It all began with a tropical island beachfront and a charming woman making a travel pitch.
The woman, attired in a chic Caribbean sarong and a brilliant orchid nestled in her flowing hair, was as beguiling as the setting where she posed. The scene was calculated to attract the eye and engage the interest of post-pandemic travelers eager to go exploring before the next virus variant returned them to lockdown.
“Come join me and unwind in an island lifestyle to make the most of your carefree holiday getaway,” said the island enchantress. “Come capture some of the most unforgettable memories of this or any other summer in the pursuit of paradise.”
I ignore most commercial pitches, but not this one. Paradise was beckoning me to palms fanned by trade winds and a beach whose powdery white sands hosted a medley of Calypso musicians, dancing tourists, shameless sun worshippers and capricious surfers riding the waves of a turquoise sea.
Resist that if you can.
Escape and unwinding were just what I craved after a long day at the Delta Detection Agency. I took off my shoes, leaned back in my swivel chair and let my mind wander from the multiple duties of a detective agency owner and investigator to the idleness of a wandering beachcomber with nothing more in mind than the sand in his sandals.
Perhaps I wandered a little too far. I was soon asleep, losing sight of what I wanted most—the waving palms, the warm sand and inviting surf. Some trick of fate or quirk of mind was rerouting me from a lush paradise to a stark scene on the far side of the world where civilization had collapsed and chaos was the order of the day. I was reliving a memory I had no wish to remember.
It was another busy day at the military airport. The first flight had departed with a full cargo of utterly silent passengers who required no attention or service whatsoever. The mortally wounded had no need of amenities. They were arranged in neat rows of flag-draped caskets, ready for delivery to loved ones who had been praying for a miracle of survival and now would be grieving for lack of it.
The second flight followed, with severely wounded survivors and their medical assistants.
The third flight hosted the walking wounded and whatever odds and ends could be squeezed aboard the plane. I brought up the rear of that contingent, not because I had sustained a wound, but because the shore patrol had caught me camping at the airport, with my laundry and sundries in full view. It had been my home for days as I waited for a flight, any flight, that had room for someone with a non-priority pass out of the unending war. It was nothing like hardship. Compared to where I’d been and what I’d seen, it was a pleasant respite.
Then the shore patrol found me.
“I was wondering when you boys would show up,” I told the patrol.
“And just what do you think you’re doing here?” they demanded.
Two beefy patrolmen took up positions on either side of me, ready to block any attempt at escape.
“Enjoying a lovely holiday from the war,” I responded. “No gunfire, no bombs, no sergeants. Reminds me of what real life is like. But you boys don’t allow that, do you?”
Suspicious of my banter, the patrol accused me of dereliction of duty and possibly desertion. I was taken in charge.
After clearing my pass and confirming my identity, the patrol escorted me to the plane to make sure I didn’t backtrack and relapse to the role of airport squatter. The stares we collected on our way to the plane ranged from simple curiosity to suspicious hostility. Well, they do say that a man is known by the company he keeps.
“They probably think we’ve taken you out of the brig,” one of the boys informed me.
“Which is where clowns like you belong,” the other agreed.
“Maybe it isn’t me,” I countered, “but the two clowns on either side of me. Your company leaves an honest man at a disadvantage.”
“Get moving, wise guy!” snarled the disciplinarian who gave my rib cage a tickle with his baton to hasten my steps.
Some cops have no sense of humor.
At the end of our seemingly endless flight home, we were ordered up and out. A compassionate nurse stationed at the door fixed her eye on me as I limped forward. She then repeated what she had said to all the others gone before us. Her task was to deliver a heartfelt message of appreciation as we prepared to return to civilian life.
“You are all heroes, every one of you. We will never forget your courage. We will never forget your sacrifice. We will never forget your service.”
There was no doubt she’d been planted there to provide uplifting morale in case any of us had doubts about the purpose of our mission abroad. But Corporal Skaggs, a hard-bitten Jersey boy with zero tolerance for noble sentiment, felt compelled to tell her just how he felt about her message.
“I don’t want to be a hero for you or anyone else,” Skaggs insisted. “I want to forget the whole damn thing. I want to forget the buddies I lost for no reason other than to keep some two-bit dictator in power. I want to pretend none of it happened. I want to pretend I imagined it and will never imagine it again. Never!”
Appalled at his outburst, several NCOs hustled Skaggs out as quickly as they could, but not fast enough to prevent the shock of the nurse whose open mouth could no longer articulate the pride and gratitude of the nation. She had just paid us the supreme patriotic compliment and received a response from Skaggs that struck her like a slap in the face.
“Don’t take that basket case seriously,” I told her, touching her arm gently. “It was his second tour. He lost it there. Shouldn’t have been allowed back.”
She tried to say something in response, but the words wouldn’t come. I was ordered to move on despite my reluctance to leave her. When I looked back, the scene had already dimmed, fading into blackness.
I then opened my eyes and found myself in the present.
The war was long over, but for me it was not going away. Not soon. Perhaps not ever.
The first thing I saw on awakening was my shoeless feet upon my cluttered desk at the Delta Detective Agency.
The next thing I knew, Iris Noire was beside me, apologizing for interrupting my “power nap” and informing me that Hazel Hotchkiss was calling on line one. She gently removed my feet from the desk and pointed to my phone. I waved her direction aside with a weary shake.
“You’ll have to take it,” I said. “I need a little time to get my head back—to recover….”
“From what?” Iris asked.
“It’s a long story.”
