You can take the Delta Detective to lunch, but can you expect an interview in return? You can invite the Delta Detective to your home for conversation, but will he expect more? You can send him in search of a ruthless, resourceful and elusive killer, but will he gather enough clues to point him in the right direction? And can he deliver long overdue justice to the infamous black widow? These and other mysteries will now be revealed in the third and concluding episode of “The Serpent’s Tooth Part 3.”
You might call it a case of being lured under false pretenses.
The lure: an invitation to lunch at Yolanda’s with a shrewd young reporter from the Delta Inquirer.
The pretense: something more than lunch was cooking. I should have seen it coming.
There are no menus at Yolanda’s. You order off the top of your head and if she happens to have it, you get it. If not, she makes you whatever she thinks is interesting and appetizing. No sooner had I ordered a “Yolanda especial” than my lunch hostess pulled a notebook out of her purse, clicked a pen, gave me a welcome-to-journalism smile and began an interview. What, after all, did I expect?
“I thought we were going to talk about Yolanda’s salsas, mole poblanos and pasoles,” I protested.
“Actually, I’d like to ask your opinion of what it takes to be a successful private detective.”
“There’s no easy answer to that question,” I waffled.
“In that case, I don’t mind waiting for the complicated answer.”
I thought about it for 3.5 seconds and replied, “It helps to be genetically blessed.”
“With what? Inquisitive personality? A gift for observation and deduction? Investigative prowess?”
“Yes, yes, and yes. Sounds to me like you’re already writing the story. Next question, please.”
“Would you describe yourself as a highly disciplined professional, well trained and well armed?”
“Oh, put me down for that, too! But change ‘well armed’ to martial artist and landscape artist.”
“Now that’s an interesting resume. Do you have a black belt? Do you paint California landscapes?”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t paint, I do abstract doodles with a pencil. My martial art is shadow boxing. That way, the only person who gets hurt is me. Would you believe I once knocked myself out?”
“Maybe that’s why you’re having such trouble focusing. Would a drink help clear your head?”
“Excellent idea,” I said, signaling server Pepita to bring me a Pacifico con limon.
“Now then, do you feel you can focus well enough for an interview?” my interviewer asked as I quaffed the brew. “What advice would you give someone who wants to become a private detective?”
“Iris Noire, my office manager and executive secretary, has the best answer to that. Every time I exit the Delta Detective Agency on my way to another case, she waits until I reach the door and then she shouts out, ‘Stay sexy and don’t get murdered!’ Six little words with profound implications.”
“Would you mind explaining the implications?” the reporter asked.
“I’d be glad to oblige, but I see Yolanda emerging from the kitchen with our lunch.”
“I see my interview going. Maybe I’d better go with it….”
“Keep your seat. I was just having a bit of fun. I owe you something for the beer and the meal.”
“Indeed you do. I’d like to know why the implications of your secretary’s shutout are profound.”
“Well, look at it this way. Sexy will get you nowhere unless you’re an actor playing one of those slick Hollywood shamuses who has to romance a leading lady and wisecrack his way through a tangled script. You won’t get murdered because that’s not the way Hollywood plays the game. At worst, you’ll lose the love of your life but gain a fake Maltese falcon to decorate your desk; or you’ll be told to forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown and the filmmaker wants to skip the happy ending and wrap with an overdose of noir.”
She put her pen down and stared at me. “And your name wouldn’t happen to be Jake, would it?”
“It wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t be caught dead in Chinatown—unless at Ming’s for a bowl of won ton.”
“If you like Ming’s that much what are you doing here? Or is it more about Yolanda than her soup?”
“That’s strictly off the record. And here comes the chef, with a lovely smile—and our platters.”
“Maybe she’s the one I should interview. Or was that your intent from the get-go?”
“She can tell you more about me than you want to know. Ah, bueno almuerzo! Gracias, Yolanda!”
Let’s get back to real life. Murdered is exactly what you can get in certain cases unless you play your hand as cagey and crafty as a Vegas card sharp. In the case of the black widow killer, I knew the odds. The closer I’d get to Mrs. X, the more inherent the risk. But first I had to find her. To do so, I crossed the country in a long-distance hunt for clues to the killer’s past and present whereabouts. The trail led nowhere at times, but in my line of work, the courage to continue is what counts. It wasn’t until I came back to the coast and hit Los Angeles that I found a plastic surgeon whom she’d engaged for a bit of facial alteration. From him, I learned the lady had gone north and, best of all, left a forwarding address.
