Part 3 of 4
“Come say hello to Mr. Pyewacket,” Iris Noire urged as I passed her desk and the black cat she’d set atop it as part of her holiday program to engage visitors and encourage clients. Clad in a miniature gold turban and wizard cloak, the Halloween-costumed feline purred approval to all who paid him respect and homage. I paused to ask if there was any truth to the rumor of his reputation as a nocturnal tomcat. Mr. P. dismissed the question with a ferocious yawn and a licking of his already immaculate paws.
“So much for one-sided conversations with Wondercat,” I shrugged.
“Well, listen to me instead,” Iris countered. “I want to send you down to Los Angeles next month.”
“The home of the luckless Dodgers, Kamikaze freeways and vain celebrities? Not my idea of fun.”
“This one might be. You’ve been invited to be a panelist at a mystery conference. The press and TV are covering. The free publicity will give us recognition and attract clients. Are you in, Mr. Detective?”
“Out! I’ve got a complex case on my hands. Missing person. Financial shenanigans. Puzzled wife.”
“You mean the Gamble business? Well, if you ask me, you’re looking at the wrong end of that case.”
I had no intention of asking her, but the outspoken Iris had no intention of denying me her opinion.
“You’re looking for the man and the money. What you ought to be looking for is the other woman.”
“Other woman? What other woman?”
“Searchez la femme! It’s the most natural explanation of why your man has disappeared.”
“There’s no evidence of that. The wife isn’t suspicious. She has nothing but good to say about her husband.”
“Excuse me, but have you considered she knows more than she’s telling? And, pardon again, if the feds can’t find him with a team of experts, how do you expect to track him down on your lonesome?”
“As you may have observed by working here, dear Ms. Noire, a lone operative playing a hunch can sometimes crack a case that’s stumped an army of investigators. I can cite you a few cases in point—”
“Point taken! But just consider the benefits of L.A.. By attending the conference, you can promote our business. You can reunite with the cop you assisted in the Isleton caper; he recommended you for the panel. And you can pick up collectibles for my classic film star collection. All I need are autographed photos of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And maybe Lupe Velez? And could you get please pick me up a poster of Bogart with the Maltese Falcon in his grip?”
“Hugging the stuff that dreams are made of? I liked Bogey better as the bad-tempered Hollywood screenwriter who charmed the glam girlfriend living across the palm-shaded courtyard until—“
“Oh come on! Get sensible and please go. It’s a win-win for all of us. Why not do yourself and the firm a favor?”
It’s useless to argue with Iris once her mind is made up, especially because she’s almost always in the right (or insists she is), but I had better alternatives than La La Land.
“Even if the Gamble caper resolves itself quickly — and a case as convoluted as this one could take all winter — I can’t oblige you, Iris. I have my own plans for November.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask what they may be. Please don’t tell me it has anything to do with sailing.”
“Bingo! You may not be aware the big stripers are migrating through the Delta next month. It’s the mega bass run. I look forward to it each season. Definitely want to be in on it, if you’ve no objection.”
“I have several. But that can wait. I have a distraught young lady who I think you should see right now.”
“The Gamble affair has to take top priority. The feds are flummoxed and I’m nowhere near figuring it.”
“The poor dear is quite upset. She needs the kind of help neither a mother nor a minister can provide. Please see what you can do for her and I’ll see that you get a fresh batch of my fabulous Jack O’ Lantern cookies.”
“I’m not fond of Jack o’ Lanterns. Or grinning pumpkins. Or turbaned cats who give me a blank stare.”
“Well, then, I’ll give you whatever you’re fond of. Is it really too much for you to help a poor frightened girl?”
“I prefer calmer clients. But if you rebook my appointments and let me go sailing, I just might reconsider.”
“I need you here, skipper. How about I treat you to one of those tortywhatchamacallits you love at Yolanda’s?”
“Order it? You can’t even pronounce it. All right, don’t give me that look. Send the poor kid in.”
