One of the primary rules of detective inquiry is to believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see. Even so, there are times when events cause you to blink twice and believe nothing of what you see.
“Christmas?” I asked, startled by what I saw on entering the Delta Detective Agency. “That’s impossible! It can’t be Christmas already!”
Seeing is believing, but I couldn’t believe what was before my eyes. One look made me feel like Rip van Winkle awakening to discover he’d been flummoxed by a trick of time.
Office manager Iris Noire and her capable assistants were busily transforming the austere premises of the agency into a winter wonderland of miniature gingerbread houses, sparkling trees, and a workshop filled with Santa’s industrious elves fulfilling their December deadline. The scene was framed by colorful poinsettias and ribboned wreaths.
So much for tradition. But there was an inventive flair as well. Like the balloon figures of a green and glowering Grinch being scolded for his sins by a reformed cynic who looked suspiciously like Scrooge. The centerpiece of the show was a large transparent bubble whose falling snowflakes whitened a quartet of Dickensian carolers rendering “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
As if all that wasn’t enough to awake the spirit of the season, several men up on ladders above the lobby were rigging a sleigh overloaded with a portly Santa and a mountain of toys. Only the flashing red nose of Rudolph and the perfectly disciplined formation of resolute reindeer could keep this aerial disaster on a stable course for delivery.
The holiday had come to life, but logic declared it had yet to be born.
“What in heaven’s name do you think you’re doing?” I asked the work crew.”It isn’t even November!”
“It’s for the sake of heaven that we’re doing this,” Iris explained. “Haven’t you noticed that holiday decorations are going up earlier than ever? That Christmas items have already hit the big stores? That Christmas songs and jingles are getting air time? Haven’t you wondered why? Can’t you sense a collective eagerness–and hunger–for Christmas?”
“But–” was all I managed to reply.
“It’s no wonder why,” pubic relations specialist Claire Berry chimed in. “Just look at this mad world of ours. Wars. Global warming. Pandemics and epidemics. Hateful politics. Social upheavals. Random shootings. Mass homelessness. Inflation, depression, and–God knows! We need a break from all that—a timeout from the times in which we live.”
“Definitely!” Iris agreed. “What we want is a season of peace, a season of happiness, kindness and forgiveness. Why wait until December? We need it now!”
“But—” I tried and failed again to get more than one word in.
“No buts, please!” Iris admonished me. “The staff and I feel deeply about this because what we’re doing is for the benefit of our clients. They come to us with all their fears and miseries. Why not give them something to lighten their hearts and brighten their spirits? Wouldn’t it be the humane thing to do–and far better for business relations, may I add?”
‘”We figure all this helps to relax them and put them in a better frame of mind for the business they have to transact,” legal whiz Zachary Hennessey shouted down from the top of the high ladder on which he perched, cinching a well-stuffed Santa into his pilot’s seat.
“Excellent public relations strategy!” secretary Midge Quigley agreed as she put the finishing touches on a manger scene in which the blessed child was adored by curious animals, three wise men and one presumably wise woman (unmentioned in Scripture, but Midge excused it as her personal contribution), with an angel hovering above, keeping close watch on the visitors.
“It’s an idea in advance of its calendar date,” tech specialist Stuart G. Woo laid it out for me as he unveiled his contribution of a befuddled Santa trying to make sense of a computerized list of naughty-or-nice candidates. At Santa’s side, a worried elf offered his master the comforting alternative of a quill pen and ink. “A smart morale-booster like this can only help encourage hope and mitigate negativity.”
“And doing what’s right for clients is always good for business,” said assistant manager Rosie Gold who was polishing an ornate antique from dullness to gleam. I asked her if the candelabra was helping light Santa’s way.
“It’s not a candelabra,” Rosie corrected me. “It’s a menorah. We have to wait until Hanukkah before we begin to light the candles, one at a time, in remembrance of the miraculous temple oil that burned for eight days instead of one—a divine tribute to the heroism of the Maccabees.”
“Mac–who? Were they Scots?”
“Holyland rebels a few thousand years ago. They attacked the tyranny of Greek occupation and whipped their oppressors on the battlefield. Then they turned their attention to educating their people about renewing ethical and spiritual obligations. I’ll be wearing a tribute to them come Hanukkah–a blue winter sweater decorated with flashing candle images and the motto “Stay Lit, Don’t Quit.”