Until that nap, it had been business as usual at the agency. I’d begun early with a staff meeting, reviewing our docket for assignments and investigations, and getting the latest updates on cases in progress. Our caseload included a missing elder and a mystery will, a household of mutually suspicious (but not yet antagonistic) spouses, an apparently accidental death in a wildfire that may not have been entirely accidental, and a man about town last seen far from town, waving a cordial farewell in a High Sierra ski lift.
There followed a client consultation, an after-meeting meeting, another consultation, and more updates and reports. No wonder the Caribbean looked inviting.
“You handle it,” I urged, dazed as a boxer between rounds.
“I’m a little busy just now,” Iris declined.
“Need more naptime?”
“Finished for the day.”
“I hope that’s not your way of saying you’re going fishing and leaving me with dear Mrs. Hotchkiss?”
“It means I’m running late.”
“The fish won’t wait for you?”
“I have to pick up a fishing buddy at Paradise Point and I’m going to be late, thanks to my long day—-and unexpected nap.”
“Does that long day include the two-hour lunch you had at that little cafe where the queen of the kitchen cooks whatever she wants, serves you whatever she pleases and expects compliments for her cuisine?”
“Mama Yolanda and I were talking business.”
“Oh? May I ask what business Mama gave you beyond a case of indigestion and a few cervezas to put out the fire?”
“I didn’t have a few cervezas. I had a tequila Zapata.”
“Good lord! It’s a wonder you made it back alive.”
“What did you expect?”
“I expected to get a distress call and find you under the table.”
“I only took a sip or two; the rest I used to water the cactus. Haven’t you ever wondered why the cactus at the cafe looks so healthy?”
“I never notice anything there except the kitchen queen in her ten-gallon toque. Now please don’t keep Mrs. Hotchkiss waiting. She may be a pest, but she does help pay the bills.”
Mrs. Hotchkiss is afflicted with incurable agoraphobia, a paranoid view of the world and a view of herself as a perpetual candidate for victimhood. The police have nothing to do with her due to her constant complaints and cries of wolf. Which is why she hired me and put me on permanent retainer. One might argue that it was my duty to urge her to consult a licensed therapist and embark on a mental health journey to change her outlook on life. The woman is insistent and demanding. She relies on us to calm her nerves and soothe her fears. But as Iris so rightly said, we have bills to pay.
“She’s your baby,” Iris said, handing the Hotchkiss problem back to me in our little game of I-got-it-you-take-it phone tag.
“Where’s Dotty?” I asked, wondering why former public relations specialist Dolores “Dotty” Dominguez, now in charge of our department of eccentric clients, had not already been assigned. It was with Hazel and a few other nervous Nellies in mind that I had hired Dotty.
“I had to send her over to Isleton to follow up on the Pennington case.”
“I thought she’d be back by now.”
“I did too, but something came up. You know how it is.”
Indeed I did. I was planning to depart for a Delta afternoon of leisurely sailing and fishing. So much for planning. What’s that old saying about the best laid plans of mice and men?
“Where’s Marybeth?” I asked.
“I gave her a late afternoon off. She’s worked overtime this week and had it coming. Besides, she wanted to get a mani and a pedi for a hot date tonight.”
“Had a bad allergy attack and forgot his meds. Should be back bright and early tomorrow.”
“Went down to Stockton to give testimony and had to wait hours to give it.”
“Is he on his way back?”
“He skipped breakfast and missed lunch. I can’t have the poor man starving. He’s having a turkey Havarti sandwich at a place called Whirlpools or something like that on what Stocktonians call the Miracle Mile.”
“We’re going to need a miracle of our own to find someone to handle Hotchkiss. Who’s left? Wait, there’s Stu Woo. Put him on it.”
“He’s checking for hackers and complaining that the Giants are in a slump. If he starts talking to her about the complexities of high-tech detection and the frustrations of baseball fans, Mrs. H. will disown us.”
“That leaves none other than Iris. You go, girl!”
“I can’t deal with that woman.”
“Why of course you can! You’re intelligent, astute, helpful, a good listener, persuasive when it comes to good advice—“
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“You have everything you need to deal with Mrs. H. Just let her do all the talking. Tell her we’ll be glad to look into the matter and please do not give her any subtle hints that she may be the victim of an overwrought imagination rather than a master criminal. When she’s done, tell her that if the problem persists, you’ll have me or the FBI or the CIA look into it. Now then, if there’s nothing else, I ‘m going sailing.”
“Well, as a matter of fact—“
“Don’t tell me. There is something else, isn’t there?”
“Do you remember asking me to find a qualified temp to help out during the summer?”
“You found one?”
“A very well-qualified one. Sparkle Sanderson by name. I’d hire her on the spot, but I want your okay to make it official. She’s waiting to see you now. May I send her in?”
“Since you’ve already made up your mind about her and I’m running late, I leave Sparkle entirely up to you.”
“I think you’d enjoy meeting her, and you really should. Let’s make a deal. You spare a half hour for Sparkle and I’ll take on Hotchkiss for you. Deal?”
“Make it fifteen minutes and you’ve got a deal.”
“Twenty. And I’m counting on you to make her feel valued and wanted. Unless you prefer to chat with Hotchkiss? Now put your shoes on, straighten your tie, get the dazed look off your face, and sit up straight. I’ll send her right in. Try to act like you are actually interviewing her and are impressed with her qualifications, okay? Here’s her resume. Do it for me. Do it for her.”
“And the good of the firm?”
