When his office staff sent the Delta Detective off on a holiday cruise, they had the best of intentions. They wished to free the sleuth from the stress of constant investigations and allow him to find the peace and pleasure common to life aboard a luxury liner.
Iris and staff reasoned that their chief could forget about the business of mystery and detection on a well-regulated ship where passengers are happy, crime is uncommon and vigilant shipboard security sees to it that it stays that way. They forgot that where the DD goes, trouble follows.
In the third and concluding episode of “Closed for the Holidays,” our sleuth will find a case like no other in his experience, a solution that arrives only because the criminals believe they can get away with anything (even on the dance floor), and a Delta homecoming that is not without its share of surprises from the women in our hero’s life.
The ID photo search and casino surveillance that Duncan Bruce recruited me to do were a reasonable investigative approach to the mystery. They had only a small chance of success, however, and brought us no closer to the identity of the suspects.
To make matters worse, I left my lobster dinner untouched rather than remain to hear my contentious tablemates continue their heated debate on political ethics and what George and the Founding Fathers truly meant. A duel with seltzer spray bottles would have better suited the purpose.
Preoccupied with the vexing question of how to trace untraceable criminals, I went out on deck to clear my head with a deep breath of ocean air, hoping a sea remedy would help clarify a complex case.
Invigorated, I returned to the casino for one more shot at surveillance, gambling that some minor or obscure detail might reveal the clever thieves for whom I was searching. Once more, I drew a blank.
I left with a nod at one of Duncan Bruce’s security agents who was keeping an eye on high rollers.
“Anything?” he asked quietly as I passed.
I shook my head, wished him better luck and went down the grand, illuminated staircase to call it a day with a nightcap at one of the little bars that flanked the atrium. One caught my attention with its sea-brand novelties. What in the world was a Charlie the Tuna? Fin Cutting Water? Full Fathom Fizz? Rum Riptide? Perfect Storm? Blue Moon Lagoon? Red Sails in the Sunset?
It was a perfect come-on for the tourist trade. So was a spritely young barista who began explaining these concoctions in detail, assuming I needed a guide rather than a menu to make sense of them.
“Spare me the lecture, sweetheart,” I told her, “you’re making my head swim.”
“Head swim? Omigosh, sir! You’ve just given me the inspiration for a new libation!”
“Do I get a royalty for that? If not, how about pouring me a cold Pacifico? And please don’t try to get fancy on me with an Atlantico. Never heard of it? The beer of choice for East Coast brew snobs.”
“Atlantico? Oh, you’re kidding me. But hey, that’s great for my list! All right, sir, for giving me two new ideas, your Pacifico is complementary. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Tell me what time you get off work and I’ll tell you a few more amusing stories.”
“You wouldn’t happen to be one of those playboy travel writers, would you?” she asked suspiciously.
“I’m in the detective business. But I can tell you that I’ve given the Authors Bar a few ideas, and they’re thinking of making me an honorary member of the club. They don’t play games up there.”
“From what I hear, that’s exactly what detectives do,” she smiled, serving my glass and departing.
You can’t win them all, but I was more fortunate than most. I came away with a beer on the house.
I took my brew to a small table from which to view the action on the atrium floor, where a small group of dancers was trying out steps to the music of a snappy mariachi band—Los Hermanos de Baja.
The band played not only upbeat mambos, salsas, and tangos, but plaintive love songs, alternating between poignant romance and bursts of Latin energy. The dancers included solo women trying to figure their moves, sporty geezers with trophy wives, and a toddler prancing circles around her mother. An evening crowd with nothing better to do watched from tables that flanked the floor. A few got up now and then when the music put them in the mood, but most were content to remain seated.
The authenticity and vitality of the music led me at times to tap my toes, raise my glass and shout “Ole!” My enthusiasm caught the attention of the lady at the next table who told me that the music of Mexico was an excellent way to absorb the romance and culture of the nation without the risk of going ashore where the threat of danger lurked. I told her danger was part of the charm.
