Sitting at a busted zinc counter, waiting for my plato combinado. A steak and some French fried potatoes and a frosty seidel of Catalan beer. Corrupción gastronomica of a sort. But I ain’t going to get all wheezy about it. It’s económica.

I tap ash, pull on a Ducado. Try to ignore the unpleasant feeling in my teeth. Other than the grub I’m about to indulge in, the only other thing my teeth have been in today – besides my mouth – has been a head of hair. I don’t know how many strands got in my choppers when I tore that confounded head off.

I probe my teeth. Pull out a brown hair, about a finger long. Flick it on the cenicero.

A minor inconvenience considering I collared some crooked kittens who operated up by the cathedral. Sobbing stories about ayuda for the little niños they carry with them. “Darme argo, darme argo!”

To hell with them!

Distracting guilt-tripping tourists so they can fleece them. Hard-earned euros go blooey. Bye bye vacation.

Con Dios.

I’d gotten an email with subject heading: Scam alert at la Catedral. It went like this:

Dear Mr Kovaks,

We have been put in contact with you through a kind chap we met at our hotel. He had been researching the shell game scam on the Rambla when he came across your website and the case of the American Tourist Con. I wish we had known about this beforehand! Gary lost forty euros to the shell game scammers! However, this is not the reason we are writing to you.

We have been the victims of a terrible theft which occurred only half a day ago. It happened after we had been sight seeing in the Barri Gotic (lovely, if not for the wretched odour of urine) and arrived at the cathedral.

We walked up the steps towards the front entrance and walked past the crowds of tourists. Before we were able to enter the cathedral we were confronted by a woman with an infant wrapped in a blanket. She held a stiff piece cardboard, about two feet wide (the infant was strapped, in a manner, to her person, so her hands were free). She then shoved the cardboard, facing upwards, right under my bosom. I was shocked, to say the least, but hadn’t the time to react. I had a bit of trouble understanding her, but I gathered she wanted me to put money on the cardboard. This happened so fast that Gary was left utterly bewildered. Finally, he implored them to stop and was bumped from behind. At the same moment the woman with the baby and the cardboard disappeared. They were professionals!

A woman (I’m sure, now, she was in on it) then approached us with my purse and Gary‘s wallet. She said they were on the ground. Sure enough, my handbag was dangling open and Gary‘s pockets had been turned out.

We have lost several hundred euros, Mr Kovaks, but the money isn’t important. We want to put a stop to this disgraceful activity. One could say it’s righteous indignation. We shall not leave this city knowing these ‘people’ are swindling innocent tourists. Please get in touch at the Omm Hotel. We’ll be in the lobby tomorrow morning at 10. I’ll be dressed in white. My husband will be in black.

Kind regards,

Mary & Gary Blake

p.s. – We should mention that we’re in Barcelona for only two days because our cruise ship leaves tomorrow afternoon. We hope you will excuse the urgent nature of our request. Mr Kovaks, we’re so poor on time! I think rushing about so much must have made us a bit mad!

The Omm, a five star establishment up on Rosselló. Designer facade. Looks like a post modern squirrel cage if you ask me. You can be sure it provides all the amenities. And that it will set you back two or three C notes for a night between its crisp linen. Stars.

Basically, this Mary and Gary. They had moolah and then some.

Nine in the morning is tough going for me. But, due to the urgency of the case, I decided to forgo my usual beauty sleep. After shaving and splashing on some Brumel I hit the alleys of the Gòtic. To Passeig de Gràcia, to Rosselló.

They weren’t hard to miss. Sitting on a lilac-colored settee, in the corner of the lobby. Where they had a nice sweeping view. We met eyes almost immediately. Mary waved me over.

Walking over I peeped a fellow sitting kitty corner to the Mary and Gary couple, on another settee, gray. He had a thin-trimmed, glistening mustache. Looked like it was drawn on. And a look on his face like rancid milk was spilled right next to him. I figured he was some kind of video artist.

I sat on a cushy cube dingus that passes for a seat, facing Mary and Gary, after the perfunctory handshake.

“Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Kovaks. I must say, you do look like a detective.”

I didn’t say anything to that. Just took off my fedora smiled amiably to both of them.

