Part 4 of 4
Having diverted Emmie Frye from the rocky road of romantic revenge and taken possession of the deadly little “peashooter” in her purse that might have punctuated the career of Woody Pecklar, lead singer and country boy idol of the Delta Drifters, I was now a hero in the eyes of Iris Noire, who had urged me with tears in her eyes to take the case.
I now had the freedom to investigate a case of my own choosing. According to the feds who had invited me to take part in the hunt for Gordon Gamble, the elusive and wily wheeler-dealer had pulled up stakes in Fog City and disappeared into the Delta. There were various theories to explain his vanishing. His wife said her husband was pursuing a unique business opportunity, presumably one that would put him back in the big time. The feds took another view, believing Gamble had gone into hiding to escape anxious and irate clients who wondered where their money had gone. They smelled a case of financial fraud and wanted to have a little talk with a man they described to me as a fugitive.
For my part, I saw Gamble playing an adroit game of cat-and-mouse. Crime that involves the art of deception requires a criminal to exercise a fine sense of calculation, cunning and misdirection. Gamble had managed to outwit his clients, the feds, and perhaps even his wife. To end his little game, I would have to discover what it was; and to do that required me to find the invisible man. But where to begin?
The key question for me was why Gamble had taken time to court my friend Stella Montegna with increasingly larger offers for her marginally valuable property. With so much else at stake, why would he bother? Stella’s small-scale honey and olive oil products were of no value to a man like that. He knew nada about cultivating and marketing ag products on a small farm. His lovely story to her about taking up a new life as a Delta devotee didn’t play. Embracing a bucolic fantasy of a back-to-nature lifestyle was surely an odd aspiration for a man who lived in a Frisco mansion and preyed on the greed of urban investors who hired him to arrange for them to become easy millionaires or lazy billionaires.
Stella had noted how GG’s eyes had a curious habit of straying from her as they talked. She put it down to a nervous mannerism. I wondered if something in that room was claiming his attention. But what could a man like that find to engage his interest in the humble parlor of an old Delta farmhouse?
I called on Stella at her small farm to see if I might find a clue that Gamble had unwittingly left behind. I asked her to show me exactly where her visitor had sat and at what angle. I then put myself in his chair to try and view the scene through his eyes. My line of sight ended at the fireplace. I crossed the room to examine it and found a hearth of solid brick and undisturbed ash. Its long mantel contained a crowded collection of family photos and mementos containing nothing more than nostalgic interest.
Disappointed, I turned away with a cursory glance at the time-dimmed painting that hung above the mantel. As I did so, I saw something that made me pause and look again, this time more carefully.
“What is it?” Stella asked as I pressed my face closer to the canvas. “Have you found something?”
“Not sure. May I move it into a better light for viewing? What can you tell me about it?”
“Been in the family for years. I don’t pay it any attention. With the smoke and all, I should have had it cleaned. But you know how it is with little things you mean to do and never get around to doing.”
I brushed the canvas gently and persistently with a sponge she provided me. As I did so, figures in the garden began to emerge. Elements of a plot began to cohere. What we took at first sight to be a quaint, nocturnal landscape of no particular significance was in fact an ancient tale of conspiracy and betrayal.
“I never noticed that before,” Stella said. “Did you know it was going to be there or did you guess?”
Concealed in the foreground shadows of the garden, soldiers poised to arrest a suspect made known to them by the kiss of an informer in their pay. The fact that the soldiers were clad in the helmets and uniforms of imperial Rome left little doubt about the identity of the suspect and the fate awaiting him. There was no possibility of escape for him or for the viewer, whom the painter made witness to an appalling crime and the serenity of the victim who expressed no emotion except to pity his betrayer.
“I see it now,” Stella said. “But I doubt he was looking at this. I’m not sure he could even see what it was, given the grime. And he never said a word about it to me. Wouldn’t he at least mention it or say something to me? I think he must have had other things on his mind than a faded old painting.”
“Speaking of which, have you heard back from him regarding his offer for your property?”
