Ho, ho, ho! Can the Delta Detective enjoy his Christmas holiday without a crime caper?
One would expect the DD to utilize the Yuletide season to indulge and increase his favorite recreational pursuits of boating, fishing and dining at Yolanda’s Waterfront Cafe.
But this year, the office staff at Delta Detections has other plans for him. The gang has prepared a little surprise that will transfer the sailing sleuth from the wheel of the Delta Dazzler to the decks of a modern ocean liner and challenge him with a mystery that begins even before he boards ship.
If you’re ready to sail, here’s your ticket to join our wandering, wisecracking hero as he weighs anchor on the case of “Closed for the Holidays.”
“Doing anything special over the break?” Iris asked as we prepared to close the office for the holidays.
“Fishing,” I said, wondering why my omniscient office manager could not have guessed the obvious. “Yolanda wants to add something special to her holiday menu. I’m going after sturgeon rather than stripers or salmon. Make a nice little holiday surprise for our favorite chef.”
“Something surprising may be coming your way, too, skipper,” Iris said with a sly little smile. I assumed she was hinting about a reciprocal gift that Yolanda Peralta had in mind for me at her namesake restaurant where home cooking a la Mexicana and earnest advice are served up in equal proportion.
The Christmas spirit had turned all of us at Delta Detections into merrymakers. It is our custom to close our doors a week before Christmas and reopen a week into the new year. The holiday hiatus grants my small staff a well-deserved rest and enables me to go sailing and fishing everywhere about the Delta without the workday necessity of staff meetings, client consultations and investigations.
Despite our short December term, clients are not shortchanged on the seasonal holly jolly. We provide hot spiced cider, snowflake cookies and a fruitcake purchased from a tropical monastery that proves unusually popular with our clients less for its exotic fruit than its drench of Cuban rum.
Yuletide begins for us with a blaze of décor provided by the ladies. Iris dresses a “Delta twinkle tree” like an interior designer. Doris lights an illuminated trio of Wise Men to bless the reception desk. Chloe sets out her festive Santas and Daphne adds to the charm of Saint Nick with a collection of playful elves.
It falls to me to explain the three gifts of the magi and why frankincense should not be confused with a European doctor noted for weird experimentation. An authentic monster can be found in our office courtyard, where visitors are greeted with a no-horse open sleigh of gift boxes ransacked and plundered by a wickedly grinning Grinch. The musical soundtrack resounds with “A Scary, Merry Grinch-mas to All!”
The time had come to end the business year with an office party and gift exchange. Aware of my adventures at the wheel of the Delta Dazzler, staffers typically present me with nautical odds and ends, from comical captain’s hats (which I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing) to cabin pillows featuring frisky mermaids and sun-bronzed “beachcomberettes”. This year, however, the staff decided to go upscale.
“We’re sending you on an ocean voyage!” Iris announced, presenting me with a ticket to cruise the Mexican coast as far as Puerto Vallarta. “You’ll have a lovely time, sir. All you have to do is sit back, put your feet up, forget your cares and relax, relax, relax. No worries at all about winds, tides, waves, sails, whales and all those things that make you fret.”
Given my extensive experience afloat, I wasn’t prepared to hear myself portrayed as a fretter who prefers to idle on deck rather than take on nautical challenges. Nor was I prepared for the rousing cheers and applause that greeted her announcement. Why was the staff so joyous to send me to sea?
Putting me aboard an ocean liner, Iris explained, would relieve my staff of concerns for my safety. After all, what risks could one encounter on a modern liner, with its safety features and strict security precautions? Other than overeating, overdrinking and casino bankruptcy, it was a very safe haven.
The next day, I raised anchor and hoisted sail in pursuit of sturgeon. It’s a difficult fish to entice, but I had the right lure and the luck to hook a hefty specimen just under the 60-inch legal limit. The problem was that this specimen did not wish to surrender. I hung on as it took me on an unguided tour of the Delta.
When the fish wearied, I was faced with a new challenge. I had to use every ounce of my strength to reel it in. As I did so, the reluctant sturgeon got the idea of what fate awaited him and resumed his defiant struggle. It was still putting up a fight as I mustered whatever muscle I had left to lift it out of the water and welcome it aboard with a victory cry of “Hola pescado! Perfecto para Yolanda!”
I added a few smaller specimens to my legal tally, and set sail to Yolanda’s to present my trophy fish. The proprietress warmly praised my gallantry and generosity, but said that serving the big fish to her customers wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.
“I shall freeze it and prepare it for you properly when you come back to me,” she promised.
“No, dear, this is for you and your friends,” I assured my friend. “No need to do anything for me.”
