A gentleman from San Francisco in search of a mystery woman who may or may not exist.
A few words of wisdom from Yolanda Maria Peralta regarding the blessings of helping widows, the risks of crime prevention, and the merits of Patagonian salmon.
And a riddle that makes no sense unless its proper translation can lead the Delta Detective to a surprising legacy from an admirable grande dame with a secret or two in her closet.
Just another day at the Delta Detective Agency, where you are now cordially invited to enter (just give your name to Iris Noire and take a chair….).
“A gentleman from San Francisco to see you,” Iris Noire chirped on line one.
“My friend at the SFPD crime lab bringing us a gift of fresh crab and a loaf of sourdough?”
“No such luck.”
“My grateful client from Sea Cliff with a case of Anchor Steam or Pinot Francisco?”
“A case of another kind. Like a missing person case. Are you in? Or shall I say you’ve gone sailing?”
“Yes, sir, I’ll send him right in,” Iris said, speaking loudly to assure our visitor, whoever he was, that the chief investigator would consider whatever mystery had brought him to the Delta Detective Agency.
“Thanks for squeezing me in,” my unexpected visitor said, handing me a business card that identified him as Waldo E. Warburg, reporter for the Frisco Foghorn. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
“You’re timing is perfect. I was planning to call it a day, run down to the dock and hoist sail, but—”
“You have a boat? I don’t want to interrupt if you’re going somewhere.”
“Nowhere in particular. There’s a thousand miles of waterways out there and I like to drift.”
“And what do you do besides drift?”
“Avoid the speedboats and swells, fish in the hot spots, hit a favorite hangout or two, and try to impress a pretty barista I know with just how large and how fierce the fish was that got away from me.”
“I’ve always wanted to have a boat. Maybe when I retire, I’ll buy one and sail to Hawaii. Good story there, right?”
“If the sea cooperates. The sea is like a woman, you know. She sometimes has a mind of her own.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“Safer to stick to writing. You write for the Foghorn? Isn’t that the newspaper that—correct me if I’m wrong–takes pride in not publishing the news of the day? That’s an interesting contradiction.”
“Not when you look at it from our point of view. We feel mainstream stories are grim, repetitive and predictable. So we focus instead on the good things in life—the pursuit of the good life in the city and across the bay and into the country beyond—the country we like to call The Other California.”
“Welcome to The Other. What brings you here?”
“Well, our surveys show that readers are weary of the pandemic, politics and protests. They want to get out of the house and indulge some healthy pastimes. We offer an antidote to the ills of 2020.”
“Which is what you’re looking for here in The Other?”
“I’m looking for a fun-loving, little powerhouse of a woman who runs a small Mexican café somewhere around here. I’m told she runs it out of the kitchen where she cooks and greets customers and sometimes serves them herself so she can get the scoop on their lives. I wonder if you happen to know the place? I think our readers would like to get acquainted.”
I knew immediately who he was after, but pretended otherwise. I’m a devoted patron of Yolanda’s Café and believe that the best way to keep a good thing going is to keep it quiet. The café is too small and too personal for a tourist crowd and Yolanda prefers to keep it that way. Her menu is in her head, tables are few, the tamales are to die for, and if you ask for a virus mask she’ll give you a homemade one decorated with a personal hero like Jenny Lopez, Chita Rivera or Pablo Sandoval.
“Our readers enjoy hunting the good life,” Warburg said. “I’m doing a series on down-home eateries beyond city limits. I heard about this place from my cleaning lady, but finding it is something else. Seems the lady in charge doesn’t believe in advertising or promotion. Which may be why there’s nothing in area brochures or directories.”
“You plan to give your readers the challenge of playing food detective to see if they can find it?”
“I have to be more definite than that. Which is why I’m going to need a real detective to help me find the place. The more I asked around here, the less anyone knew—or the less they were willing to tell.”
“Maybe they were trying to spare you,” I suggested.
“Spare me what?”
“Heartburn and indigestion. Salsas and habaneros can take a toll. Doctors suggest avoiding.”
“I’ll take my chances. If the story is worthwhile, I’ll tell the lady to go easy on the spice.”
“The other possibility you might consider is that the lady doesn’t want to be found.”
Warburg responded with a mirthless chuckle. “All the more reason to find her,” he said.
