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Pandemic signs were everywhere. Over the highway and off the highway. Hung in office windows and the front windows of residences. Draped on churches, mounted on fences and the sides of barns.
They were signs of hard times, but also rallying cries that urged resilience and resistance to a common enemy. Signs that defined the silent and lethal killer in our midst.
I couldn’t help reflecting on these messages as I drove to work. I’d had a busy morning out of the office, but not on what you’d call routine business. I was involved in a high-speed chase that I initiated with a call to the police.
It began when I stopped at a gas station for a fill-up. No sooner had I begun pumping than two men emerged in haste from the station office, clad in masks and fitting what appeared to be firearms in their belts. Had they come my way, I might have been tempted to reach for a weapon of my own if not for the fact that I don’t carry one.
The unsavory duo jumped into a luxury convertible, enhanced with rich, sumptuous leather, African rosewood and pricy gadgetry. That, too, made me suspicious. The pair didn’t strike me as your typical Mercedes-Benz owners. What they resembled were two thugs who’d knocked off a gas station and were jumping into a car that might be stolen. I quickly noted the make and model and got the license.
The sheriff responded by asking my location and cautioned me to follow the vehicle at a safe distance so as not to arouse suspicion. I kept them informed until the cavalry arrived with flashing lights and wailing sirens. The Mercedes sped up as if it had a chance of outrunning the squad cars and the hovering police chopper that was directing the troops and messaging those waiting ahead.
I followed at a discreet distance, curious to see how things would end. I was warned that the fugitives were armed and therefore considered dangerous, and that I had no business getting involved in the chase. Yes, I replied, I know that. I’m the private detective who got you boys here in the first place.
The chase led us on a wild pursuit into the big town where the crooks lost their nerve as well as control of their vehicle. After crashing, they abandoned the Mercedes and made a run for it. They assumed they could outpace the opposition until the police unleashed the K-9s. It was all over except for the cries and pleas of the two men on the ground begging the cops to control the snarling, revenge-minded dogs.
I departed, satisfied justice had been done, and drove to my office in the Delta, trying to put the incident out of my mind. The signs helped me do so, even as they reminded me of the greater danger in which we all now lived, a danger from which there was no escape. The sum of the messages read like a shorthand history of 2020.
As I drove, I couldn’t help reflecting on the few months in which life had been turned upside down. Economic and social chaos followed in the wake of the pandemic. The emptiness of the multi-lane highway on which I traveled was evidence of the dislocation. Normally heavy traffic had thinned to sporadic vehicles, a few of which were enjoying the luxury of the open space by traveling at a speed far in excess of the posted limit and bringing the joyriders to the attention of the Highway Patrol.
The brief glimpse I’d had of the city did not offer its usual pedestrian crowds, flourishing businesses and cars clotted along both sides of the streets. Much of that was gone. The big town was strangely quiet, as if the bulk of its population had migrated elsewhere. Work furloughs and lockdown orders had absorbed much of the working class.
Although the pandemic had compelled the closure of many businesses, my detective agency remained open, in acknowledgement of services we sometimes render local police and the feds. Though we had lost some clients, we were gaining a number who had fallen victim to scammers. Some were duped by robocalls offering “virus-resistant respiratory masks”. Some fell victim to social media posts soliciting donations for non-existent clinics and fictional charities. And some succumbed to the lure of “free stimulus funds” in exchange for bank account information and Social Security numbers.
The scammers had taken advantage of the pandemic to fleece the fearful. Now, the fearful wanted revenge—and their money back.
The digital crime wave extended into the Delta as it had everywhere else. Crooks and swindlers were out in force, offering a catalogue of false hopes from fake testing kits and “guaranteed immunity pills” to phony charities and nonexistent subsidies. It was human nature at its worst.
I also had occasion to witness the best of human nature in stalwarts who found not only the capacity to carry on without falling victim to fear or con artists, but to serve those in need, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. The virtues of these compassionate caregivers offset the vices of the scammers.
It was with a sense of relief that I arrived at my office, patted its brick wall exterior and polished with a swipe of my palm the shiny brass plate advertising the Delta Detective Agency. I entered in a far better mood than I had started the day, singing “You Can’t Fool an Honest Man” as my greeting to staff.
The song caught the eye of the woman in charge. Office manager, executive secretary, accountant and consultant, Iris Noire is also an acute judge of my singing ability. The look she gave me was the kind you see when an unqualified contestant gets the rapid rejection buzzers on television talent shows.
