November 3, 1979
THE TAVERN WAS CALLED Babe O'Brien's. No one named O'Brien had ever, in its twenty years of business, owned the place. In fact, no one even remotely Irish had ever owned Babe O'Brien's. The name had been chosen by Juan Hernandez De Barcelona, who had never been to Barcelona and whose ancestors had almost certainly never been to either Ireland or Spain.
Juan Hernandez De Barcelona was a black man about the size and shape of a two-door refrigerator. He had earned his money by working on the docks of Port au Prince. As a boy he had loaded and unloaded ships. As a young man he had loaded and unloaded drunken sailors. And as a man he had unloaded pistols more than once into the bellies of people who annoyed the Baron Duvivier, a colonel in the Tonton Macute who sometimes found it expedient to employ the services of an outside broken-bottle man like Juan rather than one of his own troops.
It was the Baron, whose business was not always that of the country, who advised Juan Hernandez to add the "De Barcelona" to his name. Although Juan would one day kill the Baron with his bare hands and steal the money the Baron wore in a money belt under his brown uniform, Juan Hernandez always respected the memory of his mentor and the advice he had been given.
When he reached New Orleans after taking the place of a black American sailor named Jerris Simms who had had an unfortunate encounter with a machete, Juan Hernandez considered investing the deceased Baron Duvivier's money in a whorehouse, but the competition in New Orleans was more than Juan was yet ready to deal with. Instead, he moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, because he liked the name, and put his capital in a tavern formerly named the Blue Ridge. It was in a neighborhood changing from poor redneck to poor Mexican and a smattering of blacks-mostly Jamaicans and Haitians.
Juan Hernandez named the place Babe O'Brien's because he wanted to be an American success and in a movie he had seen the name over a tavern owned by a short fat character played by an actor whose name he didn't recognize.
Juan Hernandez was a killer but he was also a romantic: He believed in the American dream. The bar was not even the beginning.
The real business of Juan Hernandez was women. The bar, Juan told potential employees, was just a front, like the front of the house in Gone with the Wind . To his disappointment, one of the Mexican whores had told him that the house in the movie was just a big flat painted lie propped up by boards.
But beyond the end of the bar was a door behind which was the real business of Babe O'Brien's. Here Juan himself sat night after night drinking slowly and passing judgment on those who wanted to enter that door. Behind that door, the flesh was fresh, young, and reasonably well paid. The women and girls were black, white, brown, and yellow. They were Indians, Chinese, Mexicans, Creoles, French, Haitians, Jamaicans, and even one Russian or, at least, one blonde with an accent who claimed that her name was Ludmilla and that she was from Leningrad.
Juan Hernandez dealt only in cash and he kept no books except behind the bar, for the drinks. The only tax paid was on the bar and, strangely enough, the bar turned out to be profitable, not the kind of profit that Juan Hernandez felt was sufficient, but profitable still. For twenty years, Juan had suffered little inconvenience at the door at the rear of Babe O'Brien's. In his third year of business, that entrance had acquired the name Heaven's Portal. It had been so named by a skinny drunk who had come only once. The drunk had paused and sang to Juan Hernandez De Barcelona, "You are my lucky star." And moments later he added, "You opened heaven's portal here on earth for this poor mortal."
In the next seventeen years there had been three robbery attempts in Babe O'Brien's, one by a trio of brothers named Valenciana