Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
To Joe Perll
HE TAVERN WAS CALLED
Babe O'Brien's. No one named O'Brien had ever, in its twenty years of business, owned the place. In fact, no one even remotely Irish had ever owned Babe O'Brien's. The name had been chosen by Juan Hernandez De Barcelona, who had never been to Barcelona and whose ancestors had almost certainly never been to either Ireland or Spain.
Juan Hernandez De Barcelona was a black man about the size and shape of a two-door refrigerator. He had earned his money by working on the docks of Port au Prince. As a boy he had loaded and unloaded ships. As a young man he had loaded and unloaded drunken sailors. And as a man he had unloaded pistols more than once into the bellies of people who annoyed the Baron Duvivier, a colonel in the Tonton Macute who sometimes found it expedient to employ the services of an outside broken-bottle man like Juan rather than one of his own troops.
It was the Baron, whose business was not always that of the country, who advised Juan Hernandez to add the “De Barcelona” to his name. Although Juan would one day kill the Baron with his bare hands and steal the money the Baron wore in a money belt under his brown uniform, Juan Hernandez always respected the memory of his mentor and the advice he had been given.
When he reached New Orleans after taking the place of a black American sailor named Jerris Simms who had had an unfortunate encounter with a machete, Juan Hernandez considered investing the deceased Baron Duvivier's money in a whorehouse, but the competition in New Orleans was more than Juan was yet ready to deal with. Instead, he moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, because he liked the name, and put his capital in a tavern formerly named the Blue Ridge. It was in a neighborhood changing from poor redneck to poor Mexican and a smattering of blacksâmostly Jamaicans and Haitians.
Juan Hernandez named the place Babe O'Brien's because he wanted to be an American success and in a movie he had seen the name over a tavern owned by a short fat character played by an actor whose name he didn't recognize.
Juan Hernandez was a killer but he was also a romantic: He believed in the American dream. The bar was not even the beginning.
The real business of Juan Hernandez was women. The bar, Juan told potential employees, was just a front, like the front of the house in
Gone with the Wind
. To his disappointment, one of the Mexican whores had told him that the house in the movie was just a big flat painted lie propped up by boards.
But beyond the end of the bar was a door behind which was the real business of Babe O'Brien's. Here Juan himself sat night after night drinking slowly and passing judgment on those who wanted to enter that door. Behind that door, the flesh was fresh, young, and reasonably well paid. The women and girls were black, white, brown, and yellow. They were Indians, Chinese, Mexicans, Creoles, French, Haitians, Jamaicans, and even one Russian or, at least, one blonde with an accent who claimed that her name was Ludmilla and that she was from Leningrad.
Juan Hernandez dealt only in cash and he kept no books except behind the bar, for the drinks. The only tax paid was on the bar and, strangely enough, the bar turned out to be profitable, not the kind of profit that Juan Hernandez felt was sufficient, but profitable still. For twenty years, Juan had suffered little inconvenience at the door at the rear of Babe O'Brien's. In his third year of business, that entrance had acquired the name Heaven's Portal. It had been so named by a skinny drunk who had come only once. The drunk had paused and sang to Juan Hernandez De Barcelona, “You are my lucky star.” And moments later he added, “You opened heaven's portal here on earth for this poor mortal.”
In the next seventeen years there had been three robbery attempts in Babe O'Brien's, one by a trio of brothers named Valenciana who were gunned down by Zetch the bartender before they got near Heaven's Portal. Juan Hernandez De Barcelona had sat watching the event unemotionally.
The second attempt fifteen years later was better planned. It was conducted by a pair of black men from Alabama who had heard about Babe O'Brien's. One of the black men was named Lowell Caldwell. The other had only one name that anyone knew, Toggle. Toggle was even bigger than Juan Hernandez De Barcelona. He and Lowell approached Heaven's Portal about 3:00 A.M. on a Tuesday when business was dead slow. Toggle and Caldwell had grinned at Juan Hernandez De Barcelona, who at that time wore a trim little goatee and his hair slicked back. Lowell pulled out a small gun and shot Juan. Toggle got behind Juan and put his arm around his neck before he could rise. Zetch the barman hesitated but Juan did not. He was simply moving slow. He grabbed Toggle's hand, grunted, and pulled down, snapping the giant's right arm. Lowell, who was murmuring “No, no, no,” took another shot at Juan. The bullet entered his stomach just above the navel. Juan took enough time to turn and smash Toggle's head against the concrete pillar near the door. Ten seconds later Lowell Caldwell had died in a manner that even Zetch, who had been an homicide investigator with the Cleveland police before he lost his left leg, did not like remembering.
