(From the files of the Delta Detective Agency)
After solving the perplexing mystery of a missing San Francisco financier, resolving the problem of an unsuspected treasure in the parlor of a Delta farm neighbor, and defusing the potential homicide of a country-western rambler, the Delta Detective has clearly earned himself some rest and relaxation, not to mention a tamale pie and brew at Yolanda’s Riverfront Cantina.
But, as Sherlock Holmes might say as he slipped into his sneakers, “The game is afoot.”
Our hero can’t resist the hunt for a vanished nature lover or escape the concerns of Iris Noire for a close friend whose private life has more than a hint of danger.
You can catch up with the DD’s latest exploits in this two-part adventure of “The Goddess of Justice.” But be warned. That nature lover is no delicate rose or shrinking violet. And that close friend just happens to be a noted mystery writer whose plots aren’t always confined to the page or screen.
It all began one afternoon when I returned from a search for a missing woman whose passion in life was hiking alone and camping solo. Her other delight was visiting her adored grandmother, from whom she inherited diminutive size, vivid red hair, and a habit of losing herself in the deep woods.
But this outing was different. Amelia Ryder-Hood had gone into a nature reserve and did not come out. Fearing the worst, her family offered a substantial reward for anyone who could find the intrepid Ms. Hood or any trace of her. No one did. It was as if the woods had swallowed the petite adventuress.
The family then decided to consult the missing person specialist at the Delta Detective Agency. Out I went on the hunt with full gear, canteen and rations. I searched on and off trails, in and out of groves, thickets, ravines and streams, keeping all my senses open and alert to the possibility of a clue.
On the third day, I found the woman sitting in a camouflage tent designed to deceive the onlooker by mimicking its surroundings. Calmly munching a Granola bar and reading Henry David Thoreau, she was annoyed with me for intruding on her space and interrupting her communion with nature. When she demanded to know how I managed to track her, I agreed to tell her if she would allow me to take a photo back with me to prove she was alive and well, along with any personal message she cared to convey to her family. That way, I explained, I could ensure collecting my fee—and the reward money.
“You don’t ask too much, do you, Mr. Snoop?” Ms. Hood frowned. “Is that how you make a living?”
“Just doing my job,” I said. “But you have my word I won’t reveal your location. Fair enough?”
“I wish you’d been as blind as all the others. They couldn’t find an elephant if it sat on their lap.”
Tart- tongued and short-fused as a firecracker, the feisty redhead was a handful.
“Thanks for the compliment, Ms. Hood. Do you have a message I can take to your family to reassure them you’re having a fine time hiding yourself and enjoying Thoreau in an organic environment?”
“Can the smart talk, buster. No one need worry about me. I’m self-reliant and a survivor. If they don’t know that by now, this ought to prove it. Now take your picture and get yourself lost.”
I did so with pleasure and relief. But when I looked back, she was staring after me with an expression not of anger or resentment, but of curiosity and perplexity. I paused to tell her where she could find me when she returned to the real world and felt in need of investigative counseling or merely someone to chat up the green habits of Thoreau. Then I waved farewell, with a smile, to which she did not respond.
Her family was angry and embarrassed. Was Amelia disappearing on purpose? What game was she playing? And how had I managed to find her when a little army of searchers had found nothing at all?
“Detective vision,” I answered the last question first.
“Detective vision?” Ms. Hood’s unpleasant stepfather asked sharply. “What in the world is that?”
“The art of seeing what others can’t.”
“Like X-ray vision? Who do you think you are—Superman?”
“My secretary doesn’t think so.”
“You’re making it up or pulling my leg, aren’t you? What does this detective vision really give you?”
“And how did Little Red react when you found her?”
“She wasn’t happy being found, didn’t consider me a rescuer, and gave me a look to freeze water. My guess is that she’s moved on from where I found her to another nest, but I can’t tell you where.”
“The little scamp is probably on her way to grandmother’s house for a hot shower and home-cooked meal,” he grumbled as he wrote out a check for my services. “Unless a wolf ate her on the way, the two of them are having a merry time over bamboozling us. From now on, we’re washing our hands of her, and you can tell her that if you ever see her again. Let her find her own way out of the woods!”
“I don’t think that will be too difficult for her,” I said. “And you needn’t worry about a wolf. In the first place, there are none. In the second, she had a pistol on her hip. I don’t think it was just for show.”