When Iris wants you to do something, she will find a way to persuade you to do it even if you’re dead set against doing it. As always, I am allowed to make the final decision so long as it agrees with the one she’s already made. She does this in a way that is neither loud nor pushy nor annoying. Bossy? Yes. That’s why I hired her—to be the office boss of everyone, present company included. I appreciate her managerial abilities and creative spin. That’s why, when she tells me what to do, I almost always agree. We are two very different people, she and I, but the Delta Detective Agency is the manifestation of our collaboration. We are, in short, the perfect couple.
“You are what you are,” as she often reminds me, with only a slight hint of exasperation, “but you also need to be who you are—or be reminded of same.”
Trust her for that.
It was a promising day to prowl the Delta for abundant stripers and elusive sturgeon, but you know how it is when you’re in a hurry to depart the office. Something always comes between you and your getaway. That something entered in the person of Sparkle Sanderson.
I waved the spritely young woman into a chair, returned her smile and glanced at her resume. The clock was ticking. But all that was needed now was a semblance of an interview.
Sparkle had no hesitation telling me she was “thrilled” to be called back and have “such a welcoming conversation with Ms. Noire.”
I noted she had majored in business management at Delta College and asked what she considered the chief assets she brought to the job. She cited her skills in filing, sorting, and documentation. She could also prepare reports for office meetings, not to mention coffee, and be “A conscientious and enthusiastic team member.”
What more could one ask?
“Did Ms. Noire give you some idea of your duties here?” I asked.
“She said I would sometimes be required to show up early or stay late, think through problems that might arise, trust in the client-serving mission of the agency, and rely on her assistance whenever necessary. And—–well, sir, I don’t know if I should mention this…”
“Go right ahead, we’re all friends here.”
“Well, she said I should try to keep you occupied so that you wouldn’t have an excuse to go sailing, as you often do. I hope that doesn’t upset you. I think Ms. Noire has your best interests at heart. She seems to me to feel far more comfortable with you present rather than absent.”
“Ms. Noire is fully capable of running the enterprise without yours truly. Well, that seems to cover all the bases. Is there anything else you would like to ask me?”
“Just one. Ms. Noire said you would take me to lunch at Yolanda’s if I cut the mustard and prove myself a dependable employee. Who is Yolanda?”
“I’ll introduce you when the time comes. Now let’s go tell Iris to get you started. I need to gather a few items because I’m leaving to keep a prior appointment.”
“I think she expected that, sir.”
“I won’t tell her you’re going sailing,”
“I’m sure she knows.”
“Well, sir, Ms. Noire did say that if I wanted a clue to your passion in life, all I had to do was read the little sign on your desk. I see it says ‘Ditch the office and hit the water.’ Were you Navy?”
“The shore patrol is still looking for me. Thank you, Ms. Sanderson, and welcome aboard.”
“Call me Sparkle. Do you have any advice to help get me started?”
“Learn all you can from Ms. Noire—except how to keep me at my desk.”
“I hope the fish are biting and the wind is in your sails, sir. “
Iris was right. The kid would do splendidly.
Having solved the mysteries of the pessimistic Mrs. Hotchkiss and the idealistic Ms. Sanderson, I made haste to Paradise Point and collected my old friend Kip Klausner. Soon, we were underway to angle for swift stripers on the San Joaquin and hefty sturgeon in the west Delta.
Once lines were cast and time was on our hands, we made the usual fish-and-bait palaver common to our favorite sport. But Kip had something else in mind as well. He presented me with a mystery of his own.
“I’ve got a little problem you might be able to help me with,” he divulged. “You being a detective who knows a thing or two about—well, human nature, communications and relationships, and all that.”
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“How did you know?”
“If it isn’t money, it has to be a woman.”
“Is that the detective I hear speaking?”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve brought up the subject, friend, and that uncertain tone you have when you do is a dead giveaway. So what’s the problem this time?”
Kip came to the point. He was tired of bachelorhood. He wanted to give marriage another try and never mind that errant first wife or that obsessive second. This time around, he wanted to find the perfect partner—or what he called “the ideal woman.”
“There’s only one problem. Where do I find her?”
“Good question. Some men spend a lifetime asking themselves that.”
“What would you advise if one came to you and asked you that?”
“I’d say love is where you find it, so be careful to look in the right place.”
“Suppose you don’t know a right place from a wrong?”
“Consult an expert who does.”
“Dear Abby or Dr. Ruth?”
“Sometimes you have to go farther afield. I found one in Paris a few years back. I was passing through town on a hot summer day and you know the Europeans aren’t big on air conditioning. I went into the Louvre to get some A/C and found a gal named Lisa who played to the crowd and looked like a woman in the know. She’s been hanging there for quite a while.”
“Any charge for her services?”
“Included in the price of admission.”
“Serving the public, does she?”
“Been at it a long time and still bringing in the customers.”
“What exactly does she do?”
“Gives you a certain look and a certain smile—and, well, you get the idea….”
“I doubt I could. I can’t speak French.”
“Actually, she’s Italian.”
“Doesn’t matter. The language of love doesn’t need words. She’ll know what’s in your heart. You won’t have to say a word.”
“Some sort of relationship expert?”
“Saving her smile just for you. They even have a name for her smile.”
“Just how old is this Lisa?”
“She never grows old. Not even after 500 years.”
“There’s no pro like an old pro. Grazie mille, Leonardo!”
Kip made a face now that he realized I was referring to the Mona Lisa. He waved the classic da Vinci portrait dame aside and asked me if I’d ever met a woman I considered ideal.
