Almost forgotten in the aftermath of Beth's murder was the scheduled visit of Barb's best friend from high school Jackie and her husband Hank, all the way from Saginaw, Michigan. Even though they didn't socialize much with the Hanners back in Saginaw-Barb would meet Jackie once or twice a year for lunch-they were the first and so far only people who showed any interest in visiting Panama. "Their visit will give us a chance to become acquainted," Mitch pointed out. It mystified the Multuskys that so few of their friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances seemed to consider Panama a desirable place to visit. "Maybe they don't know what's here," Mitch reasoned. "I mean how interesting can a canal be?" When Barb raised an eyebrow, "I know, an engineering wonder of the world; but I don't think people realize how big and impressive the city is or that the entire country is two beautiful coast lines with a mountain range in the middle or ..."
"A banana republic with dictators like Noriega running around having machine gun battles with drug cartels," Barb giggled. "You know when we left, people kept saying how brave we were; like we were hiking into the rainforest with nothing but a water bottle and a machete. If not being able to speak Spanish stops people then no one would go to Miami. I think they're ignorant of where or what Panama is. All they know is that Carter should have never let Panama have control over the canal."
"Another real possibility is that the people back in Michigan don't miss us that much," Mitch said, as he popped open a can of Atlas beer.
"And vice versa," Barb said, which was true. She had expected to feel more sentimental about leaving a place where she had spent most of her life, but she didn't. Before she left, at her school's end- of-the-year party for example, she got the impression that some of her fellow faculty felt that they were somehow being abandoned-that Barb was turning her back on them, or on America or home or something that comprised all of that. Why would anyone want to live anywhere other than in the good old United States of America?
Mitch and Barb never had kids and there was always a mixture of resentment, disapproval and pity about that, but it also gave the Multuskys the freedom to live wherever they wanted, without worrying about being there for their children and grandchildren and birthdays, graduations, weddings and Christmas. Barb always wondered why her biological alarm clock never went off. Mitch and she never considered themselves particularly selfish or ungenerous, after all they ended up working with thousands of other people's kids, but the urge to procreate seldom if never came about for them. It wasn't a problem, except in other people's minds, some of whom had even inquired over the years if "everything was working properly." To be honest, they never checked medically, but had always been very careful. When Barb reached menopause, Mitch claimed to "miss a good ol' cum shot every once in a while."
With their parents deceased (Mitch noted once that "we're orphans living in a strange land," while Barb thought the term orphans seemed inappropriate for two old fart retirees.), and a brother here and a cousin there, family wasn't as strong a force as it seemed to plenty of folks Barb knew. Again it wasn't rejection. As far as Barb was concerned they weren't rejecting family or America. Once when they were discussing what they left behind-partisan politics; real estate tax coupled with a rising cost of living; eight-lane highways; and reality TV; both were quick to admit that there was much they missed including smooth roads; postal service; the local evening news on TV; corn-fed Angus beef; and long summer nights. "I do miss apple pie," Mitch admitted, "but we have baseball down here and they're pretty good, so there's pluses and minuses." Yes, when they watched CNN International they were informed that other things were happening to people in the world other than U.S. politicians and celebrities. They voted absentee in the federal election (Obama-both wanted Hilary, but never voted for "that idiot Bush" and certainly not McCain), and still paid income tax and worried about the recession and the oil spill. "Okay," Mitch said when Barb kept fretting, "we're retired, which means we're on permanent vacation and we picked some place exotic, instead of some god-awful retirement community outside of Orlando or Tampa or wherever. Not that there's anything wrong with that (with a wink), but we took the path less travelled and that's made all the difference."
"Not an exact quote, but close enough." Barb loved her husband and appreciated his attempts at humor and/or wisdom and knew there was nothing she could do about the perception of others. Maybe in a busy world, they hadn't really been gone long enough yet to be missed. And Jackie and her husband were coming in, soon in fact, so Barb washed a couple of glasses in the sink and asked Mitch if he was ready to go to the airport.
At Tocumen Airport, Barb and Mitch waited for nearly an hour after the flight landed for their friends to finally emerge through the door from customs. Many, many people had come out that particular sliding glass door in the past forty-five minutes and were greeted by huggers or guys with signs with names printed in marker, but never the Hanners. There was even a lull, when no one existed for what seemed like five minutes. Then when the Hanners did show, Barb and Mitch failed to immediately recognize them. It might have been the sun glasses ("Why would they need sun glasses inside the terminal?" Mitch wondered later, in private. To which Barb replied "maybe they were ready for the tropic sun."); or maybe it was that Jackie's long brown dyed hair was pulled back in a ponytail; or maybe it was because neither one of them knew Hank that well. Then too Jackie and Hank peered past and beyond their hosts before finally focusing on the Multuskys looking around anxiously.
