(From the files of the Delta Detective Agency)
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 is revealed here in part two of “The Goddess of Justice.” In the meantime, review the clues in PART ONE and apply what our sleuth calls “detective vision” to see if you can come up with a theory of your own.
PART TWO –
“Who on earth is that obnoxious little man at the bar?” Iris asked me, pausing at the sight and sound of Jerry the press agent.
“Bad sailor,” I responded.
“Three sheets to the wind, working on a fourth.”
“He reminds me of someone with that funny accent of his. I wonder if I know him from somewhere.”
“Careful, dear, your past is showing.”
“I don’t mean personally,” Iris corrected me.
“That’s a relief. You had me worried for a moment.”
“He has something to do with Dolly, doesn’t he?”
“Somewhere between husband number one and husband number three. He’s her press agent.”
“Oh yes, the one she’s always threatening to fire. I remember that accent. Where’s he from?”
“He’s a Jersey (Joyzee) boy who came west to seek his fortune in the entertainment industry and set up shop as a publicist. He told me his current client list includes a movie mogul who wants to bring back silent film, a novelist whose blank pages are an invitation to meditation, soul singer Queena Sheba, Barkov the Wonder Dog, Tickles the Obnoxious Clown and HeShe, the androgynous comedian who goes back and forth playing the gender game in his performances, leaving audiences gasping.”
“Either he’s making that up to impress you or he’s no ordinary press agent.”
“I doubt anyone could make up a client list like that.”
We had just come in from our talk on the terrace, passing the bar where Jerry was noisily holding forth to anyone who would listen. Topic A was his illustrious client’s rise from obscurity to celebrity. According to Jerry, Dahlia Daggart’s success owed largely to his influence, guidance, and business acumen. Iris and I paused just long enough to get an earful from this self-styled master of publicity.
“As for me,” Jerry was boasting, “my professional motto is contained in one word: excelsior. An old word meaning upward and onward to greater glory and bigger money. The secret of success is simple. Keep moving in the direction of your dream, but hurry up about it. Don’t take too much time getting there. The moment of opportunity has to be seized at the moment it arrives. Nothing lasts forever.”
“Except his nonstop motor-mouth,” Iris said softly.
“And his bar tab,” I added as we moved on to rejoin the party.
Dahlia was just finishing another round of book signings, photos, handshakes and reader appreciations when we approached and caught her eye.
“Hello again, darlings! Just give me a sec. They’re working me to death here, but all in a good cause.”
“I’m so happy for you, Dolly!” Iris exclaimed when our friend was free. “Just look at all your fans here and how happy they are to meet you in person. So tell me, how do you like being a celebrity? What does it feel like to be famous?”
“I never imagined it would happen. And now that it has, I still can’t believe it.”
“Well, I can,” Iris insisted. “You deserve your success. I’ll have you know I stayed up nearly all night reading your latest. I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I didn’t want it to end, but I had to keep reading.”
Dahlia clenched her long, gem-studded necklace in one hand and gave Iris a sisterly half-hug with the other. “I just hope your boss appreciates you as much as I do,” she said.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” I said, omitting the fact that Iris had bribed me with time off and a north river run aboard the Delta Dazzler. I had a suspicion it was more than just a book party for her.
“I’ll dedicate my next novel to you, Iris, for being such a devoted reader,” Dahlia said gratefully. “But be patient. Writing is not as easy and effortless as readers imagine. A book does not write itself.”
“I know, but the problem is I have nothing half so good to read now. Maybe you have a short story you could loan me to tide me over? I could make it last by reading a paragraph or two each day.”
“And I’d be happy to oblige you, but I don’t write shorties. I’m not a minimalist. I work on a large canvas. Lots of plots and subplots—currents and cross-currents, as your boating friend might say.”
It said something about Dahlia that she could only refer to me as “the boating friend.” Perhaps she had a short-term memory where men were concerned. Given her habit of discarding them soon after they entered her life, it was undoubtedly the better part of wisdom to have that kind of memory.
“And what’s this I hear about the big screen? Is it really true? You’re going Hollywood?”
“Jerry told me about the bidding war,” I explained to the author who rolled her eyes at her press agent’s disclosure of confidential information. “Must be exciting to have film studios fighting over you.”
