The story below is a crime story, influenced by author and editor, Josh Pachter, and by the song A Cuban Crime of Passion by Jimmy Buffett. This story is designed mainly for a Parrothead audience, but can be enjoyed by anyone who likes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek crime story. This story is written in honour of and with great love and respect for the late great Jimmy Buffett. Fins Up and Bubbles Up.
Cuban Crime of Passion
R. Brian Campbell
A CUBAN CRIME OF PASSION, the headline read in the Florida Examiner, byline Marvin Garden, Independent Journalist. Detective Alfonso Vocado of the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, Havana, threw the paper on the table with a snort of disgust and took a quick shot of his mojito. How did they even find out about this in America? He sighed as he surveyed the interior of La Taifa nightclub. “So this is where it happened.”
Jesús Garcia looked up from behind the bar. “Que?”
“The murder, suicide,” Detective Vocado patiently advised the bartender. “This is where it happened.”
“No, señor, no. Not here,” Jesús asserted, pointing towards a doorway. “En la espalda. Back there. En la dressing rooms.”
Al shook his head to clear it. This was going to be a long interview. “Si, comprendo. But it happened in this nightclub. In La Taifa. Correcto?”
“Ah, si, señor. In La Taifa. Si. Muy terrible.”
Now we’re getting somewhere, Al thought. “Could you tell me what happened?”
Jesús brightened. “Si. Billy Voltaire, he was our new piano player. Mi Jefe, Señor Ortega, brought him in from Miami, U. S. A. to play during Carnival, because the performer he had hired, Joe Merchant, he went missing. So Billy Voltaire, he filled in for him. Señor Billy was muy bueno. The ladies, they loved him. But Billy, he loved Meritta.”
Al interrupted. “And who is Meritta?”
Jesús smiled. “Meritta Bello, our new dancer, all the way from New Orleans, U. S. A. Muy bonito. Billy, he fall head over feet for her. He follow her like puppy. She like him mucho, too.”
“So what happened?”
Jesús shrugged. “No se. One night Billy find her and she es with Shrimper Dan and they are…” Jesús flushed, “they are…abrazando… intimo.”
Al consulted his notes. “That would be Daniel Johnson?”
“Si,” Jesús agreed. “Señor Dan. Billy find them together and he goes wild. He has a knife and with it he kills Dan, then he cuts his own t’roat. Es muy sad story.” Jesús crossed himself and lowered his head.
“And you witnessed this?” Al asked.
“No, Señor. It was after closing. No one was here.”
“They were here,” Al pointed out.
“Si,” Jesús admitted.
“Why were they here?”
“No se,” Jesús responded.
“Of course you don’t,” Al said dryly, then pressed on. “If you weren’t here, how did you know what happened,”
“Merv, he tell me.”
“And who is Merv?” Al wanted to know.
“Merv, he is the sound, light and Dee Jay hombre,” Jesús answered. “Señor Ortega hire him for Carnival too. From California, I think. Un buen hombre, he is.”
“And why was he here, after closing?”
“It seems like there is a lot you don’t know,” Al said, angrily.
Jesús shrugged again. “Me, I’m just the bartender. You are el policía,”
Al tapped the Florida newspaper on the table and snorted in disgust. “A Cuban crime of passion indeed. This is simply a case of gringos killing gringos over gringos.”
“No, Señor. Shrimper Dan was a local,” Jesús claimed.
Al was incredulous. “Perdón? Daniel Johnson was a Cuban?”
“Si,” Jesús insisted. “He live in Habana. He has place by the docks, where his boat is.”
“Shrimper Dan, a local boy.” Al shook his head. “An Americano ex-patriot, more like it. Go figure.” He needed to change the conversation’s direction to something useful. “Where would I find this Meritta?”
“No se,” Jesús said. “She get sick. Nobody see her since.”
“Claro,” Al said with a snort. “I suppose watching one of your lovers kill the other, then himself, might make one a bit ill. So, how can I find this Merv?”
“No se,” they both said, simultaneously.
Al could feel his temper rising. “So who does know something? Who can I talk to, who could tell me where I could find Meritta and Merv?”
“Señor Ortega, he would know,” Jesús replied.
