The Case of the Colmado Cracker
by E. Gabriel Flores
The trip was not going well at all. To begin with, Karen Iglesias knew almost nothing about the Dominican music scene. She was a New York style writer, currently fashion blogger for ChicaOnline magazine. She knew how to write articles that sold clothing, hair products, and makeup to upscale urban Latinas. But somehow, she had been chosen… for this.
Karen and her assistant, Luis Castillo, were in Santo Domingo to cover the annual Dominican Merengue and Fashion Festival. After a week, Karen was convinced that the entire country was conspiring against them. Cancelled meetings, missed meals, lost luggage. Not even frequenting the bar, pool and spa at the premier five-star hotel had made up for all the aggravation.
She had snapped off a heel of her shoe in a “gringo trap”–a treacherous gaping hole in the sidewalk. As if that was not enough, yesterday, Luis, who actually did know something about Dominican music, had gotten sick after eating a fancy fish dish at the most expensive restaurant in town —struck down by something called ciguatera, whatever the hell that was. Only one day without Luis at her side, and Karen was irritated by the random men making silly remarks, the kissy noises at her on the street, the marriage proposals shouted from passing cars. This hot, humid, noisy, smelly godforsaken capital city hated her and she hated it right back. Especially the hot part.
In spite of the miserable working conditions, Karen had busted her ass, pulling in favors and twisting arms to score a precious hour with Muchachas Nais Nais, the number one female merengue group in Santo Domingo. And, she had been stood up. No fashion shoot with the glamorous Muchachas. No beauty and makeup tips (supposedly from the singing group, but in reality written by Karen) for the benefit of the spendy fans of the online mag. The famous Muchachas were not going to meet with ChicaOnline at all, having dumped Karen for some big-name radio shock jock from Miami. The sponsors were livid, having laid out mucho dinero for this trip. Karen—after a week of dropping hints on her blog about super-secret exclusive with some big Dominican merengue stars– was going to look like six kinds of a fool when she produced no Muchachas Nais Nais.
Now here she was with the last day of the festival rapidly approaching and she was running out of time for that big exclusive interview. Karen was not known for her patience under the best of circumstances. Time, as they said, was money. At the moment, Karen was making not a centavo. Karen was ready to tear out her blonde-and-brown streaked hair extensions with her orange gel-tipped manicure.
After the Muchachas Nais Nais fiasco, Luis—right before he had fallen ill– had set up a last minute interview with something called “Los Primos del Campo”. The Country Cousins? Really? Nobody Karen spoke to in New York had ever heard of them. They were not even known in Puerto Rico. But they were some sort of merengue singers and they were performing at the festival, so that was better than nothing.
Entonces, here they sat in the hotel bar, the three of them. A big, dark-skinned man named Biko something or other. Smiled too much, lots of white teeth. Biko? That meant cross-eyed. Karen had tried not to stare to see if it was true. The other cousin, Elbey, was a nervous, light-skinned little dude with creepy pale gray eyes. Fifteen minutes in, and Karen was bored to tears. She smiled mechanically across the table as the two men spoke of their early years growing up in some nameless border village in the dry, barren southwest of the country. As teenagers, Los Primos del Campo had won local talent shows, had performed at the festivales de patronales, had entered regional and national singing contests, blah, blah, blah.
Karen’s mind wandered. How much longer did she have to sit here being polite to these campesinos? The saga continued, with the young men earning enough money with their singing to leave their village and go to college in Santo Domingo. But when they got out of college, they couldn’t earn enough money in the capital as singers, so they took other jobs. Biko taught English at night and Elbey washed dishes in a restaurant kitchen….
Karen sipped her pina colada and nodded absently. At least the bar in the hotel was comfortable, thanks to the frigid air conditioning. God, she missed New York. She hated tropical weather. Even Miami was not this bad. What the hell were they going on about now? Oh, yeah, they were talking about how they had decided to become private detectives….
Wait, what? Detectives? She held up a hand to stop them. “Excuse me, but did you say that you two are detectives?” Karen looked at the two men with interest. She was a secret mystery buff. She had never met real detectives before.
