Helen Kenyon’s disappearance is the talk of the Delta. No wonder all the women in the Delta Detective’s life can’t help bringing the subject up and hinting strongly that the sleuth ought to turn his investigative talents on the puzzling case of the Sacramento businesswoman who went on a sightseeing ramble and was never seen again. Even frustrated Sheriff Dixon Mason wants to recruit him.
Our hero is naturally reluctant to take on an apparently impossible case that has baffled the full resources of police investigators. But how long can he resist the wishes and urgings of Yolanda, Iris and Katie the kayak lady? And just how do you find a lady who has vanished without a trace? Is it possible that whatever happened to Helen is beyond what anyone can imagine?
Get out your magnifying glass and detective notebook, gather up the clues and join us now for the conclusion of “Something Happened to Helen.”
Something Happened to Helen, Conclusion
Like it or not, the Helen Kenyon case was coming my way. What else could I conclude when all the women in my life were talking about the vanished Delta tourist? They offered me as much as they knew of the facts and insisted I ought somehow to involve myself in the hunt for a woman whom not all the manpower and resources of the sheriff’s department had been able to find. Good luck to that.
The deciding factor was Sheriff Dixon Mason. Finding no trace of Kenyon, he’d been compelled to call off the official search. Unofficially, he was intent on bringing me into the case as a missing persons specialist. For him, as well as for the ladies in my life, I’d become the investigator of last resort.
The first I’d heard of the Kenyon case was from my kayaking friend Katie. I’d been far from home at the time of the incident, pursuing a furtive fugitive who confidently assumed no one could track him to his south coast hideaway. I was equally confident a federal reward would come my way if I succeeded in doing so. Both the overconfident criminal and optimistic detective were destined to be disappointed. The feds made the arrest, saluted my service, but said the reward was on ice because legal delays had indefinitely postponed the trial—and thus the conviction necessary for informant payment.
Katie’s version, garnered from the local press and television, was accurate enough, though the motorcycle belonging to the missing woman had been found on its side (not parked as Katie said), off a lonely road close by the river. A wallet and appointment book found in the cycle’s pouch had identified Kenyon, a respected Sacramento business analyst and adventurous outdoor enthusiast.
Media versions emphasized the intensive search of the river and surrounding countryside by the authorities. But Kenyon remained lost and there was nothing further to report. When the mystery was no longer considered newsworthy, it disappeared as completely as its subject.
Yolanda gave me version two, based on what the sheriff told her during his visit to her café. Given the motorcycle’s proximity to the river, he said, one might assume the driver had gone off the road, perhaps at high speed; if so, the impact might have thrown an injured Kenyon into water whose current claimed her. But speeding was unlikely on a narrow, unpaved road and there were none of the usual signs of an accident. The driver might simply have laid the motorcycle on its side for security before taking a dip in the river to refresh herself on a day when the temperature stood at well over one hundred degrees.
Yolanda advised me that the sheriff was hoping to enlist my services. He had called Iris who said she had no certain idea where I was. He then turned to the cafe proprietor who makes it her business to know everyone else’s business. He trusted her to convey his message to me, which she did, adding her view that finding Kenyon was not just a crime caper, but a moral and ethical imperative.
Iris greeted me with the third version of the case when I returned to the office of Delta Detections. Yolanda had returned Iris’s earlier call to her and told Iris that I was on my way. I wasn’t punctual enough to satisfy my impatient office manager.
“Didn’t Adelita give you my message?” Iris asked, pointing to the clock. “Please don’t tell me you spent all this time gabbing with La Senora—and giving yourself a case of hot pepper indigestion.”
“You can’t just rush out of Yolanda’s. You go when she’s done with you. But when I stepped outside, I got waylaid by a family of tourists looking for a place to eat and pacify their rowdy youngsters who were demanding food, sodas and playtime with Yolanda’s parrot. Try talking your way out of that one.”
“Never mind that. Did Yolanda tell you the sheriff wants you on the Kenyon case? I put him off, thinking you needed time to wind down and ease back to work here. But then I got an earful from Yolanda. Now I’m thinking you really ought to look into it. Yes, and the more I think about it—“
“Because my chances for a Crime Stopper reward are looking better than dealing with the feds?”
