The case of the Chinatown fortune teller
Sofia Diamantka, the gypsy fortune teller, was found stabbed to death on a Monday morning in her second-floor apartment on West Alexander Street in Chicago’s gritty Chinatown neighborhood.
As the fortune teller laid dead on the floor staring at the ceiling in her blood-stained purple Balkan dress, her expensive jewelry seemed out of place. She was dead and she wasn’t about to go out anywhere else again tonight or any other night.
A neighbor who lived across the hall from the fortune teller’s apartment called the police to complain that a foul odor was coming from the fortune-telling lady’s apartment.
The neighbor said that he hadn’t seen her in three days and that it was strange since the gypsy lady had a daily stream of visitors and clients who darted in and out each day trying to seek her advice about the good things to come into their lonely and sometimes tragic lives.
It was very odd, said Tim Ying, the caller and neighbor, because he had not seen anyone come in or go out of her apartment since last Thursday.
When two Chicago policemen from the city’s 1st District over on State Street forced the door open around 10 a.m. that Monday morning, they found Diamantka staring at the electric fan on the celling. The electric fan was on slow speed and was still spinning and casting zebra stripe shadows over her lifeless body.
A large kitchen knife was stuck in her chest.
“Jesus,” said Officer Juan Orozco. “Somebody probably didn’t like her predictions.”
“Maybe some guy wanted to play the Lotto and she didn’t give him the winning number,” said his blue buddy, Officer Nathan O’Neill, a 10-year veteran of Chicago’s finest.
As the two cops inspected the murder scene, they didn’t find anything out of place or any sign of forced entry. All they saw was her body lying there dead as dead can be.
One of the cops soon began writing up the initial police report as his partner called for an ambulance to transport the body to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office on West Harrison Street in the West Side.
“I bet she ate Chinese takeout anytime she wanted,” said Officer Orozco as he looked out the window towards Wentworth Avenue. The day was cloudy as if the sun had a hangover and wanted to sleep late.
“I bet she tried everything,” said Officer O’Neill,” Shrimp fried rice and vegetable chop suey and more.”
“I bet,” answered Orozco.
Both cops then got busy preserving the evidence at the scene so that the homicide detectives, who would soon arrive, could check the crime scene for any clues that might help solve the case.
Detective Geronimo Mueller Cruz was having lunch at a restaurant in the Pilsen neighborhood when he caught the noon time news on the plasma TV hoisted on the mosaic wall just to the left of the large framed picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe where below someone had left a bunch of flowers in a brown clay pot.
“Police in Chinatown made a grim discovery this morning, more about that after our first commercial break,” said a female reporter.
Mueller went back to his lunch of eggs ranchero style and his cup of black coffee. After a minute the news came back on.
“Police this morning found the body of a woman who was apparently stabbed to death inside her Chinatown apartment,” said the reporter.
“Police told reporters that a female resident of a yet undetermined age and still unidentified had been found dead after a neighbor said a foul odor caused him to call police. The neighbor said the woman had lived there for apparently four to five years,” said the reporter. “More news on this incident later this evening during our four o’clock news hour as more information becomes available.”
Detective Mueller finished his lunch, went to the counter next to the kitchen where a single cook, a man, made the food, and paid his bill and exited the premises.
Mueller walked on 18th treet for about a half a block to where he had parked his beat-up Dodge Stratus and drove to his office on South Wabash Avenue. Mueller, a Mexican American detective, was still too poor to afford a receptionist so when he got inside his office he checked his answering machine for any recorded messages.
“Mr. Mueller this is Mirela Lajko, the lady that was found stabbed to death in Chinatown today is my aunt. I need to talk to you. Meet me at the Carousel Café on Halsted Street near 14th Street at 3 p.m.,” said a message on his answering machine.
Mueller grabbed a piece of paper and wrote: “Mirela Lajko-Carousel Café, 3 pm.”
“I hope this is not a wild goose chase,” said Mueller to himself as he packed his 9-millimeter Gluck gun and walked over to the window of his second-floor office and gazed at the Chicago skyline.
The weatherman at the newscast he watched at the Pilsen eatery had predicted rain in the late afternoon but so far, the rain was still in heaven and Mueller didn’t give it a second thought.
Three hours later he walked into the Carousel Café and saw a beautiful woman of about 25 years of age sitting in a small table to the rear of the small but quaint café.