”No, not a word. That’s the odd thing. He said he’d be in touch, but when I called the number on his card, a voice said it was no longer in service. A friend of mine in the city went down to check on the office for me; a sign on the door said it was closed until further notice. How do you like that? First, that guy can’t wait to buy my place; now he’s nowhere to be found. What do you think happened?”
“He may have run out of interest or maybe he—hold on, what did you just say? Nowhere? Thank you, Stella! You’ve just given me the clue I need.”
“I did? Well, you’re the detective, not me. But if you’re going to go looking for him, I think the man you want might be holed up in or around Walnut Grove. That’s where you might want to look for him.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Well, he mentioned how much he liked eating at some place out there—Juicy’s, I think it was called. The bartender told him a famous detective used to anchor his boat nearby and come in for the steak.”
“A famous detective with a boat and a fondness for steak? Did this detective have a name?”
“He told me what it was, if I can remember. Let’s see—something like Barry? “I’m no good when it comes to names, but just give me a quick minute here and maybe I can come up with it. Barry? No. Gary? Sperry? No.”
“That’s all right Stella. I think I know the place you mean. I’ll ask the bartender next time in.”
But Stella was determined. She closed her eyes to concentrate and capture that elusive name. “Perry!—yes, that’s who he was. Perry Mason. Ever hear of him? Used to be on television a while back?”
“I’ll ask the barkeep if he still gets off his boat for the steak. You take care, Stella. Keep the honey and oil flowing, and keep your customers happy. I’ll let you know if I find your invisible man.”
“Watch out for that slippery character! What’s that old song about the man who wasn’t there?”
San Francisco was my next stop, but not, alas, for the ocean salmon. I ran the Delta Dazzler down on a brisk tide to the broad bay and steered my way through a flotilla of trim sailboats and luxurious yachts—status symbols for the city’s new elite of wealthy techies putting the gold back in the Golden Gate.
After berthing, I taxied up the high hills of Pacific Heights to the ornate gates of the Gamble mansion, the most impressive pile on a block of ridiculously expensive real estate. There, I showed the mansion’s haughty butler the card Mallory had given me and stated I was assisting the investigation.
“The federal investigation,” I added with dramatic emphasis to offset the butler’s frown of skepticism.
That cut it. The servant led me down a long corridor of impressive paintings and empty frames to the library and bid me wait while he informed the lady of the house. His tone of voice suggested I was not a welcome visitor. I imagined he probably looked the same way to Girl Scouts who came calling with fundraising cookies and camera-slung tourists who requested a quick peek at the grandeur inside.
Left alone, I went to work, surveying shelves filled with books devoted to the history and marketing of fine art. Evidently, Gamble was putting his reading to good use. My stroll down the hallway showed me he’d acquired valuable art pieces for his collection, some of museum quality. He could afford it, to be sure, but what he could not afford was the loss of clients whose investments supported not only his lifestyle, but his collector’s passion. If he lost enough of those investors, would he be forced to tap his collection to cover his losses? Perhaps he preferred to take advantage of a naive farm woman who had no idea of what hung on her parlor wall.
If Gamble’s getaway had nothing to do with raising bees, cultivating olives, marketing to weekenders or exchanging the hectic big town for a quiet place in the country, what was his purpose? And if the painting was his objective, why had he said nothing about it and then given up the pursuit?
My long wait in the library gave me time to review the facts and fit some of the pieces of the puzzle. I then decided to call Mallory and report my progress. I wanted to surprise him. Instead, he surprised me.
“Glad you checked in,” he said. “The fact is, we no longer need your services. The case is closed and we’re moving on.”
“You mean you found him?”
“No. But Gamble has returned the money to his clients, with interest and an apology for its belatedness—-owing, he told them, to ‘unexpected market conditions’. None of them wish to press charges now that they have their money back, plus interest. That’s it so far as we’re concerned. Sorry, there’s no reward for your time and effort, but I’ll send a letter of commendation for your services. You can’t take it to the bank, but if you frame it and put it up on your waiting room wall, I’d be willing to bet it would help convince your prospective clients that you’re the man they want. Goodbye and good luck!”
Before I could reply, my cell phone was loud with the dial tone of Mallory’s departure.
