The sun is setting on the Delta summer. Time once again for the Delta Detective to attend his favorite harvestfest party.
But with gal pals Iris Noire and Katie the kayaker unavailable for partying, our hero is paired with a curious dinner companion who wants to know a little too much about a case from the detective’s past. Given the profession of the lady in question, how much should he tell her? Or should he give her the facts, reserving a storyteller’s right to selectivity and omission?
Get set for the hunt after a serial killer who leaves few clues and no witnesses. And keep in mind the warning of the detective’s former employer: “this one doesn’t play by the book.”
Summer was lingering along the Delta with a heat wave, a flourish of robust vines and blossoms, and wild geese showing no inclination to migrate south. Much as you or I might wish the season to continue indefinitely, the winds of change were stirring. Evidence of that arrived with an invitation from Betty Riggiti and Archie Maranaro to attend their annual harvestfest dinner. The event marked the end of the summer season in more ways than one. It reminded us that the clock was ticking. The leaves would soon begin to fall, the bright sun pale, the nights chill, and the holidays would be upon us.
I was invited to bring a guest, but Iris was away visiting her sister and Katie was off kayaking with her sports club. Betty said I need not worry. She would arrange a charming companion for me. I imagined what that would be like and winced at the thought. Either you’re so boring nobody cares to hear you or else you’re so idiosyncratic no one can identify with you. End of conversation. But not in this case.
I found myself paired with a brisk, keen-eyed woman whose evening dress declared a fashion maverick and whose forthright manner displayed itself in a relentless curiosity about who I was and what I did. “Oh yes, my dear, I’ve heard of you,” she said when I gave her the information she sought.
“Not unless you wanted to hire a private detective,” I said, assuming the lady was merely being polite.
“Your reputation precedes you, sir,” she said with a smile, introducing herself as Mariette Clarkson, of the district attorney’s office. “We sometimes get news of your agency—and your investigations.”
“I’ve heard of you, too,” I said. “Didn’t you prosecute in the Cranston case? Weren’t you the one who got a conviction by proving that a corpus deliciti is not always necessary to support a conviction?”
“And didn’t you track down the businesswoman who disappeared on her motorcycle in the Delta?”
And off we went, chattering about our cases and professional exploits until Betty asked if we would like a table for two. Chagrined, we fell silent and heard Tommy Craddock complain that summer’s end meant goodbye to all he loved best–cookouts, bikinis and baseball. His lady friend, Ruby, added that the season was ending all too soon for her tennis game. Although she took pride in the fact that she had missed none of the beach-read bestsellers assigned by her book club, she felt a poignant sense of loss and longing that the season would soon fade to a memory. “Like a summer romance,” she sighed.
“Shakespeare would agree with you, madam,” a small, bearded man informed her. “When he penned ‘Summer’s lease hath all too short a date’ four centuries ago, he felt saddened, just as you do now.”
“Did he?” Ruby asked. “Was there a lady involved? Was it someone other than Mrs. Shakespeare?”
“Isn’t it wonderful what we can learn from the professor?” Betty asked, introducing Shakespeare expert Sebastian Marbury of Tuleburg Tech. “What was that you said about a lease, professor?”
“Well, you see, Old Will was a Stratford property owner, loaner and investor after he retired from the London theater world, a prosperous man of business with one of the finest houses in the town. It would have been quite natural for him to use the word lease for a short-term tenant like summer.”
I couldn’t resist asking him if Shakespeare happened to indulge sailing among his summer pastimes.
“Very likely, sir! You see, Stratford sits on the river Avon and it’s reasonable to suppose Master Will indulged a bit of boating now and then for relaxation and the inspiration it would have provided him.”
“That’s why we always include him in our parties,” Betty lauded her guest. “He has such a wide knowledge of everything. Ask him anything at all and chances are good he’ll have an answer for you.”
“Who do you see as the Giants manager next season?” Tommy Craddock asked with a mischievous boyish grin, certain he’d stump the academician with a loaded question from the sports world.
Tommy was in for a surprise. Betty had not exaggerated the comprehensive knowledge of the man.
“Buster is a fine candidate if he retires, because a smart field general behind the plate makes for a smart field general in the dugout,” Marbury answered to Tommy’s visible astonishment. Before the jokester could recover, Marbury added, “Or Will the Thrill guiding a new lineup of power hitters.”
