Carmen usually walked along with only a slight tug on the leash, so Barb was surprised when the little dog gave a mighty pull. There in front of them was Tica, Beth’s maid, walking directly toward her. Because she was a servant, Barb had only a nodding acquaintance with the small, young Indian woman, who had her eyes down and didn’t notice them until Carmen jumped up to greet her apparent friend. Barb never knew that Carmen had breakfast with Beth most mornings and that Tica served the little dog scrambled eggs on a plate.
“Oh, hello my dear,” Barb said when the maid made eye contact. At that moment, Barb could not recall her name.
“Buenos dias,” Tica said without a smile on her thin angular face. Her big brown eyes darted around only at times stopping at Barb. She held out her tiny hand as much to ward Carmen off as to greet the dog.
Barb knew that Tica could speak some English, but instead tried an awkward “Como esta usted?” followed with what was hopefully perceived as a friendly smile.
“Okay,” Tica offered tentatively, followed with a half step away.
“Bien, bien,” Barb stalled knowing that she would have to revert to Spanglish very soon. And then it hit her. “Oh, my God…” Barb thought as her face flushed. “I should have spoken to this woman long ago, right away; I mean she worked in the house for goodness sake.” “Como se llama, por favor?” No point hiding the fact, she didn’t know.
“Of course, lo siento. Quiero hablar a usted, por favor con Miss Beth.”
“Por que esta muy importante,” Barb stressed as her vocabulary ran out. Immediately, she realized that for anything substantive to come out of a conversation with this important witness, she would have to get Beni or better still Candi to help out as an interpreter for both sides. The problem was how to be able to make contact. “I don’t suppose she has a card,” Barb wondered, as she fingered one of her little business-style cards that many expats carried because they were always meeting new people. “That’s stupid, but I could give her one of mine.” Barb pulled out a card and pushed it toward Tica, whose body language was that she really didn’t want to take a card with a phone number she had no intention of putting to use. So then Barb surprised herself and came up with “Que su telephono numero, por favor?” At that, she fished a ball point out of her purse, which she kept handy to make notes about the investigation, along with a small note pad. “Escribe, por favor.” Barb was on a roll with her elemental Spanish and threw in a few more biens and por favors as she watched Barb’s maid, who could not have weighed more than 100 pounds, scribble eight digits (Cell phones in Panama have an extra digit, the first of which is a 6), on the back in small tight numerals. Barb took a quick look at the number and since it began with a 6, hoped Tica wasn’t giving her a dummy in an attempt to get away from this inquisitive gringa. As a backup, Barb asked, “Donde vive, Senora?”
During the entire exchange, after she stopped standing on her hind legs with the leash fully extended just out of reach of Tica, Carmen sat calmly between the two women and appeared to listen attentively with one black ear cocked and one flopped.
Tica shrugged but then seemed to relent to an internal discussion and said “Calle Quince.”
“En Casco Viejo?”
“Si, Senora, si.”
“Yes,” Barb said. If it was true, that was close enough to be able to find her. It wasn’t the safest street. The rule in Casco was the higher the number the more dangerous the street particularly after twelve, so Tica living at 15 was borderline. After all nobody in Panama had house or building numbers so addresses were often vague or limited to building names, but what the heck thought Barb. “Que nombre su edifico?”
At that point, Tica raised her left hand with a thin wedding band on the ring finger in a stop gesture.
“Okay, okay, no problema,” Barb said with what she hoped looked like a reassuring grin.
“Ciao,” Tica said as she continued to scuff up Avenue A in her flip flops, apparently headed home.
“Ciao,” Barb said, as she turned off headed to the Chino’s for cigarettes. Everyone called the small grocery stores and mini-marts “Chinos” because virtually all of the hundreds maybe thousands of convenience stores were run by Chinese merchants. It was said that they had a monopoly.
“Mitch is going to be amazed,” Barb thought. Not only was it amazing that they had not thought to speak to the maid earlier, (Barb wondered if the cops had touched that base or simply scraped Jamon off the street without a second thought), but Barb was also sure that her husband would be impressed by how much she was able to accomplish by speaking Spanis
Carmen, whose white tale with a black tip curved up behind like rudder, was neither impressed nor not.