When Mrs. Gamble arrived, in no sweet temper, she wasted no time telling me that my visit was unauthorized and my presence was illegal. I told her that Mallory had just given me the news.
“Then what do you think you’re doing here?”she demanded. “Leave at once or I’ll call the police.”
“All I want is five minutes with your husband, to satisfy my own curiosity on a few minor matters. Nothing he tells me will go any farther than the walls of this house. Why bother the police over nothing? And please don’t bother to deny your husband is here. I know a little more than you assume. For one thing, I know you lied beautifully and convincingly for your husband’s sake. What good wife wouldn’t?”
She was about to deny that, too, but there was no reason to lie any more. She knew that I knew; what she didn’t know was that my knowledge was half guesswork and half bluff. Reluctantly, she led me to an indoor swimming pool where a solitary swimmer was doing a series of laps with the untiring precision and perseverance of an aquatic robot. I had found Gordon Gamble. I couldn’t have been happier if I found Dr. Livingston. Such moments are the delights of detection.
Mrs. Gamble called her husband over, explained who I was and what I wanted, and then left the two of us to sort it out, with a final word to me. “Remember, sir, five minutes or I call the police.”
“Let’s give him fifteen, he might have more than one question,” Gamble said with a grin, waving her off as he climbed out of the pool and took a towel. “Don’t mind Dorothy. She’s a little afraid you’ll call Mallory to tell him what you found and he’ll cook up a charge to get even for being bamboozled. She doesn’t understand he’s out of the picture now. Which brings us to you, sir. And you are who?”
He didn’t seem in the least perturbed that I was following up on what was now officially a cold case. The fact that I wished to satisfy my own curiosity about his scheme seemed almost to amuse him.
“You knew you’d find me here?” he asked.
“I suspected it.”
“Game to you, old sport. Mind telling me how you figured it?”
“You had the feds convinced you remained in the Delta. No wonder they couldn’t find you. The way I saw it, a man on the run doesn’t use credit cards that might identify him and pinpoint his location; he pays cash unless he wants to lay down a paper trail. Which you did in order to throw the federal posse off track. And then there’s the little matter I really came to see you about: Mrs. Montegna’s painting.”
“Ah! You’ve been doing your homework. Well done! Do you have a theory about that, too?”
“It wasn’t you who contacted her, was it? For one thing, you don’t look anything like the man she described to me. For another, you didn’t need to be the decoy on the scene. Too risky. My guess is that you sent an agent of yours to impersonate you and see about the painting. He remained in the area, dropping your name, using your credit card. You knew the feds would come after you, circulate your photo and description. You gave them a wild goose chase, closed on the painting, and gave yourself a free hand here in town. Correct me if I’m wrong.”
Gamble nodded. “I was on a tour last spring with friends who visited that farm. I was thoroughly bored with it until I saw the painting. I suspected it might be an original. I couldn’t tell for sure, but more than one lost masterpiece has turned up in someone’s attic or church basement. It’s not every day you find one on a farm house wall in the middle of nowhere, but one never knows about such things.”
“You left thinking you might come back for it someday?”
“Should the need arise. And it did. The market went into a death spiral and my investors began pulling out right and left. I sent my man to the farm to get some close-up photos for me, and try to obtain it without being obvious. That was the hard part.”
“Is that why your agent offered to buy the farm instead of the painting itself?”
“Correct. We didn’t want to call attention to it or else the woman might become suspicious. She had no idea what it was she had, but she was no fool. It was much less of a risk to offer her a property buyout and say nothing about the painting. The one would come our way with the other.”
“And the buyout would cost you far less than what you might realize on the sale of the painting?”
“To a private collector willing to acquire it at any price? Indeed. I had just such a man in mind—he moved into the old Scanlon mansion, not far from here. He’s in a hurry to get some culture up on his walls and impress his guests. One of those new arrivals who thinks he’s making San Francisco great again, you know, like the golden-haired wonder boy with the slogan on his red baseball cap?”
“And your man kept upping the property offer to see if he could crack the lady’s resistance? What if she’d accepted?”