It was the reporter talking, and he left no doubt about his intent. He was a large, assertive man with a hearty manner, a rumpled blue suit and a broad necktie that, judging from its variety of small food and wine stains, served him well as a napkin.
“If she exists,” I said, planting the possibility that he might have embarked on a wild goose chase.
“Oh, she’s out there, the only question is where,” he said, eyeing the passing parade of watercraft on the broad stretch of river visible from my view window. “Is that your usual summer crowd?”
“More than usual, but not unusual. Folks are flocking to the river to get away from the lockdown.”
“Nice local color for my story,” he nodded, watching a speedboat zooming well beyond the legal limit and leaving turbulence in its wake to confound the paddlers and rowers. Overhead, a pair of aerial sailors sought an escape of their own by harnessing the wind and cutting capers in the gusts.
“Wind surfer and kite surfer,” I explained. “Long board and short. No speed limit up there.”
“Speaking of which, I see a patrol boat coming. The cops must have their hands full this time of year.”
“Summertime brings out the celebrants and free spirits. Some of them are a little too free. Most folks are peaceful, but we get our share of rowdies and belligerents—sometimes even bandidos.”
“The strongarm stuff ever come your way?”
“Best avoided,” I said, omitting any mention of the two holdup men I’d recently tracked from a gas station robbery and aided the police in capturing. No sense in getting theatrical about doing your duty.
“Although it could make a detective’s life a little more exciting?”
“When I want excitement, I read a mystery. Like the one I’m reading now. Covid-19 kills a husband. Next, his body goes missing. Next, his wife goes looking. Next, the wife is missing. Next, her sister hires a detective to investigate the case……Can’t wait to find out what happens next.”
“Being a detective, how do you think it will play out?”
“Maybe the reader disappears. You can never tell where the plot may twist. Now take your own case, sir. The way I see it, either your mystery lady is running a hot spot or you’ve been given a bit of hot sauce. Makes me suspicious that no one seems to know where you can find it.”
“That’s what I asked myself. I began to suspect no one was willing to direct me. Why the silence?”
In my line of work, I expect inquiries about anything and everything from homicides to pesticides, from missing pets to misplaced antiques. What I don’t anticipate are inquiries that hit a little too close to home. Knowing what he was looking for here, I had good reason to persuade him to look elsewhere.
“So you’re looking for an eatery to entice reader interest? You should get up to Rio Vista and check out Marbu’s Noodle House. I can recommend the pad thai and Bangkok Bebop. The other thing I like is the big wall screen with continuous films of surfers getting creamed by those big Hawaiian waves. While you’re waiting for your meal and while you’re enjoying it, you get the full aquatic spectacle.”
He made a note about my recommendation, but seemed hesitant to let go of the mystery woman.
“You’ve never heard of a place in this neck of the woods that the natives keep to themselves?”
“If it exists, it must have something special for them to keep close-mouthed. Not just the ordinary. Maybe culinary experimentation. Maybe reinventing cuisine and elevating it to a true art form.”
“In a Mexican restaurant? You don’t actually have a place like that around here, do you?”
“A little too precious for our tastes. But take special blending. That’s a possibility. You know, a hybrid menu. Something like traditional Mexican cuisine with a Caribbean or Mediterranean twist—”
“That sounds more like it. Where can I find it?”
“Hasn’t arrived yet. But let me confess my own favorite. There’s a crafty Japanese chef over near Isleton who acts like a ninja in a toque and redefines the dining experience by exposing his guests to sudden bursts of cooking fire and scary blade theatrics. It puts an edge, so to speak, on your appetite.”
“I know those kinds of places. More show biz than savor. The food is usually routine.”
“Well, I’m no connoisseur when it comes to the sizzle, but I do like the suspense of the presentation. Sorry I can’t help you. But do keep Marbu in mind.”
“I guess you’re right. The lady I want probably isn’t the real thing. Maybe she’s a ghost.”
“Or a femme fatale. She could be operating on the wrong side of the road.”
“I’m speculating. But ask yourself this: why would you get the runaround? If folks prefer not to send anyone there, is it the risk of the food or another kind of risk? I’m thinking the mob might have an interest or a share of the action. That would keep any sensible person away.”
“The mob? What mob?”
“You don’t want to know. They may be keeping the lady in business and using it as a hangout or hiding place. Members can come and go. A place where the law can’t hope to find them.”