“Oh, that’s darling!” cooed office intern Brenda Westlake. “I’m going to wear a holiday sweater too. It has Santa and Mrs. Claus being congratulated and toasted by an assembly of very happy elves. What do you imagine is in their cups?”
“Something more than hot chocolate. I’d like to know what’s in those North Pole cocktails. They must be something special to put a smile on faces in that ice cold climate.”
“Such as what?” Brenda asked.
“I remember seeing a historic recipe for holiday punch. Classic bourbon, pomegranate liqueur, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, cherry and orange garnish, spiced rum—–“
“Okay, kids, don’t stop working,” Iris reactivated her chatty decoration crew. “We’re almost there now, even though someone dear to my heart is missing.”
“I can see now why my proposal to have an Oktoberfest office party this year was unanimously voted down,” I said as the light of Christmas preference dawned.
“If beer and brats are what you really want, you’d better hurry,” accounts manager Trish Olivera said. “The month is almost over and Christmas is wasting no time getting here.”
“Exactly!” Iris concluded. “And because it is, we’re losing no time going with the trend. And by doing so, that makes us trendy, doesn’t it? And speaking of the office party, we’ve all decided to move up the date of the party. You don’t have to worry about expenses because most of the gang is bringing homemade cheesecakes or fruitcakes for the event.”
“I hope they aren’t the same fruitcakes left over from last year’s party and the party before that and the party before that?” I asked, remembering the defrosted horrors.
“And wait until you try my homemade, Hanukkah honeycake,” Rosie said, with a wink to inform me her baking would relieve my fruitcake phobia.
“You don’t even have to wait for New Year’s if you don’t mind celebrating the Chinese version,” Woo said as he began placing wrapped fortune cookies around the office for the benefit of those who wished 2023 to arrive in 2022.
“Oh, be serious, Stu!” I reprimanded him, picking up a cookie to examine it and removing the wrapper for a munch and a peek at my fortune, “Well, it says ‘If you can’t be careful, be cautious.’ Sounds to me like a warning for the present day. Maybe I should cancel my trick-or-treat plans.”
“Excuse my asking, sir, but aren’t you a little too old for something as juvenile as Halloween?” Trish inquired.
“Not at all. Matter of fact, I plan on going to a big costume party where I suspect the tricks might outnumber the treats. Wanna guess who I’m going as?”
“I’m almost afraid to ask.” Iris said.
“See if you can guess. Here’s the clues. Orange face mask. Fake gold wig. Red baseball cap promising to make America grand and glorious again. And a T-shirt scripted with dark rhetoric about an election theft and a reprisal insurrection.”
Iris put her hands on her hips like a drill sergeant exasperated with her recruit.
“I suppose you’ll go around the party telling people you want another recount?” she asked. “Do yourself a favor, sir. Ditch the costume. Embrace a real American hero. How about George Washington? Captain America? Uncle Sam?”
“Maybe Sam, but only If you come with me, costumed as Lady Liberty, if you don’t mind being my party partner—and investigative assistant.”
“We’d make a swell undercover duo, suitably attired to solve a mystery,” I said as the office exploded in laughter. All except one who was not amused.
“No, seriously, I wasn’t kidding,” I told Iris when her crew finished decorating and returned to their desks. “It’s a chance for you to help me in a very unusual investigation.”
Iris waved my offer aside. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think my contract calls for me to be your Halloween partner.”
“It may seem comical, but I assure you it’s business, and serious business at that. Come to lunch with me and I’ll explain what I have in mind.”
“Sorry, sir, I have too much to do here. But if you want to make nice to me, bring me back a spicy quesadilla grande and a cool horchata and I just might forgive you.”
“How do you know where I’m going?”
“Like there’s anywhere else you’d rather be? You’re heading to a cantina down on the riverside where Yolanda will mother you at a little table all your own, or my name isn’t Iris.”
“Well, it beats a taco truck. By the way, isn’t today Taco Tuesday?”
“It’s not. I called Yolanda to place my order and she said quesadilla is the order of the day. Oh, and be sure to tell her to add her house specialty to spice my dish.”