San Francisco, here I come, right back where I started from. As I flew into the city, I looked down on its misty, ocean-bordered expanse and wondered how Frisco sleuth Sam Spade would handle a black widow case. I considered calling him up for advice until I remembered he’d skipped town and “gone Hollywood,” made a fortune off the movie exploits of Nick, Nora and Asta, and then found he couldn’t write anymore. Not that it mattered. The screenwriters took over and kept rolling out profitable sequels.
After all those weeks of searching for Mrs. X , the lady herself would soon come into sight. As long as she didn’t know that I knew, I was safe to shadow her comings and goings. I would then choose the time and place to set a trap into which she would walk with eyes wide open and suspicions shut.
I was working at the time for Golden Gate Investigations. Having seen my share of risky assignments and modest paychecks, I’d begun thinking of opening an agency of my own, preferably in a peaceful, watery part of the state to indulge my passion for sailing and fishing. I’d already prowled about the Delta a bit, eyeing possibilities here and there, but that was on hold until I brought Mrs. X to justice and collected whatever bonus or reward might enable me to make the move inland.
The elusive killer was no longer elusive, thanks to a stroke of dumb luck that blessed all my plodding detective work. Mrs. X. might well have given me the slip if she hadn’t given her Los Angeles facial surgeon a hotel address in Fog City to forward a steady supply of imported creams and lotions for her post-operative care. Had it not been for that little lapse, she might have remained invisible. But having reached California, she may have felt herself beyond the law, assumed no one could track her to the west coast, and that her medical records would remain confidential. All reasonable assumptions.
But assumptions went out the window when I explained the nature of the lady’s crimes to those whose data I needed to continue my investigation. “It’s entirely up to you, of course,” I would end my little speech, “but your silence will mean another dead man. You’ll be giving her a green light to commit murder and escape justice, if you don’t mind having that on your conscience.”
The hotel Mrs. X chose in the city reflected her taste for the high life and the start of her pose as a widowed lady of substantial means in search of a good life and a suitable husband. The hotel was also one with which I was familiar. I’d cracked a fraud case on its premises and kept quiet to oblige Gus Sarantos, the hotel detective. Gus used to be a cop, but preferred the easier side of law enforcement, keeping an eye on high rollers, assisting ladies with shopping bags, and shooing loafers out of the lobby.
Gus owed me a favor. He paid off by checking the hotel register and drawing up a short list of recent arrivals, narrowing it to single women, and narrowing it again to those booking a lengthy stay.
I explained that the lady I was seeking had undergone facial work in L.A. to help protect her identity and had a list of victims long enough to worry any hotel’s reputation. Gus agreed to work with me so long as we could do so quietly and inconspicuously. Any “unpleasantness” such as a confrontation, a knock-down battle or an arrest had to be done off hotel property.
“It might cost me my job if things go wrong,” Gus explained. “Any idea of what she looks like now?”
Given the black widow’s talent for disguise and deception, I didn’t know what to tell him. Despite all that I’d heard or learned about her, the lady was an enigma. I was predisposed to look for a certain type of individual, but a real person is always different than the one you imagine. This one wore many faces to mask her identity, and her recent surgery gave her a new one to compound a detective’s dilemma.
“How does she get away with it?” Gus asked. “What is she, some kind of magician?”
“The queen of trickery, the empress of illusionists,” I said. “Her own mother wouldn’t recognize her.”
“Maybe it’s time someone brought the curtain down on her act. Looks like you’re that someone. But count me in if you need a little more assistance.”
Gus and I went to work to narrow the short list down to one. We kept whittling until we settled on a recent arrival. Rosette Rackenbury (as she called herself) had booked a small suite for an extended stay. She appeared to have had some recent face work done, given her high cheekbones and narrow eyes, wore a variety of different colored wigs, had a firm, fixed expression, and kept a very watchful eye on her surroundings. But was she Mrs. X? We gave her the code name RR and Gus noted she was a creature of precise habits, one of which was to leave the hotel at ten o’ clock each morning.
Gus suggested a plan. His idea was to position me in the lobby near the exit. If RR approached my station, he would signal me with a double nod and chin rub. Then it was up to me to follow, keeping a discreet distance as I pursued the lady about town to discover her haunts and habits.