Tommy seemed at a loss for words. Marbury added to his confusion by stating his managerial preference for recruiting a perky sports broadcaster whose poise, knowledge and charm could be put to good use if she consented to be the first woman manager in the history of professional baseball.
“Never going to happen, professor!” Tommy laughed. “Baseball is no job for a lady.”
“On the contrary, sir, the time is right to introduce a modern component to the game. Just imagine the headlines. The media swarm. And the soaring rates of female attendance. A boom-boom for business!”
“Forget about it,” Tommy waved. “Players will never stand for a woman telling them what to do.”
“In my opinion, many of those childlike and adolescent athletes secretly crave managerial mothering. And who better to give them the correcting, praising, scolding and assurance they need than a female manager? It’s only a matter of time before baseball sees the light and puts a woman in charge.”
“Baloney!” Tommy scoffed. “That’s about as likely as electing a woman president!”
“Maybe a lady baseball manager would ease her path to the White House,” Ruby said, congratulating the learned professor on his political acumen and receiving an accolade of her own from hostess Betty.
We had gathered on the terrace of Betty and Archie’s riverside home to savor the fruit of the vine, fresh Delta stripers, and the beauty of an evening under a harvest moon and spectacle of stars. As we dined, Mariette told me the tale of a woman whose husband had died shortly after their honeymoon. Due to the brevity of the marriage, relatives of the deceased were suspicious and demanded justice.
Acting on their demands, investigators found that the widow’s other husbands also tended to expire within a short duration of their wedding vows. Was she killing them with kindness or something less than kind? One spouse after another, the widow became increasingly affluent by collecting the survivor benefits of multiple life insurance policies. But appearances were deceiving. Given the age or ailments of her husbands, and the coroner’s inability to detect foul play, the law concluded that the widow was not a menace to society or matrimony, but merely a woman entitled to the contractual rewards of survival.
“It had all the red flags of a crime without actually being one,” Clarkson concluded.
“Well, that’s an interesting twist on the old story,” I told my new friend. “Usually, it’s a far more sinister business—a Black Widow killer who snares husbands, cashes in, and escapes to strike again.”
“And how does she manage to do all that in this modern age of investigation?”
“Hit and run. She keeps on the move, using a different name each time she weds and a different insurer. She sees to it that the unsuspecting man in her life has no close or immediate relatives to ask embarrassing questions. She arranges what appears to be an accident, collects on the policy, and goes off to another part of the country to reinvent herself with a new name and a fictitious personal history.”
“It sounds to me like you’ve run across a Black Widow of your own. Mind telling me about it?”
I owed her a story in exchange for hers, but I hesitated to disclose the details of my investigation. The lady in my case was the real deal—a clever and ruthless femme fatale who had to be outwitted in order to be defeated. The manner in which I did so might leave me at odds with the legal system, of which Clarkson was an officer. That being the case, I would have to balance candor with caution.
Clarkson noted my hesitation and patted my arm, saying “Never mind, here comes the salad—and something in a bowl that I hope is minestrone. Why don’t we wait until after dinner? You can tell me then. In strictest confidence, of course. I’m sure we can rely on each other’s professional discretion.”
I hoped that a long dinner and rambling conversations might distract my new friend sufficiently to let my crime story stay in the shadows where it belonged. But when the coffee came and the table company began to disperse to easy chairs along the terrace, she turned to me and suggested we find a nook of our own to ensure privacy for the tale I wished to tell her.
Although there were certain things I did not wish to divulge, I reminded myself then that a storyteller is at liberty to shape his story according to his conscience. Given the rules of the storytelling game, I might be able to tell the tale without incriminating myself.
We found the nook Mariette preferred and chatted about the thoughtfulness of our hosts, the excellence of our dinner and the well-chosen Lodi and Napa wines that complemented the dishes.
“Well, goodbye to summer,” she said. “And now, my friend, do you have a story to tell me?”
All this happened some years before I relocated to the Delta to open my own detective agency. I was working as an investigative agent in San Francisco, traveling throughout the state and nation as cases dictated. One morning the chief of operations called me in and said he was assigning me to a missing person caper with a twist. I’d be looking for a woman who had a habit of marrying and disappearing.
“This one doesn’t play by the book,” he said, patting the slender case file that sat on his desk. “Nothing is quite what it seems.”