“Si,” said Elbey. He frowned, his eyes narrowing slightly. “Didn’t you look at our card?”
“Your card…” The card had disappeared unremarked into the depths of her voluminous designer bag.
“Here, have another one,” said Biko. He snapped his fingers and a card materialized in his hand, out of nowhere. Karen blinked—whoa, that was a cool trick–how did he do that? He had not even reached into his shirt pocket. She took the offered card automatically. It read, as she had seen before, “Biko y Elbey– Los Primos del Campo, Cantantes de Merengue” with a cell phone number. This time she took the time to flip it over. On the other side it said: “B and E Private Investigations—When you need to know what you need to know.” The same cell number. Oh. Karen cleared her throat, and shifted her feet under the table, embarrassed.
“Sorry to be taking up your time,” Elbey said. “We have seen your website and blog. We know your ChicaOnline readers don’t care about where we grew up any more than you do. They are sophisticated New York people. They want to know how many girlfriends we have, what brand of underpants we wear, what cologne we prefer and how we do our hair.” Biko put a hand on his cousin’s arm and the smaller man became visibly calmer, although still angry.
Karen flushed. Had her disinterest been so obvious? “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s true that I am more used to the marketing angle of things. But with you two being private detectives as well as singers—we might be able to work with that. It’s different.” She made typing motions with her elegant fingertips. “Reporting live from the festival: ‘Merengue and mystery with the dancing detectives.’ Something like that.”
Elbey raised a skeptical eyebrow and was about to say something else when Biko spoke up. He had seen Karen’s attractive face light up for the first time at the mention of their detective work. “Say, why don’t we tell you about one of our early cases, then? It might be as interesting as shampoo and hair gel.” He winked, reminding Karen of a friendly cartoon bear. With stylish glasses. And not cross-eyed at all.
She smiled. “Verdad? I would love to hear about a mystery you guys solved.”
Elbey was coming around in spite of his initial reluctance. “Biko, tell her the one about the missing money from Uncle Johnson’s corner store.” His cousin nodded in agreement. “That’s a good story.”
“Yes, tell me,” Karen said. Anything to take her mind off the pissed off sponsors, the stupid Muchachas Nais Nais, her assistant throwing up in his hotel room upstairs, the ruined shoe with the broken heel. She clicked on her mini-recorder and sat back with her cold drink and let the Biko’s deep voice take her back to a time when…
….It was hurricane season. The wind and rains had begun in earnest the night before, making the streets into wide, treacherous lagoons.
[“Wait, primo, you are not supposed to start a story with the weather.”
“Look, Elbey, when you tell it, you tell it your way. This is my way and it was hurricane season….”
“Okay. It was hurricane season, but you better make the weather part of the story.”
“It is part of the story, remember? Keep your pants on.” ]
….It was [still] hurricane season. The wind and rains had begun in earnest the night before, making the streets into wide, treacherous lagoons. Elbey carefully picked up the cage containing a large, green parrot and hung it back on its tall pole on the other side of the rooming house courtyard. “Why did you come down here, Biko? As soon as I finished here, I was going to meet you for breakfast as usual at the colmado.”
“That’s just it. I had to catch you before you came by.”
He lowered his voice to an uncustomary whisper. “The colmado was robbed again yesterday. Tio is beside himself, Elbey. He wants us to investigate. Discreetly.” He let his eyes flick towards the kitchen where Elbey’s landlady, Doña Juanita, rattled dishes.
Elbey frowned and shook his head slightly. No way. Not Doña Juanita. She was as honest as they came. He spoke in a normal tone. “You could have messaged me, or called me last night after I got back from work.”
“You never have your phone on, Elbey.”
“Because nobody calls me.”
Bikos’ voice rose to a shout. “Because you never have your phone on!”
Snickering from the kitchen. Answering snicker from the courtyard.
“Be quiet, you,” Doña Juanita called out. “Be quiet!” squawked the bird hunched in its relocated cage.
Elbey went on as they moved more furniture to keep it out of the rain. “Well, why are you wasting my time telling me now? I still need to grab a bite of breakfast and get to work.”
“We can talk to Tio and then I’ll buzz you to work on his motorcycle. You won’t be late.”