“Oh, but there is! A memorable meal that awaits him gives a man good reason to return home. And please be careful on the big ship. I have heard tales of people who disappear without trace on ocean voyages. Cuidado! Take care. You never know who you might meet or what might happen on a big ship!”
I arrived in Fog City a day before I was scheduled to board the Empress of the Seas and used my time to finalize a few business matters. I then reconnected with Midge Windflower, the gifted actress whose active collaboration helped me collar a black widow notorious for her artful disguises and meticulous murders. The serial killer might have continued her crime spree indefinitely if not for our intervention, during which Midge acted her role as a policewoman with convincing authority. The caper was exhausting but rewarding, giving me the wherewithal to leave my job at Golden Gate Investigations and open my own detective agency on the Delta riverfront. For that, I owed Ms. Windflower big time.
Over dinner at an India-style hot spot where the tandoori chicken emerged from the oven red as a brick but far more tender, I handed Midge a holiday card with a bonus check enclosed for past services.
“Oh, no, I can’t accept this!” she protested. “I haven’t worked for you since the Hopwell case and you overpaid me for that.”
“I owe you more than I can repay,” I explained, folding her hand about the check and reminding her how her intervention saved the day after the black widow sucker-punched me with a karate slap and kick that sent me sprawling. Hastening to an exit, her escape was blocked by the immovable Midge.
“Well, Santa Claus, it’s very sweet of you, but the truth is I owe you far more. You came along at a rough period in my life and been a friend to me ever since, keeping in contact, offering me assignments to keep me going and helping with expenses when I’m down. How can I ever repay you for all that?”
“By taking this check and forgetting who owes who or whom. And now that that’s settled, suppose we toast our mutual admiration society with an after-dinner palate cleanser?”
“You’re forgetting that I don’t drink.”
“I didn’t forget. I have a Bengali sorbet in mind.”
“A what? Is there such a thing? Make mine not-too-spicy and I’m in.”
“Do you have a non-spicy Bengali sorbet?” I asked the attentive, turbaned waiter who solemnly shook his head at both the non-existent dessert and my naive request.
“Never mind, my good man,” Midge said, patting my forearm. “Let’s think of something else we can share and enjoy. Not necessarily food or drink. I have the evening open, and the night is young, and you’re giving me the kind of look my dear old mother cautioned me never to return, unless….”
The next morning, Midge dropped me at the pier where the huge bulk of the Empress of the Seas rose above the terminal. Her colorful departure flags flapped in the bay breeze as if the great liner was signaling her eagerness to put to sea. I was less eager, given the charms of Ms. Windflower, who wished me calm seas and made me promise to remember that “auld acquaintance should not be forgot” the next time I hit town. I will spare you the tender exchange that sealed the deal.
I then set forth to join a long line of passengers that stretched out of the spacious terminal and so far down the embarcadero pavement that the end of it was not in sight. We moved slowly forward to enter a series of roped cordons that ran right and left, dispersing the crowd and ensuring orderly progress to registration stations, staffed by cruise line representatives who provided keys to staterooms and suites.
Given the sea holiday that awaited us, few complained about the boarding process. But not everyone was content. I noticed two moving in and out of the crowd with repeated intrusions. These restless souls refused to linger in any chosen place. Were they seeking a lost family member? Suffering cruise anxiety? Afflicted by claustrophobia? The movements of this restless pair caught my eye because of its curious pattern. A brisk, little man in a trench coat, dark glasses and a slouch hat would slip behind someone in the crowd; as he did so, a smart young woman in a tightly-fitted ski hat would cut in line ahead of that individual and turn about with a charming smile and some plausible explanation for her lack of manners.
As they conversed, the little man behind the two lost whatever patience he had and moved abruptly out of his newly acquired place in line. The young woman soon followed suit. The two wandered off in the same direction and resumed the task of gaining new positions in line that they abandoned almost as soon as they gained them. Why? Was this a game of some sort? If so, what was its object?
I soon lost sight of the odd couple and turned my attention to presenting my boarding ticket and ID to a cruise rep who handed me a medallion to enter my stateroom and to use when departing and reboarding the ship in port. A hike up a series of elevated walkways brought me to a cruise photographer who offered a souvenir photo of my bedraggled self as if it was a travel memento to cherish. I declined and continued up until I reached a long metal gangway into a ship entrance where security welcomed me aboard and took a photo required for security purposes.
I stayed on deck as we sailed under the iconic bridge that spans the Golden Gate. Bridge pedestrians waved down to me, strenuously shouting “bon voyage!” and “pleasant journey!” I waved up to them, sensing their envious desire to be standing where I stood, with the city vanishing behind our stern and the glistening ocean that now enveloped us. As I turned to admire the view, I sighted two figures at the port rail who were none other than the duo I’d seen cutting in and out of line at dockside. Had they found what they were seeking? Perhaps now they could calm down and enjoy the pleasures of seagoing. Yet neither seemed particularly interested in the landmark bridge, the vanishing city or glistening ocean.