“You don’t mean the house salsa? You better go easy on that unless you want smoke coming out of your pretty ears.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I hope you’re aware that her salsa caliente has the explosive power to demolish a careless consumer? Of course, it being her secret recipe and all that, she’s always going on about it being ‘El Mejor Salsa de Todos Tiempos.’ Well, believe what you want. Now what I have to talk to you about is how the two of us can—“
“We’re done talking. I really have to take this call. And you have to get moving. Please bring my order back to me as soon as you can. I skipped breakfast today and now I’m famished. Absolutely, positively starving! And don’t forget the blue corn tortilla chips. And make the horchata a true grande to help temper her lovely salsa.”
And so saying, she turned away to welcome the caller by sweetly chirping “Good morning! Delta Detective Agency! How may I help you?”
“Bievenidos, mi querido amigo!” Yolanda Maria Esmeralda Peralta greeted me warmly as I came out of the dreary, drizzly day and into my seat at the small private table reserved for me in the rear of the aroma-rich kitchen at Yolanda’s Cantina de la Delta. “Podemos Ayudarle?”
I always wonder what the convivial chef is cooking since wondering is all a cantina customer can do. There are no printed menus and no daily postings to give you a clue. The rule of the house is that whatever Yolanda feels like cooking on any given day is what you will get. Her cheerfulness and confident smile reduce customer quibbling to acquiescence. You can never say no to such a woman, and therefore the answer must always be yes. But I couldn’t resist making a teasing request of my own.
“Pulpo frito, por favor?” I asked playfully.
“Not unless you catch the octopus, slice it, and cook it yourself with the correct oil and spices,” she said, waving her hand at the impossibility of my doing any such thing.
The dish of the day was an overstuffed quesadilla filled with ingredients that you would never find at your local drive-through or other sites offering non-authentic Mexican cooking. Whether you could make sense of it or not, Yolanda would assure you that you had come to the right place on the right day. In any case, she assured me, I would receive “Un perfecto pollo poblano” in my quesasdilla, coupled with a “mucho macho” helping of the magnificent house salsa and more than one Pacifico Claro to help put out the fire.
While I awaited lunch, savoring the enticing cookery and ceaseless clatter of the kitchen, my cell phone rang.
Earl “Front Page” Fosdyke, editor in chief of the Daily Delta, was calling to ask if I’d heard “anything interesting” that could warrant his dispatching a reporter to gain a story. He was hoping something was cooking beside quesadillas.
“Maybe,” I answered.
“Can you be more specific?”
“‘Yes and no.”
“Can you be less evasive?”
“I’ve been on the trail of a clever scoundrel who’s been working scams up and down California, making an art of deceit and exiting well before the law catches up, leaving his investigators as flat as his investors.”
“That sounds promising. Does this rascal of yours have a name?”
“He has a long list of aliases to suit his schemes. I call him Mr. X. I think he’s setting up to work in our area. Which is why I have a personal (and financial) interest in his capture and conviction.”
“You think you know where he is? Have you seen him?”
“Not yet, but I think I know where to look—and what he may look like. Seems he has an odd habit of always keeping a hat or turban on his head. Either it’s a bad haircut or he doesn’t like the color of his hair, assuming he has any. And word is he can’t resist hustling, be it small change or the big steal. A born scammer, with a manner that can sell you anything, an air of letting you and you alone in on a good thing, and a tell-tale facial expression that’s somewhere between a smirk and a sneer. If you can imagine that.”
“Is that enough for you to go on?”
“Enough to keep me going.”
“Where’s he from?”
“He began in the godless wilds of La La Land. Ran a small movie company making grade-Z horror films, and sidelined with flim-flamming the gullible up and down the coast. He milked the greed of get-rich-quick investors dazzled by show biz prospects who should have known better. The law was closing in when he escaped into the wide open spaces of the interior and left the law wondering about his vanishing act. Of course, he continued his trade, so it was easy for me to trace his trail of discontented customers.”
“Good for you. And where do you think he is now?”
“Probably not far from us, but right now, Earl, I see my lunch coming.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, you know how it is. Yolanda is the type who insists you put your fork in whatever she cooks as soon as it’s served. Otherwise, it looks to her like reluctance. Reluctance smells to her like disinterest. Disinterest smells to her like disrespect. And that is what you don’t want to have if you want to avoid her fry-pan temper.”
“All right, spare me the kitchen melodrama. How about you dropping by for a chat later today?”
“If I survive lunch.”
“What’s the risk?”
“What’s that? Oh, never mind. How do you rate your chances of finding this faker?”