Good morning, Iris!
“I know what you’re thinking,” I assured Ms. Noire before she could utter a syllable, “so I know exactly what you’re going to tell me, and that being the case, it really isn’t necessary for you to say it.”
“You’re late,” Iris said.
“I confess that I am, but you have to look at the circumstances.”
“Well, sir, I’m looking. I’m looking at my watch. I’m looking at the office clock. I’m looking at the time on my computer screen. All three say the same thing. I’m sure you can guess what that is?”
”I understand your reaction, Iris, but life isn’t always about Plan A. It’s about how you handle Plan B.”
“If you went sailing this morning, as I suspect you did, it’s a case of Plan S.”
“I didn’t go sailing. It was a case of Plan D.”
“D? As in denial of being late to work despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary?”
“D as in danger. It’s the true test of character. Or do I mean the test of true character?”
“Are you telling me you’re three and one-half hours late because you were in some sort of jeopardy?”
“Not some sort. The real thing. I spotted a suspicious pair at the gas station, alerted the police and kept the chase in view until it was over. You might say I went above and beyond the call of duty, but as a concerned citizen I had no choice. I’m ready for your apology, if you care to give me one.”
“If it’s the kind that will make you a hero on the nightly news and boost the reputation and clientele of this agency, I’m perfectly willing to forgive you. Now if you wish to address business matters—”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“—I have several new cases for your consideration, so please don’t plan on your usual 20 minutes or gallop off to a long lunch at that charming little cantina on the riverside that no outsider can possibly hope to find due to its thick screen of concealing willows and complete lack of advertising.”
As a matter of fact, that was exactly what I was planning.
As full-time owner and part-time detective (limiting myself to cases that interest or intrigue me, though I am sometimes compelled to do otherwise, as in my pre-pandemic adventure aboard The Empress of the Seas), I simply wanted to get an office update from Iris, a report on our finances and assignments for our junior investigators. Satisfied that all was in order, I could then proceed to Yolanda’s unless business took precedence. With Iris, it always does.
Iris is a strict timekeeper, an efficient taskmaster and something of a mind reader. Just what I need to keep the Delta Detective Agency on its toes. But when you owe her an explanation, you’d better have a good story. Mine was beyond good. I even had a publicist.
“I gave the story to Scoop Hargrove at the Delta Inquirer. He liked the angle of aiding and assisting the police in the performance of their duty. That ought to help business a bit, don’t you think?”
“Unless Scoop decides to skip the local hero angle and give his attention to the more important issues of the day—such as the mysterious disappearance of the baseball season and how to get it back?”
Iris’s wisecrack was issued with a smile that told me I was back in her good graces.
“And how are things going here today?” I asked.
“Not exactly gangbusters. Are you making progress we can take to the bank on the pandemic frauds?”
“I put the feds on to one of them. One, but not done. We’re pretty close to closing in on a second.”
“That gives you a double reason to celebrate.”
“The feds give rewards, don’t they? And then there’s today. Today happens to be the fifth.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Suppose you tell me,” Iris said, handing me a menu sent to us from the aforementioned cantina. “My Spanish is a bit creaky, but perhaps you can make sense of it.”
“Oh, yes, it says welcome to Cinco de Mayo. Senora Yolanda is celebrating in her own unique style. Her featured dish is ‘Cinco de Mayonista,’ about which I have no clue, con arroz y frijoles, no mystery there unless it’s the topping of spicy honey. There’s also ‘Cinco de Margarita,’ concocted by the in-house barista with the nip of fresh agave limes and the tang of Milagro Silver Tequila. Nice lineup!”
“You’d better not indulge or you’ll be finished for the day. Have her hold the hot peppers. Come to think of it, hold the mild peppers, too. Yolanda’s idea of mild can make smoke come out of your ears.”
It’s moments like this that remind me how indispensable Iris is to my agency.
Without another word, she shooed me into my office, motioned me to clean off my cluttered desk, and rewarded me with my belated cup of morning Joe and some of her homemade biscotti. The granite-hard biscotti texture resisted softening even when I dunked it. One tough cookie, just like its maker.
“Did you stop for one second to consider the risk to yourself?” Iris asked of my crime adventure.
“There wasn’t time to worry. I only hope Scoop does his duty so we can get some client clamor.”
“We could use some clamor. You may have noticed the wide-open spaces in our waiting room? It isn’t due to social distancing.”
“I did see two people wearing masks, sitting as far apart as you can get and glaring at one another like virus suspects. That was thoughtful of them. That’s the attitude you have to have these days.”