“Maybe that’s because danger is my business,” I said. She ignored that little hint, eyed the dancers and said she’d never been on a cruise ship before. Now that she had, she didn’t want to go home.
“I’ve met folks from all over the world here,” she said. “And I love the spectacle of the sea—the open horizon, the sense you get of another world, the fun of seeing a whale or playful dolphins. For me, there’s nothing better than an ocean breeze, a good book and a cocktail on deck. How about you?”
“California Delta. You ought to try boating or kayaking there someday. A world of its own out there.”
“California what? Is that part of the ocean? No? What is it you do there?”
“Well, I’m a boating man myself, but I kayak with my friend Katie. Last time out, the two of us were buzzed by a pair of wild geese who flew very low, honking their heads off, as if they were trying to tell us something. At first, I thought they were communicating with one another, like geese do to keep on course; then I asked my friend Katie if they were lost and asking us the way to Tuleburg.”
“You don’t seriously believe that wild geese can communicate with humans?”
“She said they had no intention of landing there—the homeless campers might have them for dinner. I thought about it and decided the geese might be famished after a long flight. They could be craving the cold Pacificos in my ice chest or maybe the sandwiches and cookies my partner tucked in there.”
“Interesting theory,” the woman said, looking quizzically at me. “I know enough about wildlife to know that wild geese don’t indulge beer or spirits or crave whatever your friend puts in your chest.”
“As a rule, no. But these weren’t ordinary geese. You can never tell what a Delta goose has in mind.”
“The same could be said for kayakers who think they can translate their intentions. You could run into trouble that way, couldn’t you? Is that what you meant when you said danger is your business?”
The band played on tirelessly, luring a growing share of merrymakers to the dance floor. Its gifted guitarists and sturdy trumpeters didn’t miss a note, and its female vocalist lent a heart-rending quality to songs of longing and lost love. The latter turned my thoughts to Ms. Windflower in Frisco, Katie the Delta Kayaker and other distant lady friends who could turn a tough private eye somewhat sentimental.
As I watched the action, my mind traveled back to what I had observed before boarding in San Francisco. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but as I told Duncan Bruce, what I witnessed was a lesson in slick, stylish and brazen thievery. The scene was the cruise terminal, one of those colossal clearing houses of sea travel filled with the noise, clutter and crush of captive passengers. For a master pickpocket, it was a happy hunting ground. His practiced hand could separate travelers from their valued possessions faster and smoother than the blink of an eye.
The method was simplicity itself. Once he made his choice of a mark, the pickpocket cut in line and slipped behind his chosen victim; his female accomplice then came up and moved in front of the mark, turned quickly and stumbled back a bit, apologizing for her clumsiness with convincing earnestness and a charming smile to cinch the deal. The money was gone in a moment. So was the thief.
The woman followed. The pickpocket slipped his plunder in her handbag as she passed and went on the prowl for his next victim. Once he made his selection, the two were in position to strike again. It was all in the timing, and the timing was as precise and unerring as a well-rehearsed dance.
The duo’s deception involved the necessary precaution of disguise. Accordingly, they donned headgear, coats and dark glasses; once on board, they put these items away, free to be part of the crowd and do whatever they pleased. Which is exactly what worried the chief of security.
“I thought we’d have our usual quiet voyage, without undue complications,” Bruce told me. “And now we have a pair of sophisticated professionals on my ship–with God knows what criminal intentions!”
“There’s always the possibility they’ll outsmart themselves,” I consoled him, hoping that was true.
Enlisting my services, Bruce urged me to make every effort to track them and offered me the full support of his team. If we failed, he explained, money and jewelry would be lost, and passengers anguished and offended enough to blame the cruise line for their misfortune. The story would inevitably make headlines in the press and give the public another reason to avoid cruising beyond sea storms, quarreling tablemates, or rumors (true or false) of certain ships with recurrent viral problems.