Elbey snorted. “Tio needs to chase all those bums out of his colmado. No reason to have five or six useless tigeres sitting around the place all day. One of them is probably reaching around the counter and sneaking money from the cash drawer. And then buying cerveza from Tio with his own money.”
“No, it’s not the guys. Tio has been watching them carefully. I watched them, too. And the money keeps disappearing.”
“Then it is someone coming in from outside, pretending to be a customer and dipping into the cash drawer when Tio turns around to get something.”
“I am telling you, we have watched for that. Before I went to work last night, I sat until the last customer left and saw nobody go near the till. But the count was short again. Tio is talking about getting a hidden camera, but he can’t afford that. He can’t afford to lose fifty pesos every time he turns around, either.”
Elbey looked at Biko and frowned. “That’s not much money to steal. If I was going to take money it would be at least 500 or something big like that. Why take such a risk and steal only a fifty?”
Biko shrugged. “Maybe it’s a kid– or an old lady– a kleptomaniac who just takes a little money at a time.”
Elbey rolled his eyes. “Have you seen any kids or old ladies hanging around the till?”
“Good point. Old ladies come in buy some bread, an egg and a spoonful of tomato paste, then leave. They don’t loiter. Same with kids—they buy a packet of coffee and a little plastic bag of sugar, maybe a couple of cigarettes and some matches for their dad.”
“So it’s happening when Tio is not around.”
“Yes. He has started counting the money in the cash drawer every time he has been away from the store, even when he goes to eat lunch and locks the place up. And you know what?”
“That is when he has found the money missing. After he comes back from lunch. Only away for an hour and he gets robbed.”
“Now that is really weird, Biko.”
“You’re telling me.”
Elbey said, “Okay, tomorrow, I have the day off. We will be Tio’s hidden camera. We set up a noontime stakeout, without anyone but Tio knowing. Then we can catch the thief.”
“Or thieves. It could be a gang, hitting all the colmados in the area.”
“For fifty pesos at a time? That would be one lame-ass gang, Biko.”
Biko shrugged. “Whoever it is, they will have the big three: means, motive and opportunity. That’s what we need to focus on. The big three.”
The next day, as agreed, the two cousins hid in the colmado while their uncle was away having lunch. As they waited in the hot, dark, empty store, they heard a muffled rustling noise coming from the area of the ceiling. A something was sliding along the top shelves where Tio kept canned goods. The two men froze. This had to be the thief, but how did he get in though that tiny opening between the wall and the roof? It was less than the width of two hands. The something dropped right down next to Biko with a light, ghostly plopping sound. Biko gasped in spite of himself and jumped, hitting Elbey in the side.
“Ow!” yelled Elbey.”
“Be quiet!” snapped a strangled-sounding voice, inches from Biko’s ear. Elbey looked up over the counter and met the tilted stare of Dona Juanita’s green cuca. It sat there in the counter, fluffing itself indignantly. “What is it?”Biko asked, pulling himself up level with the counter.
“Son of a…..” he said.
“Be quiet,” the shadowy figure muttered again, and stalked away from the two men towards the cash box.
“Film it!” hissed Elbey.
Biko did, fumbling in the darkness with his cell phone. Nobody would believe this if they did not have concrete visual proof. They watched, open-mouthed as the big parrot sidled sideways along the counter to the cash box, balanced carefully on one claw, and used the other to pull open the lid. Then it bent and delicately plucked out a 50 peso note with its beak. It closed the lid to the box and, still holding the money in its mouth, proceeded to slide back along the counter. It hopped onto a stack of eggs in open cardboard trays, and then climbed up the wall of canned goods to the rafters. Biko kept filming as it rolled onto its side and, squeezing itself through the small opening between the corrugated metal roof and the top of the wall, disappeared.
“After it!” Biko yelled, shutting off his phone and jumping to his feet. The two men dashed for the colmado doors– Johnson Santos had only pretended to lock up today– and ran out into the street. Blinking in the bright noonday sun, they hustled down to Elbey’s rooming house and barreled in, breathing hard. They stopped short and stared. Juanita sat at the kitchen table, calmly reading the society page of that morning’s Listin Diario. She looked up at them from her newspaper, a slight frown creasing her brown forehead. “What’s wrong? Que fue?” These boys–always up to something.
