He said it was top shelf liquor. But there was only one shelf.
After I paid my week’s rent Señor Antonio invited me to a shot of orujo, straight from the freezer of his mini-fridge. Went down and massaged my spine like icy little fingers.
He owns the pension I’m crashing at. He’s about up to my chest. His skin is thin and almost transparent, clinging to his sextagenerian bones, holding a beer gut worthy of a man twice his size.
Antonio’s taken a liking to me. He’s wise to my trade and for some reason the old mugg has opened up. The English he knows from working in the hotel is no better than my sailor’s Spanish. Still I’ve found out where his favorite whores are. And where to buy the best jamón de jabugo. But mostly he bitches. And has the kind of theories you’d expect from someone holed up for fifty some odd years. Listening to talk radio. And the international debt-set.
Today he’s going on about the Chinese:
“Dees tipos. Los chinos. They know the machines. They have mafia!”
“Machines?” I asked.
“Si. The machines. The ones you put the money in.”
I pumped him for more info on this Chinese mafia. Somehow I understood after five more shots of Antonio’s frozen orujo: the Chinese have a system with the slot machines. Tragaperras as he likes to call them. They always know when the silver is about to shoot out. They always know jackpot.
I say thanks to Antonio and put my sig on the register. Antonio rolls his foggy, red-rimmed eyes at me and nods. Turns the COPE radio station up. I take the stairs. Step into a piss-stained alley. Sunset. I head up to Trafalgar, where all the Chinese sell their knockoff duds.
From Sant Pere I shadow a suspicious character a couple blocks until he enters a sex shop. Next to the sex shop is just what I was looking for. Bar Mariona. Where the fat gitanas hang out after buying bulk clothing in the Chinese shops. Tragaperras inside.
I sit at the greasy zinc counter. Above me rusty trumpets and accordions hang from nicotine-stained walls. In front of me a sour looking dame with a peppery hair cropped in that butch style. She bores into me. Black say-nothing eyes. I order a plate of jamón and sliced French roll with tomato. A canya go with that.
To my left is a slot machine. Covered with months-old dust and splattered grease. And sure enough there’s this whisper-thin Chinese kid. Salmon-colored blazer over black t-shirt. I wolf down the jamón and order a shot of Mascaró. The Chinese kid, burning cig bouncing in his lips, orders a “Jota B” from Miss Sour Grapes.
Sipping my Mascaró I eyeball him over a lowered copy of El Mundo Deportivo. The kid, in about the time it takes me to finish my snifter, burns through two Nobels and barely touches his “Jota B”. He busts out a pink bill and raps on the counter. Sour Grapes punches a button on the register. Counts ten euros in small change and sets it in two piles. He swipes it off the counter. Goes back to the machine.
I’m about to order another conyac when the little lights start flashing. Little electronic beeps and farts. The monedas spill out, and by the sly look on this kid’s face I have a mind to put the slug to him. This gypmeister and his crafty kin somehow had the game rigged. Antonio was right. I haven’t seen nothing but Chinese winning on these slot machines. The goddamned Chinese mafia.
A cascade of coins. Clinkety-clink-clink-clink. The Chinese kid with his poker face. I push off the barstool and casually step to him. Lean against the fruit machine. Actually this one has some kind of wild west motif. I grit my teeth. Rasp through them:
“Tu. Niño. Sure know how to play.”
The kid avoids my eyes. Cagey mucker.
I grab the lapels of his knock-off suit and hoist him up. To the newspaper hooks. Got him hanging in between a copy of La Vanguardia and La Razon. He’s glaring at me now. His eyes two sideways Vs. His mouth a twisted into a nasty knot. He squawks:
“您 瘋 狂 和 可 恥 的 傻 瓜!!!!!”
“Joder macho! De que vas?!” he replies in what I think is perfect Spanish.
“Fat man! Take me off wall!”
I unhook him and drop him to the cig-burned linoleum. I square up to him and growl:
“I’m wise to you kid. I know you guys are tapped into the slot machines. You guys know. When they cough up the goods.”
“What you say crazy man?”
“Tragaperras. Slot machines. Tu truco. You make trick.” Little louse got me talking bad.
He twitches and reaches into the coin tray. I grab his wiry neck. He whelps and twists out, pushes on my solar plexus and I stumble back. Some kind of martial art technique. He screams:
“You bad! Loco!”
The butch behind the bar has her face contorted into a grin. It’s the only time I’ve seen her grin. It’s all wrong. I grab him again. Twist his shirt two-sizes tighter.
“All right. Be on the level with me. La verdad. How do you know you’re going to win?” I release him before he can pull another one of his kung fu techniques.
The kid tugs on his blazer. Straightens the wrinkles where my mitts grappled it.
“Tag-along fool! It easy. You listen. When monedas no make noise. Mean full. Mucho dinero.”
He reaches into the coin tray and scoops out his winnings. The kid’s right. It’s easy as that. When the coins are at bursting point they just sound different when you drop them in.
I consider a future in slot machines. Beats sleuthing.
He lights fire to another Nobel. Blows out blue death. He says:
“I Hu Yu.”
“I have job for you. Come by father’s store. 1000 Secret Moda.”
He kind of floats out. Like that. Pockets lumpy with loose change. Cloud of cig smoke trailing.
I turn to the bar. Look at the butch.
“Que?” she spits.
I order another shot to cut the phlegm. Kid got me worked up.
So. Hu Yu and the old man. Work.
You gotta take it where you get it.