Her name was Emmie Frye, a Delta-bred country girl troubled by a case of heartache and homicide.
“I need someone to help me prevent a murder,” Emmie said when I asked what I could do for her. I told her she should take that concern straight to the police and make a complete report.
“Oh no, sir, I can’t do that.”
“Why not? It’s your duty as a concerned citizen.”
“I might incriminate myself.”
“On the contrary, if you help prevent a crime, you’ll get praise, respect and a commendation.”
“Prevent it? You don’t understand, sir. I’m the one who wants to kill him!”
I’ve sometimes heard women say they’d liked to kill the man in their life, but only in a manner of speaking. This seemed something more than exaggeration.
“It’s my boyfriend Woodrow–Woody Pecklar. You’ve heard of him? The country bandleader and vocalist? Well, I think he’s been cheating on me.”
“You think or you know?” I asked.
“I suspect so, but I’ve got to make sure before I do anything I might regret. I’m going out of my mind! Can you help me?”
Los Angeles was beginning to look like a viable option compared to this dangerous soap opera, but it was too late to bargain. And anyhow, the Frye case just might be the bargaining chip I needed to chase those Delta stripers.
Emmie told me that Woody’s Delta Drifters was a country western band that was heading for the big time. It had begun in a Stockton garage, moved on to small clubs and lounges along the Delta, and was now hitting a circuit of country music showrooms. Attired in white-spangled suits and big white hats, the Drifters gained a following. Pecklar’s brash and flamboyant personality was no small part of the band’s appeal. Female fans couldn’t leave him alone. Exactly what he wanted. And precisely what worried Emmie.
“We had a set-to about his ‘lady friends’–only I didn’t exactly call them ladies. Last time I saw him, I threw a tantrum and a flower pot at him. Maybe that’s why I haven’t seen him since. Not that anyone could blame me. Men aren’t exactly saints. You never know where they’ll wander. And we’re supposed to forgive and forget? Well, I say phooey! Any man that breaks this gal’s heart is going to get something broke in return!”
Emmie made no secret of what she would do to her darling country boy if he’d betrayed his promise to be faithful and committed. But Woody and the Drifters were out on the road now—a long road that led them to the southwest and deep South. Emmie saw the road lined with enough temptations to make the devil merry. Nor did it help that Woody’s communication with her had become suspiciously sporadic–owing, he apologized, to the demands of the band, the tour, the food, transport, accommodations—and so on.
“Monkey business, most like,” Emmie complained. “I have half a mind to get myself down there and confront him. Then I would know for sure. He’s out on the circuit and I’m stuck here waitressing, working for peanuts and tips. I don’t make a fortune, but I can pay you whatever I have if you can help me. Otherwise, I don’t know what I might do—only that I might well do it. And that scares me!”
Hell hath no fury like a woman who’s lost her cowboy. But could I get Emmie to listen to reason and be sensible rather than homicidal? It didn’t help that Iris had assured her I was capable of miracles.
“Miz Noire said you can do most anything you set your mind to. She said if anyone can set Woody on the straight path, you can. Well, what I would like you to do, sir, is to find him and see what’s going on. Talk to him man to man. Tell him how much he stands to lose if he doesn’t do right by me. If it’s just show business, that’s all right with me, I can forgive that. But if there’s anything more than music on his schedule, I need to know. I need you to tell me the truth!”
There are times when a private detective is compelled to play the role of therapist and counselor. This was surely one of them. But even if I managed to track down the Drifters to determine Woody’s conduct and intentions, as Emmie wished, the leader of the band was sure to tell me I had no business poking into his private life. If he was short-tempered, he might show me the exit in a hurry, graced with a five-knuckle fare-thee-well. And if I told Emmie what she didn’t want to hear, would she feel compelled to hunt the man down? And then? A war of words? Or something worse than words?
The conclusion was obvious. In order to spare Emmie a prison sentence, it was up to me to convince her that Woody was a missing person in both senses of the term. It was the kind of melodrama for which you receive absolutely no training at the private detective academy.