The next day, at the appointed hour, RR approached. Gus gave me the nods and chin. I let RR exit before making my move and observed her entering a cab at curbside. I ordered my own cabbie to do whatever he could to lessen the chance of our being observed. That precaution and the clutter of city traffic allowed me to check RR’s comings and goings with relative safety. If it became necessary for me to leave the cab in order to see more exactly where she was going and why, I took advantage of a pedestrian crowd or employed the little tricks of anonymity required in shadowing a suspect.
At first, it appeared RR had nothing more in mind than aimless sightseeing, going everywhere and seeing everything the town had to offer. She had the time, and money was no object. It was clear she was accustomed to the finer things in life, of which San Francisco has more than its share to offer those who can afford them. Here, too, she could also indulge a sense of having escaped her past.
My expense account bottomed into the red as I tracked RR about town. She dined at the Cliff House and Palace Hotel, took in the symphony and ballet, sailed the bay aboard the San Francisco Belle, visited the gourmet marketplace of the Ferry Building, explored the art treasures of the Legion of Honor and De Young Museum, and patronized elite fashion and beauty shops that catered, as they proudly advertised, to “women of taste, refinement and discernment.” And that was just for starters.
“What in blazes is she doing, playing the tourist?” Gus asked.
“She’s not playing. It’s her first time here, so she’s learning everything she needs to know about the city. She’s also joined clubs, committees and organizations that enable her to go up the ladder.”
“The better circles of society—fashionable receptions, exclusive dinners, charitable events and penthouse parties. She’s already got her foot in the door. For her, it’s the happy hunting ground.”
“And she’s using our hotel as a hideaway?”
“A fashionable base for planning her next crime. She’s not here for a vacation. She always has business in mind. That’s her number one priority. Get the man, get the post-mortem insurance money and get out of town. You have to give the lady credit for cold-blooded audacity and ruthless cunning.”
“I’d like to give the lady something all right, but it’s your call. If I may make a suggestion, the FBI boys can handle this quietly and spare you the trouble—and the risk.”
“That’s all right, Gus. I’m the kind of detective who likes to see a case through to its end.”
“Well, it’s up to you. I just hope the case doesn’t mean the end of the detective.”
“In one sense, it is. This is my last case here. I want to move on, maybe open my own agency over in the Delta. The black widow could be my ticket to doing that.”
“In that case, the little lady is making a mistake lingering here. But if she doesn’t know you’re on to her, all you need do now is preserve that advantage as long as you can. So what’s your next move?”
“Follow her to the hunting ground and watch her in action—without being noticed.”
“You think she’ll miss a guy like you, trying to fit in with the upper class? Now who’s the magician?”
Her fortune and quiet magnetism gave RR rapid entrée into social echelons where mature gentlemen of good breeding, fine tailoring and sound investments crowd the water holes. She was now in position. The gents were easy prey for an accomplished huntress who could turn on the charm and pitch the lure. This time, however, the black widow seemed in no hurry to claim a mate. I wondered if she could possibly be contemplating retirement from her life of crime, but it was soon evident that she was merely going about her usual business, narrowing the list of candidates with selective and exacting care.
Arming myself with a shave, a shine, a clean tie and the best evening clothes I could rent, I began attending some of the high-tone events where it was likely I would find our lady on the prowl. It was hit and miss until I found her working the crowd at a penthouse reception. I tried to blend in, doing my best to act like the rest of the sophisticated cosmopolitans and hoping she would not notice the imposture.
As I watched her in action, I saw what I expected–style and guile, characteristic reserve, and ladylike refusal to show overt emotion even among unbridled celebrants. She could alter everything else about herself—hair, face, dress, speech and gait—but in that one detail she was steadfast and unwavering.
I had asked her Los Angeles surgeon if he’d found any evidence of medical neglect on her part that might help my inquiry. He refused to answer until I offered him a little friendly persuasion.
“You never know if a story like this will go big and whether the FBI will get involved,” I told him with pardonable exaggeration, knowing the unlikelihood of either happening. “Mrs. Rackenbury is not the kind of patient who will help your professional reputation. I will make sure to keep your name out of the news and make no reference to you in my interviews and federal testimony. Do we have a deal, doc?””
The doctor readily agreed. The loss of reputation was something that worried him far more than having a dead man on his conscience.
