What do an ancient Roman philosopher, a brash and flamboyant singing cowboy and a San Francisco financial hustler have in common?
Unless they happen to cross the path of the Delta Detective. Which they do in the detective’s new adventure, “The Getaway”
First of 4 parts.
“Do you realize how many clients come to us out of fear or panic?” Iris Noire asked me and promptly answered her own question about the patrons of our detective agency. “Love has gone terribly wrong. Money is unaccountably missing. A dear one has disappeared. A trusted friend has absconded. Your kid is keeping strange company. You wake up one fine morning to find your identity has been stolen and—“
“Pardon me for asking,” I interrupted, “but is this deep dive into a sea of woes leading somewhere?”
Iris came to the point. “What we need is a motto for the firm—a motto that doubles as a mission statement for us and a promise of hope for our clients. You do see the need for that, don’t you, sir?”
I did not. But trust Iris to persist and persevere. Here at Delta Detections, we are well aware that when our office manager births a plan to bolster business, you have as much chance of derailing her as you do stopping the oblivious speed of an oncoming express train by the power of positive thinking.
“The right motto can help assure clients of our expertise and dedication to work on their behalf. It can encourage confidence in our firm’s investigative prowess. The challenge for us is to create one that sticks in a client’s consciousness. Would you be so kind as to give us a motto, sir? We can put it—and any other suggestion–to a vote at the next staff meeting. You will give us one, won’t you, please?”
I tried. But all I came up with was: “Looking for a detective? Walk right in! Cold cases and missing persons our specialty. Fresh coffee and healthy doughnuts on the house.” Not exactly a grabber.
Fear and panic? Well, clients do sometimes confess to me that, given their problems and struggles, it is no easy task for them to get up in the morning and find the courage to face the day. I took that to my learned friend, Professor Marvine, and begged his help. He thought it over and came up with an ancient Roman philosopher’s remedy for anxiety: “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero.”
“It means ‘Seize today, forget tomorrow,’ “ I explained to my dubious staff. “A commitment to make the most of the here and now. Think of it as a wakeup call. A motto like that can give you the courage to rouse up into your morning cup of Joe, your car, commute and cubicle. Perfect! Okay, kids, ready for adoption? I vote yes. Do I hear a second aye? I’m listening. I’m still listening….”
The room was silent until Iris proposed one of her own: No case too small, no effort too great. The stares and silence gave way to smiles and applause. It was adopted and commended for its economy and punch. I was left without a shred of Latin or thread of toga. So much for carpe diem. It was as if the day had seized me instead of vice versa. I tried to shake it off, but matters did not improve when I walked into our waiting room and found an inquiring reporter from the Delta Daily, a rookie ballplayer, a cop seeking facts, a deckhand from the schooner Wolf, a shady bookie, an insurance investigator, a stripper named Cookie Frost, a slick fight promoter, a waitress with a case of heavy heartache, and a federal agent in quest of a missing person. Empty coffee cups and doughnut crumbs littered the scene.
One look at that colorful cast of characters was enough to convince me I should have stayed in bed. Not even a bugle call would have persuaded me to kick back the covers and jump into my boots.
Our office is usually as quiet as the Delta town on whose riverfront it sits. The slow pace often enables me to indulge a late afternoon sail. But on this hectic day, I lacked time even for lunch at Yolanda’s despite my craving for a zesty torta Yolanda, with a side of frisky peppers and spicy palaver from the proprietress. On some days, we must bow to reality and accept that our reach is beyond our grasp. Such was my day: no proud Latin motto, no zesty lunch, no Yolanda, no sunset sail to soothe the weary spirit.
After dealing with the sly bookie, the spry rookie, and the ladylike Ms. Cookie, I was in urgent need of a break. Placing a Do Not Disturb! sign on my door, I shed my coat and tie, planted my feet atop my desk and opened a news report about salmon gathering at the Golden Gate, readying a fun run across the bay to the inland rivers. With that in mind, it didn’t take much to imagine myself at the wheel of the Dazzler, gliding down Delta waters, bound for San Francisco bay and a surging sea of salmon…..
And suddenly, there I was, capturing the singing wind in my sails and thrashing salmon on my reel, seizing the day and the fish with an easy mastery that seemed almost dreamlike. Which of course it was. Three rapid raps on my door took the wind out of my sails and sent the dream to the sea bottom.
Iris popped in to inform me that a man named Mallory had shown her the badge of a federal agent and was requesting a meeting with me. It sounded more like trouble than business, but she had a remedy for that. “If your taxes aren’t in order, sir, I’ll delay him while you escape out the back and do a fast getaway to your hideout,” she said with a straight face.
It sounded like the plot of one of those Forties crime films. You know the kind. A black-and-white world filled with shadowy characters smoking too many cigarettes and talking too much about a perfect crime that you know in advance will fall well short of perfection.
“As a matter of fact,” I explained, “I was expecting Mr. Mallory’s visit. We’ve already talked.”
“Oh, you have? Well, pardon me, sir, I thought he was making a cold call–perhaps with a warrant.”