As I reviewed the facts of the case, something of interest on the dance floor began to divert my eye and claim my attention. It began with the lively band and ended with an opportunity to crack the case.
Although drawn by the music, some dancers felt unable to do it justice. To their rescue came a lithe and spirited little man who appeared from nowhere and showed his prowess in an amazing versatility and vitality of body movements. He invited one solo woman after another to be his partner in crime.
We watched this athletic performance in a state of wonder. The newcomer shook, shimmied, leaped, rattled and rolled. There was nothing he couldn’t do. The show of physical dexterity was not only eye-catching and amusing, but intended to give solo ladies the dance partner of their dreams. Other ladies ventured out, emboldened by his joyous artistry. He enabled each woman to toss aside her doubts, shed her inhibitions, and become part of the performance.
It was evident that the stranger was not a cruise ship dance host or even a member of the ship’s entertainment troupe. Something about his audacity transcended the usual categories. It was as if a master of the dance had arrived to bless the amateurs with a do-it-yourself choreography.
The mariachis seized on this delightful surprise to salute the spirit of their unexpected guest and encourage his disciples. As they did so, the floor began to fill with singles and couples of all ages who wanted to be part of the festivities. The mariachis responded to the crowd by turning up the volume and tempo. A lively, carnival atmosphere soon prevailed.
When at last the music stopped, the weary dancers hastened to the sidelines to catch their breaths and recover from their strenuous exercising. The gifted soloist, whoever he was, left the floor, presumably departing for the night. The party was over, or so it seemed.
But the best was yet to come.
Given the success of the evening, the band decided not to put their instruments away. It was time for an encore that would top everything that had gone before.
When the boys struck up with “La Macarena,” I assumed few of the dancers would have the desire, let alone the energy, to return to the floor. But the steady pulsation and singalong appeal of the music proved irresistible. Everyone who had called it a night now began to drift back to the floor. So did the no-holds-barred performer who had started it all. This time, he was not alone. A young woman joined him with a demonstrable talent of her own. The two recharged the event and inspired a new wave of participation. Even weary dancers who vowed “no mas” now decided they did indeed want more.
A swelling contingent of “Macarenistas” soon filled the floor. Their audience was not confined to those of us on the fringe of the floor action. A glance up revealed a crowd of spectators thickly lining the circular balconies that ringed the atrium. No one wanted to miss the show-stopping finale. For some, it would be the highlight of the evening; for others, the most memorable event of the entire day.
The star of the show now had a partner of his own choosing. The woman was distinctive in her own right, but her dancing wasn’t what captivated me to get out on the floor and get close to her. It was her hair—a royal purple–and a smile that awakened a memory of something I had seen at a distance. It was the smile of the woman who had turned to apologize for crowding in line at the terminal. It was the hair shade of the woman whom I had seen hastily trying to conceal her curls under a close-fitting ski cap.
Thanks to a detail of hair color and a smile repeatedly used to assist her light-fingered pal, I had found the master thief’s accomplice. Had I also found the master?
Some of the man’s movements, as I observed them, closely matched those I had observed on deck shortly after sailing. I had thought them too inconsequential to report to Bruce, dismissing the body shakes and stretches as some sort of nervous condition or a reaction to a chill sea wind.
I now saw those movements for what they were—the unconscious muscle-flexing and limbering of a dancer whose talents might also include a sleight-of-hand you would never notice in your pocket or elsewhere on your person.
The question I could not yet answer was whether the man whose face I saw clearly for the first time was a master criminal who relaxed by strenuous dancing—or a master dancer who dabbled in crime.
If my observation was correct, the dancing duo were exercising the same ease and freedom of movement they had used to prey upon passengers in the cruise terminal. Here, ironically, they were figures who earned the admiration and envy of musicians and dancers. Spectators from the fringe of the floor to the upper balconies applauded them. They were a wonder to behold. They had found the joy of living in the moment. But in commanding this attention, they’d given me the clue of recognition.