“I work with one,” I answered.
“The assertive know-all who runs your office?”
“Super analyst and organizer, top efficiency expert, and a sweetheart of a problem solver.”
“That’s your idea of an ideal woman?”
“She keeps me on track and in the game. You gotta have an Iris in your life or your livin’ in litter.”
“That your way of saying you’re lost without her?”
“Actually, it’s what she says when she wants to remind me of the fact.”
“And just what do you tell her when she tells you that?”
“I humor her by agreeing.”
“And play right into her hands? Not for me! Anyone else on your list?”
“A warm-hearted cook and woman of wisdom who knows everyone’s business and doesn’t mind telling you what yours ought to be.”
“Not the lady in charge of the salsa joint where you hang out? The one who used her steel fry pan on a customer who ate a meal, didn’t want to pay for it, insulted the cook and demanded the cash in her register?”
“The same. When he woke up, he couldn’t remember his name or criminal past, but he turned a new leaf in the slammer and came out hungry for a wholesome life. He’s washing dishes for her now and attending Bible class. She has a forgiving heart. Doesn’t the Bible say a good heart should always be backed by a steel fry pan?”
“What Bible says that?”
“Maybe the one a certain authoritarian held up to the media to prove his piety after tear gassing the neighborhood to forestall hecklers.”
“Sounds like a candidate—–for a steel fry pan.”
“I just praise whatever she puts on my plate and agree to everything she tells me while trying to digest the food—and the advice.”
“And that’s your idea of ideal?”
“Well, I also admire the pluck and spunk of my sportswoman friend—-Katie the kayaker, the one who passed us today.”
“The loudmouth who paddled by us with a whoop and holler that scared all the fish?”
“She just wanted to tell me to save her a sturgeon. You have to admire a woman who knows how to paddle a river and cook a silver sturgeon with just the right proportions of lemon, lime and olive oil.”
“I’m sorry I brought the subject up,” Kip said. “Can we please get back to the joys of fishing and forget the rest of the world?”
I wanted him to tell me of his recent posting to India to oversee weapons delivery and installation for a Pentagon-related firm that anticipated an Indo-Chinese border war, but he wouldn’t say a word about that. All he would tell me was that a massive comet had been detected heading for the sun, where scientists calculated it would arrive in the year 2031. If the heat of the sun didn’t reduce enough of it, or if earthly rockets couldn’t deflect it, we might have to resort to prayers of divine intervention to prevent the end of the world.
“Unless the Big Fellow has lost patience with our wars and other bad behaviors,” I said. “And if that’s the case, we won’t be able to plead that we don’t deserve it. Maybe he has a better model in mind than the likes of us……”
“That’s enough!” Kip said grumpily, dismissing my amateur theology. “Can we please get back to the pleasures of fishing?”
The next day, Iris informed me that a woman named Patsy Bartley had called to request my services and asked me to come down to discuss the matter at her place in Tiburon, at the west end of San Francisco Bay.
“She said you would know how to find her. Is she someone new?”
“No, we go back a few years.”
“We met when the two of us were starting out, trying to keep our heads above water and thinking we deserved a whole lot better than treading water. The question for us then was how to get what we wanted from a world that could care less about our hopes and dreams.”
“Looks like you got yours.”
“Well, I mean you own your own detective agency, have me for your office manager, and go sailing whenever you please.”
“Unless you talk me out of it.”
“How about Patsy? Did she get what she wanted from life?”
“She went after it and allowed nothing to stand in her way. Relentless. Resourceful. Robust. You know the type? No stopping her.”
“Good for her. And now?”
“Sitting pretty in a bayside villa down in Tiburon.”
“Another excuse for you to go sailing?”
“This time, it sounds like business.”
“Then go—if she’s willing to hire you for time, overtime and all travel expenses.”
“Any excuse to sail,” I said. “But Mrs. B does happen to be an old friend. And for old friends, I always try to make a little time and extra effort.”
“And fifteen percent off?”
“Anything wrong with that?”
“The state of the economy, for one. We have the payroll coming up, and she sounds to me like the kind of woman who may need a detective, but doesn’t need a discount.”
Orphaned as an infant, disadvantaged as a youth, bruised as a runaway teen and educated in the adult school of hard knocks, Patsy Bartley could have been a poster child for hardship.
“They say you have to play the hand that life gives you, but what if life forgets to deal?” she liked to say. “It would have been easy for me to give up and call it quits. Too easy. Maybe that was why I didn’t. Never trust anything that’s too easy.”
Instead, she defied the odds and beat the game. Doing so, she met her share of critics and detractors. There were those who dismissed her as an upstart, a fortune hunter, a wheeler-dealer, a husband collector and worse. I hadn’t had an easy time of the game myself, so it was no wonder we became friends and allies.
“You used to call me Goldie,” she reminded me. “Was that because some people classified me as a gold digger?”
“And you called me Wonder Boy because you kept wondering when I would grow up,” I returned the compliment.
“A swell pair of opportunists, weren’t we? But tell me, looking back, don’t you feel that was the happiest time of your life?”
“I hadn’t thought of it quite like that, Goldie, but now that you mention it…”
“Well, thanks, Wonder Boy, but I have to admit I wasn’t perfect. I could do most anything I set my mind to doing, but I couldn’t cook—and still can’t. Did you mind that very much? You never said so.”
“Don’t worry, darling, you had something in your favor. You didn’t burn the beer.”