“Is Señor Ortega in?”
“No,” Jesús said.
“And when do you expect him to be in?”
Jesús opened his mouth, but Al stopped him with a glare. “I want you to think carefully before you say anything further.” He held his cocktail glass up, turning it slowly. “If you say, no se, one more time, I will put this somewhere that I guarantee will make you very uncomfortable. Comprende?”
Jesús’ mouth snapped shut with an audible click. “Si. Comprendo,” he answered softly. After a pause, he said, “Señor Ortega should be in by tres este tarde.”
3:00 pm. Al looked at his watch. That should give him just enough time to check in with the coroner. He finished his drink and got up, picking up the newspaper and throwing a 10 peso note on the bar. “Gracias, amigo. Tell Señor Ortega that I will be back to see him. Adios.”
Jesús scooped up the note and pocketed it. “Gracias, Señor Detective. Hasta luego.”
Carlos, the coroner, smiled as he walked in. “Hola, Al. I was beginning to wonder if anyone was going to check on the bodies they sent in.”
“Hola, Carlos,” Al responded. “Don’t blame them. Everybody’s all wound up with the robberies, right now. I ended up being the token homicide detective, stuck cleaning up after the murder, suicide.”
“Entiendo,” Carlos said, shaking his head. “Dios, what a mess that is. All those artifacts stolen.”
“Artifacts of La Revolución,” Al supplied. “The thieves had cajones grande. They even took Señor Guevera’s rifle and Presidente Castro’s pistola from la Museo de la Armería. How do they expect to get any of these artifacts out of Cuba?”
“No se,” Carlos replied with a shrug.
“Don’t you start,” Al growled.
“Lo siento,” Al apologized. “The bartender at La Taifa was driving me loco.”
“Not many answers for you?” Carlos nodded, sympathetically.
“Poquito.” Al held his forefinger and thumb about an inch apart. “I hope you can be of more help.”
“In that case, you have come to the right place. Come with me.” Carlos led him into the refrigerated examining room, where two bodies were laid out on metal tables, both covered with sheets.
Carlos pulled the sheet back from the first body, that of a male who, in life, would have been very good looking. Now he had a very large slash across his throat. Carlos indicated the cut. “Note how deep this cut is.”
“He did quite a job,” Al agreed.
“I’ll say he did,” Carlos responded. “The cut goes across the neck, almost from ear to ear, severing both jugular veins, the carotid artery, even damaging the trachea and lymph nodes. In all my experience as a medical examiner, I have never seen anyone do this much violence to themselves. This is usually the result of being grabbed from behind, the chin held up, while a knife is drawn across the throat.”
Al tapped his chin with a forefinger. “So you’re saying that there is more to this than meets the eye.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Carlos said, with a dry laugh. “And that is just the beginning. Look at this.” Carlos indicated the second table, drawing back the sheet and revealing a much rougher looking man than the first, Caucasian, but well-tanned, with weather-beaten features. This man’s throat was also slashed, and he had two puncture wounds in his belly. “This is where it gets really interesting.” Carlos went to a side table, where he produced a wide bladed hunting knife. “This was the weapon found in victim one’s hand,” He indicated the first body. “It is, without a doubt, the knife used to cut both men’s throats. It is not, however, the knife that made these wounds.” He indicated the punctures in the second corpse’s stomach. “They were made with a thinner, stiletto type blade, likely double-edged.”
Al looked from the knife to the wounds. “So, two knives were used, indicating, potentially, two killers.”
Carlos held a finger up. “Un more thing.” He indicated the first victim. “This one had his throat slashed before that one. Whoever did it, tried to cover it up, but there was blood from victim one in the throat wound of victim two.” Carlos crossed his arms, looking self-satisfied. “In my professional opinion, victim one here was dead before the coup de grâce was delivered to victim two.”
“So we are talking about a double murder, not a murder, suicide,” Al said, looking back and forth between the two bodies. “And very likely, two murderers.” He held out his hand. “Gracias, Carlos. I owe you a drink.”
Carlos shook Al’s hand. “I’m going to hold you to that. I drink Cuba Libre.”