By the time I returned to Delta Detections and handed her the check, Iris Noire said she was on the verge of sending a search party after me. I retired to my office, put my weary feet up on my desk and indulged a vacation fantasy of hunting in the far northern wilderness, pursuing wild game by day and spending long evenings around a campfire, telling tall tales and feasting on wilderness delicacies such as duck, trout and roasted moose with a marmalade condiment (a pairing unknown even to Parisian chefs).
“Are you daydreaming or napping?” Iris Noire whispered in my ear. I explained my dream to her.
“Oh, that’s hilarious!” she chuckled. “Well, sir, maybe I can interest you in something more interesting and rewarding than chasing mooses—I mean moose. How about joining me and a crowd of mystery fans? We’re paying homage to a celebrity author at a Sacramento book party tomorrow night.”
“No can do, Iris, but if you need time off to drive up, take it, that’s fine with me.”
“Actually, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind being my escort? I don’t want to go alone. The author is an old chum, a very talented and interesting lady. I know you would enjoy meeting her.”
“Sorry, I have plans. Feel free to leave whenever you like and have Naomi handle the desk.”
But Iris had a better idea.
“Suppose we both knock off early? Skip the traffic. Sail the Delta Dazzler up to Sacto. You get your favorite recreation and I get my party. You get to meet a fascinating lady and I get to congratulate her. Of course, it’s entirely up to you, sir. I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your commitments……”
Like fun she wouldn’t. But Iris was right about one thing. It was a splendid opportunity for sailing.
The western wind filled our sails as we moved steadily up the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers. The low and level landscape of the Delta showed abundant signs of spring, with California buckeye and other flourishing plants, roaming bees, swallowtail butterflies, and hawks soaring far overhead. The evidence was overwhelming that Mother Nature had wearied of Old Man Winter and sent the cold-hearted cuss packing.
Iris sat forward, watching the spectacle unfold without speaking a word. I could only wonder what she was thinking or why this event was so important to her. As we neared port, she went below to attend to her hair and makeup, leaving me to ponder how, once again, she had maneuvered me. Sailing was of course the key. But it was also a matter of prudent employee relations on my part. A man’s gotta do what his office manager, executive secretary and personnel dispatcher (Iris being all three) says he really ought to do.
We arrived well before the guest of honor. Iris vanished into a gaggle of chatty ladies. I wandered to the bar and got an earful from a red-faced guy named Jerry who said he was the author’s press agent. He told me a few tales about her and was on his next drink before I could order my cranberry Romanov.
“Just a trickle of vodka, please, not a splash, not a torrent,” I ordered the barista. He made an elaborate show biz act of the trickle as if to show everyone that I was terrified of the Russian nemesis.
And then the trumpets blared and in walked the star attraction: mystery author Dahlia Daggart.
The crowd rushed to meet and greet her, creating what Jerry said was an architectural imbalance and gravity shift. The wily press agent was gripping the edge of the bar with both hands rather than fall off his stool when Iris dragged me off to introduce me to her famous friend.
“Iris has told me so much about you! Delighted you could come! And by boat? How lovely! My party wouldn’t be complete without a real detective—an actual private eye–and my dear old friend, Iris…”
Escaping admirers buzzing about her like a swarm about a hive, Dahlia welcomed me with extended hands and air kisses that helped avoid snagging her long necklace of exquisitely carved gems that flashed and twinkled with her every animated gesture. She shone in other respects as well, according to the well-informed Jerry, who described his client as an outspoken activist, a boundary pusher, and a consummate actress who could turn on the charm with the force of a fire department hose.
“Sounds like you know a thing or two about the mystery lady,” I told him.
“I ought to,” Jerry acknowledged, signaling the barista for another. “I was her second husband.”
“I’m so sorry,” Dahlia continued, “Iris mentioned your name to me, but the crowd is so loud, and whatever she told me I either lost in the buzz or my brain accidentally hit the delete button.”
“The story of my life,” I shrugged. “Speaking of stories, Iris speaks very highly of yours.”
“You would, too, if you read one. A private investigator like yourself would adore my Delta sleuth. He’s right up your alley—or should I say, noir alley? I’m a chum of Eddie’s, you know the film noir czar? He’s the sharp dresser, right over there. I just love when he gives us the low-down on ‘new-wahr’ and ends by telling us to stay out of the shadows. Of course, if you make a living writing about it as I do, the shadows is where you want to be….”