Mitch was sound asleep when a series of loud knocks woke him up from an afternoon nap. Since there was a locked outside gate to the entrance way to their apartment building, visitors needed to be buzzed in before they could knock at an individual apartment. The only person who had ever knocked on their door before was the concierge and never with such insistent gusto. “Jesus,” Mitch thought, “I hope the building’s not on fire.” Which was unlikely since the entire structure was made of block, stone and tile. More bangs rattled the door in its frame. “It better be a fuckin’ emergency, knocking like that.”
After he slipped into his flip flops, Mitch shuffled to the door and opened it with a quick jerk. The sudden change in the position of the door left Jerry Cole frozen in mid-knock. He looked like a quarterback without a ball, his fist by his right ear and his skinny arm bent at the elbow. Mitch, who was at least six inches taller and maybe a hundred pounds heavier, stepped into the doorway and glared down at the intruder whose face was clenched in an angry grimace. Mitch, in a wrinkled white tee shirt and navy blue shorts, was in no mood to be cordial, since he immediately suspected that Jerry’s visit had something to do with his lovely little wife’s investigation. The look on Cole’s face switched from pissed off to surprised when Mitch asked “How in the fuck did you get in here without buzzing?”
Jerry took a step back and rubbed his knuckles. Apparently knocking rudely hurt his fist. “The concierge was right there and let me in.”
“You should have still buzzed,” Mitch pronounced every word like a traffic cop speaking to a speeder. “So get out of here.” Mitch had no intention of giving Jerry an opening. “I won’t allow anyone to bang on my door like that. So scram.” Mitch did not remember ever saying scram to anyone before and it struck him funny when the word came out. It was also clear to Jerry that he had pretty much lost control of the agenda.
“I’m here to speak with your wife,” Jerry blurted. It sounded more plaintiff than threatening, as Cole’s voice broke.
“No you’re not. I told you to leave.” Mitch was peeved but he was nowhere near losing his temper.
It was Jerry whose knees were knocking in an adrenaline rush of angry confused threat. The big lug could throw him back down the passageway if he wanted to, but he was also well known as the gentle giant with the petite wife, so would he? “And what if I don’t?” Even to Jerry the retort made him sound like a school boy, which played right into the hands of the retired vice principal.
“I’ll throw your sorry ass out.” It isn’t a threat if you don’t really intend to do it; but the fact of the matter was that Mitch had every intention of literally throwing Jerry Cole out on the sidewalk. It would be easy—Cole was a lightweight; there were no witnesses—the concierge had disappeared; and it would be righteous because he was defending his wife—something he wanted to prove he could still do. “Okay Buster, on your way.” Scram, buster, the words Mitch chose were intended to belittle and they worked.
Cole decided to call the big guy’s bluff. Sometimes a larger man would be worried about a confrontation appearing as an unfair fight. After all, Cole had been involved in confrontational situations before and often got away with his aggressive behavior. “I’m not leaving until I give your wife a piece of my mind,” Cole said as he immediately saw that he had once again overplayed his decidedly weak hand. In one quick motion, Multusky grabbed both of Jerry’s thin biceps and lifted him a couple of inches off the ground while giving him a powerful push backward, not unlike an offensive lineman blocking a cheerleader. Cole had the air knocked out of him when he hit the wall. Just as quickly, Mitch spun the smaller man around and gripped the collar of Cole’s golf shirt and the belt of his Bermuda shorts from behind and was giving Madge’s husband the classic experience known as the bum’s rush. The only problem was that the gate had become relocked in the meantime.
First Carmen barked, which itself was a rare occurrence and then Barb appeared at the gate with her key out. In a move that Mitch would describe later as “graceful as a dancer,” Barb unlocked the gate and swung it open, just in time to allow Mitch to keep his unwelcome visitor’s toes dragging as he was swept out onto the sidewalk. Cole spun around and landed in a seated position on the hood of a parked car. The car’s alarm screeched into operation, as Carmen continued to bark, and the Multuskys spun back behind the gate which shut with a secure click. Both Barb and he had grins on their faces and Mitch had to restrain an impulse to thumb his nose at Cole who shook with fury.
“God damn you!” Cole screamed like a spoiled brat. “My wife left me because you told her I killed Beth Page. You know god damn well I never murdered that woman; and you had no right accusing me to my wife.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Mitch said, back to his administrator voice even if his vocabulary was not as regulated as in the old days.
