Los Cantantes de Karaoke
by Tom Larsen
|Art by Hank Blaustein
“Wilson! Oye, Wilson Salinas!”
The voice that called out to me sounded like dried leaves being raked across concrete. I looked for the caller as I crossed Calle Antonio Vallejo and located him sitting at a plastic table in the tiny courtyard of a neighborhood tienda, down where the steep, pockmarked street dead-ended into Del Chorro. He was about my age and size—mid thirties, five six, a hundred and forty pounds—and he looked vaguely familiar. Since my recent return to my hometown of Cuenca, Ecuador, after nearly fifteen years in Seattle, I was constantly running into someone who looked vaguely familiar.
“Come on.” He made a beckoning motion with his free hand, the other one grasping a big sweaty bottle of Pilsener. “I’ll buy you a beer.”
I recognized him then. Emilio Marza. I had gone to secondary school with him. We weren’t exactly friends, but we knew a lot of the same people.
“I don’t drink,” I told him. It’s crazy when you think about it—all the jobs I’d held over the years—I even drove a taxi drunk, but the one thing I’d always wanted to do since I was a kid—become a private detective—the drinking got in the way. So, I had quit.
“I’m sorry.” Emilio clutched his beer, looking around as if searching for a place to hide it. “Juan said that . . .”
I shook his hand and sat down. I hadn’t seen Juan Sanchez since I got sober, and if Emilio had talked to him he’d probably heard some pretty wild stories about my drinking days. Juan was a good friend, but he was a gossip.
“It’s okay,” I said, “drink your beer. It won’t bother me.” Of course, it would bother me—I was only two-and-a-half-weeks sober.
“Let me get you something. Water?” Emilio stood up, bumping the table in his nervousness.
“I’ll take a Fanta.”
He hurried to the counter and came back with a bottle of the sweet orange soda that had become my substitute for beer and wine.
I remembered him as a good-looking kid—an athlete. He had retained his good looks and his trim athleticism, although he seemed to be doing everything he could to disguise them both. He had on stained, loose-fitting khaki pants and a faded, red Deportivo Cuenca T-shirt. He wore his dark hair in a bowl cut, making him look a little like that dude who’s the president of Bolivia.
“Juan said that you might be able to help me.” He took a big swallow of beer, the chords in his neck tightened, and he grimaced in pain.
“If you don’t mind me asking . . .” I leaned my head back and tapped my throat, in lieu of actually asking the question.
“Oh, this.” He massaged his throat absently. “I had two polyps removed a few weeks ago. It’s still a little raw.” He took a small sip of beer and swallowed without grimacing as much.
“Ah, it’s okay. They were benign.” He waved a hand as if shooing away a fly. The he hunched forward and said, “But it does have to do with why I want to hire you.”
I sat back and took a drink. “I’m not a doctor.”
“Of course not,” he smirked. “You’re a detective, right? Juan said you had an office around here.”
True enough. I paid eighty-seven dollars a month for a small, windowless office above the auto repair shop across the street. It smelled of gas and oil, but it had a private entrance, if you didn’t mind climbing a set of rusty metal stairs with no guardrail. And my landlord, Rudy, let me use his Wi-Fi account.
I reached into my shirt pocket, took out one of my newly printed cards, and handed it to him across the table.
“Must be exciting,” he said, turning the card over in his hands.
“It’s okay,” I replied with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. Most of my work, what I had of it, came from a local attorney—serving papers, tracking down deadbeat dads—that sort of thing. “How can I help you, my friend? What does it have to do with your throat?”
“It’s not so much my throat. Like I said, the polyps were benign. It’s my voice.”
“Your voice? Won’t the scratchiness go away when it heals?”
“Yeah,” he agreed, looking down at the table. “But, they say I’ll probably never be able to sing like I did before.”
“You’re a singer?”
“Yeah.” He gave me a shy smile. “I’m not famous or anything. Here.” His wallet appeared on the table, and he extracted a picture from it. Emilio and a woman posing in front of an array of plastic flowers. They held a small banner in front of them. Primer Premio. First Prize.
“She’s beautiful,” I said.
“Yeah.” He eyed me with suspicion. “That’s the problem.”
“I see.” I really wanted to say was I don’t do this kind of work, but I had bills to pay, so I kept my mouth shut.
“You see,” he went on, “we used to sing karaoke together.”
“Karaoke?” It was my turn to smirk.
“A lot of well-known singers have been discovered at karaoke competitions.” He took another grimace-inducing pull at his beer, and I swallowed some more of my own sugary concoction.