Something about these two aroused my detective instincts. I wanted to know more about them. Moving closer, I overheard talk of “a good day’s take” and the prospect of “a good night’s play” at the wheel and blackjack table. The woman tucked a loose curl or two back inside her ski cap; as she did so, I noticed its purple color. Was she wearing the cap to offset the cold or conceal that distinctive color? Might she be a celebrity traveling incognito who didn’t wish to offer any obvious clue to herself?
When the mystery couple turned my way, I posed as an idle ocean-watcher, glanced at my watch, shook my head and went below. After reporting for duty at the emergency drill required of all passengers, I unpacked, took a nap and went to my assigned table in a dining room designed to impress passengers with its art deco splendor, connoisseur cuisine and attentive wait staff.
My dining companions were an elegantly-mannered and fashionably-gowned woman who presided at the head of the table like a duchess; a couple who simply stared without talking; a stage mother with a precocious daughter whom she was grooming for show business; and a genial, chatty man of 300 pounds who was more than eager to tell us about his global adventures in glamorous destinations.
The heavyweight raconteur talked through his chowder and salad, and was well into his steak and lobster until his abrupt silence caught my attention. The man’s mouth was moving, but no sound emerged. He rose in a crouch from his chair, staggered and clutched the edge of table. The bluish hue of his face left little doubt he was choking. A crisis was at hand, but a rescuer was not. All the waiters had returned to the kitchen and no one at our table was prepared to take action. The danger could only be remedied by prompt response on the part of someone who knew–or reckoned—what to do when the physical bulk of a victim defies the customary wrap-around of the Heimlich maneuver.
I hurried to the gasping man, pushed him face down on the dining table and centered two swift chops between his shoulder blades to dislodge the lethal food particle. Nothing happened. I struck again, with savage ferocity. A piece of steak flew out of his mouth and landed on the plate of the duchess, whose shriek of horror and revulsion brought waiters and managers on the run to repair the catastrophe.
Order was soon restored. The fat man shook his head and waddled back to his chair to down a glass of wine. Then he resumed eating and talking as if nothing had happened. He neither acknowledged his close call or my role in saving him. He wanted to give us his impressions of Moorea and Papeete, where he acquired “a perfect black pearl” from a good-natured Tahitian who did not understand its value.
“So you cheated him,” the duchess surmised dismissively, finding her speech again after her plate, napkin, glassware and silverware were hastily replaced by our solicitous servers.
“On the contrary,” the storyteller assured her, “the gold watch with its diamond-circled face that I gave him was worth far more than the pearl.”
“So he cheated you.”
“No one cheated anyone, madam! I know a thing or two about jewels and gems. I’d always wanted a pure black pearl to mount on a ring. I didn’t mind spending more to get one. When you get what you want, you satisfy your desire, and I believe satisfaction is the secret of happiness. Do you agree?”
“Only if it lasts, but it rarely does, and shall I tell you why?” the duchess asked. “Because human nature is such that the fulfillment of desire always leaves one wanting more than what one has.”
“Then what is your idea of happiness, if I may ask?”
“Speaking fluent French.”
“That’s odd. I couldn’t help noting you mispronounced most of the French dishes you ordered.”
“That’s because my vocabulary is limited to the words I love: Chanel. Dior. Hermes, Saint Laurent….”
The next day, after a sunbath and swim, I went inside in search of a late afternoon refresher. There is no lack of bars on a cruise ship, each customized with themes ranging from an upscale explorer’s lounge to an outer space saloon. As I passed another refreshment venue, a photo portrait of an unsmiling but socializing Hemingway caught my eye. It was framed above a motto, presumably penned by the author: “Every drink is an experience. Every drink tells a story. Every drink makes you a storyteller.”
“Welcome to the Authors’ Bar!” a white-jacketed, silver-haired bartender greeted my scrutiny and explained the concept as I settled on a stool. I scanned wall photos of writers from Melville, Joseph Conrad and Jack London to moderns and contemporaries notable as interpreters of the sea. Each author was matched to a brief quotation in praise of creative inspiration.
The purpose of all this, I supposed, was to convince patrons that they were only a drink or two away from joining (if only in spirit) the famous writers’ club. I couldn’t help asking the barkeep how many of his patrons were inclined to try their hand at writing after selecting a beverage to put them in the proper authorial mood. He waved his hand at the question.
“I don’t keep score, sir. For most folks, it’s just a charming invitation–or amusing excuse–to imbibe.”
