Part 1 of 2
In the summertime, as the classic Gershwin song assures us, “the livin’ is easy.” Unless you happen to be a private detective. Trouble is his business, after all, and trouble takes many forms, as you will see in the Delta Detective’s new adventure, “Something Happened to Helen.”
The lady in question has managed to vanish so completely that neither trackers nor police dogs nor river rangers can find any trace of her. Was it foul play? An accident? A river monster? Bird of prey? How about aliens in a passing UFO?
It’s not your ordinary case, which may explain why the sheriff in charge is reluctant to mark the case closed and place it in the cold case file. He has a reputation to maintain. And he has an ace left to play. He can call on the Delta Detective as an investigator of last resort.
The sheriff isn’t alone in his determination to set the unconventional sleuth on the hunt. It seems that Yolanda Miranda Peralta and Iris Noire are also intent on persuading him to take the case.
The only one who isn’t convinced is the detective himself. What will it take to change his mind? And what are the chances that a lone operator will fare any better than the professionals when it comes to solving the mystery of missing Helen?
Something Happened to Helen, Part 1
“Hola y bienvenidos, mi amigo perdido!” Yolanda greeted me like someone returned from the dead as I hastened out of the Delta heat and into her riverside cafe.
I was, as she said, her “lost friend”. But now I was home. I slid into a small red booth beneath the creaky and slowly revolving ceiling fan (Yolanda’s idea of air- conditioned comfort) and waved my respect to the stalwart woman smiling at me from her cooking and customer-welcoming station.
“Cuanto tiempo sin verte, Senor Detective!” she waved back with her spatula. “Long time no see!”
Long time indeed. I’d been gone for weeks, tracking a fugitive fraudster for a shot at a government reward. The swindler was no easy customer. He’d used an ingenious getaway to throw pursuers off track and compounded the deception by adopting a wig and beard to disguise himself. But he wasn’t as clever or elusive as he needed to be when it came to the human flaws that no subterfuge can conceal.
After a few false turns, I caught on to his game and tracked him to a small beach town on the south coast. He was lying low in a modest apartment with a restless and careless woman who didn’t escape notice from other tenants. He did not trust her enough to leave her home alone and his precaution was sensible. She too, was on the wanted list and she had not bothered to mask her appearance.
When I spotted the couple meandering and bickering in a supermarket, the game was over. All I had to do was shadow them home, keeping myself at a safe distance and noting the number of their apartment. Posing as a prospective tenant, I asked the apartment manager a few innocent questions. I then returned to my car and phoned a friend of mine in the federal office. I’d hit paydirt, or so I thought.
A local officer thanked me for the information leading to the arrest and said the reward was contingent on a conviction in a court of law. Therein lay the problem. The fraudster hired attorneys to file petitions and postpone hearings. He might strike a deal with the government to return the money in exchange for a lenient sentence. He might get a free-on-bail deal and decamp for a tropical hideaway where he’d already hidden a stash in preparation for a flight from the mainland. A trial, if it ever came to that, could be subject to delays that might last years. So much for the reward.
The agent in charge commended my service, took me to dinner, and regaled me with a wine-infused story about corporate whistleblowing, political corruption in high places, and huge amounts of illegal cash flowing to scoundrels in whom the public put their trust. I’d had enough. It was time to go home.
The Delta never looked better to me even though the Dazzler was tied up for repairs. Iris said I looked weary and asked if I would like to take a holiday from work before undertaking any new investigations. “No boat, no holiday,” I said. “Might as well get to work. Have anything interesting for me?”
“It depends on what you call interesting,” Iris said handing me several prospective investigations.
There was the mystery of a stolen accordion (which I found it in a pawn shop and returned it to its rightful owner), the puzzle of an overdue librarian (mid-life crisis, from which I rescued her with a lunch and long talk with Yolanda Miranda Peralta), a missing pooch with elegant manners (still missing), and the riddle of a ding-dong daddy whose unexplained periods of absence led his worried wife and angry daughter to suspect him of leading a double life (actually, it was a triple, and how he maintained it for as long as he did must have set a record in the history of marital deception).
It was business as usual. The only relaxation I took was my usual two-hour lunch at Yolanda’s. The café, in case you don’t know it and can’t find it, is small and entirely shaded by palm trees. It has no sign advertising its existence. Those who patronize it do so not for food alone, but for the wisdom of a cook who keeps a running tally of our attendance, our favorite foods, and the details of our personal lives.
“I won’t ask how your summer is going,” Yolanda assured me, setting before me a platter of tortillas with garlic, tomatoes, habaneros, sweet corn and scallions in a baked bean salsa. “I won’t have to ask you about your summer because l know.”
“It’s the first time you’ve seen me in weeks, but you know?” I asked, bending forward to inhale a dish whose tropical gusto whispered pleasure and danger. Yolanda’s little server Adelita brought me the requisite fire extinguisher, setting a cold bottle of La Cerveza del Pacifico on the table. Yolanda opened it for me and poured while she expounded on her theory of detection.