“You’re definitely a suspect,” Barb pointed out from behind Mitch, “but I never told your wife any such thing. You can rail and scream all you want; but everybody knows you hated Beth and you were the one stupid enough to let everybody realize that you had a motive.”
“Listen buddy,” Mitch said “I’ll be perfectly happy to come out and make you cease and desist from disturbing the peace, (Actually, it was unlikely then with Barb present that Mitch would once again resort to being physical.), but your wife left you because you’re an asshole who bullied her constantly and acted crabby all the time. Personally, I don’t think you have the guts to murder Beth or anybody.” As he spoke, both Mitch and his wife watched as the red drained from Jerry’s face and neck, leaving him pale and slumped. “So get the hell outta here, before you cause any more trouble; and make sure that you leave my wife alone. If she comes and tells me that you’ve bothered her even a little bit, I will break you in half. And that’s a promise, pal, you will be wise to believe.” Buddy, pal—Mitch was perfectly happy to incite Cole, partly because he felt that Jerry wasn’t really man enough to do anything about it.
Cole stood seething for another instant or two, and then peered through the bars of the gate at his massive tormentor, with a tiny woman at his side. “You’ll be hearing from my attorney in the morning.”
Mitch couldn’t help himself and laughed, not a guffaw more of a chuckle. “I’ll look forward to
that,” Multusky said with a broad smile.
Barb, put a small hand on her husband’s sturdy forearm. “Honey, don’t be mean,” she said “leave him be.” Before he turned to go, Mitch saw a bewildered look of defeat on Cole’s scrunched face. Carmen pranced ahead dragging the leash that Barb had let go. When they closed the apartment door behind them , the two, one tall and burley, one short and slim, embraced, fitting together as pieces of a well worn puzzle.
“Crabby?” Mitch shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to get an interview now, thanks to you,” Barb said.
“You’re welcome,” Mitch said with a slight bow.
“Maybe, he’ll still talk to Jack.”
“Oh, stop. Please.”
* * *
It took three days but Candi was able to set up a meeting with Tica at the Café Coca Cola, a historic location on the border of the area known as Casco Viejo. “Tica certainly has a sense for the dramatic,” Barb reported to Mitch after the meeting. The Café Coca Cola is said to be the oldest diner in Panama City dating back to 1875; and named with the famous brand name in 1906 because Panama was one of the first countries outside of North America to operate a bottling plant. When they were on their way to the 10 a.m. meeting, Candi filled Barb in on a little bit of the history of the neighborhood institution situated just off from the Plaza Santa Ana. Apparently, particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, many if not most of the wheeler dealers, politicians and government officials would hang out over a pinato, a tiny cup of strong coffee with a spot or two of white cream, and make deals and decide policy. According to local legend, Che Guevara stayed for awhile in the rooms above while passing through on his way to Guatemala. There is even film of the time back in 1989 when then vice-presidential candidate Billy Ford was beaten up right in front of the Café Coca Cola. It seems that the dictator Noriega didn’t appreciate any opposition.
Today, it is simply a diner with brusque waitresses in hairnets waiting on a mostly working-class clientele of local merchants, secretaries, police men and senores viejo playing chess and enjoying the refrigerator-cold air conditioning. (It is said there are two kinds of weather in Panama—hot and air conditioning.) Tica was late and Candi and Barb both worried that she might not show as they absent-mindedly watched one of the never-ending soccer games broadcast from somewhere in the world, on one of the big screen TVs. Barb thought it only appropriate and sipped a Coke through a straw in what she described as “a classic collectible glass.”
“So what did you gals find out?” That’s what Mitch wanted to know.
“Plenty,” Barb seemed excited about the news she was able to scoop when Tica finally made the walk up Avenita B and arrived at what she considered a neutral site. “First of all, and you’re not going to believe this, but Tica thought our Carmen was Beth’s pet dog. In fact, Carmen usually had breakfast on Beth’s back porch most mornings. Scrambled eggs no less served on a plate. Carmen sat on a chair and ate from the table. She’s such a princess”
“Did Carmen take her coffee black or with sugar?” To be honest, Mitch did not find Carmen’s secret life that hard to believe. “So, are you going to interview Carmen next?” Mitch couldn’t resist pointing out that that meant their own part-time pet was a potential witness.
“I wish I could,” Barb said, mostly going along with the joke, but also wistfully wondering what Carmen could tell, if only she could speak.