Almost at the same time she said “Mueller?” the detective said “Lajko”? Yes, both answered at the same time and extended their right hands to greet each other.
“Nice day,” Mueller said trying to open up the conversation but Mirela said “Not for me.”
Mueller caught his awkward start and apologized. She said “It’s not your fault.”
“Coffee?,” asked Mueller trying to be the nice detective. “No,” said Mirela, “but I’ll have some chardonnay.”
“Waiter, two chardonnays” Mueller heard himself say and caught himself thinking, shut up, you idiot, you are not in a movie.
“I’m very scared,” Mirela let go. “My aunt was found stabbed to death this morning in her Chinatown apartment. Whoever killed her probably knew her well. There was no sign of forced entry and she lived alone. Well, alone with her dreams.”
“So, you want me to…” Mueller didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. Mirela jumped the track.
“Yes, I want you to find out who killed her and give everything, all the information, to the police. We wouldn’t want anyone else to get hurt,” Mirela said as she looked at Mueller in the eyes.
Mueller was about to go into his bit about expenses and all that crap about a hundred dollars a day but before he could open his mouth, Mirela placed ten one hundred-dollar bills on the table and said “This will help you get started.”
“Let’s start at the beginning, tell me who she knew,” said Mueller as the two chardonnays arrived via the waiter, a young immigrant, probably Mexican.
“She had many clients, a lot of strange characters,” she said, “You’d be surprised to what extremes people turn to when they get desperate.”
“Do you have any idea who might have done this to her?” asked the detective, who was now staring into the deep green of her eyes.
“It could have been anyone, she knew a lot of people,” said Mirela, whose long hair fell to her shoulders.
That evening Mueller went snooping around the shops and grocery stores trying to get leads into the murder.
“Yes, I remember her,” said a shop owner at the Ming Fat grocery, “Very nice lady. She loved noodles and green tea, lots of green tea.”
She came in with anyone in particular, asked the Mexican detective.
“No, always alone, no company, no,” said the shop owner.
At the Chinese Christian Union Church, a woman told the detective she had seen her once inside the church about a month before.
“She was here about a month ago, she looked a little worried but said she just wanted to sit down in peace for a while,” said the woman. “It was a weekday, not a Sunday service, I told her she was welcomed.”
Across the street from where the fortune teller had her studio, the owner of the Yangtze River Gift Shop, told him some interesting information.
“We’ve seen her since she opened her place four years ago, she used to come here and talk to us,” said Tom Lung. “She said she came from Europe to America six years ago. She spent two years in California and decided to settle in Chicago. Come to think of it, there was a gentleman who used to visit her about every month. Mexican, kind of tall, wore a cowboy hat.”
“Anything else?” asked Mueller.
“No, just that; she was a likeable lady,” said Lung. “She used to say she liked to help people”
The next day Mueller left his office early and went to see his friend Steve Casilli, the Cook County coroner.
“You’re still dissecting bodies?” Mueller told him as they shook hands. “You’re still a poor SOB Mexican gumshoe?” Casilli shot back.
“You got that right,” said Mueller. “What you got on the fortune telling lady from Chinatown?”
“Not much. The knife went right through her body. Fingerprints on the knife’s handle but so far they don’t match anyone on any database.”
“Mm, one of those days huh?” said Mueller.
“Yep,” said Casilli, “It’s a slow grind.”
Both talked pleasantries for a while but then Mueller said he had work to do and both said good-bye.
In the late afternoon Mueller arranged to see Mirela Lajko the next day at a River North bar just off Clark Street.
This time both knew each other by sight and there was no need for awkward greetings. Mueller sat where she was, in a side table away from the bar.
“Tell me about your aunt?” Mueller said. “I’m trying to find people she knew in Chinatown.”
“As you might know by now, she spent most of her life in Europe, travelled from country to country. She was a gypsy, just like I am. She ran with a group of ten people, called a kumpania. A leader, called a voivode, led the group. I don’t know what happened but about six years ago she left Europe for America. I believe she fell in love in Paris with a Frenchman who broke her heart. So, she came to America to the Bay Area and spent two years telling fortunes there and teaching young hipsters about astrology and the interpretation of dreams. You know how it goes,” said Mirela as she smoked a cigarette.
“And then?” asked Mueller.