Biko pointed at the cuca now crouched in its cage. It turned its head to watch them closely with its side eye gaze.
“That bird! Have you trained it to –”
“–sing any of our songs yet, Doña?” Elbey finished smoothly, interrupting his cousin in mid-accusation.
“Now why would I want it to sing those fast-talk merengue songs, Elbey. You know I prefer church music. Dignified music.” Doña Juanita wagged a disapproving finger. “What exactly is going on? Running in here like this. After sneaking around all afternoon.”
“Nothing, Doña. We made a mistake. We are late for rehearsal, Biko.” Elbey seized his cousin’s arm and tugged him towards the stairs.
Biko nodded. “We’ll see you later, Doña Juanita. We are late for rehearsal with the band.” He took one suspicious backward glance at the bird. Means? Motive? Opportunity? The cuca looked perfectly normal, clutching the perch with its sharp tyrannosaurus claws. Fluffy shredded newspaper bedding at the bottom of the cage–check. On a little box sat the bird’s tiny dish of noontime bandera—beans, rice, meat and salad–check. Biko, shaking his head, followed his cousin up the stairs.
Behind the closed door of Elbey’s room, Biko turned on his cousin. “What?”
“It wasn’t Juanita’s cuca,” Elbey said, simply.
“But we saw it. I have a video of it right here on my phone.”
Elbey pushed his cousin to the window. “Look out at the roof, Biko.”
Biko looked out. “So?”
“What do you see there?”
Elbey rolled his eyes and sighed. “Don’t just look. Try to notice, primo.”
Biko looked again, this time squinting through his glasses. See what Elbey sees. Try to notice. The rain had left puddles of dirty water and the wind had deposited leaves and other debris on the flat areas of the corrugated metal. The wind had…..Oh.
Elbey, as usual, had been more observant. The caged bird downstairs had been dry and clean. If it had robbed the colmado minutes before, and slid across that wet roof, it would have been sodden and dirty. Doña Juanita would not have had enough time to clean it up, put it back into its cage, and sit back down with her newspaper.
“But we saw the parrot, Elbey. The video doesn’t lie.”
“If you eliminate the impossible, then what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
“What is that supposed to mean, Sherlock Santos?”
“We saw a parrot, Primo Peralta. But there is no way it could have been the parrot.”
“Ah. Yes. Next step, rehearsal. Then we need to go find out who else has a big green cuca around here.”
It took only a day of questioning the neighbors to locate the second bird. A family in the next street over had acquired a similar parrot the previous month, just about the time of the first colmado robbery. But they professed to know nothing of their parrot’s secret life, even when the two detectives examined the bedding material at bottom of its cage. They found the evidence–shredded bits of fifty peso notes mixed in with the newspaper. Unlike Doña Juanita’s cuca, this one was allowed to come and go as it pleased, only returning to its cage to eat or sleep. And it had roamed the neighborhood while the family was out during the day, exploring the rooftops and eventually learning to enter the corner colmado at noon when nobody was there.
That covered means and opportunity. But what about motive? A few minutes of internet research yielded the most common motive for strange behavior in humans and animals alike: love. The new bird had, through some parrot radar, discovered the presence of another cuca in the area. Cuca Numero Dos had been trying to make a home, hoping to lure Cuca Numero Uno to move in. For some reason, it had decided that some exotic bedding material– pesos from the corner store—would be just the thing to attract a companion. Luckily, it could only reach the 50’s with his one free claw after pulling open the drawer. Means, motive and opportunity.
The detectives gave their report to Tio Johnson over dinner at Dona Juanita’s pension. Tio agreed that he would cover the opening where the bird was sneaking in with a strip of wire mesh. And maybe, someday, he would break down and invest in a real cash register. The family of Cuca Numero Dos had promised to latch the cage better when they left the house. They also bought a mirror toy to put in the nest to keep it company. Maybe they could let the two birds visit from time to time? Case solved. No more missing money.
