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”
2nd of 4 Parts
“Thanks for squeezing me in,” Mallory said as Iris led in my final visitor. He was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man in a dark blue suit with a lapel pin of our national bird clutching the arrows of war in one talon and the olive branch of peace in the other. Whatever the pin signified, you don’t get that kind of honor at the five-and-dime store.
“Squeeze? Oh, you mean the crowd in our waiting room? It’s usually not like that. A very busy day. Good for business, not so good for sailing.”
“Your office manager told me you were extremely busy when she consulted you,” Mallory said, opening his wallet to quietly show me the badge that verified his identity. “I appreciate you fitting me into your schedule.”
“She was probably hoping you’d offer a reward so I could be paid with genuine coin of the realm.”
“How else do your clients pay you?”
“With whatever they have—olive oil, fruit baskets, carpet cleanings, Christmas sweaters, baskets of homemade tortillas, and the like. You mentioned a missing man when you called me the other day?”
“As I said, we have reason to believe he’s in the area. His wife said he’d been spending a lot of time out here. Then he went silent. She hasn’t heard from him. Neither have clients who’d like their money back. We’ve drawn a blank ourselves. You know the area. Perhaps you can assist our investigation with your expertise. Missing persons are your specialty, I believe?”
When I nodded, he opened his attaché and handed me a case file on a San Francisco venture capitalist and investment specialist suspected of absconding with client funds. His name was J. Gordon Gamble.
“What can you tell me about him?” I asked, saying nothing about Stella’s personal encounter.
“A high-flying speculator. Rolls the dice on everything from robots to cryptocurrencies. He’s played by the rules of the game so far, but now he’s playing a game with his own set of rules. Whatever they are.”
“Which may be the reason he’s gone missing?”
“Exactly. We know he lost heavily on bitcoins, techs and emerging markets. His nervous clients gave it up when the stock market did its shake, rattle and roll. They asked for their money. He informed them their money would be returned, with interest, if they remained patient. That was the last they heard. Calls were not returned; checks never arrived. We were contacted. What we found confirmed what we suspected. The money could not be found. Neither could Mr. Gamble. So we set out to find him…..”
Mallory began his investigation by calling at Gamble’s San Francisco residence, one of those grand old mansions perched high atop Pacific Heights with a sweeping view of the bay, sailboats and Alcatraz. “You’d be surprised how splendidly some people live at the expense of others,” he said.
“It’s the way of the world, isn’t it? The rich get richer and the poor get promises.”
Accompanied by his tech specialists, Mallory knocked on the front door, armed with a search warrant to seize pertinent records and data. A theatrically mannered butler with a bad wig and a posh accent asked Mallory to wait while he inquired if the lady of the house wished to receive him. It wasn’t necessary to wait, given the warrant he held, but Mallory decided to go slow in order not to unduly alarm the woman and lose an interview that might yield a clue to her husband’s exact whereabouts.
“The butler returned in due course and said the lady of the house would receive us,” Mallory said. “We followed him down a long corridor hung with paintings, a number of which, I noticed, were missing from their frames, perhaps for cleaning or restoring. Gamble, it seems, invested heavily in the art world.”
Despite her husband’s disappearance, Mrs. Gamble was calm and composed. She had contacted the police to report her missing spouse and the feds picked it up from there. Credit card postings from the Delta showed he’d been on the move, roaming widely about the area, but to what purpose? She had no knowledge of any wrongdoing on his part and could not account for the missing funds. Theft was out of character, she said, for a man whose first and last thought was to serve the best interests of his clients.
“Gordie is a risk-taker, yes, that’s the nature of his profession, but he is not a thief,” she insisted. “He’s never done anything illegal. He’s not like that, not at all. It’s against his character…..”
Never trust a wife for a character reference,” Mallory cautioned me, “She’s generally too willing to overlook her husband’s faults or too eager to recite them. We believe Gamble got wind of our investigation and went on the run. He told his wife he was going into the Delta to pursue an exceptional opportunity that had come his way, one he felt would put him back on top. She believed what he told her because she believed in him. As she talked, I could almost hear the voice of Gamble himself. She finished her tale by saying her husband had been silent so long she’d begun to worry. Hence the call to the police. But on the other hand, she might be worrying for nothing. Mr. Gamble might be keeping a very low profile so as not to alert his competitors. He would let nothing spoil his chances for success and what he called a ‘Rocket Profit’ for his clients’ portfolios. It was a pretty speech, but I had to wonder who was really doing the talking.”
“Some of those clients are wondering and worrying where your husband and their money have gone,” I told her. I explained once again why we had come and what the legal consequences would be if the man and the money remained missing.”