“Your face tells me all I wish to know,” she explained. “So you do not need to say a word. Just enjoy your food, please. Words are not necessary between us, you and I. Yes, I know, and I understand.”
“I think you have the makings of a detective,” I said, downing a spicy mouthful with a cool slide of Pacifico as insurance against the spice. Yolanda accepted the compliment as a statement of fact.
“Women are born detectives. We know what to look for—and to interpret what we see.”
“So you can tell how things are going with me just by looking at me?”
“And by reading your character. Yes. No man is a mystery to a woman who can read his clues.”
“Let’s put that theory to the test, shall we? Tell me three things about how my summer is going.”
“Well, your travels have made you miss my cooking, you are sorrowing about losing something even dearer to you than my cooking, and you have a new lady friend who enjoys paddling—in a kayak.”
My fork stopped halfway to my mouth. How could she know that much without my telling her?
“You have not been in here for so long I know your business takes you away, as when you go after crooks with a price on their heads. So I do the math. I compute the number of days you don’t have lunch here into the number of days it takes you to travel and hunt the crook. You do that well because you are patient and persistent in the hunt, a valuable skill you learned from your fishing, is that not so?”
“Makes sense to me.”
“And then Iris told me your boat is in repair and I can see how that is making you feel. But you cheer yourself by seeing a nice young athletic woman whom you enjoy paddling. I mean you go kayaking.”
“Iris wouldn’t tell you that,” I objected, certain also that my face revealed nothing of the sort.
“No, she would not. I see for myself. I have a fine view of the river. I saw you two going down river in separate kayaks, not together on a two-seater. So not yet a relationship? How is it going with her?”
“I’m having no luck so far,” I confessed. There’s no use keeping anything secret from Yolanda.
“You will when you get your boat back. Women are always impressed with a boat owner.”
“No luck there either. The cost of repairs is growing faster than the national debt.”
“Your luck will change,” Yolanda predicted. “And your next Pacifico is—how you say? On the roof?”
“On the house,” I corrected her as Adelita arrived with a phone message as well as a beer.
“Miss Iris called to see if you are still here, sir. She told me to tell you not to make your lunch hour three hours. She doesn’t want you to take another hour because she needs you to come back and not spend the afternoon. She has a case for you, she said, but she didn’t say a case of what.”
“Ah, a new case! What did I tell you?” Yolanda said, patting my hand. “Your luck, she has arrived. Perhaps the case will pay well enough for you to get your boat back. Now I have to go cook for my customers, but when I come back, you’ll tell me all about the case that took you away from us. There is nothing that I love better than a detective story, especially if it happens to be true.”
“Sorry, Yolanda, but I’ll have to cut it short today. Sounds like I’m needed at the office.”
“But first, I will tell you all you need to know about that,” she said, waving me back into my seat. “You see, the sheriff was in just the other day and he told me he’s going to ask you to do a little piece of work for him. Something about the lady who disappeared on the river last month. Do you know the story? No one has been able to find her. Maybe you can? But you have just eaten, and it is a good idea for you to rest and relax after you’ve eaten so as not to anger your stomach or strain the heart. Wait here for me, por favor, and I will tell you everything. And for you, the next Pacifico is on the roof….”
Yolanda was true to her word. She gave me an earful about what the sheriff had in mind for me. It wasn’t a case I wanted. I’d come home to engage with simple, solvable capers, not impossible crimes. Yolanda said the sheriff was a friend of ours, and a friend in need, and could I ignore that?
I ignored the question, drained the Pacifico and thanked my hostess for un almuerzo magnifico.
“We are on earth for a reason, and the reason is to help others, especially those who depend on us, especially if that person is a friend,” Yolanda said. “Here is your chance to do that. And by doing that, you do even more. It is not good that a lady should disappear in our waters. It makes us look bad.”
“I’m sure the sheriff did all he could to find her. If he found no trace, she is gone beyond finding.”
Yolanda said nothing, but shook her head in reprimand. Pablo the restaurant parrot who seldom says a word unless Yolanda coaxes it to do so gave me a long look and shook his head at me on my way out.
I had just departed the café when a car honked twice, slowed and pulled up to intercept me. I thought it might be the sheriff, eager to obtain my services in the name of justice. I was wrong.
“Excuse me, sir!” the driver shouted. “Can you please tell me how I can get to the Delta from here?”
“Congratulations, you’ve arrived,” I said. But arriving was the least of the motorist’s problems.
“They’re starving,” the driver explained, nodding at the pinch-faced wife beside him and a back seat full of tempestuous children demanding to know how much longer they had to remain travel prisoners. “Is there a family-friendly place nearby where we can get a nice meal that won’t cost an arm and a leg?”
“You’re here,” I said, gesturing toward the entrance of the café. “Yolanda will take care of you.”
“Doesn’t look inviting,” the wife growled, glaring at Yolanda’s unpretentious exterior. I came to the café’s defense by saying, “Best chow on the river. Even snobby food critics agree on that.”