Those I’d met on my travels had already given me the clue of the clenched mouth and the doctor’s report confirmed my suspicion of what it might mean. I had uncovered RR’s secret. And now, at a penthouse party high above San Francisco, I was watching the woman herself at work, noting how well her poise and assurance fit the character she played and the ease with which she moved through her privileged milieu. She cast a spell, making each man feel he alone was the center of her attention. I wondered which of them might be the next to fall into her hands. I also remembered the fate of her unfortunate spouses. The one-way ocean swim. The slip on the mountainside. The misplaced insulin. The fall from the horse. The car whose brakes failed….
When a small crowd of males formed about her, I edged closer and heard someone tell an extremely amusing story that would make even a Puritan cackle. Everyone was uproarious, but only a slim shadow of mirth crossed RR’s face. Her smile was more guarded than the Mona Lisa’s. And then our eyes met. I had lingered too long. It was too late to look away. In that moment, I sensed the evening would not end without an encounter. I hadn’t expected it to come this soon, but there was no avoiding it now. One must play the hand that fate deals or resign from the game. This was one game I wasn’t about to quit.
When RR stepped out on the terrace for a breath of night air and a cigarette, I followed to offer her a match and small talk. We were alone, 22 floors up, with an ominous moon overhead. I felt like a cautious opportunist in a boxing ring, looking for an opening. And then I got it. She was asking me to tell her about myself and whether we had mutual friends at the event. I replied that she and I did indeed share mutual friends. When she asked who they were, I responded by naming some of the husbands she had lost, not by accident, and some of the aliases she had used in her game of shifting identities.
Her face remained composed as a mask, but she could not conceal a flash of alarm in her eyes or a cry of anguish. A sudden, vicious slap caught me off guard and sent me down. She added a kick to send me sprawling and raced to the open French windows to escape. Her path was blocked by a tall, stalwart woman who produced a police badge and introduced herself as a plainclothes officer assigned to the event as a security guard. Witnessing our little commotion, she asked, “May I be of assistance?”
“This man attacked me!” RR cried.
RR assured the policewoman I was a madman making an indecent nuisance and avenging himself on an innocent woman who had rejected his improper and unwanted advances. The cop turned to me with a frown of suspicion, as if I was the criminal instead of the detective.
“What do you say to that, sir?” she asked as I slowly got back on my feet, shook the jingle bells out of my head and pointed a shaky finger at the actual attacker.
“Baloney! Don’t be misled by anything she says, officer. She’s a killer in fine clothes and ritzy manners. Lock her up!”
“Don’t believe anything this lunatic says!” the black widow countered. “Please take him away before he begins harassing my friends as he has me. Mrs. Appleton and Mrs. Sedgewick are friends of mine and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what will happen if those influential ladies complain to your chief.”
“I can charge him with being a public nuisance unless you wish to file a criminal complaint?”
“He’s committed the worst crime of all, trying to brand an innocent lady as a criminal. Please remove him from the premises and let decent people enjoy their evening without a party-crashing maniac.”
“Do you wish to accompany me to the station and make a formal complaint?”
“It’s not necessary. I can give you all you need here. My hosts will vouch for everything I tell you. Who will vouch for him? Look at him. You have only his word. Is that good enough for you?”
“Well, what about it?” the cop asked. I told her the entire story. She reacted with skepticism.
“Oh yeah? Multiple murders? Black widow? And just what makes you so sure that this is her?”
“The way she keeps her mouth closed,” I said. “If it’s proof you want, there it is. And it’s as conclusive as a fingerprint. The woman has been afraid of something all her life—so afraid she’s always avoided it. And now she’s paying the price for her neglect. It will get the chair, unless the jury goes soft.”
”And just what is she so afraid of?” the cop asked with a smile of incredulity, eyeing the woman whose narrow slit of mouth suddenly got narrower.
“Going to the dentist.”
“Listen, wise guy, If you’re making a false accusation, you’re in for more trouble than you imagine.”
“Of course he is, officer,” RR agreed. “He has no right being here and no right maligning me. He’s desperate enough to accuse me or attack me. There’s only one thing for you to do now. Do your duty!”
For a moment, the three of us eyed one another like uncertain actors in a mystery play.
“All right, here it is,” the cop said, breaking the spell. “Show me your teeth and I’ll cuff him.”
“Excuse me, but I’ve already given you my word for that. Do you prefer to take his word over mine? Do you wish to abuse your authority? Just who does this scoundrel think he is?”