"Can you imagine," Jackie said as she ducked away from Mitch's attempt at an air kiss, "the people in customs didn't even speak English."
"It's a Spanish speaking country," Mitch said.
"At the airport?" Hank was in full eyebrows up; head back; well-I-don't-think-so attitude that immediately, irrevocably pissed Mitch off.
"Actually, everywhere. Here let me help you with that." Hank handed over his suitcase happily and allowed Mitch to hoist both his and his wife's luggage, while he pulled a small carry-on bag on squeaky wheels, while Barb took control of Jackie's carry-on.
For the next four days, Mitch had to bite his tongue and ignore the urge to grab the much shorter but pudgier man and shake him by the lapels, actually by a fist full of polo shirt. While Barb and Jackie seemed to have plenty to talk about, Hank kept hitting Mitch with statements like:
"I thought they drove on the left in Panama."
"No that's the Bahamas and I think maybe Bermuda-nowhere near here."
"I'm going to need to exchange some money."
"It's the U.S. dollar down here."
"You're kidding. So I guess we're still in charge."
"So I need to change the time on my watch."
"Actually, we're in the same time zone, so your watch is correct."
"No way. How can that be? You know that was the announcement on the plane when we landed, but I didn't believe it."
"Panama is directly south of New York or Miami in the Eastern Time Zone, but we don't have day-light-savings time, so we match the Midwest."
"No way. How can that be? Panama's way over in Central America. Am I right?"
"Well yeah, but its longitude, not latitude. Anyway, your watch is correct."
"So who is the dictator now?"
"Actually, they have an elected president, a fella by the name of Martinelli, and a vice president, and a democratic legislature and democratically elected representatives and mayor of the city."
"You're kidding. So where's, you know, what's his name?"
"Yeah, that guy."
"Well, for the past 17 years he's been in prison in Florida and just recently he was extradited to France for money laundering charges."
"You must be kidding. That long ago?"
"I kid you not."
And so it went. When Carmen jumped up to say hello, Jackie acted as if she were being attacked by a giant scorpion. Hank would push down at Carmen and fervently say "Bad dog, bad dog," until the free-range pet would take the hint and escape through the window grate. Jackie was allergic to seafood in a country of coastline. Hank wasn't but wanted oysters and something "light and white like haddock"-neither available. Jackie, who was shaped like her husband, kinda round in a not very tall way, seemed to talk constantly, but never directed a single utterance at Mitch, who they both treated like a hired driver, with perpetual requests to turn up or turn down the air conditioner or radio combined with exhortations to "Slow down" or "Look out!"; or concierge with unending requests for different soap, fresh towels, tissues, toilet paper that turned out to be under the bathroom sink and to make fine adjustments to the air conditioning or fan speeds; or bartender, with requests for diet cokes, sparkling water, Corona beers with limes inserted in the bottle, vodka tonics that were too weak more than once, but never too strong and unpredictable switches from white to red or red to white wine almost always when a new bottle needed to be opened. Barb tried to help, but most requests, demands and comments were directed directly at Mitch, who made a point of springing into action like a well trained domestic, after his suggestions that "please feel free to help yourself" went unheeded.
More than once, twice in fact, Hank got up to go to the men's room just in time to avoid being present when a dinner check arrived. Needless to say, he never inquired about the bill or even offered Mitch the pleasure of receiving a thank you. Hank was quick on the draw for lunch and made a point of saying "My turn," strongly implying that the next meal-dinner with cocktails, appetizers, dessert and at least two bottles of wine-would be someone else's turn.
Were they impressed by the locks on the Panama Canal? Not really. "It takes a mighty long time for a boat to get through." They did think the skyline of Panama City reminded them of Miami Beach, which turned out to be a place they had never been. Too much horn honking, too many pedestrians and way too many tall buildings as far as they were concerned in Panama City.
