The Serpent’s Tooth

Part 2

A riverside dinner party celebrating the end of a Delta summer has paired the Delta Detective with an intelligent and inquisitive woman whose identity as an assistant district attorney leads the pair to swap stories of their cases, old and new. 

One story in particular–the tale of the DD’s encounter with a “black widow” (matrimonial serial killer) is of particular interest to his new friend. Reluctant at first, our hero yields to the lady’s wishes and goes back into the past to map a case that took place prior to his relocation to the Delta, during service as a Bay Area operative of Golden Gate Investigations.

In part two of “The Serpent’s Tooth,” the detective reveals details of his cross-country adventure in pursuit of a killer with an eerie ability to disappear into new identities and reappear in new communities to continue her crime spree. Her most salient feature is an inability to smile. Our hero will need much more than a facial quirk, however, to track a criminal as clever as she is ruthless.

Let the hunt begin.

 

Postcard to: Ethel Whipple, Executive Secretary, Golden Gate Investigations.

From: GGI operative in the field. 

“Having a wonderful time searching for Mrs. X. Like searching for a needle in a haystack, except this needle jumps from stack to stack, leaving the searcher luckless in the hay.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was on the road, hunting the elusive black widow killer across the country, gathering what clues I could–from eyewitness snippets of information to cold case files–to help point me in her direction. If I managed to find her, I would then be in position to end a crime spree that used love as a weapon for enrichment. 

The chief’s warning that this one didn’t play by the book was classic understatement. Our femme fatale had invented a book of her own by constantly changing her appearance and reinventing her identity. I had yet to learn if the lethal lady had a real name instead of a handful of aliases or a motive for murder beyond amassing the fortunes of her ill-fated husbands. Maybe the money was enough. Maybe it was never enough. Maybe it wasn’t the money at all.

Ethel had asked me to remember her with postcards. At first I thought she might have a vacation in mind and was seeking colorful destinations and other travel tips from me. Then I realized it wasn’t that at all. She was worried about me. She feared she might never see me again. Her fear wasn’t irrational. After all, most males who got too close to Mrs. X had an abbreviated life expectancy.

Given her talent for deception and skill in avoiding investigation, the killer left little behind for a detective. A patchwork of secrets, evasions and disguises doesn’t provide much in the way of evidence. I soon began to wonder if all my dogged persistence and rugged resilience would be enough to crack the case. In a Hollywood film, that’s all you need. In life, there’s no one to write the script for you. 

The chief had given me a slender case file for starters. I was now on my own, making inquiries with local authorities, most of whom had forgotten the case if they ever knew it. I had better luck with a few  civilians whose path the wandering widow had crossed. These brief encounters, seemingly inconsequential, made the secretive lady vulnerable. We never know how others see us or how much of us they may remember. First impressions are often enduring—and surprisingly accurate. 

It was a long, hard road, but I was encouraged by meeting officials who understood my challenge and  sympathized with my efforts. If they had no information of substance to lend me, they could at least suggest someone in a better position to provide it. Most sensed it was in the best public interest to bring a serial killer to justice rather than allow her to continue her deadly game. 

“All of us have skeletons in our closet, but this one sounds like she has a warehouse of them,” an official in Miami Beach said. “The problem is there’s too many unknowns here. She’s thinking like a professional and you, sir–pardon me for saying so–, you don’t really know what you’re up against.”

“I’m learning on the job. The more I learn, the more prepared I become. When I catch up with her, it will be her turn to be surprised. She’ll have no idea what to expect from me. And that gives me an advantage, doesn’t it? Knowledge is power, they say.” 

So much for dealing with doubters. I doubled down my efforts, found a clue at the coroner’s office, packed my bag for Houston, and dashed off a new postcard. 

 

To: Ethel Whipple, Executive Secretary, Golden Gate Investigations.

From: GGI operative in the field.

“Coroner here recalled for me the case of a newlywed lost in the surf. His wife returned exhausted and distraught to the beach. Odd part: the victim was afraid of deep water and the couple were well out of sight of lifeguards. Wife said she was trying to teach mate to master his fear. Harsh fate or dire deed? Coroner not sure, but gave me names, dates, details and descriptions. Others may do same.”

