A nice, quiet Delta vacation with his friends, his boat and his fish. That’s all the Delta Detective wanted. And a big, fresh silver sturgeon to present to Yolanda Peralta for holiday cooking consideration at her Riverside Cafe.
But when his office staff surprises him with a ticket to ride an ocean liner down Baja and beyond, our hero packs his sea bag and heads for what he thinks will be a crime-free vacation aboard the Empress of the Seas. Or so he thinks. What he observes while waiting to board and what he learns on the ship will put the sleuth once more on the trail of wrongdoing. This time, the complex trail of a master thief who doesn’t leave clues.
What he leaves for the DD is one of the most unusual capers of his career.
A fine way to spend a vacation. But only if you’re a detective who can’t resist a challenge.
After leaving my helpful informant at the Authors Bar, I hastened to the office of shipboard security to offer my findings to the officer in charge. On arrival, I could see that was not going to happen. I was waved to the back of a lengthy line of anxious and indignant passengers bemoaning the very thing my informant had just described–the mysterious loss of wallets, pocketbooks and jewelry. All gone missing. Could security enlighten them as to the how and why and where, and reimburse them for losses?
The end of the line was a dead end. I decided to move on, make my report later and play a hunch. Given their overabundance of riches, would the two thieves try their luck at the casino? If they still wore their boarding clothes, I would have no problem recognizing them. And security could do the rest.
It was a nice piece of wishful thinking, a long shot that fell short. My luck at the felt table was even worse than my chance of seeing the officer with a mob at his door. But my hope of a quick solution to the case wouldn’t die. I returned that evening to try my luck again. Lady Luck frowned. No dice.
The following morning, however, the fickle dame of fortune smiled. I slept late, skipped breakfast and hastened to the office where a short line of complainants replaced the long one. Once inside, I reported everything I had seen and suspected to Duncan Bruce, chief security officer of The Empress of the Seas.
Bruce, a lanky and laconic Englishman with a reserved manner, a spruce mustache and a face that didn’t change expression, stared at me and shook his head. It was a miracle, he said, that I had come to him with the very information he needed to make sense of the inexplicable robberies.
“Talk about good timing,” I said. “I tried to see you yesterday, but couldn’t get in. Quite a crowd.”
“And all telling me the same sad story,” Bruce said. “Missed my breakfast as well. Had yours?”
“Overslept. I never do that. Or miss breakfast. But I did both. Now that’s a mystery in itself.”
“That makes two starving sailors. Well, at least I can remedy the breakfast problem.”
He reached for his phone and ordered the chef to “rush up a double proper,” whatever that meant. Then he returned to business.
I’d given Bruce full details on what I had witnessed while waiting to board the ocean liner in San Francisco. What I saw in that crowded and congested terminal made me stare with a detective’s natural curiosity. I couldn’t make head or tail of it. But when the amiable bartender informed me that the thefts weren’t apparent to the victims until they tried to deposit their valuables in stateroom safes, the riddle was solved. The mystery became as clear as a strong lighthouse beam on a dark night at sea.
A pickpocket pair had been roaming the terminal, fleecing passengers so smoothly and skillfully that none of them realized what was happening. None of them had seen or heard anything to make them suspicious. And thus none of them sensed they no longer possessed their valuables.
To add insult to injury, the thieves had proceeded to board the Empress, posing as respectable vacationers. It was the perfect cover—and a getaway on top of that. Whether they had left their crimes behind them on shore was another question. If not, trouble—and a scandal—lay ahead for the ship.
Bruce took in my information and speculation, leaned back in his chair and contemplated what I told him. What I’d brought him, he said, solved one mystery but opened the door to another.
“Having to answer to all those passengers when I knew nothing was bad enough,“ he said.
“And now, if you’re correct about your sighting them on deck, Mr. Pick-your-pocket and his charming assistant have come aboard. God knows for what purpose. We have to stop them before they continue their little crime wave. The reputation of the ship and the line are at stake.”
Bruce asked if I would help him in the investigation. I replied that it would be my pleasure—personal and professional—to do so at my usual hourly rate. He waved my rate aside and said he could assure me the cruise line would offer “a far more substantial sum” for my services.
“You have my word on that as an officer—and fellow detective,” he added.
“You forgot to add gentleman,” I said. He smiled for the first time and said, “Not for me to say.”
Clad in a crisp white uniform that bore several badges for distinguished service to the cruise line, Bruce exuded the quiet authority and responsibility of his station. He had welcomed me, glanced at my credentials, listened to my story attentively and decided I could be of some use to his department.
“I would never have guessed this was all the work of one man,” he said. “There were far too many thefts in too short a time. And since you’ve solved one mystery for me, allow me to solve one for you.”
“Something I don’t know?”