“Well, if it’s got that kind of connection, I certainly don’t want any part of it. What I want is a chef with a devoted following for his or her contributions to Delta cuisine. Can you help me there?”
“Give me a little time and I’ll see what I can come up with for you. Wally’s Awful Waffle House, for example. On your way out, just give the lady in charge a check or card for the advance on my services.”
“Will do,” he said, rising from his chair. “Thanks for the warning. I don’t want to poke my nose in where I’m not wanted. A place that puts me or the readership at risk is simply not worth reporting.”
“That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said today,” I agreed.
Knowing Yolanda’s aversion to publicity and strangers, I had no intention of mentioning this encounter to her during my Cinco de Mayo meal. Downing the last of my Pacifico and declining dessert despite Pepita’s insistence, I prepared to return to my office, hoping to exit in timely fashion before Yolanda took her next kitchen break.
I had a case connected to the late, great Eleanor Greenarden, a grande dame of the Delta whose passing marked the end of a dynasty and the beginning of a mystery. But as I pondered the handwritten card I’d received that would lead me to the case, Yolanda came out, curious about my absorption in the note and settled in my booth to discover the reason for it.
“Un centavo para tu pensando,” she said invitingly.
“Nada menos que un peso,” I replied, raising the ante to win her smile.
I passed the message of appreciation I’d received from Gwendolyn Garnett that would involve me in the Greenarden mystery. Yolanda scanned its content, nodded her approval and returned it to me.
“I am glad you are kind to your friend’s widow. She needs your help now?”
“Something about an inheritance. There seems to be a problem with it.”
“She is calling on you to solve the problem and honor her husband?”
“Seems so. He and I worked together on Delta projects. He had close ties with Mrs. Greenarden.”
“Aunt Ellie? A very gracious and generous soul! She was very kind to her field workers. I was one when I was young, with my family. She had many acres then, and the work was hard, but she treated us well, looked after us with many thoughtful gifts—food, clothing, medicines, money. Did you ever meet her?”
“Josh–Gwen’s husband–and I went to see her now and then on business matters.”
“And the great lady? How did she strike you?”
“She was close to ninety and still going strong, with a little help from the folks in her house.”
“She had family?”
“What you might call a family. She’d opened her house to a few old friends whose wages, jobs or homes were gone. They became her guests—and the guests insisted on being her household helpers.”
“They must have been devoted. Good company. A woman her age should not be alone.”
“Companions and watchdogs were just what she needed in that mansion of hers. She’d outlived all her husbands and caretakers. She had no one else until she got the idea of inviting old friends to join her.”
“Very kind of her, but also very practical. So old friends became a new family?”
“A fine bunch despite their little quirks. One woman was in the habit of singing; when not in the mood for song, she cooked meals. And there was a cigar-smoking old gent in overalls who never said more than two words, but tended the grounds and gardens. A housekeeper baked berry pies when she wasn’t keeping house, and an ex-Marine took care of the dogs and security. He broke into a boxer’s stance whenever he met someone he thought would like to put on the gloves and go a round or two. I wasn’t about to throw a punch, so it was all I could do to defend myself.”
“I am glad to hear that fine lady had a full house.”
“Plenty of room for everyone, but not plenty of income. Most of the old farmland had been sold off over the years, so Ellie began selling her valuables. Her husbands were collectors of this, that and the other— from rare antiques to model trains. She put them on auction and got enough to keep going.”
“And now the widow of your friend has inherited the house?”
“I won’t know until we talk. I’m heading back to the office to arrange a consultation.”
“Then you must go. But first, allow me to thank you for the lovely salmon. Did you get them here in the Delta? No? Too early in the season? Beyond the Golden Gate? I have always wondered just how far you would go for salmon. If your boat could take you anywhere in the world, where would that be?”
“Anywhere? I hear the fishing is superb in the cold, pristine fjord waters of Norway. Or Patagonia.”
“Ah! Patagonia! In Chile is it not? You have been there?”
“Not yet. I hear it’s a wonderland of glaciers and penguins—and the finest salmon in the world.”
“If you go, please do not bring me back penguins. They do not make good eating. But a Patagonian salmon? Yes, I would like that. Bring me that and I will fillet it and cure it, then cold-smoke it, using hardwood smoke, and you will truly have the finest salmon in the world.”