That the two of us discovered one another by accident and became friends by intent continues to surprise me. So did the sight of the magnolia-colored Bentley and emerald-hued Jaguar XK-SS parked in the curved driveway of her bayside retreat. The value of either of these autos was well beyond my powers of estimation despite my knowledge of luxury vehicles.
Given her rough and ragged start in life, I figured Patsy was entitled to whatever degree of ostentation she pleased to show the world. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t ostentation at all. The two priceless vehicles could simply have been those of guests other than myself who had been invited to lunch that day. Perhaps I would meet other members of the Bartley admiration society.
Part of that admiration was our heroine’s transformation from what she herself called “a dubious dame” to a lady revered for her social activism, cultural commitments and donations to a broad range of charities. Call her what you will, she was an American success story by any measure.
Of course, the power of money in modern America allows you to purchase a good measure of respectability, but there was more to it than merely money. It was character keened by the knives of adversity. It was a woman who had taken on the world and won.
But what could it be that made this accomplished and resourceful adventuress reach out for a detective? And for me, of all possible detectives?
Following a sail down river into the strong wind and choppy tide of San Francisco Bay, and putting my navigational skills to the test in avoiding boats that were less than competent in maneuvering under those conditions, I docked and secured the Delta Dazzler in Tiburon Harbor.
Tiburon is a quaint seaside town that likes to think of itself as the Bay Area’s best kept secret. It’s no secret that to reside here requires a little more scratch than that found in the average wallet. A sizable trust fund or generous rich uncle–or better yet, both–might help you buy in and stay in.
I had a pair of sea legs when I jumped off the boat, but the walk to Patsy’s place helped me regain my land legs. It also helped dry parts of my clothing dampened by the mist and spray of the gusty bay. I was eyed and questioned at the gate by a security guard who checked his roster, nodded, and admitted me despite his misgivings and suspicion of my being a careless sailor on liberty.
The question of the cars was answered for me by the more amiable, white-jacketed servant who answered the door and requested me to follow him to the terrace where, he said, Mrs. B. was expecting me.
“Mrs. B. and other guests, you mean?” I asked for the sake of clarification.
“No, sir, there’s only one guest today.”
The two cars were proof that Patsy was living like a queen. But the playful hand slap, elbow bump and sisterly hug with which she greeted me made it clear that beneath the trappings of wealth, power and privilege, Mrs. B. was the same “Goldie” whom I had befriended and defended when she was, to quote her own words, “A nobody and a nothing with nowhere to go and no one who wanted to have anything to do with me—except you, my blessed Wonder Boy.”
“We both got lucky, kid,” I said.
“Why you put up with me I’ll never understand.”
“Your fascinating conversation.”
“Oh, right! Well, you were there for me. And you gave me the one thing I needed most.”
“Letting you beat me in arm wrestling?”
“Confidence in myself,” she corrected me. “I knew you’d never let me down. You gave me the security I needed—and sometimes, the grocery or rent money. Sometimes both.”
“And just look at you now,” I said, as one servant brought us a choice white wine and another brought ocean-fresh halibut with a mound of saffron and a heap of broccoli. It was a far cry from my usual at Yolanda’s, but I wasn’t complaining.
“I never could have made it without the help of a wisecracking kid who wanted to be a private detective in his own part of the world rather than just another big town flatfoot.”
“Here’s to you,” I said, lifting my glass to match the one she extended to me “Salud!’
“Here’s to us both. I wish we saw one another more often. Speaking of which, when are you going to invite me up to see your corner of the world? I’ve sometimes wondered what it’s like up there.”
“Like no place else. The Delta is, well, another world—wide open spaces, pastures and orchards, farms and small towns, a riverfront detective agency and a boat for fishing and exploring. What more could a man ask?”
“How about a wife? Wouldn’t that complete the picture?”
“Speaking of pretty pictures,” I dodged the question, “look at the view you’ve got here. I bet you never get tired looking at it.”
We sat staring at the panoramic vista of San Francisco Bay, its bridges and the crowded towers of the big town rising far across the water. Numerous sailboats were out trying to navigate the brisk current and ocean gusts. And to the west, out beyond the Golden Gate, a mammoth cruise ship was nearing port, returning from the newly opened destinations of Alaska, Hawaii or Baja.
No better clues to Patsy’s success in life were needed than the cars, the servants and that astonishing view.
“Not bad for a gal who started her career as–how can I put it politely?–a woman of questionable reputation and uncertain revenues?”
“You done good, Mrs. B.”
“Well, now someone has done Mrs. B bad. That’s the reason I asked you here. I wanted to see you professionally as well as personally.”
“How bad is bad?”
“He took me for a ride—and a bundle. The kind of swindler that puts a hole in your soul as well as your bank account,”
“Want me to recommend a detective?”
“Not just any detective,” she said.
“I see. What exactly do you want me to do?”
“Find him and give him what he deserves.”
“Maybe what you want is a hit man.”
“A bullet would be too kind. I want him in prison with plenty of time to ponder what put him there.”
“He being who?”
“Julius Selfidge. You’ve heard of him?”
Indeed I had. He was one of those high-flying bitcoin opportunists who promised his clients unimaginable wealth and left them with empty pockets. He came to my attention when the police found his San Francisco office as empty as his promises. He was wanted not only by them, but by the feds and a few international authorities. Turns out his real name wasn’t Julius Selfidge and that his financial scams were not limited to bitcoin bamboozlement. He’d demonstrated another kind of expertise by giving all his hunters the slip, disappearing as quickly and quietly as smoke into air.