Ah, but what about Casco Viejo? "Well, it certainly is no New Orleans." Another place they had never actually visited. Too much construction. Too many tourists. "So what are they?" Mitch wondered under his breath. And the sidewalks. Both Hank and particularly Jackie walked the sidewalks of Casco Antiguo as if they were crossing a lunar minefield. Hank actually said "I can't look at the architecture because I have to watch my every step." No doubt there are too many cracks, holes and uneven places, but the Hanners were so not making a go of it, that Mitch was tempted to push Hank off the curb into an oncoming taxi and simply claim that Hank fell. When they saw the cranes, stately exotic birds that had been part of the scene since the 1920s, in the lobby of the presidential palace, they thought it was "weird." And the views of the Pacific Ocean from the walls of Las Bovedas. "Nice." For once Mitch did not think that the ancient practice of chaining prisoners to the outside walls during low tide as too cruel. "It would be nice, when high tide came and Hank was chained at rock level." Mitch smiled at his fantasy. Overall impression of Casco Viejo-"kinda run down, but could be nice (Nice again. Mitch's nostrils flared.) with a whole lot of elbow grease." Mitch thought of greasing his elbows. Then in one of Hank's most gracious moments, "...an interesting place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here." A two or three beat pause, then a nervous little smirk and a lame "I was only kidding. It's all very nice." Jackie slapped his arm and said, "They might not believe you're kidding." They didn't. After five days of "getting handled by the Hanners," as Mitch would remember it, Multusky drove them to the small local airport at Albrook for their flight to David and their stay in a small boutique hotel in the mountains near the town of Bouquete. Since Barb stayed back so she could get back to her private investigation, Mitch saw no reason to do anything other than simply stop at the main entrance of the airport and pull the lever that unlocked the back door of the SUV. Hank struggled some but got the baggage to the curb. When the door was closed, Mitch needed all his self control, developed through years of being the vice principal in charge of discipline at a junior high school, to not burn rubber. Instead, he lowered the passenger side window half way and said "Good bye." He then pulled off slowly, but without waiting for anything more to be said by his guests.
Barb really had no idea how to conduct an investigation, especially since she did not have any authority to do so. Benito Cortez, her young Panamanian lawyer and guardian angel, tried to get information from the police, who were not very forthcoming. Since Beni was unwilling to misrepresent himself as anything other than a concerned citizen, all he was really able to do is translate the official police report-estimated time of death: sometime between 11:00 p.m. and 7:30 a.m. / cause of death: strangulation / suspect: Horace Gomez, aka Jamon / motive: attempted robbery / evidence: Gomez had an unspecified amount of cash on his person / victim's purse and wallet were missing / items of value such as a cell phone; wide-screen TV; art work; jewelry including a diamond ring on victim's small finger were still on the premises / other details: no evidence of forced entry; cat's bowl was empty and cat had not appeared; front door and back gate locked, while door to back porch left ajar.
Beni was allowed to speak with Jamon, even though he had no intension of representing the street person. Cortez did not do criminal law and couldn't see how becoming officially involved would benefit his career or reputation. Barb was so anxious to do something that Beni went along but wasn't very convinced by what he learned during his interview with Jamon. For the most part, Jamon didn't know what was happening or what happened. He was very sorry, but he didn't hurt Senora Beth. He had no idea who did, and did not remember seeing anyone. He was around like always, but couldn't remember exactly where or when. He looked up at the handsome young lawyer with a bewildered expression on his sad face.
Did he have an alibi? No. / Did he go to Senora Beth's house? Yes, but she was not there. How did he know she wasn't there? She didn't answer when he knocked on the front door, looking for a donation. (That answer won't help him Beni thought.) / Was he with anyone? Sure. Juan, Billy and Carmen. Did he mean the dog? Yes. Was he with them at any particular time? Yes. When? During the night...and so it went. Beni was fairly confident that Jamon had not committed murder, but was also sure that the poor little dumpy helpless man would not be an easy client to defend.
The only method that Barb could come up with was to visit with people who she thought might have done it. In other words involve the suspects themselves in her informal inquiry. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that she was a bit afraid of Jerry Cole's temper herself, she skipped him and went on to Allen Myers, the closest thing she had to someone who would be grieving and maybe who would share her ardor to find the true perpetrator.
She had never been in Allen's apartment before and was surprised at how much it struck her as a so-called bachelor pad. It was done up in what she considered "retro Playboy Mansion," even though Barb really had no experience in any such place. There was actually a painting of a busty Nubian princess on black velvet, hung directly above a sectional couch upholstered in a leopard print. A single black-leather Lazyboy-style lounge chair was stationed in front of a huge flat-screen TV hung on a wall that was painted fire-engine red. A three-stool curvy bar with gold studs in red leather stood in one corner. The dining area with an over-formal chandelier seemed neglected with papers, envelopes and magazines scattered on the table surrounded by four chairs, all pushed in. When Barb used the powder room she noted two rather tasteful pen-and-ink drawings of nude women on the wall.