“A long shot. He’s a slippery customer, but then a man in his position has to be. The feds are interested in him for dabbling in crypto fraud, digital deceptions and Covid supplies scams. He’s also fond of pocketing donations to non-existent charities. If he’s searching for a safe and secure base of operations, he wouldn’t be the first to take up residence in the Delta, would he?”
“You think he’s near us?”
“If he is, I’m going to find his hiding place.”
“But if you’ve never seen him, how will you recognize him? A Covid mask could cover that sneer or smirk, and that hat or turban on his head completes the coverup.”
“The word is he likes to live high and throw parties. Costume parties, in particular. He gets the crowd in a good mood and sets them up for a scam.”
“Like those charities you mentioned? People have a soft spot for charities at this time of year, don’t they?”
“They’re susceptible. My guess is he’s on to that and doing his best to exploit their seasonal compassion. Makes an honest sleuth like me want to terminate his career.”
“Amen, brother. The louse deserves a swift kick, if not from Santa’s boot then from yours. Give me the story if you get it and I’ll give you—how about a month free advertising?”
“Why so generous?”
“Because you’ve made me wonder.”
“About my detective abilities?”
“About what Mr. X is hiding under his hat.”
After dropping off lunch for the starving Iris and having a word with the lady about my intentions for the two of us, I took a short drive to the office of the most unusual newspaper in existence.
The Daily Delta is like no other newspaper, capturing more and more readers and growing more and more profitable at a time when the majority of newspapers are slimming content, trimming staff or closing their doors.
What’s the secret of this success? A close focus on local issues and human interest stories coupled with a retro throwback to an earlier age of journalism. Its reporters rely on typewriters, extension telephones and other old-fashioned devices that fascinate readers and visitors to the newsroom.
“Back to the past is our idea for advancing journalism into the 21st century,” Earl explained. “When a paper goes online, it loses an audience that prefers a paper to hold in its hands and pages to turn. Our paper connects them to that—and to their community. And with that in mind, we have a bit of fun as well.”
Which is how this small newspaper draws a devoted readership and sustains a surprising profit. The difference is on display from the moment you enter the noisy newsroom of the Daily. It’s living in the past with the desks of a gossip reporter, a no-holds-barred sportswriter, a grandmother whose home cookin’ recipes are wildly popular, a lovelorn columnist with advice for breaking or broken hearts, and a celebration of classic comics from Orphan Annie and Little Abner to The Phantom, Betty Boop and Tillie the Toiler.
It isn’t the golden age of journalism, but it’s breathed new life into the venture. An atmosphere of hustle and bustle prevails, delighting visitors who assumed this kind of newspaper was as extinct as phone booths or single-screen movie houses. Veteran and retired reporters find a home here, pounding out the news of the day on clickity-clackety typewriters that ring a bell when it’s time to swipe the carriage. There’s even a row of editors in visors who sit like silent judges, proofing copy for pesky commas, typos, dangling modifiers and other unforgivable sins.
It’s all on display here for show as well as tell, with a guide steering tourists to gawk at such dated wonders as pneumatic tubes utilizing compressed air to send stories and information to other parts of the building and accelerate the speed needed to meet and beat deadlines. Visiting schoolkids stare with fascination as reporters pop a story into a canister, insert it into the tube and send it flying with a rocketing sound of whoosh!
“Where is this thing going?” the kids ask. “Into the right hands,” the guide answers confidently.
Oldies and goodies aside, Earl had some information and a question for me.
“You know where the old Grimsby mansion is? Up river, past Country Hollow? Somebody bought the place and remodeled it. We can’t find out who did it or why. But now he’s throwing some kind of Halloween shindig there, open to the public, and fundraising for some charity. The tickets are pricey and no one gets in without a costume. Know anything about that?”
“I heard about it. And I’m going. Call it curiosity. I’m playing a hunch. The party might be the newcomer’s way of saying howdy to locals with bucks in their pocket, looking for a good time and a charity write-off.”
“Charity? Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Maybe you can do a little scouting and let me know what you find. Could be a story. We don’t know who to contact because the owner is keeping himself under wraps. Something of a mystery there, unless the wraps are coming off with a Halloween housewarming.”
“So this guy buys an old mansion in a remote part of the Delta, sinks a fortune into renovating it, keeps himself out of the picture and then decides to throws a Halloween fundraiser?”