“I’d have replaced her painting with a copy before delivering it to our buyer. He’d already agreed to keep silent about how he came by the painting. The money was there. All the pieces were in place. The woman was weakening as our offer went up and up. It was only a matter of time….”
But in the end, you didn’t do any of that. I saw the empty frames in your hallway and knew you’d sold a good share of your collection to pay off your clients and send Mallory packing. That’s the puzzle for me. You’re not a man who gives up the game when he wants something. And yet you did. Why?”
Gamble shrugged. “Can’t win ‘em all. My clients got their money back and more. The feds saw no reason to linger. And Mrs. Montegna kept her painting. Everyone got what they wanted.”
“Everyone except you. What changed your mind? Was it the woman? She didn’t want to sell her little farm, but everyone has their price, don’t they?”
“If the price is right. But no, it wasn’t her. She never caught on. Mallory? He didn’t get it either.”
“If you don’t mind enlightening me, I don’t mind listening. I still have five minutes.”
Gamble dried his hair with a second towel and took a moment to consider his reply. “My man took the photos I wanted when he was alone in the parlor. He sent them to me and I enlarged them to examine pigments, brushstrokes and other details. I wanted to be certain of the work’s authenticity.”
“And you found something to make you doubt?”
“I saw something, yes, something I didn’t expect to see. A little warning bell went off inside me. I began to question my plan and weigh the risk involved. I decided not to go forward with it. That’s all there is to it.”
“Is it? I wonder if it’s more than that. Are we talking only about the painting or something personal?”
“I think I’ve said enough. I have to get back now. My clients have been calling me with new orders. The return of their money has restored their faith in me. That’s the name of the game. If I were you, I wouldn’t tell Mr. Mallory anything he doesn’t already know. It’s too late for that anyhow. And honestly, Mr. Detective, does anyone really care?”
“Just me. One last question, if you don’t mind? The feds told me they maintained a watch here in case you got homesick. But as you were here, how did you manage to come and go without being observed? Or did you stay indoors the whole time?”
“They only watched the front of the house. The back falls steeply to a broken hillside and appears to be a dead end. In fact, there’s a well-concealed entrance there with a secret passageway that extends throughout the house. It was installed during Prohibition to smuggle in the hooch. A few years back, I converted the storage area into a private office. I was working there when Mallory and company arrived with search warrants. What a laugh! What they took away were blank computers and worthless papers that I purposely planted in case the law should come calling. They contained nothing of any use.”
“You seem to have thought of everything, Mr. Gamble. Everything except—well, whatever it was.”
“By the time you master the game, as someone once said, the rules have changed. I’ve found that you are more than likely to win the game if you’re the one who changes the rules. A pleasure meeting you! Why don’t you leave me your card? I might have need of someone of your talents in the future.”
And then he was gone, leaving me to wonder how much of what I’d heard was true, how much was evasion, and how much was governed by the necessity of changing the rules of the game.
I stood for a long moment in silence, staring at the late afternoon sun as it entered the row of diamond-shaped windows on the west end of the long pool, igniting the water and casting a flickering pattern on the east wall. I would never know what caused Gamble to give up the painting. Was it a twinge of conscience? A stab of piety? Or had the clarity of detail in those photos showed him that the painting he’d taken for a masterpiece was nothing more than a skillful copy or clever fake?
Perhaps Gamble drew the line at selling an inferior product at a superior price. The risk in case he was exposed would mean a lawsuit and loss of reputation. Maybe the risk seemed greater than the reward. Whatever the explanation, the master of the game and changer of the rules had met his match.
I remained in the city for the balance of the week to look into the matter of a missing will and accept the invitation of a buddy in the SFPD to interest myself in the mystery of a cruise ship that had arrived in port without a passenger who had disappeared somewhere between Hilo and Frisco. Thinking my knowledge of the sea might be of some help, he shared the case file and asked my opinion
“It’s a mighty big pond out there,” I said. “By the way, what are the Giants going to do next season?”
I returned to the Delta at the end of October. No sooner had I entered the office than I was greeted with open arms by the last of Iris Noire’s Halloween pranks. She’d hired local actress Beanie Benet to play a “feminist vampire,” of all things, with midnight eye makeup, blood-red lipstick and a set of candy fangs. This time, Iris had gone too far. But was there any hope of ridding my office of the vamp?