“Because it’s something you need to do. That said, it won’t be easy. You’ll have to show that a crime was actually committed. You’ll have to produce the most likely suspect. It’s going to be a challenge. You might find that tracking Kenyon is more difficult than buying Greenland.”
“Excuse me? Buying Greenland? Sorry, Iris, I don’t get it.”
“Neither does anyone else. It’s the president’s latest passion. Some say it’s about national defense. Others say it’s about the ice. I can’t imagine what he’d do with all that ice, but then I read that China is thirsting for bottled water; the demand is so huge that New Zealand fears its aquifers may be depleted.”
“Using bottled water as leverage for political or trade concessions? There’s statecraft for you. Or could it be he wants to use Greenland as a site for a very wintry winter Olympics and build hotels for the tourists and athletes? And are the Greenlanders thrilled and delighted with his offer to purchase them?”
“They’re not. Neither is Denmark. He’s not speaking to either party now. And speaking of speaking, the sheriff will tell you everything you don’t already know. I’ve arranged a time for you this afternoon.”
“You don’t think it’s more sensible for me to stick with missing accordions and stray husbands?”
“I think it’s time for you to test yourself in a good cause. What about taking the case for my sake?”
“For you, iris? How do you come into it? Did you know the woman? No? Then why?”
“Try to understand, sir. When something like this happens to a woman, it makes every woman wonder just how safe she is. If it happened to Helen Kenyon, who’s to say it can’t happen to me? That’s the fear and uncertainty we have to live with. Unless, of course, someone can determine what actually happened to her and put the threat in perspective. Someone like a missing persons specialist. Don’t we have one of those specialists here at Delta Detections? Your appointment is for two p.m. Be on time!”
That afternoon, I dropped by the sheriff’s office for a little palaver on the case. His office is decorated with the heads of a flamboyantly-antlered moose and snarling mountain lion. His larger-than-life figure became animated as he waved me in and appraised me searchingly through his lens-tinted spectacles.
“Been looking for you,” he said.
“Helen Kenyon,” I nodded. He nodded back.
“We gave it our best shot and came up empty. I could throw it in the cold case file and be done with it, but this one is nagging at me. I don’t like to be nagged.”
“Any idea what happened to the lady?”
“Foul play or motorcycle spill, most likely, but we have problems with either,” he said, passing me photos of the scene. “No evidence that she was harmed or abducted. No blood, no signs of a struggle, no DNA other than hers. Criminals are seldom so meticulous, even if they try to be.”
“So it makes more sense to assume she tumbled or stumbled into the water and was carried off?”
“Or then again, she may have wanted a refreshing dip after a long, hot ride. But that part of the river has warnings posted. She may not have seen them—or else ignored them.”
“What kind of warnings?”
“Cautions. The river looks calm and inviting, but its temperature drops fast once you’re in and hypothermia is a risk. So is a current that can take you where you don’t want to go at express speed.”
“Which explains why no body was found.”
“But not why one didn’t surface later. Our deputies and dogs worked both sides of the river. The boat unit searched thoroughly. State police assisted with a chopper for aerial reconnaissance. Our forensic team drew a blank. If it’s a crime, where’s the corpus delecti? If a drowning, where’s the swimmer?”
“Which leaves us a dumb witness—the motorcycle. Find anything there?”
“Kenyon’s prints, some clothing, keys, wallet and personal items. Here’s the inventory.”
I scanned the list and noted something missing from the usual odds and ends of a woman’s must-haves. I made a mental note of that and asked if there was anything else I should know.
“That’s it. Not much to go on. The lady was traveling light. She took the bare necessities. And this.”
He handed me a notebook whose recent pages displayed jottings about her appointments and interviews at a San Francisco corporation. The firm’s business cards were enclosed for reference.
“And this pointed you to where she’d been hired? What did you learn there?”