“That’s the good news,” Dahlia admitted. “The not so good is what happens after that. I get top dollar if I agree to sell the rights and keep my nose out of production. That means I have to turn my work over to screenwriters for adaptation. Do you think I could trust screenwriters to do my book justice?”
“If you don’t mind their stereotypes and clichés, investigative improbabilities and special effects exploding every six minutes,” I said. ‘’Your detective will be a puppet in the hands of hacks who imagine themselves the heirs of Raymond Chandler. You remember Ray? I met him once down in La Jolla. He told me that writing for films means selling your soul for a swimming pool and a couple of palm trees.”
“And just what is wrong with a pool and palms? Maybe Ray should have given up grouching and taken up swimming. But my worries aren’t limited to filmmaking. It may be a minor matter, and this isn’t the time or place to discuss it, but someone like you just might be able to help me….“
Before Dahlia could explain what was on her mind and why she might require my services, a delegation of admiring fans arrived, eager for authorial small talk and souvenirs. Off she went to oblige them.
“And there we are,” I told Iris. “But where are we?”
“Oh, it may be nothing. She might want you to look at something she’s written to ensure accuracy and authenticity. Or sit in at story conferences and keep those Tinseltown hackers true to the book.”
“If it’s out of her hands, it’s out of mine. Anyhow, I don’t want to be hired by a mystery writer. You never know what they’re up to. Your friend might want to study my methods for use in a story. She might end up turning me into a fictional character.”
“How could anyone improve on the character you already are?” Iris asked.
“Never mind the sweet talk. How did Dahlia get into the writing racket in the first place?”
“She was a court reporter by day and wrote at night. Putting her experience to work, she wrote what she knew from observing cops and witnesses, judges and juries, prosecutors and defenders in action.”
“It’s an advantage for an author to know what she’s talking about.”
“And she knew the mystery market. She read a lot of legal thrillers and felt she could improve on them. Sales were slow at first and recognition slower. But by the time readers caught up with her, she had four aces to play—Disorder in the Court, If Your Honor Please, In The Absence of Evidence and The Jury is Out”. Each one sold better than the one before it. And then the inevitable happened.”
“She was fired for disclosing too many courtroom secrets?”
“She cracked the best-seller list. The anonymous court reporter became an acclaimed court novelist. She kept up her day-and-night schedule until she began to yearn for a new life and a new direction for her writing. That’s when she gave up her courtroom job and legal thrillers and came home to the Delta.”
“Gave it up? Interesting career transition. Must have taken some nerve to do that.”
“No kidding! How many writers would have the courage to pack it up and make a fresh start? But she wanted to return where she began. She had an idea to use the Delta as a setting for her mysteries. What could be more natural for her and more novel for her writing? It didn’t hurt that the Delta was becoming more and more newsworthy in California.”
“And now she has to churn them out to keep up with the demand?”
“It’s the price of success. Given the success, I don’t think she minds paying the price.”
“I just hope she doesn’t start asking me for plots.”
“Oh, I’m sure you could throw one her way every now and then, couldn’t you? Names changed, of course, to protect the innocent. And the guilty.”
We were soon called to dinner in an adjoining room. On our way there, an arm draped itself around my neck and someone with a breath like a distillery began talking in my ear. My friend Jerry had come to see me with what I thought was another tribute to the genius of his agentry. Only it wasn’t that.
“Hey, buddy, what did you say your name was? You didn’t say? Never mind. I have one for you.”
“Riddle. What does Winnie-the-Pooh get if he has too much Jim Beam honey for breakfast?”
“An eye-opener,” I guessed. Jerry grinned and let me have it with both barrels: “Winnie-the-Stewed.”
“A pleasure meeting you, and if you have any trouble with my client, you just let old Jerry know, all right? But a word of warning, pal. Dolly is one foxy lady, with dangerous friends. Such as a retired hit man. You might think you know what you’re dealing with, but you won’t, not until it’s too late….”
With that word of warning, Jerry slipped away and returned to his perch at the bar.
We presented our names at the door of the private dining room, took our seats and unfolded our napkins. As we did so, Iris nudged me and leaned close to whisper.
“See the man sitting next to Dolly? I think he’s the new one. Does he look suspicious to you?”