It was likely that no amount of active investigation on my part would have unearthed them. But here, engaging in nothing more than an evening’s idle pleasures, the mystery of identity was no longer a mystery.
What was my next move? I had until the dance ended to decide, but I already knew I had to follow them wherever they went—back to their stateroom, if possible, to gain the number. No easy task for an amateur, but all part of the job for an investigator who made his living shadowing and eavesdropping. I would do so here, turn my information over to Bruce and collect the reward he promised me.
“Macarena” thundered on, inducing the dancers to obey a rhythmic pattern of arm, hand and hip movements in time to the song and a shout-out of “Macarena!” at the end of each chorus. The song and dance took complete possession of them. No one on or off the floor wished it to end, with the exception of myself. Given the opportunity, I was eager to wrap the case.
The band headed into the home stretch with a furious finale, moving the tempo into a whole extra gear of propulsion. Some dancers smiled at the futility of keeping pace and made half-hearted gestures rather than continue. Others sought to prove that nothing was beyond their ability to match the music.
And then, suddenly and mercifully, it was over. The dancers cheered, the spectators applauded the dancers, and the band wearily put its instruments away.
It was time for me to go to work.
I followed the star couple out of the atrium, with people on all sides thanking them for their efforts and showing them the adoration usually reserved for gods or celebrities.
Once free of their worshippers, the couple moved toward an elevator that required a special key because it led to a reserved section of the ship called The Getaway. If you had a suite there, you enjoyed all the luxury, privacy and privilege money could buy—from your own personal butler to your own exclusive restaurant, spa and lounge. If I could get inside, I’d have a good chance of tracking our troublemakers, taking care not to alert them to the fact that they were being followed.
Lacking a key, the only way I could get in the elevator was to follow on the heels of whoever belonged in The Getaway and act as if I, too, deserved to be there. As luck would have it, a frolicking party of three came my way. I slipped in behind the merrymakers and made a quiet fourth. I attracted no attention.
The elevator rose smoothly to The Getaway. When the door opened, I stepped out and allowed those behind me to pass. As my two exited, I heard the master dancer tell “Jasmin” that he could use a drink and time out at the Getaway’s private bar. He would meet her at their suite later and, if she wished, bring her favorite drink. She agreed, but wanted to take the drink with her. The two proceeded to the bar for that purpose. I remained out of sight in the corridor and called Duncan Bruce to inform him that one suspect, whom I described, would be in the bar; the other was about to lead me to their suite.
I followed the lady, drink in her hand, at a discreet distance and considered my plan of action. I could let her enter the suite, call Bruce with its number, and retire from the case. I advanced toward her as she juggled her drink, handbag and key. When the door opened, I decided to seize the opportunity…..
“Hold it, lady!” I cried. As she turned, I rushed up to inform her that her partner in crime had just been arrested in the bar for grand theft. She flung the door open, jumped in and tried to slam it back in my face. I reacted with a foot in the door fame and a forward thrust that knocked her flat. I knelt beside her as she struggled to rise and prevented her. She launched a swift kick. The kick missed its target. She tried again and missed again. I tapped my fist on her forehead to calm her and laid down the law.
“Party’s over, girlfriend! If you’re smart, you’ll cooperate. Tell me where the money is and go quietly. If not, we’ll wait until the rest of the force arrives—and they’re on the way. It’s either them or me now. With them, you two will be detained in the ship’s brig until released to Mexican authorities. The Mexicans take a dim view of people who disrupt the profitable tourist trade between our two countries. If that happens, it won’t be pleasant for either of you. Especially you. No more spa or fine dining or—”
“What are you saying?” she asked. I told her I was a detective and she was under arrest.
“What are you offering?” she asked sensibly. I told her it all depended on her good behavior.
“Give me the money and I’ll request the chief to spare you Mexican custody. In that case, you and your friend won’t have to worry. You’ll be returned to California to face charges there.”