“Why you overslept. The gentle rocking of the ship can be very soothing. Even insomniacs sleep well on a cruise. Of course, it helps to have a gentle sea. Had you sailed with us earlier this season, you’d have met an unpleasantness called El Nino. Everything was lovely for us going down the Baja. Coming back on our final morning, Nino launched a surprise attack off the southern coast. There was no turning back. We were due in port. The captain ordered full speed and damn the torpedoes, but….”
“Rock and roll time? Yes, I’ve sailed in seas like that, but on my own small boat, the Delta Dazzler.”
“So you know something about the sea. But now we have a far worse problem than wind and waves.”
“I should explain that your barman told me about the robberies because he’d asked about my line of work. He knew I was a detective and he thought I could be of some use to you.”
“Good man! I had no idea what I was dealing with. Of course, it wasn’t our fault, but who else is there to blame? Some of the passengers are demanding an investigation and insisting on filing claims for their losses. I assured each and all I would do my utmost to serve them. What else could I say?”
“So where do we go from here?”
“The captain has given the case high priority status. Angry passengers and negative publicity are not what we want for the Empress. We must find them as soon as we can and put them under arrest. With your help, we may be able to do that.”
“I’ll give it my best shot, but beyond seeing the thieves at long range in the terminal and a chance sighting on deck, there isn’t more that I can tell you. Who they are and what they’re up to now is as much a mystery to me as it to you.”
“Working together, we may find the solution. I’ve assigned my surveillance team to keep a sharp eye at the casino. It’s reasonable to assume, as you did, the thieves would wish to wager some of their loot. God knows they have no shortage of it. You heard them on deck saying something to that effect?”
“From the little I could hear, yes.”
“Then let’s proceed on that assumption. Other things may come to your mind. You may know more than you think you know. You certainly know more about them than I or anyone else.”
“It’s a start,” I agreed.
“Right! Let me review what we know and make sure I have all the facts. But we can’t do our duty on empty stomachs. I ordered us a proper English breakfast. How does that sound to you?”
I had no idea what a proper English breakfast was, let alone a proper breakfast of any kind, obtaining mine as I usually do at Yolanda’s before work. But being the proper Englishman that he was, Bruce had the concept. And this was certainly not the time or place for me to request my usual Delta morning starter of huevos rancheros con habaneros or burritos con tocino, avocados y frijoles.
“Breakfast will arrive shortly,” Bruce assured me, removing a yellow legal pad on which he proceeded, in his orderly fashion, to make some jottings on the case.
“Now then, sir, let’s do a brief review of what we know and what we don’t. To begin at the beginning, you saw the thieves at work, but had no idea what it was they were doing?”
“It sure made me wonder, but I didn’t recognize it for what it was.”
“The pocket-picking wasn’t visible, but their movements caught your eye?”
“That was the giveaway. They were going in and out of lines, slipping in here and there with a little jostle or bump and a beg-your-pardon. No sooner had they settled in then off they went again. You expect comings and goings in a big crowd, but the more I stared, the less accidental it seemed.”
“More methodical than impulsive?”
“As if they had some purpose in mind.”
“And that purpose became clear to you when the bartender told you what he did.”
“As soon as he told me that, the lighthouse beam went on.”
“I was no longer in the dark.”
“Ah, I see. Well, from my point of view, the fault lies less on our part than with the lack of security and oversight at the San Francisco end of it. Still, we can’t afford to have passengers robbed even before they board. Naturally, they’ll see the blame as ours and turn to us for restitution.”
“You can’t blame them for that. The thieves thought of everything—including making you the fall guy for their caper.”
“The question is: where is the money now? Is it sitting in their stateroom safe? Stuffed in their pockets? Hidden where no one can find it? To find the money, we need to find them.”
“No small task in a ship of—how many passengers are you carrying? 3000?”
“3,483, to be precise. Our chief problem is that we don’t really know what they look like. You say you were too far off to get a good look at them in the terminal. When you encountered them on deck, after the ship put to sea, you didn’t get close enough to see their facial features?”
“They had their backs to me and I was at an angle from them. I only recognized them by their clothes—-his slouch hat and overcoat, her ski cap and spangled jacket, both wearing dark glasses and maybe a few other disguise tricks as well. And it seemed to me they weren’t acting like typical tourists—ignoring the Golden Gate, the people waving down to us from the bridge, the last sight of the city—all that. Maybe they’d seen it all before. Maybe they had other things on their mind.”
“So their attention was elsewhere—and your attention was focused on them, or what you could see of them.”
“It surprised me to see them there. I couldn’t help wondering what they were doing on board.”
“I’m wondering the same thing. The habit of pickpockets, as I understand it, is to quit the scene of the crime as soon as they finish their work rather than run the risk of lingering and being detected.”
“These two seem to have no fear of that. They kept on picking and pocketing until it was time for them to go on board and act like passengers. That took a huge amount of nerve and skill.”