“She left the West Coast four years ago and came to Chicago. I don’t know why but she fell in love with Chinatown and lived at the Chinese Arms Hotel on Alexander Street near Wentworth for the last four years. It’s where she opened her shop and where she was found dead.”
The Mexican-American detective then told Mirela he was working on a lead and said he would get in touch with her and left after paying the bill for two cold beers.
Mueller then went searching for a low-life, small time hood known as Chivo, who sometimes passed on leads to him on difficult cases. Of course, he had to pay for any information.
“What do you know about a gypsy lady found dead in Chinatown a week ago?” asked Mueller.
“Not much,” said Chivo. “All it’s known in the streets is that a big fish known as Jason Marquez used to go see her lot.”
“Was this about anything in particular?” asked Mueller while he and Chivo met in a secluded auto junkyard in the city’s far Southside.
“Let me just say it was about the heavens being aligned just right for his business deals,” said Chivo and added with caution, “That’s all I can say, Mueller, so give me my fifty bucks, man.”
Mueller had no choice but to put a fifty-dollar bill on the small-time hood’s hand and departed.
For the next couple of days Mueller spent countless hours checking who this Jason Marquez character was until a police mugshot surfaced about an arrest a few years back for carrying a concealed weapon.
After digging some more, Mueller found out Jason Marquez was a businessman involved in interstate trucking. He had a business partner named Othon Alias in Mexico and both moved produce such as lemons and avocados from Mexico up north to the Mexican communities in the United States.
With a copy of the mugshot of Marquez the detective went around Chinatown showing the man’s likeness to local Chinese Americans who might have seen him in the area.
“Yes, that’s him,” said a merchant who ran a business at the Chinatown Square Mall who asked, out of fear, that he not be identified.
“Are you sure?” asked the detective.
“Yeah, I’m sure, I went once to see Lady Sofia when my oriental herb shop was not producing a profit,” said the man. “He was there and left shortly after I got there. He wore a cowboy hat, that’s how I remember him.”
The detective wanted to pay him for the information but the Chinese merchant said, “It’s not necessary.”
After knocking around for two months this is what Detective Mueller Cruz came up with: Jason Marquez was an importer alright but bringing in produce across the border was just a cover up. He had a string of lower level minions who helped him traffic in cocaine from Mexico.
From San Diego his men tracked cars and trucks loaded with the white substance. They were later unloaded at a warehouse in the outskirts of Chicago.
From the City of the Big Shoulders, his men transported the shipments to cities on the East Coast. His trucking business, J. Marquez Trucking, provided the perfect cover for his operation.
Things would have gone fine for Marquez except that DEA agents had intercepted one of his men as he returned from a delivery to New York City. Upon searching the trailer near Indianapolis, the agents found half a million dollars hidden in a secret compartment.
“Those avocados must be worth a lot, my friend,” one agent asked Celestino Marmolejo, 52, the driver.
After seeing that he could not explain so much money hidden in a trailer that he was driving back to Chicago, Marmolejo told the DEA agents everything in exchange for entering a federal witness protection program.
This is what Marmolejo knew about his boss and the fortune teller who was now buried in a city cemetery: Marquez used to visit her every time he was about to bring in a shipment across the border. He wanted the gods, or whatever he believed in, to tell him that everything would go just right.
Every time Lady Sofia would gaze in to her crystal ball or read him his palm so that he would feel secure. In return Marquez would always leave her a one-thousand-dollar tip which wasn’t too bad for a twenty-minute reading.
After a huge shipment had been detected and confiscated at the border, Marquez had come to Chinatown bent on taking revenge on the unfortunate fortune telling lady. In a fit of rage, he stabbed her but made the mistake of leaving the murder weapon in the body, which is how the Chicago Police Department connected Marquez to the crime.
He was given 30 years for the murder and another 60 years for trafficking in prohibited controlled substances.
The day after Jason Marquez was arrested in a luxurious suburban home outside Chicago, Mirela Lajko and detective Mueller met at Chinatown Square Plaza. She thanked him for his detective work.
“Just doing my job, mam, just doing my job” said Mueller as both went near the statues of the Chinese calendar year to read what the future holds for those born under a good sign.
The above is one of the stories in Antonio Zavala’s book of short stories Pale Yellow Moon, which is available at Amazon.com and also at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.
Antonio Zavala is a journalist and writer and lives in Chicago.