“Think twice, sir!” Iris urged. “Visitors love her. The children adore her. And the ladies see her as a champion of a woman’s right to be powerful and playful in any field of endeavor she chooses. Banish her and you run the risk of political incorrectness. Incorrectness invites protest. Protest brings out pickets. And if the media should get wind of that—imagine the consequences! Besides which, you owe me.”
”Owe you for what?”
In reply, Iris removed seven fifty-dollar bills and waved them at me like casino winnings. Given a hiatus in his road tour, Woody Pecklar had returned with a ring for Emmie Frye. Love had triumphed ater all. Emmie had wept tears of joy and insisted on paying the $50 she initially offered me. Her fifty was joined by six more from Woody, grateful that he’d been met with kisses instead of bullets.
“But I didn’t do anything,” I told my office manager who smiled and shook her head.
”You must have done something or I wouldn’t be holding this handful of Ulysses Simpsons.”
“No, seriously. All I did was calm her down and let her see the situation from another angle. I led her to hope he might do the right thing by her. I told her that not because I believed it, but because it might prevent her from hunting him down with a peashooter in her purse. She seems like a nice kid and I didn’t want to see her life ruined because of some fickle, feckless, faithless cowboy in a spangled suit.”
“Well, sir, whatever your motivation, it certainly succeeded. She’s decided to marry him rather than murder him. And she’s quitting waitressing to become the female vocalist with the Delta Drifters—and keep a close eye on her roving mate. What do you say to that?”
“Watch your back, Woody!”
“And $350 is three hundred fifty more than you realized chasing the invisible man. Hope you had a good time with that little runaround? All right, sir. Let’s move on. Ms. Vampy stays put as our Halloween greeter. Case closed. And now, sir, you’ve got a backload of work and a very full day ahead….”
Fortunately, all was not lost. I worked quickly and efficiently, finished before closing and hastened to Yolanda’s for an early dinner. The savory aroma of black beans and rice, sweet-and-spicy mole and sizzlin’ chimichongas greeted me as I entered the steamy cafe. So did an affectionate cry of “Benevenidos, mi amigo!” from Yolanda at her demonstration cooking station. She issued forth in due course to give me a playful slap on the cheek and her personal recommendation for a special dish of Ropa Vieja.
“Excuse me, senora, but doesn’t that translate as old clothes? Am I missing something here?”
“You will if you don’t try it. My Ropa is shredded beef with cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper and a dash of my very own salsa secreta. Or do you prefer chicken tenderloin, con arroz, frijoles negros y salsa roja para enchiladas. Or perhaps for you, my friend, some lovely Camarones de Mojo al Ajo? What do you say to that?”
I couldn’t say much since my knowledge of Spanish lagged far behind Yolanda’s rapid recital of dining options. I nodded as if I understood whatever it was she was saying and let her proceed to make whatever she pleased. When she returned to gauge my level of culinary contentment, I praised her cooking and raised my glass of Modelo Especial to propose a toast of “seize the day and put no trust in tomorrow,” seeking to revive my discarded business motto and salute its venerable Roman wisdom.
“Oh no, my friend, you must never think that way,” Yolanda swiftly corrected me. “You must put full faith and trust in what tomorrow brings, don’t you see? Otherwise you have no hope, and today has no meaning.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
For my friend’s sake, I hastily proposed a new toast to which I was sure she could raise no possible objection.
“To the valiant salmon, who defy all obstacles (from hungry bears to eager fishermen), and to the brave river bass that I will catch and bring to you to cook for me and then consume with immense satisfaction.”
“Oh, you make the little joke, no? Bueno! Humor is the best way to get through the day, is it not?”
“Otherwise it gets a little grim,” I agreed, filling her glass. She held it up to mine to congratulate me on my insight. I congratulated her in turn by chiming her glass with mine.
And together, we drank to tomorrow.
Editor’s note – Up for more mystery? The Delta Detective returns to action soon in the adventure of “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.”
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.