“The personnel director confirmed that Kenyon had been signed to an executive position. They were shocked and saddened she’d disappeared under suspicious circumstances. She impressed them as bright, ambitious, outgoing, caring and sensitive to other people. All the qualities they could hope for in a candidate. They’d landed a diamond, one said, a bright and shining gem. She was clearly ascending the corporate ladder, another told me, but definitely not the kind who steps on others on her way up.”
“So she was due to start with them? Then what was she doing riding around the Delta?”
“Enjoying an overdue vacation. She was sightseeing on her Harley by day and checking in for dinner and sleep at the resorts and inns she’d booked in advance. Leisurely sightseeing followed by cozy accommodations. I checked the bookings and dates to pinpoint where she was and when.”
He gave me a copy of the list and we visited the motorcycle in the property room. It was a slightly scratched but undented Harley, black and chrome, stamped with the motto ‘Live to Ride’.
“Ironic,” the sheriff said, “when you consider this may have been her last ride. Too bad the cycle can’t tell us how it happened—and what became of its rider. Maybe you can do that for us. Well, that’s all I have to give you. The rest is up to you. What say?”
I take more than an academic interest in missing person cases, but not always because I want in on them. Money dictates my decision about investigative time and expenses. But the details of this case interested me for another reason. It was one of a kind. I had never encountered anything like it.
According to what the sheriff learned, Kenyon appeared to be enjoying life as she moved about the Delta. Such was the impression of hosts and fellow guests she joined at end of the day for cocktails, conversations and dinners. Managers easily recalled the charming woman and her motorcycle. It was a topic of conversation and proof that adventure was no longer strictly a man’s pastime or prerogative.
With the Kenyon itinerary in hand, I doubled back to those locations and began making my own inquiries. At the last stop on the list, a manager recalled for me how a red-bearded, smartly-attired gentleman, paid “that charming woman” close attention without making more than a word or two of conversation. “He struck me as the shy type,” the manager speculated. Perhaps the lady drew such admirers wherever she went.
I visited Kenyon’s Sacramento company the following day. Executives there were pleased to hear the investigation was continuing and eager to lend me what assistance they could. Their praise for the woman was equaled by sorrow for her loss.
“You don’t let someone like that go if you can help it,” a senior vice president told me. “We made her a fine offer to stay on, but she’d made up her mind. She said her new position came with executive status and an office with a view. She told me she was looking for a nice apartment or flat, through a real estate firm recommended by the company for those moving to the Bay Area.”
I contacted the real estate office to see what arrangements Kenyon had made with them and was surprised to learn she’d made none. She was still using her old Sacramento address as a reference, though she was no longer residing there and left no forwarding address. It was as if she had no foothold in either town.
“You’d think that she’d settle that before she began work,” I told Iris on my return.
“She may have tried, but good rentals are not that easy to find. Finding a convenient living space that suits your needs is far from easy when you move to a big town. Well, how are you making out so far?”
“I’m wondering how anyone can determine what happened to a missing person in the absence of evidence. Is it a crime or not a crime? To be or not to be? That, as Hamlet said, is the question.”
“Hamlet was a lousy detective. Couldn’t make up his mind. And how did Sacramento go for you?”
“I felt like I was chasing a ghost until they showed me some photos of her and opened up about how much they admired her character and consideration for others. Matched by a shrewd business brain.”
“Sounds like a nice lady with a golden future. I hope the dream didn’t end in a nightmare.”
I didn’t tell Iris that I knew a thing or two already, thanks to what the sheriff and others had told me and shown me. But these were merely the first pieces of the puzzle. What I needed now was to collect the rest of the pieces and fit a pattern.
I began by playing a hunch. Since forensics found no sign of foul play and the river crew found no body, my focus turned to the woman herself, a respected professional who enjoyed the great outdoors. Adventure travel is on the upswing among women who bond for camaraderie, exercise and security. But Kenyon opted to go it alone. Did that say something about her character? Her motivation?
I went back to her stopovers with a question in mind. Did any of the other hosts and desk clerks along Kenyon’s route recall Mr. X (alias the shy man in the red beard) who’d paid Kenyon close attention? None did except my original contact. I paid him another visit, hoping he could describe the man in greater detail. Did he have a name for a Mr. X? Could he connect it to an address?