Juan Hernandez De Barcelona had not spent even a night in the hospital as a result of this incident. A doctor who was well paid to keep the incident quiet removed the two bullets on a bed recently vacated by Ludmilla the Russian. Juan was back at his table near the Portal the next night, bandaged, playing solitaire, and pocketing cash. What was left of Toggle and Lowell Caldwell was dumped in front of City Hall. The story was all over the newspapers and on TV. Juan Hernandez De Barcelona had become a local legend.
No one had bothered Babe O'Brien's again until a year previously, and then it was only by mistake. Two rednecks with accents so thick that Juan could not understand them found Juan funny. It could have been the bottle of cheap bourbon they had shared or their inbred bigotry fueled by each other's prodding, but the men, Cal and C.C., decided that they were going through Heaven's Portal and that they would pay only when they came out and only if they were satisfied and no “Buddha Nigger was gonna tell them ought else.”
“Hell,” said C.C. “You should pay us for coming in here.”
“Yeah,” said Cal, who had a scruffy white beard. “Why not? How about you pay us?”
Cal pulled out a fairly large handgun and C.C. said, “Hot damn if you ain't one mean gator.” And C.C pulled out an even larger handgun.
Having learned from his last encounter with Toggle and Lowell, Juan Hernandez De Barcelona had rigged a surprise under his table. The shotgun was bolted to the table facing the space between Heaven's Portal and the bar. It was also rigged so that it did not require a pull of the trigger, only a sudden upward thrust of Juan's knee.
As pellets rained across the intruding duo, both Cal and C.C.'s guns fired. One bullet took off Juan's right ear. The other killed Zetch. At almost the same instant, both C.C.'s head and Cal's gut were torn apart by Juan's shotgun blast. The cleanup had been swift and the police well paid. Juan had not bothered to go to a doctor for his ear. He put ice on it, let Ludmilla bandage it, got slightly drunk, and came back the next day to look for a new bartender.
Juan considered these attempts on his life and property a reasonable part of the risks involved in running a business. In truth, Juan Hernandez De Barcelona, who by 1979 was forty-three years old, had saved close to one million dollars. He could have quit and lived comfortably for the rest of his life, but two things stopped him. First, while Juan had always wanted to be an American success, he had no thoughts at all about what he would do when he was successful. He liked sitting in the bar and watching the customers. He liked talking to the girls, hiring new ones, breaking them in, firing the old ones and giving them nice bonuses. He liked watching old movies on television. There was nothing else he wanted to do. Besides, he would not consider himself a success until he had an even one million dollars in the cans in his house on Buena Grande Street.
And so, in a way, it was the American dream that killed Juan Hernandez De Barcelona, just as it had killed many another ambitious immigrant.
On this day, as he sat at his table drinking a Coke and watching his new night bartender serve the drinks and fill the till, he heard a scream beyond Heaven's Portal. Screams seldom penetrated that thick door. About five years earlier he had had to fire a tiny Korean girl named Tina for screaming in mock ecstasy loud enough to be heard in the tavern. Occasionally, a client would go a little too far and a girl would let out a cry of pain. More often it was the clients themselves who would scream, but this was different.
Juan Hernandez got up from his table, waved at the new bartender, and caught the rifle the man threw him. Juan had seen someone throw a rifle to John Wayne like this and had waited for this moment. He went through Heaven's Portal, rifle in one hand like the Duke or the Rifleman, and moved toward the scream. He didn't bother to open doors on the way. He knew which ones were occupied and which girls were working. The sound had come from one of the Mexican girls, the Madera sisters. They were a duo, special price. They had worked at Babe O'Brien's longer than any other girls.
As he strode down the corridor like an improperly armed samurai in a baggy gray suit and no tie, Juan decided that he would give the girls a big bonus and fire them. They were too smart. Smart girls were trouble. These girls were good for business, but they were, like right now, trouble.
He kicked open the door and aimed the rifle at the bed. A naked man lay there. Juan remembered him. Juan never forgot the face of a client and he had not read trouble on this one. Even now he did not read trouble. He saw fear. And where were the girls? The man's head did not turn but his eyes looked behind the door through which Juan had come.
Before Juan could turn, he was shot in the neck. Even shot and choking on his own blood Juan spun and faced the two naked young women who stood together, each holding a pistol. They fired together and Juan Hernandez De Barcelona died thinking that America had been a goddamn mistake.
Girls were screaming in all the rooms now.
The man on the bed was named James “Skettle” Harte, who claimed to be a grandson of Bret Harte. Skettle had told the Madera sisters that he had a record and had done hard time in both Alabama and Illinois. Skettle also claimed to be wealthy and influential. The Madera sisters had not bought that part of his story. For them, Skettle was just the client the girls had been waiting for. One of the girls, Estralda, had placed the barrel of her pistol in his ear and ordered him to scream. When he hesitated, the other sister pushed him on his side and inserted the barrel of her weapon into another orifice. Skettle screamed.