“So what was Carmen’s other name?”
“Tica didn’t think she had a name. Beth usually called her ‘perra.’ But that’s not the only bombshell,” Barb said with both eyebrows raised on her small, still pretty face.
“Do tell,” Mitch said. He was enjoying being included more if only as a sounding board.
“According to Tica,” Barb said reverting to the professional language and tone she affected when discussing the investigation, “Beth had numerous male visitors to her home after her husband died. Muy mucho; but the most frequent and regular man to visit, at least while Tica was there, but she did work some evenings was…” Barb did not seem happy with the news and nodded her gray head slightly.
“Jack Smith,” Mitch guessed; and by the stunned look on his petite wife’s face, correctly.
“That’s right,” Barb seemed surprised again. “My so-called partner, who appeared to be, you know, disinterested in an almost professional way, was or so Tica seems to believe, one of Beth’s closest friends, her confidante or boyfriend, or whatever, but he was there a lot.”
“So, I guess he’s not that gay, huh?”
“We don’t know that,” Barb said with a slightly perturbed edge to her voice. “Tica says she never saw a lot of affection between the two, just hugs and air kisses and that sort of thing; but like a good maid she also left them alone for substantial periods of time. So Jack could be a boyfriend…”
“A jealous boyfriend, who didn’t appreciate Berger and Allen and whoever else…”
“Or a gay guy friend, like lots of single women have…”
“Who didn’t appreciate her crude, rude heterosexual boyfriends like Berger and Allen or whoever...”
“Okay, okay,” Barb put her hands up in surrender, “he’s definitely a suspect and actually one of our leading ones. (“Our,” Mitch noted.) Especially, since it now appears that he hasn’t been at all candid about his past relationship with the victim and might have joined with me in the investigation in order to monitor whether or not anybody thought he might be involved.”
“You missed your calling,” Mitch said as he watched a sweet smile cross his wife’s face; and then “Well, I think our boy Jack has some splainin’ to do.”
“Oh, definitely; even though, you know what, Tica doesn’t think that Smith is the one. For one thing young, shy, Tica speaks pretty good English, apparently her husband lived in the States for a while and never sensed any real tension between her mistress and Jack, our new mystery man.”
“So who did our inside informant think did it?” Mitch said ever so casually working in the word our again.
“It was more who she didn’t suspect, like Jack, who she considered loyal and always friendly. She thought Berger was a joke and said something about him kicking la perra, that I understand put him on the outs with Beth. She thought Allen was too new on the scene and acted like the well-dressed suitor, who really digged Beth. That’s Tica’s word ‘digged.’ She went on to say before that that both Billies seemed nice.”
“Both Billies? Who in the hell are both Billies?” Mitch asked, as he stretched out his long legs in front of the chair he had eased into for the long haul.
“Well, there’s Billy Boar, her attorney, who like virtually every other available male was at least smitten for a while; and some guy by the name of Billy Belize, who Boar, the other Billy mentioned as a business partner of Beth’s who may have owed her some money. Tica described him as a good looking younger guy from Columbia, who Tica thought was hot.”
“So, you were worried that Tica wasn’t going to say much, but now it seems she’s been fairly forthcoming,” Mitch pointed out.
“Definitely,” Barb agreed. “Candi was a big help and really put Tica at ease with no problems with language, just an easygoing mix of Spanish, English and Spanglish; so it really turned into girl talk if you know what I mean.”
“I can only imagine,” Mitch said. “So what about our favorite asshole Cole?”
“You know, Tica didn’t have much to say about him and wasn’t exactly sure who he was. I guess he didn’t stop by Beth’s that much.”
“So we’re the lucky ones,” Mitch said with a grin. For a variety of reasons, Mitch had gotten a kick out of putting Jerry Cole in his place. “You know after all that, with only the addition of the widower Jack ‘not-that-gay-if-you-ask-me’ Smith, you’re still stuck with about the same list of suspects that you’ve always had.”
“Not exactly,” Barb got up and paced their little living room not unlike dozens of detectives did in dozens of movies as they attempted to sort out what they knew. “Tica said that for the last month or two before her death, Beth would often receive phones calls that would leave her mistress looking upset sometimes; angry sometimes; and in tears sometimes. More than once Beth would end up yelling into the phone saying things like ‘you can’t get away with this’ or ‘that’s wrong—you should be ashamed’ or ‘I can’t believe what you’re saying’ and things like that. Tica said if she answered she could recognize Jack’s voice, but usually could not tell who was on the line. Many times, Beth would wait for her to leave the room before some of the shouting matches.”