“Maybe we won’t have to face any charges,” she said.
“What do you mean you won’t? Do you realize how much you two pocketed in the cruise terminal? It’s grand theft on a grand scale. Why wouldn’t you face charges?”
“Because every cent of it is here. Because we intended to leave it here at the end of the cruise.”
“Horsefeathers! Why on earth would you return what you’d stolen?”
“Let me up and I’ll tell you everything.”
“You’ll stay on the floor until you do. Start talking! What’s your friend’s name? What’s his story?”
”His name is Pietro Diapolo. He worked as a waiter on this ship as a young man and had a quarrel with his superior who sacked him on fake charges. You don’t play tricks on Pietro. He vowed to get even. When he was in a position to do it, he embarrassed and humiliated the ship the best way he knew how.”
“Lowly waiter turned luxury passenger? How could he afford a suite for two on a ship like this?”
“You’ve never heard of him? In Europe, he was called the prince of thieves. He worked airports, circuses, stadiums and seaports. Then he went worldwide. He was enjoying life and crime in San Francisco when he learned his old ship would arrive. That gave him the idea. You know the rest.”
“All right, you can get up now. Take it nice and easy. Now let me see what you have in the safe….”
She handed me the swag bag and a sealed envelope that contained the confession, to be found after the two left the ship. She was right. Enrichment wasn’t the motive. It was revenge.
“And he did it as he did everything else in life–with style, finesse, and a fine Italian hand. I love him.”
“And see where that gets you. Now walk ahead, and keep it slow and quiet unless you want to spend a long stretch in Mexico. I’m sure our security boys will be delighted to make your acquaintance.”
“I thought you said they were on their way here.”
“Maybe your pal is giving them a problem. No sense in waiting. We’ll find them on our way.”
The question now was whether I could get the lady and the money to security without encountering Pietro, who might be furious at losing both. Luckily, Bruce had acted at once after my call to him. He and a small team hailed us as we approached the Mermaid Bar. Pietro was there, in custody. He’d been relaxing with a nightcap and a comely blonde in whose ruby necklace and personal charm he was taking more than a casual interest when security arrived to arrest him.
Pietro’s lady took one look at the scene and let out an unladylike scream, but not at law enforcement. The lady was furious at Pietro’s choice of companion—an interest she judged to be less than strictly professional. Was he planning to betray her? No wonder he was in no hurry to join her!
Bruce interceded before the lady could slap her lover. Pietro kept insisting he intended nothing beyond the necklace and that she was foolishly playing into the hands of the police. Which she did. In the end, she agreed to tell Bruce everything he wished to know. She also reminded him of my promise to spare her the horrors of a non-airconditioned Mexican prison cell. Bruce looked at me with a curious smile. He listened to my version of events and agreed to keep the two in separate cells, held for delivery to the San Francisco authorities who had precedence over the matter, given the site of the robberies.
“All’s well that ends well, and for you it ends very well indeed,” Bruce told me on our return to port, offering me his congratulations together with a special gift. “The line is most grateful for your assistance in this matter and wishes me to present you with this little token of its esteem. And mine.”
Inside a small decorative box, filled with the rare Darjeeling that Bruce favored, was a generous check for my services and a ticket for a round-the-world cruise, redeemable at the time of my choosing.
“Of course, we expect and trust you to keep this matter strictly confidential,” Bruce said as we watched the San Francisco police take custody of our two culprits. “Loose lips can sink cruise ships.”
Iris wondered what I had done to earn an ample check from a cruise line. I explained I’d been hired as a “ship security consultant.” She lifted her eyebrows at that explanation, aware that ships have trained security of their own and certain a Delta detective was irrelevant at sea. She had no misgivings about the check. She promptly deposited it to put financial vitality in our sorely depleted account.
“Now we can start the new year with a proper accounting balance, for a change,” she summed up.