“Kind of makes you wonder?”
“So does the costume party.”
“What about it?”
“If our man wears one, no one will have the least idea who he is if he doesn’t choose to reveal himself.”
“Why would he worry about that if he wants to get acquainted?”
“Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he has something else in mind.”
“You think this could be the guy you’re hunting?”
“You never know, Officially, he’s a wanted man. Unofficially, he’s a ghost. And where better to hide than in the middle of nowhere?”
On my way out, I passed a visitor guide escorting a group of schoolkids intrigued by the look and sound of typewriters.
“They can’t believe it has a bell,” he told me. “They enjoy hearing the click and clack and the letters that appear on the page. There aren’t many mechanical things left any more. Maybe that’s why a vintage machine is popular. Some say they’re back in style. Some writers say it helps them focus. Decorators use them to evoke the past. And we use them because our readers expect us to uphold tradition. Boy, do we ever!”
I thanked him and turned to go. Then I turned back and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have a special subscription rate for private detectives, would you?”
With October ripening into the holiday season, I began my end-of-the-year performance reviews at the Delta Detective Agency, granting leaves to employees in need of a reprieve from heavy case loads and long hours. All of us had seen our share of missing persons and missing pets, threatened menace and actual mayhem, straying husbands and wandering wives, and oddball nuisances of every description including wannabe local mystery writers asking if we had any “good plots” to lend them or clues to cure the malady of writer’s block (for which I offered two words of practical advice: “Cease writing!”)
As I surveyed the productivity and well-being of my staff, I couldn’t help but admire the workaday discipline and devotion of Iris, my industrious and indefatigable office manager, wondering whether this enviable model might herself be in need of a getaway to lighten her spirits and brighten her mood. With that in mind, I offered her a free ticket to accompany me to a local Oktoberfest, thinking the event might put some much-needed fun and frivolity into her otherwise dutiful life. She declined. I then offered her a meal of her choice at Yolanda’s if she would change her mind. She slowly shook her head. I upped my offer to approve her otherwise premature Christmas plans and her shaking head came to rest with a smile on her face.
Despite my good intentions, Iris was anything but festive at the event. She began to gripe about lederhosen fashion, fatty sausages, soggy sauerkraut, and the endless trays of imported beer, served by charming, Bavarian-style beer maids in requisite dirndls and décolletages. The nonstop revelry of Herman Fuhrmann’s oompah-loompah-oompah German band, with its festive accordions and blowhard tubas, gave Iris a headache and made her wave off my invitation to “polka until we drop” on the dance floor.
Iris was shocked by the sudden appearance of a cadre of dancing women attired as witches, twerking their brooms in a rhythmic jig to the beat of a German dance ditty that Herman and the boys struck up to launch the pointy-hatted sisterhood. It was an amusing touch of German-style Halloween (known over there as Walpurgisnacht, or Night of the Witches), but Iris lost no time asking if we could depart before she fell victim to a migraine. I asked her to give the broomstick entertainers a chance to earn her laughter and consider banishing her headache with a feast of bratwurst and sauerkraut.
“There is one thing you need to know about me,” she confessed, as if she was about to reveal her darkest secret in a moment of truth. “I hate the look, the taste, the smell and the very thought of sauerkraut!”
“Oh! Well, if that’s all it is”—I began.
“And bratwurst! And polka music! And I absolutely draw the line at dancing witches who think they are cute with their twitchy choreography.”
“Because it makes a mockery of feminism!”
“How about me talking to Herman about working some dancing wizards or warlocks into the cast? That way, the mockery will be shared evenly by the sexes and you won’t feel slighted.”
“You think of everything, don’t you?” the slightly reassured Iris asked.
“It’s what a detective has to do if he wants to stay in business.”
Iris would never have gone to the Grimsby mansion of her own accord, but when she began to suspect my intentions there, she decided to accept my offer to be my partner in detection. Given the mansion’s lonely setting, perched on a desolate bluff overlooking the Delta, she felt it was no ordinary occasion, and that if I was on a case that led to trouble, I might need a woman to ensure my safety and talk sense to me. She even kicked in with a Lady Liberty costume for herself and an Uncle Sam for me, though I resisted the finishing touch of a fake white beard. I had no need to disguise myself.