I expected something else. Prim. Stiff upper lip. But this couple. The affected class of parvenus. It’s possible they won their fortune in a boiler room scam.

Mary was a tall rawboned woman. Thick wrists and wide shoulders. A generally heavy mien. She wore matching loose white cotton pants and blouse. When she jawed her two front teeth showed prominently. And her yellow hair looked like it had been poured from a mold. If she fell on it, it would protect her English brains.

“Gary and I have had the most unfortunate sojourn in Barcelona.” She nodded at Gary who bobbed his head affirmative. He was her plump media naranja. Blonde hair cropped short, fashionably choppy. Black T shirt tucked into black jeans, held up by a brown belt. The black was offset by white running shoes. Gary was even fatter than me. His paunch, when he sat down, looked like it would burst. That’s really all I got on Gary. He didn’t talk much, but when he did he had the same overbite as Mary.

She went on:”We’re sure you are extremely occupied, Mr. Kovaks. We don’t want to trouble you more than is necessary.”

We re-hashed the incident she related in the email. What it came down to was this: she wanted to put a stop to the pickpockets at la Catedral. She was realistic. She knew I couldn’t stop all of them. The gypmeisting hordes. But she wanted this group stopped. Basically, revenge. I think she had called it righteous indignation.

I told her I would take care of it with a 100 euro retainer up front. I was to meet them this afternoon at 2 in the same place for the rest of the payment. They said they would take my word for it that the baby-scammers would cease operations in front of the cathedral. I told them I would bring proof. What that was, I still had no idea.

I walked from the Omm towards the cathedral. On the way I stopped for a carajillo de Mascaró at a bar on Fontana street. Parlayed with a Filipino bartender who kept saying “Joder macho, joder macho”.

The cathedral steps were starting to buzz with activity. Some tourists loafed around up front. I footed it around back. Buskers and landscape artists were setting up their spots. No signs of graft any where. Too early, I surmised. Gypmeisting isn’t exactly a 9-5 job. Just in case I went back around to the front and entered the cathedral. Paid my respects to the big man.

I put the x rays on. Just in case they were trying to twist guiris in the holy house. Nada.

Not enough easy pickins for my amigos. I left and went to Vermut, a bar nearby. Had a mediana and some chorizo. Had another mediana after that. Just enough to get me lubricated, but not enough to dull my senses. I needed them. My senses. I’ve seen these crooks operate all over this burg. Like wolf packs. Cunning and shifty.

It was just past twelve. Showdown.

It was the usual tussle sightseers. Posing for photos. Distracted and semi-oblivious. Easy quarry for Barcelona’s crookdom. But no women with babies fleecing the crowd. Damn. Was I in the right spot? I walked around and around the building. I wore myself out. Half past, said my watch. I sat on the steps and burned through a deck. Thinking my day was blown. I went to the estanco across the plaza and bought some Ducados. Then took the long route back around the plaza. Through listless tourists and spirited waiters with precariously stacked trays. Then I saw it.

By the turnoff on via Laietana, near the entrance to the underground car park. This gold-colored Baby Benz with chrome rims had stopped. Infernal techno pop blasting from blown subwoofers. Three women got out. Two wearing gray sweat pants and matching gray pullovers. Discreet. The third was also wearing sweats, but she put on a red headscarf. Then she pulled a long, frilly black dress over her sweat pants. Then draped a shawl, purple colored, over her shoulders. A hand, holding a piece of cardboard, thrust out of the Benz. The scarf lady took it. The hand thrust out, again, with a thing wrapped in a blanket. The lady took it and unwrapped it. A baby. I thought.

She tossed it at one of the girls wearing the sweatpants. The Scarf Lady adjusted her garments and tied the blanket in a way so it hung from her neck. Like a bib. The girl, holding the baby by its arm laughed and babbled something. Then placed the wretched thing in the blanket. Wrapped it some. The gold Benz sped off.

It was all wrong. Either gypmeisters’ babies are made of something other than human, or that thing wasn’t a baby. So. The bugaboos of guiridom are appealing to guiris’ compassionate, guilt-ridden psyches with phony babies. At the same time they’re fleecing them. The double whammy. The audacity.

I followed the three swindlers. They worked triad formation. The scarf woman with the baby at point. They walked past café tables. Accosted some couples on the way. They were ignored. They got to the steps leading up to the front of the cathedral. I shadowed them from far enough back to get a running start should anything go down.

