Francisco's is one of those ersatz Spanish places where second-rate Mexican food is served by anorexic blondes. The food is just sop for the margaritas and Corona beer, both of which are dispensed by the gallon every weekend. Corn tortilla chips, guacamole and a few of those drinks were enough to waste you away again in Margaritaville. It happens often.
And it was about to happen again. Mannie and I took a table near the bar.
"In vino veritas," Mannie said. "You'll get the truth from me."
"And probably a headache with matching heartburn," I said. "But laissez les bontemps rouler. I wonder how you say that in Spanish."
I asked the strenuously smiling young girl - a brunette, but very not Mexican, even though she was dressed in what appeared to be the flag of Mexico -- for some guacamole and chips and two Coronas, and Mannie did an end run on me by ordering a pitcher of margaritas.
Then I asked her - Annie, her little name tag said -- if she knew how to say "Let the good times roll" in Spanish. She looked nervous and a little confused, but kept smiling bravely.
"Close enough," I said, and let her off with my warm, kind smile. She left. "Well, a booze order that size oughta do it."
"Sí, señor," Mannie said.
Mannie didn't look well. Too much alcohol, probably. He had chronically Benicio Del Toro eyes, and he even looked a little shaky. At least he'd quit smoking. In matters other than health, Mannie was a bright guy. Former history teacher turned journalist.
We dug into the chips and guacamole and salsa.
"So," I said, "what's this Poubelle guy all about?"
"Where the hell are the drinks?" he said.
After repeated dips into the guacamole, he relaxed a bit and said he'd had good luck in a couple of phone calls to people who knew about Poubelle. Said he'd talked to Marna Loy, the old biddie who wrote a gossip column for the paper, and to Lee Flowers, a retired banker who knew everybody in the yacht club.
Flowers said Poubelle was known for his long cruises WAY to hell out in the ocean, around the Channel Islands 25 miles out, and beyond that. Sailed all over the place, including down to Mexico and Panama. He was a weirdo, but a funny guy. ‘Lots of people in Montecito matching that description.
Mannie said, "Poubelle's also well known for wanting to live on the edge. He rides a Harley from time to time. Takes his yacht out when the red storm flag is up, and the sicker his companions get, the funnier he thinks it is.
"Loy says he's a well-known character in Montecito. A sissy with mostly white clothing and a monster gold chain. Drinks like a fish. Well hell, nobody's perfect. By virtue of millions of dollars in his possession -- his ol' man was a pioneer land developer who bought and sold a large part of the state of Florida -- he's a regular in the society pages. Donates majorly to various charities. Basically, he's an idle playboy."
Poubelle sounded like a bad match for Loretta, so the Colombian was no doubt her squeeze, as Mason suspected.
My two Coronas arrived, and I offered one to Mannie. He waved it off. "Tequila gets in the bloodstream faster," he said. "Start without me."
"Salud, pesetas y tiempo para gustarlos," I said -- health, money and time to enjoy them -- and quaffed deeply. I was thinking like Hemingway: It tasted very good and made me feel complete and happy.
"Poubelle's quite a sailor," Mannie continued. "He's got a 40-foot sloop, the Chicken of the Sea. Forty-foot is the beginning of yacht class."
"What's a sloop?"
"A sailboat with just one mast, a main sail and a jib in front. That's the small sail. A 40-footer is the recommended size for blue-water sailing. You can go anywhere with that. Around the world. Where the hell are the margaritas?"
"How come you know about sailboats?"
"Oh I used to sail a little, back in my halcyon youth."
Annie set two salt-encrusted glasses in front of us and poured the mushy delicacy into each. They looked like little lime-green, algae-filled ponds with ice-covered rocks around them. Not at all Hemingwayesque.
Mannie's mood brightened instantly and he smiled as he held up his glass: "Deja prolongar rodando los tiempos buenos! I'd say that's Spanish for let the good times roll. More or less."
"I can see why it never caught on. You studied Spanish back in your halcyon youth also, right?"
"Of course." He drank deeply.
"What about this Carlos Carranza guy. Get anything on him?"
"I think so." Mannie's expression changed to one of someone who felt a sharp pain somewhere inside. "If it's the one I think it is … uh … you probably want to avoid him. At all costs." He drank some more.
"What do you mean 'if'? How many Carlos Carranzas can there be in Montecito?"
"Well, there is some room for doubt about the identity of the man in question - although not much. We had some clips on an interesting case involving someone with a similar name. About two years ago a guy named Carlos Carraleho kept a woman from Santa Barbara in his condo cum yacht down in Marina del Rey while performing his nefarious drug deeds. She tried to get away from him, called the cops and all, and he beat her nearly to death and ostensibly took off for Colombia, whence he sprang.
"The woman recanted her story, said she'd been drunk and had 'asked for it' by nearly killing Carlos with a fireplace poker. No charges were filed. I called her some months ago and she's scared witless. She said Carlos is back. Here. Sounds like your Carlos."
"Why did you call her?"
"Just snooping around, maybe finding an update. There were rumors at the cop shop that Carlos was back in town. The story fizzled out, but Carlos sounded like one ornery s.o.b."
This information had a dampening effect on my mood.
I protested when Mannie ordered a second pitcher, but he was on a tear. Nothing to do but join him, meanwhile eating some of Francisco's free happy hour Mexican snacks for dinner.
I asked Mannie if he knew anything about Poubelle's yacht having a role in whatever little drama was unfolding.
"No. Nothing." He poured another drink. "You're not going to have anything to do with these people, are you? Colombians can get kinda ugly when you get in the way of their supply of dolares."
"Nah. I'm not suicidal. But I wonder what connection Carlos has with Poubelle."
"Oh, I should've mentioned," Mannie said, "Gossip has it that Poubelle does so much coke he hardly has any inner nose left. Readily available in a certain Montecito bar, I'm told. Carlos might be his supplier. Poubelle might even sorta be in the business."
So it was Carraleho, not Carranza, and he hadn't been caught doing anything in S.B. But Carraleho evidently was a heavyweight and got off a couple of charges in Los Angeles, including murder.
I sat back and reeled a little from the shock of all this cocaine talk. The whole thing was starting to sound like an out-of-control monster
"Well," I said bravely, "There must be a safe way to get Loretta Stone away from the bastard before he rapes her and throws her over the side of the Pollo del Mar.
"Mannie, I've got a bug. Let me test it at your house. Then I'll put it on Poubelle's window and listen in. I'll figure out some course of action."
"You're not only suicidal, you're sleazy. Salud. . ." We drank some more. "Get a bug that records the action so I can listen too. I'm a voyeur from way back."
"You're sleazier than I am, by far."
The early evening dissolved into a defense of sleaze. Annie kept getting more attractive. Mannie took down her phone number. Said he was gonna get her into show business.
Half an hour later, I tried out the bug on various windows in Mannie's house, and it worked beautifully. So did the lock picks.
Now is your time, Dick, I thought. This is your moment . . .