Name one, I thought, but didn’t say. What I did say was, “So, you want to hire me to find your singing voice?” I thought that was pretty funny, but Emilio didn’t seem to get it.
He acted as if I hadn’t spoken, and once he started he must have talked for five minutes straight. He could no longer sing, but how could he deprive Monika—his wife—of her dreams? So, he had suggested—He had suggested, mind you—that she sing with his brother. That was his brother, Hector, in the picture, not him.
I looked more closely. At first glance I had keyed in on the woman—her sleek black hair, high cheekbones, almond eyes, the slight bump on the bridge of her nose that, rather than detracting from her beauty, gave her a slightly exotic look.
Hector was a year or two older than Emilio, but as kids they looked enough alike to pass as twins. He still looked very much like Emilio, but his hair was trimmed neatly and he was dressed with style. He stood proudly erect, smiling at the woman with what seemed to be more than brotherly affection.
“¿Ves?” Emilio jabbed his finger at the picture, then put it back in his wallet.
“Yeah,” I said. “I see. But what do you want me to do?”
“Okay,” he said, and his voice turned pleading. “I have to go to Guayaquil for two days. We’re doing the tile work on the new Hilton by the airport.”
That explained the stains on his clothes and on the blue Chevy pickup that he had parked with two wheels up on the curb. Mortar and grout.
“I just need you to watch her for two days. Make sure that Hector doesn’t . . . you know.”
Yeah, I knew. I reminded myself that I needed the money. He offered to pay whatever I asked, then acted shocked and offended when I named my price. Ah, my Ecuador, I’ve missed you.
We settled on sixty-five dollars for the two days.
I went to the bathroom, and when I returned he was dropping his empty beer bottle into a yellow plastic case next to the wall.
“Sorry. Your soda spilled,” he said in a rush, although I hadn’t asked. “I’ll get you another one.”
“Don’t bother. It was almost empty.” Madre de Dios, this guy was wound tighter than a nine-day clock.
Sherlock had the Baker Street Irregulars, a group that Watson once referred to as a “band of filthy little street Arabs,” and I had the adult version. The bunch of heathens that I had run with as a kid through the dirt streets of Barrio San José de Balzay were now grown up and most of them were here in Cuenca—some had never left and some, like me, had sampled the outside world and were drawn back home for any number of reasons. I had reconnected with most of them, and they had been useful at one time or another in my new occupation.
Jaime Ortega—el Oso Gordo, the Fat Bear—was now a tattooed, battle-scarred enforcer for hire, Javier Morales was a transit cop with an opportunistic streak, who knew the ins and outs of the local bureaucracy, and my best friend Juan Sanchez was a well-to-do, retired world-class futbolista who had returned to Cuenca about the same time I did, but to a hero’s welcome.
In a perfect world I would have paid one of them—Javi or Jaime, Juan didn’t need the money—to perform this unsavory task while I focused on more lucrative endeavors. But my world was far from perfect, I had no more lucrative endeavors to pursue, and the rent was due.
Like a lot of things, this was new since I had left Ecuador—an entire community behind a gate, rather than individual homes having their own privacy walls. Urbanazación Rio Sol was a modern complex just off of Avenida González Suárez, on the eastern edge of town. It was separated from the Rio Tomebamba by a tall earthen berm, and the rest of the world by a six-foot black chain-link fence.
It was nearly ten o’clock, and I’d been sitting in the bushes for two hours. Emilio had smuggled me past the guards under a tarp in the jump seat of his pickup. Kids, if you want to be a private eye, be prepared for a good bit of humiliation. I had drunk two more Fantas, so I had a bad case of cotton mouth and I seriously needed to piss.
The Marzas’ house was a white, two-story, stucco affair with nice gray-stone accents. It seemed like every light in the house was on, and from time to time I saw Monika’s shadow move past one of the windows.
The closest streetlight was at the corner, four houses away, so I couldn’t be sure, but I figured it had to be Emilio’s brother Hector who emerged from the taxi about an hour later. He entered the house and in a few minutes both their silhouettes appeared in a second-floor window. If this were a Hitchcock film they would have raised the blinds and I would have had a first-hand view of the cuckolding of my childhood friend.
Later, I would wish that was all that I had seen. After a short exchange of finger-pointing and angry gesturing, Monika turned and started to walk away. Hector pulled her back, leaned over, and came up with something in his hand. I figured it had to be a gun . . .
Copyright © 2018. Los Cantantes de Karaoke by Tom Larsen