After Barb expressed her concerns about Beth's killer getting off, while poor Jamon was taking the rap, she asked Allen if he had any idea who might have actually committed the crime.
"Well, it wasn't me," Allen said as he pulled out one of the dining set chairs and pushed a couple of old newspapers out of the way. One was a La Penza that had the front-page story of Beth's death. "Of course you know the husband is always the first and primary suspect, but since Beth's husband is dead, the boyfriend is the most likely and that was me. To be quite frank, I expected a lot more attention from the police. After all, I was the last person to see her alive." When Allen saw the surprised look on Barb's small alert face, he shrugged. "We even had sex, so there should be a boatload of DNA evidence if they even checked. Anyway, I told them I left around 11 and they duly noted that and apparently went out and arrested the bum on the corner." Barb did not know how to respond to Allen's incriminating evidence. "Here's my point," he said in response to the fact that Barb did not display a poker face. "I know I did not kill Beth. Shit, I liked her, a lot. I mean what would my motive be? End the best chances for a real relationship in years. We were perfect for each other. To be totally honest, I was more than a little put off by how casual or off-handed or however you want to put it that the cops were. Now, I do have a witness, who saw me arrive home at a little after 11, but that still doesn't mean I shouldn't be a suspect, if you know what I mean."
Barb nodded. "Who's your witness?"
"Jack, Jack Smith. He often sits out on a bench in the square outside our building. I even said ‘hello' to him."
Barb's hands were fluttering like sparrows. She had decided not to take notes, until after she left because she wanted to appear like a concerned friend, rather than a nosey private eye. However, Allen was hitting her with more info than she knew what to do with. Why hadn't Jack mentioned that he had seen a or the prime suspect that night? Why was Allen being so darn forthcoming? Was he trying to disarm her with candor? What would be a plausible motive for Allen to do Beth wrong? And what am I getting myself into? "So, who do you think did it?"
"I have to admit, I don't think that worthless homeless guy had anything to do with it. So I agree with you that Beth's murderer is still at large."
"So I don't know; but if I had to guess I'd say it could very well be that creep Joe Berger. Beth told me that he had been lurking around her house for days and I actually caught him once on her door step."
"You're kidding right? The stupid shit, excuse me, was jealous. I mean you're not going to broadcast this around, because if it's not true it's slander." Beth gave a wave of her jittery hands to indicate no problem. "But the guy was literally stalking her. Beth told me that she might have encouraged him at first, whatever that meant, but that he kicked her dog or something and she decided he wasn't her type and that she had trouble getting rid of him."
"I don't believe that Beth had a dog," Barb pointed out patiently. "Maybe it was a cat."
"No, no, it was that little black and white mutt, that hung around her place."
"You don't mean Carmen?" Barb was reeling from too much information, much of which was a total surprise. So, she tried to get back to Berger, since he was in fact near the top of her list of suspects.
"I really don't know the dog's name. I mean I think it's a stray." Apparently Allen had never encountered Barb or more likely Mitch when Carmen was on a leash. "What I do know, was that Berger lost what chance he had, when he kicked that dog; and then I came into the picture and he wasn't happy. So much so that the jerk started going out with that bimbo, I was dating before."
"I believe I met her on at least one occasion," Barb offered.
"Yeh, the Columbian hooker I forced on you folks a couple of times. I'm sorry about that, but I guess I was showing off or something. I'll tell you I was thankful that Beth didn't hold it against me."
Again Barb was stunned by Allen's candor, so much so that she found it made her suspicious. "Why are you telling me all this?"
Allen paused, and looked the little woman at his table straight in her eyes. "Am I telling you anything really that you haven't at least suspected? I mean, you're the first person that came around, except the police, who has even bothered to ask how I'm doing. Well, I'm fucking upset, if you really want to know. I meet somebody pretty darn cool and we start like dating, really dating and I have sex with her and later that same night, she's murdered. And you ask me who I think might have done it and so I tell you. What do you want me to say? I think it was that Berger character."
"Do you think he's capable of murder?"
"How the shit should I know. Does anybody know anything about the guy?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
CASCO VIEJO: THE SECOND SEASON is an online novel in progress. Author Craig Weincek releases chapters as he writes them.Previous chapters of the novel can be found here .