I didn’t know who or what she was talking about, but I tried to keep up my end of the conversation.
“I think Iris has every book you’ve written on her shelf,” I said, “lined up in alphabetical order.”
“Chronological,” Iris corrected me. “If you want alphabetical, you collect Sue Grafton.”
“Sue who?” I asked.
“Oh, the poor dear!” Dahlia responded. “A real sweetheart and a writer’s writer. She didn’t live to finish her last novel, more’s the pity, but I hear her publisher has another hand working on it. If so, that will bring the cycle to completion. We’ll then have all 26 titles, from A is for Alibi to Z is for—well, whatever. Is there a crime that starts with Z, Mr. Detective?”
“Let me see. I handled the case of the Zippo lighter, the case of the mad scientist Zarkov, and—“
“So you haven’t read Danger Stalks the Delta yet? The critics are calling it my finest to date.”
“Iris is a slow reader, but as soon as she’s finished with it, if ever, I’m sure she’ll let me borrow.”
“Why not buy a copy for yourself? I’ll personally autograph. Then you and Iris can have something to talk about besides business and the office. Help support your poor, struggling, local mystery writer!”
She was a terrific saleswoman, but I had a few facts from Jerry to demolish her self-characterization. Not that I would do so to a lady in ordinary circumstances, but the author’s vanity and playacting seemed to me in need of correction.
“Mother told me never to contradict a lady, but according to your agent, whom I met at the bar, you’re not struggling. Correct me if Jerry was wrong, but you got a six-figure advance for Danger, and Hollywood and Netflix are locked in a bidding war for film rights. No tin cup for you, Jerry said.”
“I’m going to have to fire Jerry. He talks far too much when not sober— which is usually the case.”
“He’s all right. Once he figured out what I did for a living, he figured I could be trusted with secrets.”
“Which is more than I can say for him,” Dahlia said as she was called away for book signing and photos. “But maybe I can trust you with one of my own. We’ll talk later.”
“That’s one tough cookie,” I told Iris as we watched Dahlia turn the charm on her happy fans.
“She’s a woman who usually gets her way, if that’s what you mean by tough.”
“I guess authors are like that. They get their way in writing, so they think: why not everything else?”
“They’re not the only ones who think so,” Iris said.
“How would you describe that powerhouse manner of hers? Is there a name for it?”
“The Daggart charm? She’s an irresistible force.”
“She couldn’t even remember my name.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, sir, you really should have listened to your mother about never contradicting a lady. But I think Dolly (her friends call her that) likes you anyhow. Maybe she respects someone who dares to criticize her. Maybe you have a charm of your own.”
“You ought to know. So what’s the secret she wants to talk to me about?”
“Perhaps she wants your professional opinion about a plot or a character.”
“Why would a mystery writer need a private detective when she has a sleuth of her own?”
“Maybe she’s running out of ideas and needs a bit of inspiration,” Iris teased.
“That wouldn’t be anything she happened to mention to you, would it? Which would explain the reason you wanted me to bring you here?”
Iris dodged the question and helped herself to a complimentary glass of champagne off the silver tray of a passing server who took no notice of her nimble theft.
“Now that’s settled, suppose you tell me a little more about your friend,” I said. That she could do.
Iris said Dahlia’s new novel continued a Delta-based series of mysteries that opened a region with which most Californians are unfamiliar—except for occasional news stories about tunnels, ecological issues, imperiled wildlife and threats to the state’s drinking water. Therein lay the novelist’s advantage. Opening the Delta for mystery readers provided an opportunity for Dahlia to expand her horizons and acquire a readership for a new kind of crime writing that transcended the usual stereotypes.
“All right, I’m impressed,” I said. “She does seem to have everything going for her, doesn’t she?”
“No, not everything,” Iris said. “I don’t want to talk here. Can we go out on the verandah for a breath of air?”
The two of us stood admiring the view of the Delta at sundown and sailboats taking timely advantage of the evening breeze. The low sun laid down a path of shimmering gold across the waters, emblazoning the sails of passing craft.
Iris cast a quick glance about us to make sure we were absolutely alone before she continued her story.
“Frankly, I’m worried about the company she keeps.”
“I would be too if I was surrounded by all those starry-eyed mystery readers and whodunit addicts.”