“Or as the French might put it, le plus finesse et panache,” Bruce nodded. “From all of which, I gather the man behind the mark—the actual pickpocket—must be nothing short of a master thief.”
“The kind who enjoys taking chances and playing by his own rules? Yes, it wouldn’t surprise me if he files a complaint about a lost wallet and tries to swindle you twice over. The complete con job.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. We’d have no way of distinguishing a false claim from a genuine one.”
“I wouldn’t put it past him. This guy feels he can do anything at all and never be caught.”
“Our advantage is that he doesn’t know that we know,” Bruce said. “If he thinks himself untouchable, he may let his guard down. One mistake could give us the lead we need to unmask him. Even if he doesn’t outsmart himself, the lady may make a mistake of her own. Let’s say you find one or both. Could you follow them to their stateroom without them suspecting someone is on to them?”
“It’s the oldest trick of the snoop trade. Act disinterested and insignificant enough to avoid being noticed. Surveillance is my strong point. I just need to be pointed in the right direction.”
“I think your instinct about the casino was correct. If they plan to convert the money into chips, that would certainly be an easy way to reduce their stash without calling attention to it. They can bet as much as they wish without being noticed. So much a day or so much an evening, and by the end of the cruise they have a sum they can brag about—won at the casino.”
“I didn’t recognize anyone there, but I doubt I could have. They would have left their hats and dark glasses and other little tricks in their suitcase. They’re both someone else now.”
“I can put our casino people on watch for a pair of consistent high rollers at the wheel and blackjack table. We have our share of those, of course, but far fewer than slot players. If they’re consistent in their habits, they may prefer to play at a certain time of day or night. I’ll alert my watchdogs. Anything else?”
“Speaking of evidence, once they empty the wallets and pocketbooks, they might wish to dispose of them. The question is how. Fling them overboard when no one’ s looking?”
“The ocean might make a convenient receptacle for getting rid of unwanted evidence.”
“Or they could stash them all in one of your large safe-deposit boxes, with intent of leaving them there. You might have your person in charge check the boxes to see if any of them contain a telltale amount of wallets and pocketbooks.”
“Strictly against company policy,” Bruce shook his head. “But so is exchanging stolen currency for a casino line of credit. I might have to bend the law in order to serve the law.”
Bruce pondered what would happen if a check of safe deposit boxes proved negative. After all, these were no ordinary thieves. They seem to have thought of everything. With that kind of foresight, they might well anticipate a detective on their trail and leave false clues to confound his investigation.
“There is one thing they may not have taken into consideration,” he said.
“We might be able to get a clue from our ID photos–the ones taken when you come on board. Our thieves would have had to remove their headgear and dark glasses for the photos, which must be full-faced and recognizable for them to exit and re-enter the ship at port. You wouldn’t recognize their full faces, as you say, but you might catch a glimpse of something—just in case some detail turns the lighthouse beam back on for you. A bit of work for you, but one never knows. You might get lucky.”
A knock on the door announced the arrival of our meal, wheeled on a cart by a server who wished us a cheerful good morning and laid out the silverware, dishes and cups on a side table. My host beckoned me to join him at the table. The server then set the cart beside it with an array of edible temptations.
“Welcome to a proper English breakfast,” Bruce said. “Not your ordinary porridge. Not your usual bangers and mash.”
He began uncovering poached eggs, sausages, broiled tomatoes, bacon, beans, smoked salmon (“the kind of lox for which no keys are necessary,” he quipped), black pudding, warm scones and toast with marmalade jam.
“And you really must try the tea,” he urged, pouring me a cup. “No ordinary tea. A rare Darjeeling. It comes all way from a tea garden on the lower slope of the Himalaya. I visited Darjeeling some years ago, sampled the local tea and tasted the wisdom of the East. Been a convert ever since.”
It wasn’t my drink of choice, but the fragrant tea from the other side of the world went down well, lubricating our conversation about the crimes committed in that noisy, congested terminal of expectant passengers. As we consumed our fortifying breakfast, Bruce admitted to “a sense of wonder” at the boldness and brazenness of the thieves.
“A master thief, at home in the crush of a big crowd, working quickly and pocketing a fortune. Then he and his lady fade back into the crowd, come on board and become part of the crowd. Twenty years in security and I’ve never encountered the like.”
“Have you ever heard of crimes like this on other cruise lines?”
“I can’t say that I have. Crimes do occur, certainly, often minor or petty ones, and the sensational ones—murder or missing persons–do make headlines. But nothing like this, so far as I know. The facts may not be clear. The criminal is shadowy. And cruise lines aren’t eager to be embarrassed.”
“If he’s done this on other lines, he may be wise to the game. And he’ll assume that if he got away with it a few times, he’ll stay lucky indefinitely. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about luck, it’s that she’s a lady who resents being taken for granted.”