“Is that why you mentioned a twist? What’s the twist?”
”Usually, the missing person is the victim of a crime.”
“Why isn’t this one?”
“Think it over.”
I thought it over. There was only one possibility.
“She’s the victimizer. She’s the criminal.”
“And damn difficult to trace. She moves fast and far through too many jurisdictions for investigators to coordinate efforts and pinpoint the criminal. And that, sir, is why we’ve been hired, and why you are going after her,” he said, moving the case file across his orderly desk and urging me to study its content.
“Married and buried her share of husbands,” I noted, “making each appear to be an accidental or natural death. Quite a talent for staging. And anonymity. I see you refer to her only as Mrs. X.”
“What we in the trade call a Black Widow, after the notorious spider. She’ll go on doing what she does unless someone is clever enough and resourceful enough to stop her. That’s your mission. The file is your starting point. Tell me how you would proceed from that.”
“Follow the marriages and obits, check with insurers and obtain coroner reports, get some idea of her methods and movements,” I outlined my plan of action. “That would give us some idea of the frequency of her crimes and whether she is moving in any discernible pattern. If she is, I should be able to follow.”
“These might help as well,” he said, calling my attention to photos he had culled from the society sections of newspapers across the country. One individual in each photo was circled, but the odd part of it was that no two looked alike.
“Is there more than one?” I asked. “Sisters in crime? A mother and daughter?”
“Only one, with the gift of making herself look unlike her previous self. You’re up against a superlative actress. If I were superstitious, I’d be tempted to use another word. Sorceress.”
I looked closely, trying to define the woman who hid herself in various personalities, and noted her tendency not to smile even in the midst of gaiety and frivolity. She was poker-faced. I wouldn’t have picked her out of a crowd. I wondered how the chief did it.
“The absence of expression, as you can see,” he explained. “She does her best to make herself featureless. Exactly what makes her so dangerous. She doesn’t stand out in a crowd. She blends.”
There it was. The blank face, the firm lips, the absence of flashy fashion and glitzy jewelry. Not what you would call an eye-catcher. More like a chameleon.
“Don’t let appearance fool you,” the chief said. “She has a way with men and money that could shame her glamorous rivals. The hellfire preachers would delight in denouncing her as a serpent.”
“Better pack my snakebite kit.”
“Match the cities and dates and you’ll get some sense of her on the move and on the make, scouting new territory and opportunity. Now look at the list of men who fell for her friendship and partnership. Notice what they all have in common?”
I scanned the list and summarized her husbands in one word: “Deceased.”
If the chief was correct, the woman we wanted had been roaming the country, entering communities in the role of a respectable, affluent widow. Her money gave her entrance to country clubs, exclusive parties and the gathering places of the elite. She selected her victims carefully, cultivated them and allowed them to court her. Her own wealth was surety to allay any suspicion of a fortune hunter.”
“And after marriage, she closes the trap. Here’s a domestic fall down stairs. Here’s a car with faulty brakes. A winter mishap in the mountains. A body found floating in a swimming pool….”
“I need hardly add that the planning and execution of these crimes were meticulous. That’s the wonder of it—as if she graduated from a college of forensics and knew exactly how to stage a murder.”
“Love them, insure them, lose them,” I summed up the killer’s working formula.
The chief nodded. “Usually an amiable, older gentleman with assets and without immediate family to raise a stink. The kind of man flattered by the attention of a capable and energetic younger woman who invests herself in his life, wins his trust, and assumes the role of looking after his best interests.”
“And goodbye, Charlie!” I said, studying the woman’s varied hair, makeup and demeanor in search of a recognizable self. That would not be easy. All I had to go by was the poker face, consistently blank, devoid of expression. It was almost certainly intended to be part of her disguise, but it was exactly what gave her away. I wondered what would happen if for some reason she decided to change expression.
“Well, sir, you’ve picked a dandy for me,” I said. “I’m up against a mastermind of crime.”
“Quiet, careful, confident. She knows her business. She doesn’t call attention. She spins her web and catches her fly. You can bet she knows how to flatter men, listen to their stories, make them think they’re clever and irresistible. That’s a powerful allure for an older man—or indeed, any man…..”
“Are you perhaps warning me?”
“There’s no immunity from male vanity, and that’s what she plays on. She’s done it repeatedly.”
“And moves on without a forwarding address. I guess nobody pays too much attention to the fate of widows, do they?”