With a few crisp twenties to encourage his recall, my contact opened his register and showed me the name—Marvin Jolley. He knew only that Mr. Jolley was “in finance” and sometimes checked in after docking his boat at a nearby marina. Given what he had told me previously, I then asked whether his impression was that Mr. Jolley and Ms. Kenyon were strangers to one another.
“Now that you mention it, sir, I believe I’ve seen the two of them before, at one time or another. But that might just have been coincidence, you see, with so many visitors going in and out. I didn’t match them until you asked. They were not registered together, as you can see here. I do remember that she did all the talking. He seemed to linger near her, as I said, but maybe because he enjoyed listening to her and the others make interesting conversation about their lives and travels. People are friendly here.”
It was enough to get me thinking. Was it possible Jolley learned Kenyon’s itinerary? Had he followed her? Could I report him to the sheriff as a person of interest in the disappearance of the woman?
I next visited the local marina where I was told Jolley docked. The harbormaster there knew me from my own sailing ventures. After some small talk, I said I was looking for an old friend of mine and was hoping to have a little talk with him. Could he tell me when Mr. Jolley had last brought his boat in?
The harbormaster consulted his records. Jolley had tied up in the early evening, he said, sailed out the following day and did not return. It was the day Helen Kenyon disappeared.
Abduction or drowning were theories without proof. But was there another possibility no one had considered? I checked the Sacramento business directory and found an ad for Jolley’s investment firm with an amusing come-on: “Stocks? Bonds? Gold? Silver? Interested in enrichment? Call Marvelous Marvin today!”
I did just that, making an appointment with his secretary to meet the marvelous financial advisor. I did not tell her that I had something in mind other than profits.
“And what can I do for you, sir?” Jolley asked, stroking his neatly trimmed red beard as we settled in his office. I noted how his fashionable appearance matched the description I had been given. I presented my credentials and noted his reaction when I explained that I was acting as a special investigative agent.
“Private detective?” he asked, eyeing me closely as if for visual confirmation of my identity.
“Working with the police. I think you may be able to tell me what I want to know. If that’s the case, I may be in a position to help you. Or if you prefer, I can turn the matter over to the sheriff whom I’ve already notified. He’s very interested in talking to you and knowing him, he will in short order.”
“I’ve never met a private detective,” Jolley said, giving me the once-over I’ve seen from others who tend to compare me to their mental image of a sleuth. You can’t see yourself as others see you, but whenever I get that look, I know I’m being compared to some plodding shamus or elite mastermind.
“Whatever you think a detective may be, I’m not,” I assured him. “Don’t jump to conclusions.”
“Well, sir, the same goes for me. If I tell someone I’m a financial adviser, they immediately start to duck and weave because they assume I’m going to try and sell them something. By the way, are you in the market for a hot stock or reliable bonds? Just thought I would ask. So what’s this all about?”
“Helen Kenyon. I’m sure the lady needs no introduction. I have reason to believe you were with her when she was last seen. And I believe you played a part in her disappearance. Correct me if I’m wrong.”
“The sheriff hasn’t ruled out the possibility of foul play or drowning (accidental or intentional). He asked me to look into the case because missing persons are my specialty. Kenyon is missing, but now that I’ve found you, the question is whether you want to talk to me and tell me what happened. If not, I’ll leave quietly and you can expect the sheriff today with a warrant in his pocket. It’s your call.”
Jolley shook his head. “I didn’t murder her, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Maybe you didn’t, but you can’t help making people wonder if you did.”
“Is that what you’re wondering?”
“Let’s say it’s one of several theories. But I find her disappearance is—how shall I say?–a little too neat and a little too complete. And there’s a few oddities as well. I noted her cell phone was missing from her belongings. What woman goes anywhere these days without her cell phone?”
Jolley nodded. “It was something she wasn’t going to leave behind. She did leave her license because she wasn’t going to need a California license where she was going.”
“And where was that?”
“Because she got an incredible offer after she’d signed with the San Francisco firm. You can’t say no to Wall Street and the job of a lifetime. And that posed a problem for her because she’s conscientious. A very nice woman who doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
“She wanted to leave San Francisco without ill feelings, bitterness or rancor on the part of those she left behind?” I asked.