“Funny! Just give me five minutes to clear my head and find my shoes, then bring the man in. As long as a fraud and financial crimes officer is visiting, I wonder if we should have him examine your books?”
“Touche! Well, suppose I give you ten? You do tend to be a little slow and sluggish after your power nap. Actually, Mr. Mallory doesn’t mind waiting because there’s a few ahead of him. Trick or treat!”
The treat entered with my friend Stella Montegna. Iris gave her a cup of holiday cheer and asked if Stella enjoyed our Halloween decorations. Indulging her inner child, Iris had seized the holiday to decorate our office with wispy ghosts, mischievous goblins, toothless pumpkins and witless scarecrows.
“Delightful!” Stella responded. “Makes me feel like a kid again. You thought of everything, Iris.”
“You forgot the cobwebs,” I said, and instantly regretted saying it. Next year, Iris might remember and I would have no defense. She might even add decorative spiders to the gothic mix.
The scion of a pioneer farming family, Stella often brings us honey or olive oil from her little spread outside town. Her small tasting room serves Bay Area visitors who drive or sail in for a weekend taste of the Delta. One such visitor did the walking tour of her olive grove, bee hive rows and century-old house whose quaint parlor houses mementoes and artifacts of the Montegna family. Candlesticks atop the fireplace mantel, a dingy painting on the wall above it and a carved clock that stopped ticking centuries ago were brought by Stella’s ancestors from their native Italy. All of it delighted her visitor, a gentleman from San Francisco. Impressed by what he saw, he asked Stella if he might have a word with her after the tasting room closed. It was almost time, so Stella agreed and told him to wait for her in the parlor.
“When I returned, he was full of praise for my farm and products. He said it was exactly what he was looking for. He was seeking to escape the big city and had fallen in love with the Delta. He wanted to retire here and begin a new life. He thought my place was ideal for that purpose. He wanted to buy it.”
“God love free-spending tourists! Was the chap blowing air or did he actually make you an offer?”
“A generous offer,” Stella nodded and fell silent as if something about that proposal troubled her.
“Let me guess. You told him you weren’t interested in selling. Whereupon he upped the offer.”
“Yes. I wanted to tell him not to waste his time. I wasn’t about to sell. But I was intrigued. With all the money he had, or seemed to have, he might keep making me offers until I weakened.”
“If he actually had the green—and the intent. What did your woman’s intuition tell you about him?”
“He seemed to me sincere and eager, maybe a little too eager. The kind who doesn’t take no for an answer once he makes up his mind. Oh, there was one odd thing about him I noticed. The whole time we were talking, he kept looking past me. Maybe he was nervous or calculating his next offer. Well, I was called away just then and when I returned he was standing at the fireside. I had a few logs going there to add to the charm of the room for our tours. It was a cool day with a chill in the air, so maybe he was trying to warm himself. That crackling fire was probably what he was staring at while we talked.”
“So he wants to settle down on a little farm and get cozy? What does he know about farming?”
“Nothing. He admitted it. And for that reason, he made me another offer. Listen to this. He wanted to keep me on as a fully compensated manager. So I’d be paid twice over. Imagine that!”
“Such generosity! Leaves me speechless. And suspicious. What did you think of that proposal?”
“Frankly, it puzzled me. My house is old and in need of repair; my farm is small; my olive oil and honey are modest operations. The property isn’t valuable in any commercial sense. I asked why he would want all that instead of a modern ranch house with all the conveniences. He smiled, said he always dreamed of living in the country and dabbling in farming. He gave me his card. Here it is, I brought it for you.”
I scanned the business card of J. Gordon Gamble, of Adventure Ventures, San Francisco.
A venture capitalist and adventurous investor, longing for the simple life on a Delta pea patch? It didn’t add up. I asked Stella if she’d like me to do a background check on Gamble. She said she didn’t want to put me to any trouble.
”It’s the least I can do for my honey and oil lady. I’m curious why a big money man wants to settle down on a farm whose value, to his way of thinking, would be negligible. Considering how he makes his living, his retirement would be a profitless venture. It’s not how those money boys play the game.”
“I wondered if he’d found something valuable in the land. I checked with the farm bureau. They said there’s no oil or anything of unique value, and no planned developments. So maybe Mr. Gamble was telling the truth about a new life. Maybe San Francisco lost its appeal for him. Maybe he wanted out.”
“That’s the simplest explanation,” I agreed. “Of course, there may be another, far less simple.”
“Knowing you as I do, sir, I don’t have any doubt you’ll find it. Please enjoy my honey and oil!”
Editor’s note – This is the first of 4 parts. Will our intrepid Delta Detective – who would rather sail than sleuth – ever find time to follow those salmon beyond the Golden Gate? Or will the case of the venture capitalist’s too-generous offer, and other cases, keep him too busy? Tune in again next week for the further adventures of The Delta Detective.
Howard Lachtman, retired reporter and editor, is the author of crime and detective stories, film noir studies, and a history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visits to America. In his Delta Detective series written for Soundings, Lachtman introduces a private detective based in the Delta whose wide-ranging investigations offer a diversity of clients and a casebook of crimes. “Unlocked” is the third in a non-fiction series offering the thoughts and reflections of the author during lockdown.