“Never mind the critics. Just tell the lady in charge that the man you met recommended it for you.”
“What if we miss her?”
“You can’t miss Yolanda. And she won’t miss you.”
“Who shall I say referred us?”
“El Detective de La Delta.”
“Detective? You wouldn’t happen to be police by any chance?” the driver asked hopefully, perhaps thinking of charging his bellowing children with verbal assault and battery.
“Private investigator and owner of Delta Detections. I have an office just up the road.”
“You actually work here? Looks like snooze country for an investigator.”
“Not during the summer tourist season. You’d be surprised what comes our way in the summer.”
“No disrespect, sir,” the husband winced as the wife gave him an elbow poke, “but the little woman says it just doesn’t look like her kind of place. But you say the food is worth stopping for? Why is that?”
“It’s the real deal. Carne real. Vegetales reales. Sabor de verdad. El autentico sabor de Yolanda.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak—whatever it is you’re speaking…I have no idea what that is…”
I translated for him and added, “Your kids need a break. They will love the lady in charge here. She’s the owner, head cook and domestic counselor. Good with kids, wizard in the kitchen, as generous with her portions as she is with her advice. She’ll probably let the kids eat for free and teach them how to talk to her parrot Pablo. By the time you leave she’ll know everything there is to know about you two and can successfully advise you on how to turn unruly, back-seat brats into model citizens.”
“I’m sold,” the man said, switching off his motor.
“Did he just call my children brats!” his wife wailed, switching the motor back on.
“We want the parrot!” the kids took up the chant. “We want the parrot!”
I left the family debating the merits of the café and the kids obstinate in their demands. The wife was urging her husband not to waste any time finding a fast food drive-through. The husband said he preferred a quesadilla and wanted to meet Yolanda. The kids insisted on meeting Pablo Papagayo and threatened a full-scale insurrection if their demand was not met. And good luck to you, Pablo.
The sounds of their squabbling followed me to the bend in the road. Having safely escaped, I reached the river pathway and inhaled the Delta breeze. The summer sun swept and garnished the water. The sight of sails filled me with longing. If I had my boat I could resume my favorite recreation, perhaps with the kayak lady on board as mate. It was a question of money and perhaps more than that. Nothing substantial was on hand unless I took the case I didn’t want and found the woman who wasn’t there. The sheriff might sponsor me for a Crime Stopper reward if I was successful. It was a major league if.
Blame it on summer. With the season came a swarm of visitors seeking the other California. Some wished only to laze and lounge. Some wished to escape the stresses of the digital world. And some journeyed like pilgrims through Delta landscapes and waterways seeking an interlude of meditation and introspection to get back in touch with themselves and perhaps discover a new self.
“I guess that’s one reason I keep coming back,” my kayaking lady had confided to me when we paddled about Snodgrass Slough. “Listening to the sounds of the water and the call of the birds, I feel I’m close to the secret of life. I feel like I don’t have a problem in the world here. How about you?”
As a private detective, I am all too aware of the problematic side of life, but I was in no hurry to share that with the lady. Not until she raised the question again when next we docked at 14 Mile Kayak down river in Stockton. We went ashore and settled on the river deck at Garlic Brothers. A view of pleasure craft entering and exiting the marina provided a pleasant accompaniment to our burgers and brews.
The two of us had begun to grow closer. It might lead somewhere or nowhere, but I didn’t want to spoil her faith in the healing power of nature or the Delta as a hospitable refuge. It is all that, to be sure, but our region is not immune from the ills of the world. There are crimes. There are misfortunes. There are the usual hunting accidents, boat crashes, drownings and asphyxiations. It comes with the territory—or more accurately, with its visitors.
“Did you hear about that woman who disappeared?” my companion asked as we toasted the Delta sunset. “The paper said the police looked everywhere for her and couldn’t find a trace. Vanished into thin air. Isn’t that awful?”
“Maybe she’ll turn up. Sometimes it just seems that a person is missing, when in reality—“
“They used everything from search dogs to divers. She’s missing, all right. What do you think happened? They didn’t find anything, so they can’t rule out anything. Even the clues are missing. Could she have been abducted? Snatched by a big bird or maybe a big fish?”
“Sounds a little extreme. We don’t have sharks or whales, and I never heard of a bird of prey making off with a tourist.”
“She was alone, parked at the edge of the river. Maybe she took a skinnydip to cool off. Well, anything can happen out in the wild, can’t it? All alone, poor thing, without a friend to help her, without the companion she needed to save her from—from whatever happened….”
“Or a witness,” I said.
END OF PART ONE
Mr. Parker Roth, a Los Angeles fan of the Delta Detective (and also Raymond Chandler’s L..A.-based Philip Marlowe) has shared with us his conception of the Delta Detective. The sketch captures for Mr. Roth the jaunty, wisecracking but keen-eyed investigator whose latest adventure you have just read in Part One of “Something Happened to Helen.” Part Two, coming soon, will bring you the conclusion of one of our Delta sleuth’s most challenging and surprising investigations.
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.