They brazenly marched up to the vaulted cathedral entrance. But didn’t go inside. The scarf lady with the decoy infant planted herself right in front of the entrance. Her cohorts, a couple feet back. Trying to look casual. But to trained eyes it was obvious. Once the scarf lady fleeced her victim she would hand off the goods. The kittens in the gray sweats would rifle through them, extract the bills and cache the plunder in their baggy sweats. Two of them were on hand just in case it was a tourist couple. Two to “distract and extract” one of the tourists. The third to go in raptor-like and fleece the unsuspecting other.

I didn’t wait for the suckers. Maybe I had a glow on. I was bold. Recklessly bold. I tucked my money and buzzer in safe. Deep in my inner coat pocket. I then buttoned my coat all the way up to my neck So their greedy mitts couldn’t snag my scratch. I pulled out a well-worn tourist brochure map. Made like I was studying it while I was walking. Typical tourist maneuver. Walked up to the cathedral entrance. Sure enough. Scarf Lady approached me.

“Por favor senior, Dios le bendiga. DARME ARGO POR MI NIÑO!”

She stuck the cardboard out and I could feel her hand, underneath it, snake into my pocket. I reached in front of me and grabbed the lump in the blanket and yanked it out. She shrieked something horrible. Her two accomplices gleamed wide-eyed, slack-jawed. Scarf Lady tried to grab the phony baby, but I held it up, at arm’s length, easily out of her reach. It was a fairly good replica of a baby. Downy brown hair and all.

That just infuriated me more.

I bit into the baby’s head. A tourist lady started screaming. Scarf Lady and her buddies were spitting awful-sounding things. They didn’t sound like accolades. Flash of pure savagery. With the head still clamped in my jaw, I grabbed the rubbery body and ripped it apart from the head with mighty force. I shoved Scarf Lady back and drop kicked the decapitated doll corpse down the cathedral steps. Screaming. Cursing. General human confusion.

That’s right. Fa olor a llibertat!

I released the doll head from my choppers. The triad, still cursing, scattered down the cathedral steps, shaking their fists.

I walked slowly down the steps. The adrenaline still hammering. Some poor clueless tourist lady was still screaming.

General looks of awe followed in my wake. I needed some brown. Double malt.

I went back to Omm after downing some hooch. I got there at 2 on the nose. Gary and Mary were not in the lobby. I went back outside, through revolving glass doors. Planted myself so I could eyeball the insides of the hotel through the windows. Next to a shivering hound, tethered to a tree. Burned through two Ducados. I took the doll head out of my coat pocket. Still had it on me. I gave it to the hound and walked back through the revolving doors.

I asked the dame working reception if Mary and Gary Blake had checked out. They had. Sunken, but not surprised, I spun around to exit the hotel. The receptionist called out:

“Are you Mr. Larry Kovaks?”

I turned back.

“That’s me.”

“They have left a message for you. The Mary and Gary.” She held out an envelope.

And that’s the short of it.

It’s been a couple hours and half a bottle of Mascaró since then.

But if you need to know: in that envelope was a folded piece of hotel stationary.

On the stationary, in careful feminine scrawl:

Dear Mr Kovaks,

It is such a pity we missed you this afternoon. We were absolutely sure after meeting you that you would do a splendid job.

We must be honest, however, Mr Kovaks. Our meeting you was the result of a bet we wagered with a fellow hotel guest – the one who told us about you. It was his contention that you did not exist. We, being contrarians, decided to challenge him, for a blast, really. You may have noticed him in the lobby earlier. He sat opposite us on another sofa. Needless to say, Mr Kovaks, we won the bet.

We are on our way to Portovenere. Please, don’t take umbrage at our flight, or for our deceptive behaviour. We are thrilled you are not just another imaginary cyberspace character.

Kindest regards,

Mary & Gary Blake

Marujo, the bartender slides up my plato combinado. I mash out my cig and set the letter, folded, aside. I slice off a corner of steak and chew.

I admit. I didn’t tumble to the game the Brits and the mustachioed lodger were playing. At least not right away.

But I made a dent in crookdom today.

And that’s on the level, if you ask me.

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