“He has all the right tools for the job,” Patsy said, “A charmer who can win your confidence with one hand and lift your assets with the other. Suave, smart and—-slippery.”
“I heard he left town owing way too much to way too many.”
“Such as myself,” Patsy said, “Call it greed. Call me gullible. But I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t like getting cheated, and I aim to do something about it, with your help.”
“The feds are after him. And international police too. Why not let them handle it? They’re bound to find him, given time.”
“Not necessarily. He’s the kind who plans his escape so far in advance that he leaves nothing behind—-except his outraged victims.”
“A confidence man who thinks the law will never find him? Well, you know the old saying—he can run, but he can’t hide.”
“He’s already hidden.”
“And no one knows where?”
“One does,” she said and paused to let the meaning of her remark engage me.
“How did you find out?” I asked.
“Inadvertently. He made a small mistake that called attention to himself. He was hosting a cocktail party and dinner for a few clients at his rented home up on Pacific Heights. He went missing later in the evening and I went looking for him. I found him on the phone and pretended not to have overheard him making travel plans. He gave me a look and waved me out, as if fearful of giving something away. That look told me he was up to something—and I would pay the price for what he thought was snooping.”
“But you heard? And remembered?”
“He referred several times to somewhere I’d never heard of. I made a mental note of the name. I figured it must have meant something important to him or he wouldn’t have looked at me the way he did. After he fled the Bay Area, and the story of his crimes came out, I realized why he was concerned—and where he might be heading. So I looked it up and did a bit of research.”
“And found what?”
“A Caribbean island off the usual tourist routes. You could buy into the good life there and didn’t have to worry about an extradition treaty with the United States.”
“Because there wasn’t any?”
“So even if they found him, they couldn’t touch him. But who would even think of looking for him on an island where no one would think of going?”
“You forget that places like that have their own reputation in the legal world. And now, with American ships and tourists going out again and seeking new ports of call, the island would be gaining popularity. He might think himself safe by paying off authorities willing to look the other way, but politics can change that. If our government brokered an agreement and offered a reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction…”
“Well, so far as I know, no one has found him. He may or may not be on that island, but something tells me you’re likely to find him there. If you get in before the others, you’d have a head start and have him all to yourself. I’ll put my money on that.”
“If he’s laying low, how would I go about finding him? And how would I recognize him if I did?”
“I can draw you a pretty fair sketch of the man, and tell you something about his manners and habits—and his accent.”
“Oh yes. He likes to pretend he’s some sort of sophisticated American, with a native’s passion for baseball and the rules of the game, but from what I heard of his accent, it’s more an act than a fact. Dutch or German is more like it. And with his loot, I’m sure he’d be holding down a choice piece of real estate on the affluent end of that island. One with a high wall, I imagine, plus a few guards and dogs to worry intruders.”
“A phony American talking baseball and hiding out in a self-designed fortress? Sounds like my kind of case. Any other reason for thinking he might be there?”
“Yes. A friend of mine down in L.A. also got taken in by him. She recalled his lighting her cigarette from a matchbook that bore the image of a skull in a cocktail glass. It made her curious. He said it was the house specialty of a certain Indies bar where he liked to slip in now and then for the specialty—one of those unique concoctions that you find only in that part of the world. He said he always asks for a voodoo moon because it requires courage to drink it and—get this—he prides himself on being afraid of nothing.”
“A phony American talking baseball and boasting of his bravery? That’s as good as a mug shot. Your friend wouldn’t happen to remember the name of the joint that serves the voodoo moon, would she?”
“Better than that. He gave her the matchbook for reference. He told her to stop by the bar if ever she found herself in that part of the world and inform the barista, who would contact him on her behalf. He’d meet her there,”
“To talk about baseball?”
“I think he had another sport in mind.”
“A ladies’ man? I wonder how many matchbooks he carried for that purpose.”
Patsy gave me the name and address of the bar where a visiting turista–or the drink that required courage–might lure the fearless Selfidge out of hiding for a quick one or something more than conversation.
“The man is a shameless braggart,” Patsy concluded, “He loves to tell you that he takes risks in the market and elsewhere because—-“
“He’s afraid of nothing?”
“Maybe you can listen for that boaster and put the fear back into him.”
“How soon do you want me to go hunting?”
“I’ll write you a check to get you started and give you a kiss for luck. Unless you have something better on your agenda?”
I pocketed the check, collected the kiss and posed a final question as we parted.
“I can’t promise you anything except the effort. Even with what you told me, I could come up empty, How can you be confident I can find him?”
“Because you’re the type that never gives up. It won’t be for lack of trying.”
It wasn’t the woman under the whispering palms or a walk on the white powder beach, but I was going to the Caribbean, after all.
Scammers and fraudsters abound from sea to shining sea. This one was different from the herd. He operated in person, turning on the charisma to dazzle and swindle those who put their assets in his keeping. And keeping was exactly what he had in mind.
“I want him to pay for what he did to me—and all the others who got taken,” Patsy said, giving me her check and parting kiss. “Now it’s our turn. We got taken. Now, go and see if you can find him and take him—into custody.”
Which is what sent me to a little island in the Caribbean, off the usual tourist route, but gaining its share of visitors in a new travel trend.
Patsy had been left with nothing except the name of a place she’d never heard of and the assumption it might be the kind of place her nemesis might head once the law began to take an active interest in him.