“You’re on, Amigo,” Al said with a smile, as he turned for the door. “Now, my next appointment has become even more important. Adios.”
“Buenos Tardes, Señor Detective,” Jesús greeted, as Al entered La Taifa.
“Hola, Jesús,” Al responded. “Is Señor Ortega in?”
“Si. He is in his office. Come with me. I take you.”
Riel Ortega was a large man, probably muscular at one time, but life as a nightclub owner had turned much of the muscle to fat. He had a thick mustache and greying hair that was beginning to recede. He smiled as Jesús introduced Al. “Hola, Detective Vocado. Come in, por favor. Sit. How may I be of service to la policía?”
Al shook Ortega’s hand and took a seat at the large desk. “All I need is a bit of information, which I hope you can provide.”
“Anything I can do to help.”
“I am trying to find out about two of your entertainers and their connection to the deaths of Billy Voltaire and Daniel Johnson. They are Meritta Bello, a dancer, and a sound and light man named Merv.”
“Ah, si, I can help you.” Ortega checked a book in front of him. “Meritta Bello was with us during Carnival. The bio she provided said she was a professional dancer from New Orleans, America. Merv Jardin we hired, also for Carnival. He was a sound and lighting man who also played recorded music between Billy Voltaire’s shows, and, of course, when Meritta was dancing. His bio said he was also Americano, from San Francisco.”
“Merv Jardin?” Al queried.
“Si,” Ortega verified.
“Do you know where they stayed in Havana, when they weren’t performing?”
Ortega checked his book again. “Si. They were staying at Desdemona’s Hotel Económico Cuba, on San Rafael.”
“Did Billy Voltaire stay there, as well?”
Ortega laughed. “Billy? No. He stayed at Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Made us pay for it, too.”
“Have you seen either Meritta or Merv since the murder?”
“No,” Ortega answered. “Meritta has not been seen since it happened. Merv was only around to tell everyone what happened, then he disappeared too.”
Al wasn’t surprised. He stood and held out his hand. “Gracias for your time, Señor Ortega. I’d better be going. Hasta luego.”
“Hasta luego, Detective. Happy hunting.”
Al’s next stop was Desdemona’s Hotel Económico Cuba. Given the size and quality of the hotel, he wasn’t surprised to find the owner herself working the front desk. “Hola, Detective. How may I help you?”
“I want to find out about two of your guests, Meritta Bello and Merv Jardin.”
Desdemona made a sour look. “Oh, those two.”
“Problems?” Al asked.
“Initially, I would have said no,” Desdemona responded. “In fact, I wasn’t even aware that they knew each other. They never talk to each other before. But tres nights ago, they made a huge conmoción, yelling and arguing at a ridícula hour. The next morning, they gone. They don’t even pay their rents.”
“Tres nights ago?”
“Si. Disturb my other guests. Several want refunds. Dios, the trouble they cause. Then, they gone. Poof.” Desdemona made a motion with her hands, like something blowing up.
Hmmm, Al thought. Three nights ago. The same night as the murders. Where would they go in the middle of the night? Then he had another question. “Did Señorita Bello ever bring any men back to her room?”
“No,” Desdemona assured him. “Never. But Señor Jardin, he did. Some big gringo fisherman. Several times, he get visits from this man. Sometimes the man, he carry wrapped packages when he leaves.”
Curiouser and curiouser. Suddenly, the lights all flicked on in Al’s brain. He knew where they were, and what they had been up to. “Gracias Señora. I must go. Adios.”
Desdemona called after him. “If you find them, they owe me rent.”
The Policía Nacional Revolucionaria encircled the small house that once belonged to Shrimper Dan Johnson. When they were in position, Detective Alfonso Vocado lifted the megaphone to his lips. “Merv Jardin, Meritta Bello, this is la policía. We know you’re in there. Come out the front door, slowly, with your hands in plain sight.” He waited a few moments, hearing sounds of movement from inside the building and panicked voices that were attempting to be quiet and failing miserably. Then he spoke into the megaphone again. “You do not want to test our patience. Remove yourselves from that building. NOW!”
A few moments later, the door swung slowly open and first Meritta, then Merv stepped into the hot Cuban sun. Two members of the Havana Police closed the distance and handcuffed them.