The rule of the house is that you do not leave Yolanda’s until you clean your plate, compliment her cooking and bring her up to date on any aspect of your life she feels entitled to know in her capacity as friend, advisor and conscience.
I made a mental note to visit Patagonia and took leave of my hostess, but not before Yolanda (having heard of my recent adventure in crime prevention) cautioned me about pursuing armed criminals. It had ended in arrests and the satisfaction of knowing that I had furthered the cause of justice, but the element of risk was one that Yolanda viewed with misgiving.
“How happy I am that you survived!” she said. “I would not like to lose you, my friend and excellent customer. Who but you would be so kind as to bring me such lovely fish? But if you wish to do me an even greater favor, may I ask that, in the future, you refrain from chasing armed bandidos who might mistake you for the police? You never know what the lawless bandidos might do, true?”
I had ridden fast and hard to glory with a posse of lawmen, blaring sirens and a police chopper overhead to monitor our progress, but leave it to Yolanda to fault my willingness to abandon caution.
“You see, something wrong could easily have happened. You should not be taking dangerous chances.”
“That’s part of the fun of being in the detective business,” I was about to say, but I didn’t say it. I was also going to say something about my occasional need for the stimulant of action and adventure in a worthy cause like crime prevention. I didn’t say that either.
I bowed to the wisdom of the kitchen queen whose toque bears the motto “La Reina de Cucina” beneath the culinary emblem of a crossed knife and fork. One does not argue with a queen whose mojo rojo infusion of garlic, onions, tomatoes and chilis left nothing to chance and everything to flavor.
Like the dish that gave Yolanda a reputation we locals prefer to keep among ourselves, the case of Aunt Ellie and Gwendolyn Garnett was one I could neither resist nor refuse. Gwen’s husband had won my admiration as a Delta activist and conservationist. When he died suddenly of a heart ailment, he left his wife and friends with a sense of irreparable loss. It left us all asking “Where do we go from here?”
At the graveside rites, I supplied the answer to the question in a eulogy commending Josh’s selfless commitment to the community—and the example he set for others to follow his efforts. “His life has ended,” I said, “but it does not end here, and it cannot end if you and I work to continue his legacy.”
I paid tribute of another kind by slipping an envelope into his widow’s hands. It contained a message of consolation to Gwendolyn and a contribution to the Delta Champs, the grass-roots group Josh had created to promote clean-up efforts for our shores and waterways. I myself was a member.
“Dear friend,” Gwen’s note to me read, “bless you for your kind words and generous donation. I want you to know that your note touched me deeply. In my bereavement, mourning the loss of Josh and all the time he and I might have had together, your consoling words brought me a sense of hope and healing. For remembering him–and me–in this way, I shall always be grateful. Gwen.”
On the back of Gwen’s card was a brief request for me to get in touch with her. I later learned why. Josh had been chosen to receive some sort of legacy (the exact nature of which was unknown) from the estate of someone who needed no introduction. “Eleanor Edythe Greenaraden,” as her attorney explained to him, “a notable and much-admired woman in these parts, seems to have been impressed by your commitment to preserving and protecting the Delta.”
Josh’s connection to the legendary lady was already clear to me in the way he spoke of Aunt Ellie’s activism on behalf of farmers, workers, healthy crops, and clean waterways flowing freely despite the schemes of power politicians and the pollution of careless tourists. It was in his memory–as well as concern for Gwen’s future–that I decided to dedicate my detective service to his widow.
“I’m glad to see that your office hasn’t closed,” Gwen said when she came the next day to consult me. “I can’t even get my nails done any more. It’s a crazy world, isn’t it?”
“The world turned upside-down and we all fell out,” I agreed. “Nothing’s the same anymore.”
“Thank goodness you’ve managed to keep your doors open.”
“The demand is there,” I explained. “It’s always the same old story: love gone wrong and money gone missing. A suspicious spouse here, a murder there, a fortune gone no one knows where…. It all helps to pay the bills.”
“And nobody from the health department or governor’s office tells you to close shop?”
“We caught a break there. We sometimes render a bit of service to the police or feds. They put in the good word for us. The government boys figure we’re doing something essentially useful. Maybe I can do the same for you. Good to see you again, Gwen.”
“Likewise, my friend. Josh always said you had the right stuff. And if ever I needed help….”
“I couldn’t ask for a better recommendation. So what have you got for me?”