I explained that my case load was heavy, but if Emmie was willing to be patient and give Woody the benefit of the doubt, and pledge that under no circumstances would she make him a target, I would see what I could do. She paused, as if undecided whether to believe me or pay her wandering troubadour a deadly surprise visit. Then she reached in her handbag and removed a fifty dollar bill. It was all she had.
“Keep it,” I said. “No payment until Woody does right by you. And he just might, if given the chance. The important thing is to keep an open mind. Don’t close the door on someone you love. That can only make things worse. Living with constant fear and suspicion, you don’t really have a life, do you? And isn’t it up to you to choose a better one?”
I was grasping at straws, hoping to reduce Emmie’s boiling temper to a simmer. The idea of giving Woody the benefit of the doubt helped put the matter in fresh perspective for her and gave her time to reflect on a course of action. For a long, tense moment, she wavered between the allure of vengeance and the embrace of faith.
“Here,” she said, reaching again in her purse, but this time far more slowly and cautiously, as if something in the depth of her bag had to be handled with extreme care. She removed the object, leaned forward and set it gently before me on my desk. I stared down at a petite revolver, one of the smallest weapons of its kind I had ever seen. It was dainty enough to accommodate a lady’s sense of discretion and deadly enough, at close range, to serve the purpose for which it was designed.
“I keep it for protection,” Emmie explained, “But I might be tempted to use it for—well, never mind. Take it and keep it for me, won’t you, please? No, don’t congratulate me for being sensible! I haven’t been sensible since I lost my heart to Woody. Good sense flies out the window when you lose your heart to someone. A heart can’t be reclaimed as easily as if you held a pawn ticket. I don’t expect you to understand that, sir. Men just don’t get it. They ignore our feelings. They ignore what matters to us. They simply have no idea what it’s like to be a woman!”
She stopped, choked up, shook her head at the handkerchief I offered her and then grabbed it to daub her eyes and blow her nose.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m okay now, honestly I am. Sometimes you can’t see things straight. You can’t see things as they are, only as you imagine them. I don’t know, maybe it’s like you say, if you stop and take a second look—-”
Emmie’s words hit home. At that moment, I realized I, too, had been short-sighted—blind to the truth of the Gamble case. The answer had been there all along, staring me in the face, waiting for me to open my eyes to Gamble’s game. The time had come for me to take a closer look.
The consultation was over. Emmie took my hand to thank me for easing her agitation and encouraging her hopes. How long that would last was anyone’s guess. It was up to Woody now, and my hunch was that the “Drifter” was gone from her life. And so much the better for Emmie, whose demand for clarity and honesty in her relationship said something commendable about her. What it said about Woody was something else.
“You take care now and try to remember what I said,” was my parting advice. I suspected she was chasing a lost dream, and perhaps handing me her weapon meant that she had begun to sense that as well. As for Woody, having already a ducked a flower pot, it was unlikely he would return for more. The likelihood was that the Drifters would drift farther and farther from the Delta. That being the case, perhaps the girl Woody left behind would come to accept what she could not change. If so, a last word from me might help her when the moment came. But I was as fresh out of wisdom as an empty fortune cookie.
The only thing that came to mind at that moment was something I’d learned not from the hardships of love, but from the rigors of the sea.
“You can’t change the direction of the wind,” I told her as we parted, hoping a bit of sailing savvy might provide as true a course for her life as it had mine, “but you can always adjust your sails to reach your destination.”
As for me, It was high time to adjust my sails and direct myself toward the solution of the mystery.
The surprising solution to the mystery of “The Getaway” comes your way soon in the fourth and final episode of our Delta Detective serial. Will our sleuth find the missing financier dead or alive? Can he help enlighten his mystified neighbor about her overvalued farm property? And has he enabled the tormented Emmie Frye to find happiness in life without her wandering Delta Drifter?
If you’re impatient for answers, check the clues in the first three parts of our serial, refrain from sailing and other distractions, and see if you can solve the caper before the Delta Detective.