It wasn’t what Iris meant.
“I mean the men she’s involved with. They can be pleasant enough, even at times charming, but some of them make me instinctively clutch my wallet. And there’s a few I wouldn’t want to be alone with in an elevator. My intuition tells me she’s on the wrong path—a path that could prove perilous.”
“But your friend doesn’t feel the same way?”
“Not at first, but thankfully, she doesn’t hold on to any of them for very long. It’s as if she comes to her senses about her bad judgment. And when she does, off they go. I’ll later read that one or the other of them is under suspicion or under indictment. Or has flown the coop to avoid prosecution.”
“Now you’re interesting me. So what is this? A rogue’s gallery of unsavory gentlemen friends?”
“Some gentlemen. One was indicted for selling phony stock in robots. One for selling counterfeit bit coins. Another was living the good life in the Caribbean until the feds traced his offshore accounts. Now he’s doing a bit of island-hopping himself—trying to keep a step and a jump ahead of the law.”
“Well, Iris, as I’ve heard you say, a woman’s entitled to make her share of mistakes.”
“A share, yes, not an entire catalogue of them. Should I tell you about the mistake who was marketing the venom of vipers as a health cure? How about the one whose phone scams targeted nervous social media types with fake malware? And that’s just for starters—or so she tells me.”
“But why would she admit that? Why would she tell you?”
“Because we’re this close. Because our friendship goes back to childhood. And when it comes to secrets, who can you trust more than a lifetime confidante? Not that she tells me everything. I have a feeling she’s holding something back. It may be the reason why she asked me to bring you along.”
“As I suspected! And here I thought I was just a nice guy helping you get where you wanted to go.”
“Then help me some more here. I have a long way to go where Dahlia is concerned. Tell me this: if she’s attracting the wrong kind, could it be her name, her fame, her success, that draws them to her?”
“It’s possible if they see her as a mark,” I nodded. “Schemers and con men on the lookout for a loan, a stake, a soft touch. But from what you tell me, she seems to catch on to them pretty quickly and dump them before she’s hurt. So maybe she’s got her own built-in damage control.”
“She’s been lucky so far, but how long can her luck hold? She may be heading for a disaster if she doesn’t stop this. I want to save her from that. I don’t want her to get hurt.”
“That’s decent of you, Iris, but maybe you’re reading a little too much into it. There could be a simpler explanation you haven’t considered. Suppose she’s just shopping around until she meets Mr. Right?”
“By going through a department store of Mr. Wrongs? That’s the most novel approach to romance I’ve ever heard. Next you’ll be telling it’s just coincidence she collects that kind of man and that the same power of coincidence will someday present her with someone she’s meant to meet all along.”
“Marvelous idea for a TV series.”
“Picture this: the heroine lures unsuspecting males with the Daggart charm and then regrets her choices and banishes them from her life, only to have them come back with blackmail or other threats.”
“Please don’t be funny! It’s not a laughing matter. I want to help her. But what can I advise her besides seeking a relationship counselor to help her learn how to avoid these guys in the first place?”
“Tell her to hire a bodyguard.”
“For distinguished literary dames who can’t pick one good apple from the barrel.”
“That’s enough,” Iris said impatiently. “Come on, we’d better get back before she wonders what’s become of us.”
“Maybe it’s time we left the party,” I suggested tactfully. Iris shook her head.
“She’s giving a small dinner party for us and a few friends after this is over. I saw who she brought with her tonight, and unless I miss my guess, he may be the latest on that list of undesirables. If that’s the case, he’d be worth your while to observe.”
“Because he may be the secret she mentioned. And the reason she’d consider hiring you.”
–End, Part 1 –
Having successfully traced “Little Red” Ryder-Hood to her cleverly concealed lair in the woods and allowed Iris Noire to cajole him into sailing up river to a book event, the Delta Detective now finds himself intrigued by the bad company a noted mystery author is keeping. The author may want him to do something about it. At least Iris hopes she will—and he will.
The question is whether the detective can remedy a relationship problem that is a mystery in itself. Why is it that the men in Dahlia Daggart’s life have an odd habit of winding up under investigation, under indictment or underground?
The answer and the surprising outcome of his inquiry will be revealed in part two of “The Goddess of Justice.” In the meantime, review the clues and apply what our sleuth calls “detective vision” to see if you can come up with a theory of your own.
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.