I directed my gaze to a slender figure in a smart white suit that offset his deep tan. A gold chain flashed in the open neck of his Palm Beach sports shirt. He exhibited an almost exaggerated deference to the woman at his side. The two seemed to me a mismatch, but you can never tell about such things.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” I cautioned Iris.
“Maybe you can’t. But we women are very adept at doing just that. And I don’t like what I see.”
“He doesn’t happen to write, does he? Maybe what they share is a love of crime fiction.”
“Ha! The only thing they have in common is the custom-made Bentley she bought with her first big paycheck. She doesn’t feel comfortable driving it and leaves it in the garage. He borrows it at every opportunity. I get the feeling the boy loves the luxury car more than the woman who loans it to him.”
“Maybe she uses it to keep him close. Why she wants to keep someone like that is another matter.”
Dahlia rose to greet the table company, thanked them for their kindness and support, introduced and welcomed the stylish man beside her as “my good friend Bruno,” and sat down to polite applause. Bruno rose up to say he was delighted to be present at this honor to the lady, and promptly sat down.
As our table hostess, Dahlia gave us a steady stream of her adventures and impressions in a manner that was personable and informative without being egotistical. Few writers are skilled conversationalists, but her gift for verbal storytelling was compelling. The more you listened to her talk, the more you wanted to hear. The Daggart charm held us in her spell.
From time to time, I glanced at Bruno to seek clues of character. Was he a man who made his way in the world by learning how to charm and how to con? The charm was evident. But what was the con?
The only revelation of character came when he misjudged or mishandled a glass of red wine. The words that escaped him in a flare of temperament brought the dinner party to an abrupt hush.
It was one of those little accidents that will occur when diners are paying less attention than they should to a glass passed too hurriedly or handled too casually. It brought a cry of outrage from Bruno whose white suit was now decorated with a wine stain that resembled a bloodstain. Aflame with indignation, he blamed Dahlia for the catastrophe. Dahlia did not respond to the accusation other than to pass him extra napkins. She was in the middle of a story and continued her monologue without missing a beat.
Bruno suddenly sensed he had made a fool of himself. He attempted to retrieve the situation with a smile and a headshake at his impetuous anger. Failing to disrupt Dahlia’s composure, he went to work, cleaning as much as he could of the spill and trying without success to remove the stain on his jacket as if it were a stain on his character.
Dahlia’s take-no-notice manner convinced most of the company to do as she did. By the end of dinner and the arrival of Hawaiian coffee and coconut pineapple cake, Bruno’s outburst was all but forgotten. But not by me.
“What did you think of that business with the wine glass?” I asked Iris as we sailed home down the dark-fringed but broadly moonlit river later that evening. The Delta nighttime was radiant with stars.
“I wondered if he deliberately let the glass fall,” Iris speculated.
“Why on earth would he do that?”
“He’s the silent partner, the shadow partner, in a relationship that’s all about her, all about Dolly. Dropping the glass and blaming her for it may have been a case of the male ego asserting itself. Men are like that sometimes, aren’t they?”
“And suppose she engineered the accident for reasons of her own. After all, would a fashion-conscious man like Bruno deliberately stain his immaculate whites just to prove a point?”
The union of opposites is always a mystery to those of us who see them as alliances of incompatibles. My gaze shifted from one to the other after the wine glass incident, but if this was a troubled relationship, there was no sign of it. In all probability, we would not know anything unless Ms. Daggart chose to reveal it in some future novel.
“We’ll have to read her next one and see if there’s any answer to the mystery of why a woman would purposely keep questionable company,” I told Iris later that evening.
“I can’t wait that long. I worry she may be at risk. When she excused herself from the table, I followed her to the powder room, made small talk and then gave her your card.”
“Because you’re worried about the man at her side?”
“I think she may be, too. I just told her that if she ever needed to check investigative facts for her writing, she’d find you a helpful resource. A little suggestion, that was all. And after a moment, she said, yes, she’d like to consult you. She didn’t say about what, and I didn’t ask.”
“That was diplomatic of you.”
“Well, if it isn’t about her writing, you might be able to satisfy your curiosity about why a woman like that and a man like that happen to be partners. What’s the real reason for her interest in him—and all the others? When you talk to her, see if you can find an answer to the mystery.”