“So that certainly leaves Jerry on the list,” Mitch said.
“And maybe both Billies—Boar was involved with some touchy negotiations; and that Belize character from Cartagena, who may have skipped out on this or that deal.” It was obvious that Barb didn’t really think anybody mentioned so far would end up actually being the perpetrator. “Then of course,” she continued “there’s Rodrigo Feliz.”
“Beth’s favorite next door neighbor.” All along, Mitch figured it could very well be somebody like Feliz, who never would actually put his hands around Beth’s neck, but who would see to it that somebody like her never got away with getting in the way. Casco’s most notorious developer; a guy so ruthless he would purposely jeopardize the historic section of Panama City by causing it to lose its World Heritage status so he could maybe make a buck; a short dumpy, bald on top, with dyed black hair; the self-designated cock of the walk, who was probably untouchable, was just the guy Mitch did not want his little, smart but defenseless wife to come into contact with; was, had been, and always would be a leading suspect in the death of Beth Page.
“And that’s not all,” Barb said almost anxious to change the subject from the most dangerous to the least. “Tica is not so sure that Jamon didn’t do it. She thinks he’s a low life and didn’t trust him; didn’t like him and didn’t approve of Beth giving him jobs around her house. She seemed to think that arresting Jamon made a lot of sense.”
“Which means we’re pretty much back where we started from?” Mitch threw up his hands.
“What do you mean we, Kemo Sabe?” Barb stepped over and sat in her husband’s lap and gave him a kiss on his one-day-old cheek.
* * *
Jack Smith had a simple solution when Barb paid him a not unexpected visit and suggested that he had not been candid with her when it came to his relationship with Beth Page.
“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “I should have never gotten involved in your witch hunt, and I will not be involved in any way in the future.” Jack had on a pair of light tan linen trousers, and a white long-sleeved shirt, open at the collar.
Poor Barb had actually expected an apology. “Okay” she said, “so what was your relationship with the deceased?” She watched as he rolled up one sleeve and then the other to just below his elbows.
“That, my dear, is none of your business.”
“Oh,” Barb said, “we can go around and interrogate other people about what they know, but when it comes to you, yourself, you’re going to plead the fifth.”
“I’m not making a plea or anything else. I don’t need to.”
“Oh, come on Jack, you know something. Fess up. You lead me to believe something and now we know something very different. You owe me an explanation.” Barb took a quick look around Jack’s uncluttered but tired looking old apartment with its cheap “native village” art on the walls and the heavy dark wood furniture.
“I do not owe a nosey old gal, with nothing better to do than play at being Lady Sherlock, anything.”
“Jack, you weren’t honest. You misrepresented yourself. Now I think it’s time to come clean.” Compared to Mitch, Jack at 5’8” seemed tiny to Barb, and neat. Only the crooked part in his gray hair was not in line.
“And what did I lead you to believe that wasn’t and isn’t true,” Jack said, still not really losing his cool. “That Beth was my friend? That I wouldn’t mind finding out who murdered a lovely woman, who did not deserve to die? Where is the dishonest part?”
“I had no idea the extent of your relationship with Beth.”
“And you still don’t and won’t because it is none of your business.”
“Oh, come on Jack,” Barb pleaded, “I know that I have no right (with extra emphasis on the word), to be involved, not like you, but I simply felt it was wrong and dangerous to allow people like Beth or any of us to be murdered, for goodness sake, without justice, without attention being paid, in a foreign country, if you know what I mean.”
“I am no longer involved in your silly so-called investigation,” Jack said. “Case closed.”
“The case is most certainly not closed,” Barb said. “For your information, the police released Jamon, this morning, so there is not even a suspect in custody, much less the wrong one. Even though, I’m not so sure if releasing Jamon was even a correct decision.”
“In fact, you’re not sure of anything are you?” Jack couldn’t resist.
“I am sure that as of now, you’ve become a suspect by the way you’ve misrepresented yourself.”
“I may be a suspect in your eyes, but then again you don’t know shit.”
Barb felt she might be getting to Jack, so she pressed on with, “So, you tell me what I don’t know.”