“I’m sure they have nothing to worry about. Sometimes it just takes him a little longer to arrange matters to everyone’s satisfaction. Financial matters can be quite complicated. One must be patient.”
“So you can’t be any more specific than that about what your husband is doing in the Delta?”
“He doesn’t discuss business with me. I do remember him mentioning something about river flows, wetlands, and going through channels. I don’t think he meant television channels. Does that help?”
”Not much. There’s a thousand miles of inland waterways out there. Is your husband on a boat?”
“I’ve no idea. But if he is—a thousand miles you say? Perhaps the Navy can be called in to assist you.”
The clock chimed four and the odd butler appeared at the sound of the chimes, wheeling a tray of clattering cups, small sandwiches and petite cakes. “Will you stay for tea?” Mrs. Gamble asked.
Mallory decided that what his hostess knew about her husband wouldn’t fill the bottom of a tea cup.
“I thanked the lady for her hospitality and assisted my techs in removing her husband’s computers and business papers for potential evidence. Unfortunately, what we found was of no use whatsoever.”
Neither was the hunt for Gamble. Assuming “business opportunity” was merely a cover for a getaway, Mallory and team checked a long list of potential hiding places–hotels, marinas, campgrounds, houseboats and trailer parks–, circulating his photo and description to locals and law enforcement.
“We also went wide, put national and foreign authorities on alert, checked airlines and cruise lines, scanned passports and registrations. We thought at first he might have skipped the country; but then we found a paper trail—the credit cards he used throughout the Delta. The trail led nowhere. But since he obviously hasn’t left the Delta, it seems likely the money hasn’t either. We’re still searching, keeping a close eye on his Frisco residence should he get homesick and decide to return to Mrs. Know-Nothing.”
“He may have a reason not to. If so, the Delta is ideal territory for a man who wants to lose himself.”
“So we’ve discovered. But given our priorities, we can’t devote more time and resources to the case. That’s why I contacted you. Your agency is on the ground. I assume you know most of the region like the back of your hand. Gamble is a slippery customer, but he might fall into your net. Have you any experience with financial crimes?”
“Well, there was this tax cheat who claimed his dog as a dependent because the dog was all the family he had. Fido fraud, I called it. I also tracked a gang of credit card swindlers who thought they could operate freely out here. They operated a little too freely. They got what was coming to them.”
“Credit card swindlers? What did they get?”
“Guilty as charged,” I said with a straight face. A smile creased Mallory’s stern features.
“Let me know at once if you find any trace of him—or the man himself. We’ll take it from there.”
I left the office to begin my search for the missing man, alerted my contacts and informants, and came up empty. I returned two days later on a gusty morning, lowering my head against a whirlwind of autumn leaves that rippled the air until they descended to scurry like mice across pavements. Hurrying inside to escape the force of nature, I found another force of nature had been at work in my absence.
Dangling from the ceiling, a coven of miniature witches floated back and forth on sturdy toy broomsticks from which long, silken strands descended to tickle and tangle the unwary. “Iris!” I cried in shock and dismay, brushing the pesky strands aside with an impatient hand, “What have you done now? What is this?”
“Cobwebs! Just as you suggested, sir. And may I thank you for the suggestion? It lends just the right touch of interactive spookiness. You really ought to develop a sideline as a holiday decorator.”
Enough was enough. My office was turning into a Gothic playhouse that had no place in a professional setting. Iris countered my objections by insisting what she had done was for the sake of better business. Our visitors, she explained, loved the haunted decor and all that went with it—from the hot apple cider and Jack o’ Lantern cookies to the costumed black cat she’d brought from home to perch on her desk and purr when petted by feline fanciers who found comfort in the animal and began talking to it as if the cat could not only comprehend, but reply if it wished.
The mix of down-home hospitality and attentive service, Iris said, charmed visitors and made them feel they’d come to the right place. It made them feel they could put their trust in us. Trust bred confidence. Confidence led to contracts. And contracts produced the fees that kept us in business—unless I chose to believe that our creditors would be satisfied with payments of olive oil and bee nectar.
“A little hospitality at holiday time can pay dividends,” Iris concluded. “It’s smart business. Basic business. Business 101. You do see that, don’t you, sir?”
I didn’t want to admit that her logic was unassailable, but under the circumstances, I had little choice but to bow to the woman’s public relations wisdom and her eyewitness account of visitor response to her make-’em-happy designs. Once again, Iris had prevailed. The cobwebs remained. So did the cat, who gave me a long, unblinking look to ask why I had been foolish enough to doubt his mistress in the first place.
Stay tuned for part 3 coming soon.
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.