“You’re the one who’s had the best look at him and his lady, incomplete as that may be. Keep that in mind as you look through our on-board photos. And as you go about the ship, keep your eyes and ears open. As large as the ship is, and as many passengers as we carry, there are times when it seems more like a small community. A small community where strangers may suddenly seem familiar….”
“I just hope they aren’t the cautious kind who prefer to sit tight in their stateroom rather than circulate.”
“Since they don’t know what we know, there’s no reason to conceal themselves. I imagine they’re indulging themselves–enjoying everything from the rejuvenation spa and stage shows to dining, dancing and drinking champagne toasts to crime.”
“Well, sir, here’s hoping the champagne lifestyle makes them careless enough to provide us what we need to crack the case,” I said, proposing a toast with tea.
“And a cell for the most unwanted guests aboard ship,” Bruce seconded.
We clinked our cups and drank a toast to their downfall.
“Well, I must get back to business,” Bruce said. “Is there anything else you wish to tell me?”
Anything? Yes and no. I recalled a small detail, one that seemed so minor and inconsequential that I disregarded it in my report. It was this: several times as I watched the couple conversing on deck, the man gave a vigorous shudder or body shake, as if releasing some kind of strain or tension. More likely it was simply a reaction to the brisk, chill wind coming off the ocean, or perhaps shaking off a sensation of seasickness. I thought little of it at the time, and at this moment it hardly seemed worth mentioning to Bruce. After all, just what kind of clue can a detective infer from a random or quirky body movement?
“I’ll do as you say and keep my eyes and ears open,” I promised, without mentioning the shuddering man. If it was some sort of medical condition—one which involved involuntary trembling—I doubted he’d be roaming about the ship. Then again, a shudder or shake on the deck of a moving ship isn’t uncommon. And if he was indeed the pickpocket, a steady hand was something he surely didn’t lack.
“One never knows where a clue may be hiding,” Bruce said, rising and seeing me to the door. “I greatly appreciate the information you’ve brought and your willingness to assist us in the hunt. I’ll ring down to the photo people now so you can start looking and see if you can find anything. Let me know whatever my staff and I can do to assist your endeavors and call me at any time. The best of luck, sir!”
I spent some hours afterward looking through passenger photos, none of which turned on my lighthouse beam, so to speak. I then roamed about the ship, looking for who or what I didn’t know.
The challenge of the case almost made me wish I had never left the Delta, but a working holiday gave me something worthwhile to do beyond sunbathing, loafing and napping at evening showtimes.
Dinner was highlighted by another clash between the two outspoken members of our table—the imperious lady I called the Duchess and the corpulent, gabby man who did not take kindly to being interrupted during his global travel monologues. He had begun a long account of his adventures in the backcountry of somewhere in Central America (or perhaps South–I wasn’t paying close attention) when the Duchess decided to terminate the interminable travelogue with her views on the 2020 election year.
This time, the two combatants had at it over the issue of political ethics. One said ethics was alive and well, but only in her party; the other flatly declared that political ethics was an oxymoron. One waved the flag; the other deplored “a merciless grab” for money, power and status from political hucksters using what he called “the bait-and-switch of empty promises and the illusion of democratic idealism.”
“How dare you criticize our noble system of government!” the outraged Duchess responded.
“We haven’t had one since George Washington left office!” Big Boy retaliated.
“My party is true to the spirit of George and all the Founding Fathers and all the patriotic principles and clauses of the Constitution! George would be proud of us, but as for you and your kind—!”
“If George were the judge of that, he’d call out the militia and chase your corrupt gang from the halls of power. And good riddance!”
I fled the table shortly thereafter and visited the casino again to check the action. If Bruce’s theory was correct, the thieves would disperse their sizable stash by transferring the loot into chips. Playing with other people’s money might make them indifferent to losses or confident that wins would balance the account. Either way, these two gamblers might be content to let the chips fall where they may.
I played blackjack for a while, eyeing the others at the table, but recognizing none. I then moved to try my luck with the red and black. The table was crowded with more strangers, none of whom showed the least sign of shuddering unless they lost more than they could afford. Watching the spin of the roulette wheel made me muse about pickpockets whose own pockets might be picked by the turn of a card or the fall of a little silver ball. But it was more likely that justice, if it came at all, would have to come from something other than a table stake.
The thieves had aroused no curiosity or concern while working passenger lines in San Francisco. Here, their wagering substantial amounts of chips would not raise an eyebrow. It was all part of the game. The rest was up to fate. The thieves would triumph unless some carelessness on their part, some all too human mistake gave the game away. Would dogged investigation or chance give us that advantage?
End, Part Two – Stay tuned for the surprising conclusion in Part 3, 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 Two 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.