“It’s not what you think. They’re actually a married couple who can’t stand one another. They’re here to accuse one another and let you decide who has the strongest case. I scheduled them together so you can talk to both at the same time. See if you can resolve the conflict with a minimum of shouting and threats. If they don’t murder one another, we might be able to collect a double fee .”
“Give the charming couple to Betsy. She needs the experience.”
“Not that kind. She doesn’t need a case that will make her quit on the spot.”
“She’ll enjoy the challenge—and talk about it for the rest of her life. What else do you have?”
“Well, this might tickle your fancy,” Iris said. “I had a call from a woman who wants to consult about a wandering boyfriend.”
“Ben can handle that. He loves the ladies and their sob stories. He’s my go-to guy for female complaints. Is he in?”
“He was ostensibly tracking a stockbroker who left his firm with money that wasn’t his.”
“You never know. Ben might have made an unscheduled stop.”
“Such as where?”
“Well, next to sob stories, Ben is particularly fond of sampling the Appellation’s Zin, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Petite Syrah, Albarino, Tempranillo, Grenache—”
“Okay, already, I get it. But was he taking time for a wine tour or was he on to a wine clue?”
“We have close to 90 wineries over there. Could be the broker wanted to buy into one of the enterprises, flash some serious money up front as a sign of good faith and replace the money before anyone got wise. Maybe the deal he had in mind went sour—and the theft was discovered before he had time to replace?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Iris admitted.
“Get on to Ben and see if he had. Next?”
“The woman and the wandering boyfriend might be of special interest to you,” she hinted.
I smelled trouble coming from the tone of her voice. All I wanted was to tie up loose ends, complete the accounting, and move on to wave my sombrero at the Cinco mariachis. But….
“She said she remembers you from the good old days on the Delta island—you know where the Kit Kat Klub used to be?”
“Kit Kat? The joint that got raided so often the patrons called it the Scat Cat?”
“That’s the baby. The lady, if you can call her that, worked there, if you can call it work. She danced under various names—Jazzy Jezebel, Zuzie Zweet and Margo-Rita—that leads me to believe she wasn’t exactly a blushing ballerina. And had what she called ‘interesting conversations about world affairs’ with the gents. She said you’d have no trouble remembering her. She had no problem remembering you.”
“Jazzy? Zuzie? Margo-Rita? Sorry, wrong number. She must have me mixed up with someone else. Maybe Betsy could have a nice little talk with her, if you don’t want to give her the couple from hell. Or assign Ben if he survives Lodi. Now, if you don’t have anything else for me—”
“I have Mrs. Smithers.”
“A little old lady who needs no introduction in this agency.”
“Introduce her anyway.”
“She wants someone to find her poodle.”
“Oh, no, not her again!”
“Yes, it seems that Fluffy Ruffles has escaped once again. And the nice part about it is that Mrs. Smithers always pays promptly for our efforts in recovering her dear little dog. How about it?”
“Add the missing pet to Betsy’s list if you feel the disreputable dame belongs in Ben’s hands. Just as long as our dancing world affairs expert doesn’t land in his lap. Are we clear now?”
“For the time being.”
“Good. I need to unwind from my morning crime caper. Such as a Cinco de Mayo celebration.”
“On one condition. And you have to promise me.”
“I promise to return.”
“That’s not the condition. You have to promise me on your word of sacred honor that you won’t be tempted by the chili calientes with the jalapeno floaters. And you must at all costs avoid the tequila. Heartburn and brain cell loss are not conducive to detective work.”
“Please don’t get emotional.”
“I’m not emotional, I’m sensible. I need you back here because I don’t know when Ben—”
But at that moment, much to our mutual relief, Ben Erskine walked into the office as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. His explanation made perfect sense. The suspicious broker had taken the funds, but only because the office alarm system had failed and the assets were vulnerable.
“And they have since been returned?” I asked. “Good for him. But what kept you in Lodi?”
“Flat tire. Left me stranded outside town. Took the service forever to get there and put air in my spare and then it turned out the spare was defective, so I had to shop for a new tire.”
“Case closed,” I said and turned to depart.
“Where are you off to, skipper?” Ben asked.
“I have to go tell Yolanda a story. The kind of story that makes her worry about me and offer me heartfelt advice about avoiding danger, keeping myself safe and keeping her from worrying.”
“She’s not the only one who worries,” Iris said softly.