Dahlia had a country retreat outside Walnut Grove. She invited me there for a consultation on a day Bruno had gone down to San Francisco by train, leaving the Bentley behind to avoid city traffic tangles. A servant brought us lunch under a vine-covered pergola in an Italian garden lined with cypresses, filled with fragrant blooms and centered with a Roman statue extending its arm in welcome—or warning.
After a leisurely meal, Dahlia got down to business. She was aware that Bruno was a research chemist for a Bay Area government agency, doing such secretive work that he was forbidden to divulge its location or the nature of its activities. He was paid handsomely and carried a thick roll of hundred dollar bills in each pocket—to escape the financial trap of credit cards, he explained, and also to expunge the memory of an impoverished childhood and broken family. With that kind of pocket money and secrecy, I wondered if our pitiful child might be a money-ready counterfeiter with a cover story. I kept my suspicions to myself as the story of the mysterious chemist unfolded.
“I felt sorry for him and understood the reason for his moods,” Dahlia explained. “He appreciated my sympathy and began to take an interest in my work. We were two different individuals from different worlds, but we forgot our differences, reached out to one another, bonded, and became friends.”
But over time, the sweet beginning began to sour. She was unable to find any papers or data linking Bruno to government employment. Did he play his cards close to the vest to obey security concerns or did he have other reasons? Her suspicions grew. While she sometimes thought of following him to work to verify his story, she’d given him the use of her car. But even if she had had a second vehicle, she said, he would undoubtedly notice anyone following him. That was when she began to think of hiring someone skilled in shadowing individuals with secretive behaviors. Someone like me.
“Keep in mind, please, I have no quarrel with his secrecy, if it is essential to his job. Nor am I upset by those odd little flare-ups of temperament such as you witnessed at the dinner. No one is perfect, after all, and Bruno has his reasons. I’ve loaned him my guest cottage and Bentley to make his life easier. He works the night shift most evenings. I understand it has to do with the nature of his work.”
“It certainly would be if he was an astronomer,” I said. “What exactly do you want me to find out?”
“How hush-hush does a government agency really need to be? What’s the big secret? And if there is one, how does his job fit into it? He can’t tell me, he said, because he’s under orders. I think I have a right to know where he works and if he is classified because of it. Do you think you could determine that for me without making him aware I’m suspicious enough to hire a detective to track him?”
“I can try. And if I do, are you prepared for what happens after that?”
“You mean he could get into trouble with the authorities if I learn what I’m not supposed to know?”
“It isn’t the authorities I’m worried about,” I said, but she merely glanced at her wristwatch and said it was growing late and asked if there was anything else she could do for me.
“Would you allow me to take a look at your Bentley? I understand that Bruno is attached to it.”
“Never goes anywhere without it. I think he likes to show it off and pretend it’s his. But how is that going to help you find out what I want to know?”
“A resourceful detective can utilize a vehicle to tell him almost anything he wishes to learn about its driver,” I explained. She asked how that was possible. “Human traces,” I said.
I went to work, dusting the steering wheel for fingerprints, taking soil samples from the tires and utilizing an air analyzer to identify a lingering odor. I finished by placing tracking devices under the front and rear of the vehicle. Their signals would return a visual map of exact location. The evidence of the tires, indicating repeated use in rural terrain, and the nature of the odor alerted me that Bruno’s assertion of secrecy was a probable deception. His fingerprints, which I forwarded to an investigatory data base, revealed a background of consistently illicit behavior that confirmed my impression.
I asked Dahlia to alert me the next time Bruno set out for his evening job. When her call came, I found that Bruno was not positioned in the Bay Area, but in the Delta hinterland of scattered farms, hay fields and pastures. It was a perfect cover for a top secret installation, except that nothing of the kind existed.
I parked my car out of sight, noted the absence of dogs or guards on watch, hopped a fence and went in for a closer look. There was a farmhouse and barn to suggest agricultural property, but on closer inspection, these proved to be empty, part of a landscape of props designed to deceive the curious.
Staying in shadow, I followed a thick, unmistakable odor and realized that I was nearing the perimeter of an underground laboratory. I had the answer to the mystery in two or three sniffs.
I’ve worked cases involving secret passageways, hinged bookshelves and hidden staircases, but a subterranean lab was a new one for me. I didn’t have to go any farther to learn what was cooking. The smell of hash and honey told me that. The same mixture whose essence lingered in the Bentley. When I found the car parked with other vehicles under trees at the rear of the property, I had all I needed.