“A riddle. A sweet little riddle Aunt Ellie left for her attorney to pass on to us. The attorney was as baffled by it as we were. It might lead us somewhere if only we could figure what Ellie intended.”
“A clue to what she wanted you to have?”
“It may be. I’d hesitate to bother you over nothing, but then again, there’s no telling what it is.”
It didn’t much matter to me what the mystery was. I wanted to see Gwen personally as well as professionally. She and I had only met in company with Josh, who did all the talking, leaving us to exchange glances. The only thing Gwen and I had in common was her husband. Now he was gone, but it was as if he was still with us. His inheritance, if there was one, brought us together. The question was whether we were clever enough or lucky enough to determine what it was.
“Josh had the feeling that Ellie had good intentions where we were concerned,” Gwen said. “I sensed he knew her better than anyone—so far as it was possible to know her. She was a very open and compassionate person, but she certainly had her share of secrets. And this was one of them.”
While her intentions may have been clear, Ellie was hesitant about leaving a will. She once confided in Gwen that to do so might somehow hasten her demise. Gripped by that superstitious notion, she left nothing in writing. Nothing except a riddle to be passed on to the Garnetts in the event of her demise.
Not that she had much to leave, Gwen said. The grand old mansion was still grand on the outside, complete with a carriage drive, a Roman fountain and a stone pair of Delta wild geese with outstretched wings on either side of the entrance. The interior, however, was another story: its rooms had been systematically emptied of furnishings and valuables to help maintain Ellie and her household of dependents. Whatever was left over was used to improve and restore the motionless windmill, the sagging old farmhouse and decrepit red barn that recalled her early days on the property.
“She even talked about turning the old farm into a family tourist attraction, complete with hens and hogs,” Gwen said, shaking her head at the idea and brushing back a stray lock. “Josh and I both felt it didn’t really matter what she had in mind. To us, her friendship was really what mattered most.”
“Were there any other heirs?”
“Her only son was lost in a war and an adopted daughter lost contact years ago after relocating in Asia. That left only her distant nephew Max. He came up from Los Angeles to see the house and waved his hand at it, saying ‘I didn’t come all this way to get stuck with a teardown in the middle of nowhere!’ Needless to say, he wasn’t the least interested in farming—or preserving the Delta.”
“Did you happen to mention Ellie’s dream of turning her estate into a tourist destination?”
“The guy laughed it off, saying the old woman’s mind must have been playing more tricks than Biden’s cognition or Trump’s tweets. I barely managed to keep my ladylike temper at that and lost it when he began mocking Ellie’s tenants. He departed, regretting that he’d come, and I said good riddance!”
“Leaving you and Josh free and clear to retain the property, assuming that’s what she wanted?”
“We loved the place and hoped we might be able to do something with it, but the taxes and upkeep were more than we could afford. Now, with Josh gone, I’ll have no choice but to put it up for sale.”
“Tell me more about the riddle.”
“Better than that,” Gwen said, extracting an envelope from her purse. “I brought it along in case you’d like to take a look.”
I took the paper, written in Ellie’s shaky longhand, cleared my throat and read it aloud:
“The gift I give to you is free, but it’s priceless. It slips through our fingers whenever we try to possess it. We can’t own it, but we can use it. We can’t keep it, but we can choose how to spend it. There’s never enough of it, but you will find abundance if you turn the present to the past and grasp the key.”
I raised my eyes. Gwen smiled at my perplexity. “I hope I’m not leading you up the garden path.”
Actually, I was thinking that Ellie, in her own cautious and guarded way, might be bestowing on her two favorite people a treasure wrapped in an enigma. If so, solving the riddle would reap the reward.
Parker Roth, artist and Los Angeles fan of the Delta Detective, has shared with us his iconic conception of the sleuth, capturing his jaunty, wisecracking and sharp-eyed personality. Now, Mr. Roth adds to his portrait gallery of memorable characters with Yolanda Maria Peralta, the jovial owner and operator of the Delta’s least-known cafe and favorite retreat of the detective. Yolanda has won her share of fans including those who have asked us how to find her place of business. Yolanda’ s utterly personal and original approach to cooking (sorry, no menus) and her motherly sensitivity to the risks of the detective profession have earned her the friendship and respect of our hero, not to mention his appetite. Her method of engaging and satisfying customers presents a novel business model for potential investigation as Mr. Roth pursues his studies at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado at Boulder.
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.