Once I had secured our finances, cleared my mail and given staff assignments, I considered the complex case of a client who wasn’t sure if he’d been betrayed by his wife or best friend, or both. I then visited Yolanda’s Café to see if she had the silver sturgeon surprise she promised to prepare for me when I returned from my seagoing adventure. It was, she had said, the reason I would return to her.
Homecoming promised to be doubly sweet. I’d received a message from Katie Kenyon, who said she was paddling my way because she’d found something “unusual, practical and quite useful for our next kayak outing. It can’t come soon enough as far as I’m concerned. See you soon, sailor!”
The fish was my first temptation, but Yolanda offered an apology instead of a feast. Her church had brought her a small band of homeless women and children for whom it was caring, having exhausted the minimal resources it had on hand to feed them decently. Could Yolanda come to the rescue?
“And so I cooked your sturgeon for the poor and hungry. Forgive me, my friend, but didn’t our lord gather fish on Galilee and say that charity is the most blessed gift of all we can give others in his name?”
Darn if I know what the J-Man fished or said about charity. But I knew better than to argue Scripture with Yolanda Miranda Peralta. I settled for her second-best meal. Given the care and quality and the fresh, locally-sourced items she put into my consolation chimichanga, it was first class in its own right.
As for the indefatigable Katie, she arrived in time for the weekend with a belated holiday gift. But what was it? Imagine my surprise when I unwrapped a gift that was a mystery to me. Was that the ideal gift for a detective? Katie shook her head and explained. The mysterious object was a portable kayak.
“You’re kidding,” I said. She wasn’t. In fact, she’d purchased two—one for each of us.
“It’s a tough little customer,” Katie said. “It can cut through wind, waves and currents at a speed of up to six miles per hour. I tested that coming down river. I found it adjustable and comfortable, perfectly balanced, utterly navigable and reliably river-worthy. I’m sure you will, too, big boy. How about it?”
It was a great sales pitch. I wasn’t buying, but Katie persevered. Since the 35-pound novelty could be carried in a backpack and inflated in a few minutes, she proposed that we inflate our kayaks and go for “a little ride to convince you.” Minimal effort and maximum pleasure was her idea of adventure afloat.
“Once you’re in, you can forget all about the office–and all the cheaters, swindlers and grifters that complicate your life. Playing detective in a kayak? Not a chance. You’ll be a free man.”
Now where I had heard that sales pitch before? Oh, yes. It came with the ticket I was given for an ocean voyage. Unlimited peace and repose, they said. It ended with me chasing two thieves whose crime spree came to an end when they insisted on showing off as the king and queen of the dance.
“So where would you like to paddle, sailor?” Katie asked with the hint of a smile on her bronzed face.
It was obvious she wanted me to embrace the merits of a miniature watercraft and put my trust in its sturdiness upon Delta waterways. But to navigate in the tight space of a Katie-approved kayak required a level of confidence and courage I didn’t have, weighing the odds of staying balanced in a rapid stretch.
Instead of admitting to cowardice, I hit upon a strategy to persuade Katie to put the kayak back in the box. I told her that I’d planned on taking the Delta Dazzler out and invited her to be my first mate. It was a pleasant day to spread sail, look for signs of an early spring, and listen to the random conversations of low-flying wild geese. As a reward, I would take her to lunch anywhere in the Delta she pleased.
She confessed she’d worked up an appetite coming down river and wouldn’t mind chowing on a “Delta deluxe club” at a cafe between Rio Vista and Isleton. The owner was an old friend and his club sandwich was the real deal, Katie swore, with enough tomatoes and avocados to tempt a pious vegan.
The Dazzler ran smooth and true, and the health-conscious Katie ordered extra tomatoes and avocados on her Delta club, a sandwich of intimidating proportions. I had one as well, raising my glass in a salute my friend took as a compliment to her good taste and boating smarts. But there was more. I added a silent toast to my having had the wisdom to escape a river journey in a severely cramped kayak.
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 third and concluding episode you have just read in “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.