None of which guaranteed success for a free-lancer like myself, but given the few clues and a head start, it was worth the gamble. The bigger the crook, the better the reward. And a good share of that reward would give her back at least some of what Selfidge owed her. But the greater satisfaction for her would be knowing that he got what he deserved.
Iris made the necessary arrangements and within a few days, I was seated at a bar on the island. All I had to do was wait for someone who looked like, acted like and spoke like the man who called himself Julius Selfidge.
I also learned from the newly appointed American consul that Washington was now on friendly terms with the island and had been invited to help efforts to cleanse its reputation as a safe haven for financial fugitives. That way, it could claim a larger share of the revitalized tourist trade. If I could confirm Selfidge’s identity and notify the authorities, the rest would be easy, and the reward would be mine–and Patsy’s.
The entrance to the bar (aptly named the Hideaway) where I decided to focus my search was unmarked except for the carved figure of an island woman holding a finger to her lips. That gesture of secrecy and the ghost of a smile on her features made me wonder just what the island belle was concealing. Perhaps she knew one of those felons from justice who had come to the island to escape the law and deposit their ill-gotten gains.
I made the Hideaway the center of my daily rounds in search of Selfidge and covered my investigative intent by disguising myself as just another aimless tourist. My role-playing came complete with a broad-brimmed straw hat, wrap-around sunglasses, an oversized shirt that looked like a parody of tropical fashion and a guide book to the Caribbean.
The interior of the bar was cool and dim, offering a welcome alternative to the tropic heat and tourist crowd in the hotel lobby.
“Welcome back, sir,” the barista greeted me as I settled in once again to await someone who might or might not fit the description of the man I was seeking.
“I hope I’m not making a nuisance of myself, Mauricio.”
“Oh, not at all, sir. You are looking for the perfect cocktail. And I am looking for more tales from you—the gentleman from the Delta of California who entertains me with his tales of small boat sailing and fishing in that faraway paradise.”
“Well, one thinks of the Caribbean that way, but I’m not so sure it applies to the Delta,”
“How would you describe it?”
“The unknown California.”
“I must go there someday. And what is your pleasure today, sir?”
“Do you have a recommendation?” I asked, assuming the voodoo moon would be his answer.
“It is the essence of refreshment.”
“I hope so. I’ve worked up quite a thirst seeing the sights today.”
“What sights have you seen?” he asked as he set about his task.
“Oh, the usual tourist stuff. The beach and the sea, the turtle farm, the native village, and the new casino. I didn’t expect to find a casino here.”
“Well, one has to play to the crowd, and if the crowd only comes ashore for a few hours, there must be something more than turtles to attract them. Was your luck better today?”
“To paraphrase mighty Caesar, I came, I saw, I squandered. I should be content with small winnings rather than risking it all for the sake of an elusive jackpot. By the way, is the Ernesto named for you?”
“No, sir, it is the name of the great writer who long ago praised my father for creating a drink he enjoyed—-and for naming it in his honor.”
“I will toast grandfather and the writer if the drink is half as good as you say.”
Mauricio nodded and gave a quick glance at the lobby where the throng had increased by several busloads. Two of the largest and most modern cruise ships had docked at the harbor that morning, bringing with them a surfeit of sightseers who turned the peaceful island into a hotbed of tourism. The post-pandemic travel surge had brought passengers eager to explore a lesser-known island that was now part of the Caribbean travel circuit.
I turned about to share his perspective and noticed two stolid men I had seen several times before. They sat together, but had nothing to say to one another. They sat staring at the tourist traffic as if they found the spectacle of some interest. Perhaps they wondered if they too should be out on the beach, soaking up the sun or splashing in the surf. Perhaps they too could patronize the recreated native village or say goodbye to their money at the casino that lured fortune-hunting visitors with a mirage of easy riches.
Something about those two men aroused my detective instincts though they may have been nothing more than idlers. Was I being needlessly suspicious? Perhaps the pair really had no interests to pursue. It might be that they had come ashore simply to do as little as possible after a strenuous life aboard a modern cruise ship. If they grew bored with people-watching in the lobby, they could patronize the Hideaway and brighten their day with a frozen daiquiri, a bracing Ernesto or a chilling voodoo moon.
“The great Ernesto declared he had never tasted anything so cool and clean,” Mauricio said as he placed the drink before me. “He said the drink made him feel civilized. No one who heard him say so knew what to make of that. Could a martini make such a difference? The great Ernesto was perhaps exaggerating the merits of the martini, but after all, it was named in his honor. He even said a perfect martini was like a well-told story.”
“Now there’s an analogy. Did he explain how a martini compares to a well-told story?”
“He said the best beginning is clarity and the question then is whether the clarity will persist into the middle and sustain to the end. He was delighted to find it did.”
“Salud!” I said raising my glass to salute not only the inventive grandfather and the undoubtedly egotistical Ernesto, but the modest and obliging barista who told me the tale.
As I lingered, life seemed to slow. Civilization seemed somewhere far over the horizon. I began to wonder if I was wasting my time waiting for someone who might have no further craving for a voodoo moon, someone who may have realized his mistake in handing out matchbooks from the Hideaway to ladies who caught his eye, and had wisely moved on to another island where he could not be traced by the clue of his favorite drink or the recollections of a lady. And if that was the case, might I take a few days off to do nothing before returning to the office to do too much? I could then set out in search of all that has been offered me by the island enchantress who promised me paradise….