 

On to Houston. There I found the case of a recently wed woman whose husband had an auto accident that investigators said could have happened the way the weeping widow described it. She was in such emotional agony that investigators didn’t bother with questions or check the brakes. Description of the woman included a tightly shuttered mouth. Stoic sufferer or our lady of the stone face?

I took my suspicions to an official who received me hospitably, heard me out and said, “If you’re on to a relentless mankiller, you’d be wiser to leave this matter to the feds and let them handle it from here.” 

“Odds are they’d either ignore it or say it’s up to the local agencies. Back to square one.”

“Well, you can’t expect them to do everything. Sometimes it takes a nudge or poke of legal or political pressure. Maybe you could persuade your congressman or senator to look into the matter.”

“By the time they got around to doing so, if ever, the lady can knock off a few more unsuspecting bridegrooms and flee to new jurisdictions. No one knows her whereabouts, but I’m finding a few crumbs here and there that mark her trail. I’m following wherever they lead me. If I get lucky, her luck will end.”

“Luck? Let’s talk sense, shall we? Realistically, what are your chances of finding her?”

“She can’t eradicate all her crimes or obliterate all the clues. Being human, she’s bound to make a mistake or two somewhere along the line. In fact, she’s left several. It’s enough to keep me going.”  

“And what will you do if you find her? You don’t have authority to obtain a warrant. And if she suspects what you’re up to, I doubt she’ll give you time to get your gun out of your holster.”

“I don’t carry a gun. Or a badge. Or handcuffs. But there are other ways of dealing with her.”

“Such as what?”

“I’ll think of something when the times comes.”

“If she’s as resourceful as you say, you’ll have to think fast and act faster.”

“The trick is to get close without her catching on. The trick is to not let her get wise to me.”  

“If she does, your employer will have to send another agent to find out what happened to you. Look here, I’m going to refer you to a friend of mine, who may be of help. Ever heard of the Texas Rangers?”

 

Texas-sized (oversized) postcard (with rodeo illustration of wild bull rider).

To: Ethel Whipple, Executive Secretary, Golden Gate Investigations.

From: GGI operative in the field.          

“Howdy, Ethel! A Texas Ranger offered to loan me a pistol, advised me to ‘shoot straight and more than once,’ and regretted he had no file to share with me. Didn’t want to send me away empty-handed. ‘Here’s something you might like to take with you. Ever tried wild game jerky? Chew on this when the going gets tough. Relaxes the nerves. I’ve got alligator, elk, wild duck and turkey jerky. What’s your pleasure, partner?’ I took some to be polite and dumped same at first opportunity. Then went and got myself a longhorn steak seasoned with a Tex-Mex sauce that gave me enough energy to ride a rodeo bull. That’s me on front of card.”   

 

Of course, not every cop or D.A. welcomed me with open arms. Some of them looked upon a private investigator from California as they would an intruder in the house. If by chance I succeeded, they feared my success would cast a negative light on their department, especially if the case was spotlighted in a journalistic expose. I was told more than once to go home and leave the case to “the professionals” and shut the door on my way out. 

Never mind the insults and setbacks. I was sent to track Mrs. X and I intended to do just that.

“Hot and cold on the trail,” I wrote Ethel.  “Reminds me of a Halloween cornfield maze that leads you nowhere but challenges you to find somewhere. The trick is to look beyond the dead ends.”     

It soon became apparent to me that Mrs. X was moving in a steady line west—Miami Beach, Houston and Phoenix. It didn’t take much imagination to see where that line might lead. 

“California makes sense,” the chief agreed when I called from Arizona to report my latest find. It was the case of a bereft widow, married less than a year, whose husband had been found in the desert, the victim of venom. His water, sun block and sun hat were in place, but he’d forgotten one essential. The snakebite remedy was missing from his kit. Something else was missing, too. A neighbor told me the husband had more than once expressed his hatred of hiking in lonely desert places, a favorite pastime of his new wife. I put two and two together.  