The amiable barman asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. He seemed quite interested in my profession and soon explained why. A number of passengers had filed grievances because their wallets and pocketbooks had mysteriously disappeared. Some didn’t realize they were gone until they reached for them to place inside their stateroom safe. How could so many lose so much before they reached their cabin? The mystery was being investigated, he said, but so far, without result.
As he talked, I remembered the odd couple moving about the closely-packed crowd in the terminal. And then the lighthouse beam came on in my brain and gave me the answer. Professional pickpockets, posing as nervous passengers, had been working the crowd, taking timely advantage of its congestion and distractions. Having seen the two on deck, I realized that they hadn’t fled the scene of their crimes. But what was their purpose in coming on board? Did they plan more pocket pilfering? Or (given what I had overheard) did they intend to dispose of their ill-gotten loot by wagering it in the ship’s casino?
Before I reported these suspicions to the ship’s security officer, I thanked the barkeep for his information and asked him to tell me more about the colorful characters on his wall.
“Not your usual mariners, are they?” he grinned. “All of them went to sea for adventure or escape. The writing inspiration came as a result of that, possibly aided by a glass or two. They had their share of personal shortcomings, but that was forgiven or forgotten by readers because they wrote with authority and honesty, and sometimes grace. You can forgive a man a whole lot if he writes that well.”
“I imagine some of them needed more than the usual share of forgiveness.”
“What’s your pleasure?” the barman asked, getting down to business. “Pick an author and you get the drink to match. You never know, it might even tempt you to scribble a line or two about your voyage.”
“I like that Hemingway quote. Never saw it before. Any idea when and where he wrote it?”
“Between drinks—or maybe during.”
“To make the words flow?”
“Why not try a Cuba Libre and find out for yourself?”
“Been there, drank that,” I shook my head. “What else can you offer?”
“Well, if you want to get serious with Hemingway, I’d suggest a Sailor Ernie.”
“Spiced rum, lemon rum, Cubano rum, sweet and sour, pineapple juice, coca-cola and—-”
“That sounds like a Hemingway concoction, all right. Everything but the kitchen sink.”
“Or you might try the Ernesto: Coconut rum, mango rum, pineapple rum, dash of pirate rum and—“
“Stop right there. I have an idea. How about pouring me a Double Dog-Dare-You Delta Daiquiri?”
“Come again? Never heard of that one.”
“It’s a classic in my part of the world. Central California classic. Greyhound rum, Houndstooth rum, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, lime juice, pineapple juice and a dash of light syrup.”
The barman listened with his head cocked to absorb the details of the recipe as I related it.
“Are you sure about the pineapple juice?” he asked when I finished.
“Helps the story flow,” I said. “I would have served it to Hemingway if I had lived back then and if he had sailed into our part of the world. If he liked it, maybe he’d have found a new source of inspiration.”
“Worth a try,” he said, and set about assembling the drink that never made the Delta famous.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked when he tasted a sample for himself.
“We may have to put your picture up on our wall. But are you sure about the pineapple juice?”
“I’m flexible. Omit it if you like. Toss in a third canine brand rum and you’ll have a Triple Dog-Dare-You Delta Daiquiri. I’ll be your first customer for that if you don’t mind doing me the honor.”
“And if, after downing it, you can walk away without falling on your face, the drink is on the house.”
I put it down neatly, thanked him and wished him a good day, rose up and promptly sat down again.
“One more for the road?” he asked. “Better not. Stop where you are or you’ll never reach the road.”
“No, I forgot to give you this,” I said, sliding a tip across the counter. “And I have a question. Can you tell me where I can find the ship’s security officer? I want to pay him a courtesy visit. Those folks you mentioned must be plenty put out having their wallets lifted. Maybe I can be of some assistance.”
“Bless you for offering,” the bartender said. “A professional detective might be just what we need. If the word gets out about the vanished wallets, the news people will have a laugh reporting it and passengers will avoid our ship like the plague. If they’re out their wallets, we’re out of business, and that can cost some of us our jobs. Maybe you can help prevent that.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, and walked out with surprising sturdiness despite the triple daiquiri.
Having survived an innovative triple daiquiri and walked out of the Authors’ Bar without falling on his face, the intrepid Delta Detective is on his way to confer with the the top cop aboard The Empress of the Seas.
Will he leave the case of the affluent pickpockets in the capable hands of shipboard security or will he be asked to take a hand of his own in its solution? Assuming our hero can outwit the purple-haired charmer and her wily accomplice, what surprise awaits him on his return to the Delta where Yolanda’s savory sturgeon is his homecoming reward?
For answers, keep sailing aboard Soundings and maintain a close sea watch for the conclusion of “Closed for the Holidays,” coming soon.
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 “Closed for the Holidays.”
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.