“Unless they’ve been sloppy with the arsenic or the bullet. This one’s a pro who leaves no trace and takes no chances. If she thinks for a moment you’re on to her, she won’t hesitate to do whatever she has to do to protect herself. On the other hand, she’s been operating with impunity for such a long time, her success may have bred a certain complacency. She may think herself beyond the reach of the law. So if the law–or someone like you–were to tap her on the shoulder when she least expects it….”
“It would make all those bilked insurers happy, wouldn’t it?”
“She’s taken them for a ride. What they want now is to avoid notoriety. She’s pocketed much too much for this to be a matter of public record. Imagine what our friends in the press and on TV crime shows would make of our professional widow. A female predator who goes through life armed with a deadly conviction about her sense of entitlement.”
“That would keep viewers viewing. And some from sleeping.”
“If you catch up with this monster, take care. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating her. To get as far as she has, she must have something more potent than perfume or sweet talk.”
“At least I won’t have to worry about being seduced by a smile,” I said. “I never saw a woman so dead set against smiling.”
“Doesn’t give the photographers much, but neither does she evade them. No need to hide from the camera if you are constantly remaking and reinventing yourself. If we didn’t know what we know, these images could easily be of different women. Well, it’s your case now and I wish you good luck and good hunting. So far, anyone who’s tried to follow her trail has gotten lost. And one or two are still missing….”
“I’ll have to turn on my acting talent so she won’t suspect I’m anything except who I pretend to be.”
“It takes one to know one. Don’t be surprised if she sees right through your pretension.”
“In that case, I’d better renew my own life insurance and leave it to my 93-year-old grandmother.”
The chief was not amused by my doubt.
“If you wish to avoid risk, I can assign you the case of the Iowa tourist who went up Coit Tower and never came down again. Or a fling with Gretchen Duffelheim, the thriller queen who wrote Read My Diary After My Death. She insists she is being stalked by an obsessed reader and wants us to discourage his fascination with her and her latest novel, “Don’t Tell Anyone I Told You.” Sounds like a publicity stunt, and you may hate yourself in the morning, but at least you won’t be risking your neck.”
“Are you kidding? And miss the fun of hunting a she-wolf in widow’s weeds?”
“That’s the spirit! I can promise you a fine challenge—and a bonus in the event you catch her.”
I closed the file with a last look at the enigma of the woman with the masklike face. Sometimes the face seemed pinched, the jaw clenched. Whatever the meaning of the mannerism, it was a constant characteristic of our chameleon. I’d tracked missing persons on less. But I would need luck here.
“If she lived in ancient times,” the chief mused, “they’d have depicted her with snakes in her hair.”
“A serpent hair-do?”
“Those Greek mythology boys must have had a fear of women. What did you see in the photos?”
“Fierce emotion held in check. Grief, maybe. Or pity.”
“Grief?” the chief asked incredulously. “Pity? Surely not for her victims?”
“Or herself. They say love is the essence of woman. Suppose it’s something this one can only use as a weapon. She hates the impulse, but has to obey it. I’m no shrink, but I can see how that could make a compulsive woman sorrowful, lead to depression and despair, maybe even drive her to—“
“Leave that claptrap on Dr. Freud’s couch, where it belongs, and stick to the facts and you’ll be all right,” the chief said, waving me out. He pressed the intercom and instructed his secretary Ethel to prepare an advance sufficient for my travel and living expenses while on the road.
“Where to this time, handsome?” Ethel inquired cheerfully as she handed me the check.
“A spider’s web,” I told her. “The chief wants to see if I can extricate myself.”
“Well, wherever you’re headed, the usual rules apply. Don’t forget your daily reports. Keep the chief updated and fully informed. Keep a sharp eye, watch your back, and stay out of trouble.”
“Trouble is my business,” I reminded her.
“And remember your friend Ethel with a postcard from time to time to brighten my day, all right?”
Preview of Part Two
Move over, Dracula! Get lost, Frankenstein! Quit your howling, Wolf Man!
If it’s a spooky nemesis and a dark plot you’re seeking, join the Delta Detective on his dangerous quest for the lethal “Mrs. X” in part two of “The Serpent’s Tooth,” coming soon for your Halloween reading pleasure.
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 “The Serpent’s Tooth.” Stay tuned for Part Two coming soon.
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.