The next day I contacted federal authorities who in turn contacted local police for a combined raid. I was invited to accompany the strike force as an observer. An immense storehouse of drugs, weapons and cash was seized, along with all the participants of the criminal enterprise. Dahlia’s friend had tried to escape and was making a run to the parked Bentley when he was tackled and cuffed by deputies. Bruno’s partners in crime pointed to him as the creator and manager of the enterprise. To a man, they volunteered to testify against him in exchange for lenient sentencing.
It was up to me to break the sad news to Dahlia. I expected her to be shocked and dismayed at the downfall of the man whose deceptions had betrayed her hopes for him. As I did so, however, a strange smile on the lady’s face suggested that she not only knew what I was telling her, but that I had been given a misleading story. She was not as ignorant of her friend’s dark side as she had led me to believe.
“Oh, of course I knew, my dear!” she said. “I made what notes I could of him as a character for my writing. When that was done, the time had come to deliver him and his cronies to the goddess. That’s why I hired you. It seemed the best and most efficient way to rid myself of him. You see, the time had come for the real Bruno to disappear behind bars and the fictional Bruno to replace him.”
It was a set-up, pure and simple. I could only hope that Iris would not learn that I’d been conned by a foxy novelist. Jerry had warned me of that, but I had chosen to ignore him. How could anyone take seriously an agent who enjoyed reciting his secrets of success and posing riddles about inebriated bears?
Iris had led me to the case because she was worried that her friend’s inappropriate attachments were the result of a desperate search for happiness. She didn’t suspect that Dahlia was tapping fresh sources of criminality after leaving behind the comfortable and convenient setting of the courtroom. The Delta gave her a setting; it was up to her to find new characters. Once they served their purpose, she notified the law or hired detectives to see that her improper role models were removed from circulation.
“Is there anything else you wish to know?” Dahlia asked smilingly.
“You mentioned a goddess a moment ago. What did you mean by that?”
“The goddess of justice. Surely you know justice is a female? Another first for a woman!”
“Speaking of firsts, I’m thinking of writing a novel of my own,” I said, baiting a trap for the novelist.
“Are you really? How interesting. What do you have in mind?”
“Here’s my idea. A mystery writer’s need for real-life wrongdoers as source material for her novels makes her more dangerous to them than they are to her because when she’s finished, so are they.“
“If they are, she’s merely doing her duty as a law-abiding citizen.”
“But my heroine goes a little beyond that. She manages to dispose of the real-life models for her fictional characters, sending them to prison or on the run from it. All perfectly legal, but in some cases, methods have to be employed that are not strictly kosher. A close friend of hers happens to be a retired hit man who comes out of retirement to oblige her or protect her, as the situation demands. A master of his craft, he donates his services because he may be in love with her. Very original, wouldn’t you say?”
“I wouldn’t say, and neither should you, sir, if you wish to avoid unpleasantness,” Dahlia warned as I edged toward the door, aware that my hypothetical plot had aroused the femme fatale in her.
“Let’s just say that if you were to do as you say, I would be obliged to file suit for violation of client privacy and literary plagiarism, breach of confidential information, conflict of interest and other charges relating to professional misconduct. I would then let my dear friend Iris know how you betrayed me and hire her away from you. I would also engage a bulldog attorney, who owes me a favor, for the purpose of having your license revoked indefinitely and perhaps permanently. In short, sir, if you want to play rough, I can play rougher. All right, we’re done. If I were you, I wouldn’t get any smart ideas.”
“I haven’t had one in years,” I assured her, waving my hand at my disreputable idea, solemnly promising never to write that novel, and finding my way out before she could change her mind.
Truth to tell, I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag. I did what I did only because I wanted to see just what stuff this remarkable woman was made of. She didn’t disappoint me.
It was only dumb luck that Jerry happened to mention to me the retired hit man who did Dahlia occasional favors. But Jerry, too, was by nature a storyteller. Whatever the fact, I have no quarrel with the woman. I’ve even taking to reading her and talking up the plots with Iris, who remains her number one fan. And I have to admit that the latest Daggart novel, despite the usual fictional contrivances, isn’t half bad.
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.