“Exactly. She didn’t want that to happen.”
“So she decided to fake her death?”
“I didn’t like the idea. To me, it’s better to be up front about these things, but she felt it was best to make a clean break without apologies or excuses. She felt it would cause the least pain and give the least reason to think ill of her. If you knew Helen you’d believe that. Perhaps you would if you heard it from her? I can call her now and have her tell you in her own words.”
The image of Helen Kenyon appeared on his picture phone as he explained who I was and what I wanted. The image matched those the sheriff had shown me. The missing woman had been found.
“I apologize for putting you to so much trouble,” she said. “Has Marvin has told you everything? I didn’t want to create any hard feelings or misgivings in those I was leaving. It was difficult for me. I was presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But how to make a clean break? Blame me for that.”
“We met at the inn the night before we put our plan into action,” Jolley added. “She went off the next morning. I took my boat out to meet her at the site we’d selected to plant the motorcycle. I picked her up there and the two of us sailed back to Sacramento. She caught a plane to New York next day and I phoned the sheriff’s department with an anonymous tip about a missing rider and possible crime. Of course, we hoped the mystery would not be solved. San Francisco doesn’t need to know about this, do they? Or New York? Can you do the woman a favor? Will you keep her secret secret?”
“It’s up to the sheriff. He’ll want to talk to you and Helen. If he feels the deception falls short of a crime, he may be willing to let you two off with a reprimand and warning. And it will end there.”
“If so, I’ll have you to thank for it. You’ll find I’m not the kind of man who forgets a favor….”
“No crime committed or intended,” I told Iris on my return. “She could have walked away without a word, but she didn’t want to seem ungrateful to the San Francisco people. It was really out of consideration for them as much as furthering her career. I guess you can’t have it both ways.”
I’d dealt with cases where criminals faked a death to put the law off their track, but I couldn’t imagine the dilemma of a woman who had to weigh self-interest with a feeling of owing something to the feelings of those who had accepted her and who now might say she betrayed them.
“Happens all the time these days,” Iris said. “People bounce from job to job. They’re hired, and then a better offer comes and they’re gone. If they stay to explain why, they may be chastised as a cheater or quitter. Helen didn’t want anyone to think the worst of her. I don’t know what you think of her, sir, but if we’re not in her shoes, do we have the right to judge her?”
Far be it for me to judge others. That’s the business of the cops and the courts. When I took Iris to breakfast the next day, the two of us felt compelled to tell Yolanda exactly what had happened. Once that good woman realized that the object of her pity and compassion had bamboozled everyone, though with the best of intentions, she stared at us as if she’d been victimized by a confidence swindler.
“Don’t you love the smell of clear disclosure in the morning?” I asked cheerfully.
Apparently she did not. She waved to her server Adelita, who brought me my huevos rancheros topped with finely chopped pumpkin seeds, zesty tomatoes, and pureed red bell peppers. The savory but spicy synthesis left me speechless. “That’s probably her intent,” Iris whispered.
Sheriff Mason declared the case closed and subsequently received a magnanimous check from Marvin Jolley, payable to the Widows and Orphans Fund. I received a smaller one marked “In gratitude for your service and continued discretion.” It helped me complete repairs to the Delta Dazzler’s planks and mast.
I returned to the river to take advantage of what was left of summer. Katie came aboard as shipmate in charge of sandwiches, beer, sun block, laughter and small talk. She said she had heard nothing more of the Kenyon case and asked if I had looked into it. I saw no reason to enlighten and disillusion her.
“No detective is perfect,” I shrugged. “Some mysteries are destined to remain mysteries. There’s a limit to what an investigator can determine. And a man is a fool if he doesn’t know his limitations and stay within the boundary of those limits…..”
“Is that what you say whenever a lady asks if you’re ready to make a commitment?” Katie teased, changing the subject in a way I did not expect and putting the Helen Kenyon conundrum to rest.
End, Part 2 of 2
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 adventures you have just read in Part One and Two of “Something Happened to Helen.”
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.