Al watched them squirm and sweat through the one-way glass. That should be enough, he thought. He opened the door and walked in.
He looked at first one, then the other. “I’m going to tell you what we already know, so you will understand how much trouble you are in, and how counterproductive it will be to lie or try to hide something from us.”
“I want a lawyer,” Merv demanded.
“I’m sure you do,” Al said, with a smile. “And that would be a reasonable request, in America.” He glared at him. “But you are not in America. You are in Cuba, Señor Marvin Garden.”
Meritta turned to Merv/Marvin and spat at him. “Idiot. You had to write that stupid article.”
“It was supposed to draw attention away from us,” Marvin insisted.
Al smiled. “It was your article that made me determined to find out what really happened.”
“Idiot,” Meritta repeated, glaring at Marvin.
“You know, it may have worked,” Al advised. “If you had come up with a fake name that wasn’t so close to your real name. Merv Jardin – Marvin Garden. Serio? For a journalist, I would expect you to be a bit more creative.”
He let them stew on that for a couple of minutes. Then he started again. “We know that you were working with Shrimper Dan Johnson to steal artifacts from La Revolución and smuggle them out of Cuba on his shrimp boat. I assume that someone would be waiting to pick up the items and take them to America. No, don’t bother to confirm or deny anything. We found the artifacts you stole, both on board Dan’s shrimp boat and in the house where you were hiding. For the record, it was a good plan. Nobody would check a fisherman going out to work. If you hadn’t killed your driver, you might have gotten away with it.”
He let it sink in for a bit, then continued. “I also found this in your purse, Señorita Bello.” He removed a slim object from his coat pocket and pressed a button on the side, causing a thin blade to thrust out. “I would bet that this blade will have residue of Señor Johnson’s blood on it, and also match his belly wounds. What do you think, Señorita? What happened? Did he decide that he wanted a bigger share of the profits?”
Meritta glared icicles through Al. “A bigger share, indeed. He decided that I should be part of his share. I told him no, several times, but he kept trying. That night, Merv…Marvin, was late and Dan decided that he wanted his cut right then. I was only defending myself.”
“What about Billy? How was he involved?”
“Billy?” Meritta got a faraway look in her eyes. “Billy was sweet. He had no idea what was happening. He was in love with me. I let our relationship continue, because it was a good cover. Besides…if things had been different… Anyway, he must have been waiting for me outside La Taifa, saw Dan go in and got jealous. He came in, saw me stab Dan, and panicked. That was when Marvin showed up. I didn’t want Billy dead. That was Marvin’s idea. It happened so fast, I didn’t have a chance to do anything. Then he saw that Dan was still alive and killed him too. The whole murder, suicide thing was his idea.”
“You put me in that position,” Marvin snarled. “You caused that mess. I had to clean it up.”
“I also know that both of you lied on your bios,” Al cut in. “Marvin, you are not from San Francisco.”
Marvin sighed. “Orlando, as if it really matters at this point. But, to be fair, I did do sound and lighting for a Labor Day weekend concert there, once.”
Al was unimpressed. He turned and looked at Meritta. “And you are not from New Orleans.”
“Pensacola,” she admitted.
“This is why it matters,” Al said, calmly. “I know that Dan Johnson was shrimping out of Key West before he moved to Cuba, so I’m betting that the people that got you involved in this scheme are also out of Florida. You two are in huge trouble, but maybe the judge will go easier on you if you give up the people who recruited you. Tell me about the boat that was supposed to meet you and the people who were going to fence the artifacts.”
Marvin snorted. “Yeah, right. As you pointed out, this isn’t America, it’s Cuba. There is no way that we are getting out of a Cuban prison.”
“Si, you are correcto,” Al growled back. “Che is assembling a firing squad even as we speak.” He leaned forward, resting his fists on the table, and stared at each one in turn. “En serio. You are in mucho trouble, right now. We no longer have a firing squad, but our jails can make you wish that we did. So I recommend that you be as cooperative as you can be. But that is your choice. I will give you some time to think about it.”
Al turned and walked out, leaving the two sitting with their thoughts. As he closed the door, he dropped the Florida newspaper in a trash can.