“Any parting advice?” Ben asked, looking over his assignment list.
“Beware of lap dancers with faulty memories,” I said, with a wink
“That’s his idea of wisdom,” Iris explained. “I’ve a better one for him. Lay off the chili calientes, skip the jalapeno floaters, pass on the Mexican tea, and report back here neat, clean and sober.”
“She just took the Cinco out of my Mayo,” I told Ben and eyed the door through which the charming mail lady in her postal blues and pith helmet was now entering with the daily delivery.
“Anything?” I asked, lingering as Iris gave it the once-over.
“The usual,” she said, rapidly sorting. “Oh, wait, here’s a letter marked personal for you. Take it with you. Since you’ll be out of the office for a while, you might as well get a little work done.”
“On the way here, I heard the news,” Ben said as he accompanied me to the door, speaking in a confidential tone as if not wishing to alarm Iris.
“The baseball season will start in July with masked fans in the stands observing proper social distancing and wandering vendors in antiseptic costumes shouting cold beer and hot dogs for sale?” I asked hopefully.
“You and I wish! No, they said all the unlocking that the president and other have been advocating and encouraging to restore the economy could cause a new outbreak—a second wave worse than the first. But that doesn’t mean we should panic. You never know. Maybe it won’t happen. But if it does—”
“We’ll have ten times the number of scammers that we have now,” I reasoned.
Things didn’t improve at Yolanda’s where the proprietor/chef wasted no time telling me she’d received a phone call from Iris imploring her to impose certain menu and beverage restrictions on me that would assist my returning to the office later that day without a boiling heart or frazzled brain.
“And there goes my Mayo,” I said.
“Oh, not to worry, sir,” Yolanda said, patting my shoulder, “I have a special dish I know you will like and I promised your lady it would not break the rules the good Iris has set for you.”
“Let’s get happy. Since tequila is out of the question, maybe Pepita can bring me a harmless Pacifico?”
“But of course. And are you having a good day today, sir?”
“Wait until I tell you.”
What arrived in due course was a comforting combination of fried eggs, veggies, and boiled new potatoes. But the mix came to life with a rust-colored sauce of Yolanda’s invention—smoky Spanish pimento, toasted ancho chiles, garlic, cumin, sherry vinegar and olive oil. It all blended somehow, sparked the dish and packed a taste punch.
“Yes, I knew you would love my mojo rojo,” Yolanda said, beaming with satisfaction, as server Pepita hastened to accompany it with another cold Pacifico to douse any flame of digestive distress. “It is a sauce like no other, you agree?”
I agreed wholeheartedly, lifted my glass to salute the chef and told her that the mojo was so good it put the holiday spirit back where it belonged. I enhanced that spirit by bribing the mariachis to play several choruses of “Adelita”, played with proper revolutionary fervor.
It was while awaiting a dessert (a flamboyant flan, also like no other) that I remembered the letter Iris had given me as I was leaving the office. I removed it from my jacket and opened it merely to pass the interval between the zesty mojo rojo and the finale of toothsome flan.
What I found in the envelope was not what I expected. It was a thank-you note for a tribute I had paid a lost friend and an expression of gratitude from his widow. It marked the beginning of a case at whose heart was a riddle that held the key to an uncertain legacy from one of the grand old dames of the Delta.
Not a case for Betsy or Ben. Not a case for Marvin Woo, our digital wonder boy who yearned to play detective. Not a case for—-
All right, I told myself, this one’s got my name on it.
I could live without married enemies, disreputable dames and overly indulged poodles that make a habit of running away from home. But a case involving the last will and testament of Eleanor Edythe Greenarden, known to all her friends as Aunt Ellie? A case featuring a legendary link to Delta history whose old mansion sat in broad agricultural acres her several husbands had planted, nurtured and expanded over the years? A case with a revolving windmill, historic farmhouse and rustic red barn, filled with discarded farm relics and hay bales—all of which made Ellie’s friends and neighbors wonder why she insisted on preserving the past?
That was something else again.
So much so that I headed back to the office without finishing my flan, lighting my Cinco cigar or singing one more chorus of “Adelita.”
Business, as Iris might say, before pleasure.
Part Two coming when the Delta Detective completes his investigation.
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. This sketch captures for Mr. Roth the jaunty, wisecracking but keen-eyed investigator who recently solved the cruise ship mystery in “Closed for the Holidays.”
Howard Lachtman, a self-described “retired amateur outfielder and frequently baffled batter,” is also a retired reporter and editor, and 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.
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