu Yu. She and Katy chirped. Nervous conversation like an exchange of machine gun fire.
She left the door open and the girl she was talking to ran off. I could hear people scrambling. Furniture tumbling. Girls were running past the door. Half dressed johns. Flesh and candy colors whirring by.
“Vamos! Que la policía está entrando!”
The last thing I needed was a run in with the bulls. They got the angle all wrong. And with my ragged nerves I’d have a hell of a time.
No wise I made the best decision. I didn’t have time to get fully dressed. I slipped on my shoes and my duster. I put my bashed up fedora on. Stuck my wallet in my coat pocket.
I didn’t care if I looked like a streaker. An exhibicionista.
Along with all the rumpus, someone had turned the music back up. Reggaetones. Possibly to stir things up even further. Confusión total. She insisted on going first. On me following her lead.
Papi papi, papi chulo, papi papi papi ven a mí …
Gruff voices coming from downstairs. Probably the mossos. Katy took to the stairs going up. I followed. We entered another hallway. This one with an Egyptian theme. Phony hieroglyphics scrawled on the walls. I followed her down the hall and we entered an inconspicuous door. Looked like a janitor’s closet. In it were lockers and another, smaller door at the far end …
And my friends Compadre and Globos. Getting ready to crush out.
Papi papi, papi chulo …
Compadre reached for something wedged in the back of his jeans. I lunged forward, clamped his gullet hard. My other hand came up under the arm he was reaching back with. A nickel-plated .38 fell to the ground. Globos dove for it, but Katy got to it first. She trained the muzzle on Globos. I growled at Compadre:
“You dirty rotten bogey. You’re going down. On account of avarícia!”
Katy threw me a length of cord. Probably part of the same batch they tied me up with. I hog-tied the wiry punk. When that was done Katy did the honors on Globos. I pocketed the rod. Katy blew them a kiss.
Next she spun the dial on the nearest locker. She pulled out sweats and sneakers. Her civilian clothes. Holding the bundle she turned to me: “Vamos!”
She went directly for the small door. I bent down and followed her in and shut it behind me. I could hear her bumping around in the darkness. She hit a light switch and a stairwell lit up in front of me. I could tell it was another building. She kicked off her heels and pulled on her sweats. She pulled a lumpy gray sweater over her head. Then slipped on her sneakers.
I followed her as she took the steps down, three, four strides at a time. The stairs twisted around in tight crooked angles. We hit the Planta Baja running. Cracks of dim light forming a rectangle indicated the exit.
We were in another alley. Not Carrer de la Guàrdia, where I entered. It was dawn. The narrow gap above, between the buildings, revealed some sky. The color of an oil slick. We kept moving. Close to running but not quite.
“Where are we?”
Up ahead I could see l’Arc del Teatre. I told her:
“Let’s head up to Ample. You can lay low in my place.”
We cut up Arc, past various trannies running with small suitcases, barefoot, with their heels in hand. The Ramblas was more deserted than usual. The rameras, everybody, must have been frightened. The mossos’ bust was big. Neighborhood wide it looked like.
I relieved the .38 of its bullets and wiped it clean of prints. I chucked the rod in a dumpster and kicked the bullets down a rain gutter.
We got buzzed into my pension by a groggy looking Sr. Antonio. From the look on my face he knew not to ask questions. Or apply the no-company-in-the-room policy.
We got into my room. My nerves were shot. My mugg was a terrible thing to behold. I don’t know how long I was drugged up. Or how long it had been since I’d had a decent meal. Katy collapsed on the bed.
“Viejo. Thank you.”
“No problem kid.”
I noticed a pile of girly mags I had left out. An earlier scene with the magazine. I kicked them under the bed before she could see them.
I woke up about 28 hours later. Katy was already up. Pacing the room. From the looks of it, she had put some order to the dump. We got dressed, hit the corner bar and filled our stomachs with tortilla and pa amb tomàquet, and headed for Peluquería mi Amor.
Socrates’ face lit up when he saw us.
“Viejo. Mujer! Donde estuvisteis, coño??”
I gave him the dope on what went down at La Isla. Katy chimed in every once in a while. Turns out they busted all the bordellos in the Chino that morning. The city said they cracked down in the name of la ordenanza. But really it was because of one man’s shame. Jota Jota’s shame.
Luckily some of the regulars at La Isla were mossos. So Socrates had an out. But Globos and Compadre were up for a good long stretch.
“Socrates. Hermano. That business. La casa con las chicas. It’s too risky.”
“I know hermano. I know.”
“There’s another way you can make money. A lot easier.”
“Internet, hermano. Sex, internet. You can’t go wrong. That’s where the money is.”
I could see the gears spinning in his head. Who knows. Maybe he’ll be a millionaire one day.
That night I took Katy to this classy joint I know of. The Aloha Polinesian Bar. Actually Polinesian “Bap”, on account of the broken “R”. It’s got a nice pond with turtles in the front window display. Little green canaries and myna birds.
We were sipping Mai Tais. Snuggled close in a booth in the back. Tiki masks glowered over us. I took one of Katy’s magic hands and put it on my thigh. She pulled it back and said:
“That’s my work.”
“You mean you always charge?”
“No. Not the girls. Me gustan las chicas.”
She smiled at me. Real wise like. I guess that’s the way the waves tumble. It’s a damn shame. With a bod like that. I’d do anything for her. I’d forgo brews, hell, even the brown. I’d even wear a tutu if I could find one big enough. If it would make me look woman enough for her.