“So you see, Karen,” concluded Biko. “The parrot was lonely for its own kind. Fancy that. In so many cases, it all comes down to love.”
“That sounds like a line from a merengue song,” said Karen.
“Si,” said Elbey. “It all comes down to love. That is what we sing about, mostly. Love. And heartbreak, and betrayal, and loss, and pain, and lying and–”
“–but mostly about love, es verdad,” said Biko.
The three left the hotel bar and were walking back towards the big, colorful tent where Los Primos were scheduled to perform that evening. Karen felt the light ocean breeze gently caressing her face, her arms, her legs. The Malecon was gorgeous in the late afternoon sun, a crowded strip of human happiness stretching along the turquoise Caribbean Sea. It was so relaxing, just strolling along, becoming part of the moving landscape.
Karen turned to the cousins. “Thanks for a wonderful story, guys. I am not sure if it will please my sponsors as much as the Muchachas Nais Nais, but this has been fun. I almost don’t care what the sponsors think.”
“Can I tell you a secret, Karen?” Biko smiled down at her.
“Sure.” She looked up at him. Not cross-eyed. Actually rather handsome.
“We know those Muchachas Nais Nais. They are from a town near where we grew up. And they are not very nais at all.”
Karen laughed. They walked on in silence for a bit, just three young people enjoying a Friday afternoon.
“You will come to our concert tonight, won’t you, Karen?” Elbey asked suddenly. Karen was surprised. She had thought that he was still annoyed with her.
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” she said, and she meant it.
“¡Bomba!” said Biko in delight.
Later that evening, Karen was glad of her press pass. It had been the only way to enter the sold-out venue. Saying she was a friend of Los Primos Del Campo would not have meant anything to the bouncers at this concert. The place was tightly packed with fans of all ages dancing to the seven-piece band. The music inside was as hot as the weather outside, and the cousins were great performers. Their songs, laced with wordplay and mild innuendo were linked by humorous skits, usually featuring Biko as the older wiser man offering advice to his young, heartsick friend.
Karen saw a young man dancing alternatively with his girlfriend and an older woman who appeared to be the girlfriend’s mother. Karen noticed with amusement that the mother had better moves than her daughter. Several women danced enthusiastically together. A thin elderly man wearing a jaunty straw fedora, was all elbows and knees as he danced energetically in the embrace of a plump middle-aged woman. People were having such a good time that it was contagious. She had no problem finding dance partners and even joined the single ladies group for a few songs.
Needing a rest break, Karen stood to one side of the stage and watched as Biko, shouting his tag line: “¡Imagínate!” waded out into the audience to the cheers of the crowd. The big man took the hand of a smartly-dressed middle-aged Doña whose head barely reached his chin–and led her up to the main stage area. His broad smile of welcome was genuine, and the woman was clearly delighted to dance with the charming merengue star. They whirled rapidly around the stage as Elbey sang out his heart–about, of course, love–standing at the microphone, eyes closed, hips moving to the beat. The singer’s hands were outstretched like a man embracing all the people in the room, all the people in the island, all the people in the world. Biko kissed his dance partner’s cheek and escorted her off the stage. And suddenly he was reaching out his hand again—this time for Karen.
She joined him onstage. It was like magic, spinning around the stage with Biko. She felt herself grinning like a teenager. Elbey sang on, hitting high notes that vibrated into her soul. Biko’s hand was on her lower back, holding her close and guiding her across the stage on front of the audience. Damn, this was fun—she had completely forgotten how annoyed she had been earlier that day. Was this how the locals dealt with the hassles of everyday life? Did they just dance their troubles away?
All too soon their dance was over and Biko was leading Karen off the stage. He kissed her cheek and headed back to fetch another lucky lady. Karen looked out into the Santo Domingo night. The sun was setting to the west of the city, such a beautiful sight along the Malecon. The palm trees outside the venue swayed, almost as if they were dancing along with everyone else.
Did a parrot really venture across a wet, windy rooftop, break into a store, and steal–for love? Maybe she could extend her visit a few more days. Another interview with Los Primos del Campo might be just what ChicaOnline needed. Yes, indeed.
Find more Biko and Elbey news at merenguemysteries.com