Jack took a big breath. “You don’t know me; you don’t know Beth; you don’t know Panama; you don’t know how to speak Spanish; you don’t know what you’re getting into; and you don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground.”
At that Barb laughed, but then thought twice and came back with “So what am I getting myself into?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said and shook his head, “but neither do you.”
“So do you think it could be that bastard Feliz?”
“I don’t know. It could be a lot of people.”
“That’s right.” Barb knew she was very close to losing Jack for good, so she figured she had nothing to lose by pressing him. “There were a lot of men in Beth’s life.” If Jack was jealous that might get a rise out of him.
“That’s right,” Jack said. He did not look particularly perturbed. “Maybe you need some women on your ever-expanding list of prime suspects.” With a new hint of sarcasm, Jack continued, “Maybe it was Tica, the trusted maid or maybe that hooker, you know the one that hung out with Allen and then Joe, what was her name?”
“That’s right; she deserves to be on your never-ending list. Which is just the point isn’t it. For even an amateur detective, you haven’t a clue. Heck the cops, who don’t give a flying fuck about some hussy gringa probably have more clues and a better idea of who did it than you ever will.” More sarcasm, but Jack did feel that everyone would be better off if Barb dropped her act as well.
“Have you talked to the cops? What do they think?”
“Stop,” Jack said. In fact Jack had talked to a detective informally and by now would have told Barb that the only finger prints they found belonged to Tica and Allen. There didn’t seem to be any skin under Beth’s fingernails and the hair that they found was mostly dog hair. However, since he wasn’t involved any more, she would have to get her boy Beni to find that out, if he could.
“Have you seen Bebe around lately? I really thought she was out of the picture.”
“Not lately. She’s probably escaping back to Columbia as we speak.”
“And Tica. I just spoke to her. She was the one who filled me in on you. Is there some way that Tica could have had the strength and could she have locked herself back out?”
“What about the CIA?” Jack added. “Or the KGB or the FARC?”
“Oh, shut up,” Barb said. “There is no point in making fun of me for trying to do the right thing, something you were very much involved in for a while.”
“Well, I am not involved anymore,” Jack said. Slowly, he walked over to the door of his apartment and opened it. Barb, paused a moment in the door way, sensed an emptiness that old objects didn’t fill and then turned and walked toward the stairwell. “Good luck, my dear.” Barb did not look back.
To be honest, Jack actually thought that they had done a pretty good job of eliminating suspects, at least in his mind. Without access to forensic evidence, they were basically hoping to find someone who acted guilty and/or in some way incriminated himself or herself. For one thing, Jack was certain he had not somehow killed a woman he adored and then forgotten about it. No. When he first heard the news, he sat down in the very chair he was sitting in and cried. He wept because whatever it was that Beth had done, he knew that she did not deserve to be killed, it was crazy. That is in fact what he hoped to find out—if any of the so-called suspects on Barb’s list were irrational enough; troubled enough; twisted enough to do in sweet, sexy and not-as-tough-as-she-would-like-people-to-think Beth. He also wept because he didn’t have that many friends, very few in fact, and none he loved more than a woman kind and caring and generous enough to take him to her bed. Beth was his only source of affection and he, like anyone, everyone needed some affection every once in a while.
When Beth’s husband died, Jack comforted her. After all, he was a widower and knew something about what she was going through. He had not expected it to lead to sex, but wasn’t surprised when it did. The love making brought him comfort too. He missed it and appreciated being held close. It also didn’t take long for other suitors to appear and his dear friend was free to be with whomever she chose. When she came over there were times when they didn’t even go to bed.
Even though they were friends, close friends there were certain topics that Beth did not seem interested in discussing. Details about other men and business were two subjects about which his friend was not forthcoming. Jack tried with casual questions such as “How’s business?” or “How is your love life?” Beth’s answer was almost always the same “You don’t want to know.” Instead, they told each other stories from their past lives. Their spouses(5), his daughters, books, America, college, childhood memories even—these were the things they talked about. Jack knew that Beth was often hassled by her real estate dealings and did say things like she wasn’t sure how long she could handle her little business on her own. However, she never seemed scared; never acted frightened. Attractive and desirable, Beth kept up a feisty front. Maybe she didn’t want to be but she seemed determined to be independent by not being dependent on anybody else.