“Did he also recall a theatrically distraught widow with clenched mouth who grieved and mourned until the check came and then abruptly vanished, leaving no forwarding address?” the chief asked.       

“You got it,” I said. 

“What else do you have?”

“A list of some of the aliases she’s used, in case she makes the mistake of using the same name twice. Also, impressions of her appearance and personality from a few who remember her. She can’t live entirely out of the public eye, so she keeps changing herself, hoping comparisons can’t be made and recognition will be impossible.”

“Sounds like you’re on to her. Where do you go from here?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Why there?” 

“She got a recommendation to a L.A. clinic from a physician who was tending her after another one of those so-called accidents. Seems she asked the doc for the name of a southern California specialist.”  

“What kind of specialist?”

“Plastic surgery. I’m assuming she wanted a bit of facial reconstruction. You can guess why.”  

“I can. That might put her out of action for a little while and give you time to catch up.”

“Easier for her to be anonymous in the big town, and the big town is where the money is. If she’s already had the operation, she’ll make her move once the scars are healed. She’ll select her next victim from a list of eligible, affluent gents, and—you know the rest. That’s the pool our shark swims in.” 

“Beware shark bite,” the chief said and transferred me to Ethel. She asked how my money was holding out, inquired about my health and thanked me for the postcards, saying I had “a writer’s touch as well as the skills of a detective.” The kind of woman, in short, who doesn’t need facial reconstruction or a name other than Ethel.     

Mrs. X had indeed taken a new face, but she’d moved on, telling her surgeon and nurse she’d always wanted to see San Francisco. She gave them a hotel address there in order for them to send her certain  skin care products she desired. Before leaving Los Angeles, she took both to dinner at a posh restaurant to thank them for their services. The nurse noted her habit of dipping in her bag for a hand mirror, as if to examine her surgical makeover or check her makeup. But that wasn’t what she was looking for, the nurse said. Her eyes were elsewhere.     

“Why is that important?” the chief asked, waving aside what he viewed as a minor observation.   

“If it was a lack of confidence that her new face wasn’t as deceiving as she’d hoped, I doubt she would have taken them to dinner. I think she was scanning the room. A mirror would allow her to search for a possible nemesis without calling attention to herself. It tells me she’s always and ever on the alert.”

“I see. Maybe she’s looking for you, shadow man. You’re so close you’re making her nervous.”

“Now you’re making me nervous.”

“You’re not the nervous kind. Well, it’s up to you now. Take care she doesn’t find you in her mirror or suspect who you are. She has a habit, you know, of leading men into the dark and leaving them there.”

 

To: Ethel Whipple, Executive Secretary, Golden Gate Investigations.

From: GGI operative in the field.

“Dear Ethel, I hardly know how to tell you this or whether I should, given your concern for me. But here it is. Last night, I dreamt I was following a woman up a steeply inclined, dark staircase. Light from above poured down through an open hatch and illumined the staircase, but the two of us remained shadowy figures. The dark lady was three steps ahead of me and moving at a springy clip to the top of the stairs. I was slowed by cautious uncertainty and an attaché filled with my maps and research notes on the black widow case. If the lady got up and out first and closed the hatch, I’d be left in the dark, out of sight and sound, sentenced to asphyxiation in an airless tomb. Talk about a bad dream! Or was it something more than a dream? A warning? An omen? A good thing I’m not at all superstitious. But maybe I should have listened to that Texas Ranger back in Houston. Not about the wild game jerky….”

 

San Francisco, here I come. 

###

Preview of Part 3

Given a San Francisco hotel address, the Delta Detective now has what he needs to close in on the black widow. The question is how he will utilize that information. 

Will he go undercover to observe and study the suspect? Will he make certain of her identity before deciding on a plan of action? Will he notify the police, hoping the justice system will do its duty? Or will he allow circumstances to decide the fate of the black widow? 

Part three of “the serpent’s tooth”, coming soon, brings the case to a surprising conclusion. A final surprise may be in store for the detective when he finishes telling his risky tale to the lady of the law. 

San Francisco, here he comes.

 

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 Parts One and Two of “The Serpent’s Tooth.” 

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