“I’m a private detective who’s tracked you across the country, and it may surprise you to learn that I have a warrant for your arrest, duly signed by a judge,” I said, tapping the bulge in my suit pocket.
RR stared speechlessly at the bulge. She hadn’t expected that. The cop took the envelope and my detective license in hand, examined both closely, and said she’d heard enough.
“This man says he’s a private investigator in a multiple murder inquiry. He claims his prime suspect is a woman matching your description and he’s willing to share his findings with us. Looks like the evidence is against you, ma’am, but we can settle all this at headquarters. You’ll have to come with me now. If you refuse, I’ll have to cuff you and tell you that you have the right to remain silent….”
RR turned her gaze away from him to the chrome and glass towers of the city’s sunset skyline.
“I think we all know the truth now,” I said. “You can stop acting. Let it go. Let it go. The party’s over.”
RR’s indignant fury at being bested by a private detective gave way to a bitter smile of resignation—a smile that showed missing teeth and years of dental neglect.
“Mother always said take care of your teeth and they will take care of you. Guess I should have listened. Well, it’s been a good ride. I’d rather my friends in there didn’t see me in handcuffs, so I’ll go quietly. If you don’t mind, just let me have a cigarette and a few moments to myself out here. I’ll regain my composure and we can leave quietly. No, I’m not being clever or devious. Too late for that. Anyhow, there’s no other exit, no way out. You can’t escape from a penthouse terrace, can you?”
She was wrong about that.
When the cigarette lasted longer than it should have, we went out to take her in custody.
The terrace was deserted. Cries of alarm from the lighted avenue far below told us what happened. The policewoman rushed to the edge of the terrace and peered down at what she didn’t want to see.
“God forgive us,” she said.
“It’s not us He has to forgive,” I said. “Come on, let’s get out of here before the news arrives.”
“A good thing she didn’t call your bluff and examine the traffic ticket inside your envelope,” said my companion—a local actress I’d hired to impersonate a policewoman. She played her part handsomely and convincingly, complete with an air of authority and a genuine badge loaned to us by my pal Gus.
“I doubt any judge would have signed a warrant based on nothing more than speculative theory.”
“And that’s what it was? A theory chasing a suspect? Suppose you’d been wrong about her?”
The elevator doors opened and we walked out into a melee of police, medics, camera-ready media and a rapidly gathering crowd of rubberneckers hastening to the scene of tragedy.
“She proved our point beyond a reasonable doubt,” I said. “The chief wanted it handled quickly and quietly. The killer wanted to avoid a trial. This was the best way for all concerned.”
“Talk about acting! She had me so fooled I wasn’t even sure whether to believe you.”
“That’s why I had to make doubly certain. Confronting her did the trick. You saw how she reacted. I knew I had the right party then. As a wise man once said: ‘If I justify myself long enough, my own mouth shall condemn me’. It did here, in more ways than one.”
“A lawyer in a courtroom quoting the Bible. He thought it would go down well with us sinners in the jury box. Are you all right? Sorry to shock you like that. Feeling a little better now?”
“I don’t think anything can make me feel better after that experience.”
“How about a drink to take the rough edges off?”
“It would help, but only for tonight, and then I’d feel twice as awful in the morning.”
“Maybe something a little more comforting. I know an Italian café nearby that serves excellent pasta, imported vino and homemade spumoni. It’s on me. A good meal can help you shake the blues.”
”I’m not sure I could manage anything right now, thanks.”
“Maybe you could manage talking it out with someone who’s been there and back.”
“What can you tell me that I don’t already know?”
“I can tell you it will pass. You’ll get over it. You’ll have a rough night or two and then you’ll wake up in the real world and go on because that’s what we have to do if we want to continue living in it.”
“Do you folks know what’s going on over there?” a couple asked us, alerted by the growing crowd and the wail of police and ambulance sirens converging on the scene. “Somebody have an accident?”
“Somebody had a bad dream and took the short way out,” I said, taking the arm of the actress to steady her balance and safeguard her across an avenue of careless and impatient motorists.
“Well, I guess I can forget about sleep tonight,” she said as the two of us passed under sultry neons blurred by a rolling fog and dark office towers that cast their own inscrutable shadows. We walked a long way in silence, but there was no need for words then, only the need for one another.
“Would you like to come up for conversation?” she broke silence when we reached the door of her apartment house.
“Is coffee included?” I asked.
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.