Yes, she held Beliz to his debts; and dumped Berger without an honest explanation; and stole that hooker’s sugar daddy; but these weren’t trespasses that those weak characters would or could do anything about. Revenge seemed like a reach for them because they were all at least somewhat used to being treated in that manner. And that blustery fool Jerry Cole was too stupid to realize that virtually everyone he was dealing with from the plumber; to the bank; to Beth; was jerking him around because they didn’t like his attitude and they also knew he really couldn’t do anything about it. Beth would have never let him in, even though she was not at all scared of him. Jamon, who was often totally out-of-it, was very respectful and would have been foolish to hurt one of his best meal tickets. He only brought up Tica to piss Barb off. Sooner or later, jack realized that Barb would want to ask the maid a few questions, so he had correctly guessed that Tica told Barb Multusky about all the boyfriends, even the one who only drank tea.
As far as Jack was concerned that left three suspects—Billy Boar, Rodrigo Feliz and that unknown someone. Beth had secrets. Maybe one of her secrets blew up in her face.
Jack knew Boar in other contexts. Since Beth’s attorney was a rather rare breed known as a Zonian, Jack had encountered Billy Boar off and on again for the 40 years he had been coming to Panama. Before Jimmy Carter turned the canal over to its rightful owners or gave it away to some small-time dictator of a banana republic (depending on your point of view—Billy believing in the latter), the United States occupied a ten-mile- wide strip of land that enclosed the Panama Canal. Within the Canal Zone was a way of life that was separated from the rest of the country. The Zone was like a county in America without a state. English was spoken; the high schools played American style football and products from the States were shipped in and stocked at supermarkets. U.S. troops protected the canal, patrolled the borders and guarded the gates. After 1977, most of the American citizens left and returned to what used to be home. However, with dual citizenship, some people like Boar stayed for professional or business opportunities; or because they had married into Panamanian families; or they were used to the hot weather; or they had no place to return to.
Jack never liked Boar, even though he understood why Beth and other people would want him as a lawyer. He was a pseudo American, who knew his way around the obtuse Panamanian legal system. It was the same reason Jack was uncomfortable around and didn’t like Zonians in general. It seemed to Jack, that they weren’t actually citizens of two countries but really citizens of neither—outsiders in the land where they were born, who spoke with an odd American accent, but weren’t really from there. Jack was sure they felt like outsiders everywhere because their parents or grandparents or they never embraced the country they had partitioned off and so were not welcomed with open arms when the fences came down. They weren’t and didn’t feel like immigrants. What happened was that their little piece of America moved away. Panamanians are, for the most part, not at all anti-American, which Jack found surprising when he first came down and then particularly after the invasion under Bush. The history of the two countries just goes back too far, with the good ol’US of A being a relatively benevolent big brother for the most part. Zonians however weren’t even a part of that. By the time the new millennium had come about and the canal was entirely under Panamanian control, Zonians were definitely the odd people out, with a vague heritage that was quickly being erased. There are also too few of them. There are no Zonian Society meetings held once a month. No Zonian clubs, bars, hangouts or neighborhoods. There are only individual Zonians, like Billy Boar, who consider themselves experts on all things Panamanian but have few Panamanian friends. In Jack’s experience the few he knows tend to dominate conversations; make crude jokes; get aggressive when they drink; drink rum; and have trouble maintaining satisfying relationships(6). That includes Billy Boar, who Jack always found came on a little too strong and whose sense of humor leaned toward mean and who never acted warm or genuine. The guy’s crew cut never seemed to be in style.
And yes, after Paul died, his attorney did in fact make a move on his other vulnerable client, the deceased man’s wife. Timing is everything and Billy was on Beth like a cheap suit too strong, too soon. It was a situation that a woman in a foreign country needed all the help she could get and her lawyer needed to be there for her on a variety of issues. Jack had become friends with the Pages, when they first arrived and he too was in a position to pounce when Beth became available if that’s what to call it. However, Jack held off and really didn’t see anything out of order when Beth’s attorney would stop by more than once or twice a week. However, the visits seemed to stop rather abruptly. When he asked Beth about it much later, she simply said that after the initial period of sorting out all the legal matters, she no longer needed to consult with her attorney on such a regular basis; and she mentioned “He gives me the creeps.”