And then a figure slipped in and moved to the shadowy end of the bar. As he approached my stool, I made a clumsy dismount, pretending not to have noticed his approach, and apologized profusely for my awkwardness. It gave me just enough time to have a good look at his face before he hurried on. I noted a face similar to Patsy’s description, but that could have been coincidence. I would need more evidence to confirm the man’s identity.
Some of Mauricio’s clients took their drink in silence. Some came to complain about the news of the world and the futility of politics. Some wanted to confess their feelings about love gone sour or investments gone flat. Mauricio was a discreet and silent party to whom they could confess as easily as to a priest.
“How’s your day going today, sir?” the barista asked with a smile and a brisk swipe of the already polished counter.
“Terrible! My favorite ballplayer was hit in the head by a 96-mile fast ball he never saw coming until it was too late. It knocked him down and out. They’ve got him in ICU to see if he suffered brain damage. Those high-velocity pitchers are getting away with murder and nothing is being done to stop them.”
“What would you do if you were the commissioner of the sport?”
“I’d award two bases, not one, for non-injurious hits. I’d allow one run for the damaging hits, expulsion for the pitcher, a huge fine and all medical costs. That ought to make them think twice before throwing velocity they can’t control. It’s like driving a car with your eyes shut. If you don’t stop it, someone’s going to get killed. And if someone does, what will that do to the innocence of the game? What will happen to the reputation of baseball?”
You’re a fine one to talk about innocence and reputation, I thought, hearing a distinct European accent in the course of the man’s baseball complaint,
“You have to have much courage to be a batter, yes?” Mauricio asked.
“You have to have plenty of courage just to live in a world like this,” the baseball critic said, shaking his head at the state of a world menaced by everything from global warming to homicidal hurlers. “From what I’ve seen of humanity, courage is a rarity, a damn rare commodity.”
The barista’s command of English was easy and fluent enough to get him a white jacket, colorful bow tie and stewardship of the bar. But there were certain words, such as commodity, that made him pause. He glossed over his uncertainty by nodding at his customer and asking him his pleasure.
“Give me a voodoo moon,” the newcomer said, “and don’t spare the voodoo. It helps the courage kick in, though I know the only way to conquer fear is to confront it. It’s something I do as often as I can. I can tell you for a fact that it works.”
“What is it you do?” the barman asked as he mixed the mysterious specialty and dressed it with meticulous precision.
“I challenge myself.”
“I climb mountains because I was once afraid of heights. I took up deep sea diving because I was afraid of the sea. I served in a war, hunted tigers in India and ran with the bulls in Pamplona. I’ve put myself in the crosshairs of danger so often that I’ve eliminated the fear within me. It gave me the confidence and strength to do anything I wanted in life. That was the key to my success in the business world–the world I left behind to come here and start a new life.”
“And here you are,” the bartender said, completing his preparation and presenting the voodoo moon to the storyteller with a gesture of finality.
“I could be humble about it, but I don’t see the need,” the braggart said of his accomplishments, “I’m simply being honest. You either have it or you don’t.”
“Not many have,” the barista agreed. “Courage is a gift from the gods, is it not?”
“Well, you know me, Mauricio, I’m not one to brag.”
So saying, he raised his glass to salute the barista who returned the compliment with a sudden and startling shout of “Valor y Valentia!”
Those words, apparently a signal, brought the two silent men in from the lobby on the run. They promptly placed the newcomer under arrest, forestalling my own plan for a more subtle capture.
Apparently, Mauricio had arranged the capture. The man known as Selfidge let loose a profane string of insults and struggled in vain to escape as he was handcuffed and removed.
Mauricio said nothing afterward and acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. He busied himself polishing a set of glasses that he held up, one by one, as if to detect any flaw or imperfection.
The reward, if approved, would go to the clever barista, but Patsy would have the satisfaction of knowing that the unscrupulous bitcoin broker was now in custody and would in all likelihood be returned to America for arraignment.
“What in the world just happened?” asked a genteel lady of fifty sitting near me who had been quietly sipping a mocktail named in honor of a popular island entertainer.
“I believe the gentleman who is afraid of nothing has just been arrested,” I said.
“What on earth for? He seemed like such a nice gentleman, though he did go on a little too long—and far too flatteringly—about himself.”
“I’d guess he was hiding some illegal assets. Cheaters like himself refer to them as offshore accounts. Or maybe he was one of those insurrectionists who assaulted the capitol and committed treason in order to prove his fearlessness.”
“Saints preserve us! What is this world coming to?”
“I don’t know about the world, madam, but I can tell you, with some degree of certainty, that when big money is the object of the game, human beings seldom play by the rules.”
“Sounds like you’ve some experience in that department, sir. Are you an accountant? Executor? Cop?”
“Nothing so grand. Just a friendly beachcomber making the rounds and keeping an eye on fellow drifters.”
“Well, my wandering friend, let me ask you this. Short of entering a female monastery or relocating to a mountaintop retreat, is there anywhere I can enjoy a life free from the crimes, sins and worries of this mad world?”
“Hit the beach and don’t look back,” I said encouragingly, remembering the enchanting ad that launched my adventure. “Life is better with sandy toes.”
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 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 Magazine since 2018, Lachtman introduced a private detective based in the Delta whose wide-ranging investigations offer a diversity of clients and a casebook of crimes, These have recently been augmented by a short-short story series of miniature mysteries designed for readers on the go who lack time but not interest in playing the game of armchair detective.
To continue reading Soundings for free just click the little blue ‘X’ in the upper right corner.
But before you do, please consider becoming a supporter by clicking the blue bar below. Soundings is free to enjoy but not free to produce.