The problem of course was that Jack had no evidence. One of his hidden agendas with Barb Multusky was to see if he could keep an eye on Beth’s affairs to see if her property or equity somehow ended up in Boar’s control and even that wouldn’t be proof of murder. Rather it would simply show that like most lawyers, Billy was ready, willing and able to take advantage of an opportunity to represent his own best interests. No—shifty eyes and a hunch wasn’t much to go on; but Jack had decided to keep an eye on Boar and Beth’s assets as best he could. It would be a bit more difficult, since he was officially not involved, but he also knew that Billy Boar wasn’t going any place.
That left Rodrigo Feliz, who had the most to lose in the unlikely event she was able to stop his illegal building from going forward. If he was even aware of Beth Page and her official complaint and that stupid planted story in the paper, why would he bother to knock her off? His pack of high powered legal beagles could tear a lone wolf like Billy apart. It might take a little longer, but guys like Feliz flicked nuisances like Beth off the sleeve of his silk suit jacket like a piece of lint.
Then again there is something out there that Jack knew was associated with some Panamanian men known as machismo. Not just a masculine toughness, but with a sexist slant that somebody like Feliz might allow to influence decisions. Put bluntly, Feliz, a big shot certainly in his own mind, a gangster in others’ perspective, might have really been pissed off by not being allowed to get his way. Add to that the perceived insult of some woman even trying to push him around, and a big fish like Feliz might not think twice about eating a smaller female fish. It was already demonstrated that Rodrigo Feliz didn’t worry much about public opinion. So unless he could somehow be caught red-handed –an unlikely proposition since it was a professional hit with little or no evidence left behind at the scene—he could continue to march around town; step from limos; ignore regulations; pay off bureaucrats; bump off gringas, who tried to get in the way; pay off the cops; and make lots of money as he always did. Jack knew he had no way of getting at Feliz; and his helplessness made him feel angry and frustrated. There would be no smoking gun dangling from Feliz’s finger.
So there Jack sat in the apartment he once shared with his wife, filled with things his wife had arranged; pictures and chairs and lamps that he might not have selected himself, but were theirs. With half of the partnership dissolved by death, the furnishings didn’t seem like his but half hers and she’s gone. After the funeral, her family, a sister and two brothers, disappeared. He would go out to dinner with the publisher of the paper he wrote for occasionally, but always suspected his boss was as interested in a free meal as companionship. Being a dining critic also meant that there were very few dinner invitations because none of his acquaintances wished to be judged. It reminded Jack of the old days when he would introduce himself at a cocktail party as an English professor. Almost always, the other person would say that he or she would “have to watch my grammar.” Even though Jack liked to tell himself that was unfair, the truth of the matter was that he almost always immediately lost respect for a person who used faulty grammar or seemed to possess a poor vocabulary. He also could not stomach overcooked or poorly seasoned food.
However, over the years, Jack had become accustomed to his isolation. He was resigned and took certain steps to accommodate the situation. First and foremost, he didn’t go out of his way (it sounded to Jack as childish) to make friends. He hadn’t become that close to the Pages, who laughed at his jokes and appreciated his manners, before Paul’s death and wasn’t strong enough to hold on to Beth. Finally, he allowed himself to be associated with Barb Multusky in part out of desperation. Not only did he lack human contact, but it was fun when Barb would pay him a visit and they could play detective together. It filled some time, and she was so serious and charming. Jack even held out the possibility that he might be able to insinuate himself within Barb’s affections. After all, what were her motives for “conducting an investigation” into the wrongful death of a mere acquaintance. If, at worst, she was a little bored and, at best, she was dissatisfied somehow with her life—maybe that oaf she was married to, then he might have an opportunity. As of then, Jack had not really put a move on the little lady, who had become a mute point.
When he closed the door on Barb’s back and turned to face his deserted apartment, Jack felt what he had experienced before but never so intensely. A bit dizzy, Jack staggered and slumped in his all too familiar, but not that particularly comfortable chair. At that moment he felt profoundly lonely. He realized he couldn’t fight it off anymore; no more self delusion; but worse no more hope. Without anyone, he was lonely. It was a fact. There was nobody. Not unlike that sad sack Billy Boar, he was a man without a country, without a place, with no loyalties either way. He was the ultimate expatriate.
(5) A subject that neither Billy Beliz, Joe Berger nor Allen Myers (in that order) would want to hear about. Beth thought the world of Paul.
(6) Of course there are probably well adjusted Zonians, but Jack didn’t know any.