On the way, I explained that a moneyed newcomer, identity unknown, had purchased the property and remodeled it at considerable expense. The mysterious buyer had “some kind of Hollywood connection,” according to the realtor who speculated its use as a possible site for location shooting. In that case, he added, if I could find a person in charge it might be an opportunity for the Delta Detective Agency to supply security for film company actors and technicians.
Her suspicions on high alert, Iris agreed to lend me her impressions of the scene and her intuition as to any figure that seemed to her to fit the character of the mysterious and unscrupulous man in charge. Her confidence faltered when she saw what was awaiting us—a fully costumed cast of creepy clowns, arrogant aliens and comical vampires. A mummy and staggeringly awkward zombies completed the cast, wandering everywhere in search of victims to embrace. It was as if our host had designed a horror film to come to life for Halloween. A busy bar and snack tables lured guests who had to contend with clingy decorative cobwebs as well as the obnoxious cast.
“Yikes!” Iris exclaimed as the mummy wrapped his arm around her and asked “Are we having a good time tonight, madam? May I invite you to come with me to my crypt?”
“Yuck!” Iris screeched in response, batting the creature’s arm off her person. “Get lost, Mr. Mummy!”
The scariest thing about Halloween, she complained, brushing off the too-sociable mummy, was the spooky insistence of the dead to rejoin the living. Who had arranged this? Whose idea was it? What game was he playing?
“Our host has a wicked sense of humor,” I said, “but his taste in marginal actors and supernatural plots narrows the field. Our man had a Hollywood hobby of producing grade-Z horror films that earned him the slings and arrows of critics, but gained a cult following. With the law closing in, he fled Tinseltown and left moviemaking behind. He may be thinking of bringing his old trade back to life here. Just a hunch, but if that’s the case—“
“I hoped you remembered to contact the sheriff about sending a deputy to assist you in case you happen to be right?”
“Yup. He’s standing by over there, disguised as a lovable Disney character and keeping a close eye on me for a signal to close in.”
“So you’ve come here to play a hunch?”
“Putting it to the test.”
“But who can you hope to identify at a party where everyone is wearing a mask or disguise?”
“I hope to find a missing person. In this case, not a victim, but a perpetrator.”
“What’s he perpetrating tonight?”
“Judging by what we’re seeing here, a confidence game that invites investors to invest in the horror flick box office.”
“I see your point. But do you have any clue to him?”
“Keep your eye on that vampire.”
“What does she have to do with it?”
“Bad acting is the point. If you seen enough low-budget horror flicks, you’d recognize Layla Lavender. She’s famous for overdone acting and excessive makeup. Her job tonight is to come close and eye our necks with her hungry eyes.”
“Oh yes, I ran into her at the bar. She had the nerve to ask my blood type.”
“She and the others are here to amuse us—or put our nerves on edge. What the guests don’t know is they may be performing for something more than a Halloween party.”
“I can see they’re getting quite a reaction–Oh! What’s this awful thing?”
“A werewolf coming our way,” I said, warding off the monster with a low-intensity karate chop delivered in the spirit of good-natured loathing that led the reeling lycanthrope to retreat in haste.
“Could that monster be our host?” Iris shuddered.
“I doubt it. Too aggressive. Calls attention to himself. But whoever and wherever he may be, you can count on one thing. He’s making this party serve his purpose.”
“But how can you be sure it’s the man you want? Seems too good to be true.”
“If it’s too good to be true, I’ll take it just in case it happens to be true. There’s a big-figure reward for his arrest and conviction. Given his frauds and charity cheats, no one deserves prison more. Public service aside, I can’t let a potential payoff slip past us when it may be within easy reach.”
“That depends on three things: his being here, you making an arrest, and a jury voting to convict. That’s asking a lot. Just how lucky do you think you’re going to be?”
“Audentis fortuna iuvat,” I said, remembering my schoolboy Latin about fortune favoring the bold.
“Don’t speak Italian to me. I don’t understand a word of it if it isn’t on a menu.”
A spirit of hospitable evil was everywhere, including an illuminated pumpkin patch deliberately designed to mislead, confuse and frustrate partygoers with its dead ends and paths to nowhere.
“Leave it to our host to think of this,” I nodded as I steered Iris out of the maze. “But it fits the man I’m after. His delight in playing tricks and cheats finds obvious expression here.”
“If he’s who you think he is,” Iris said, noting how witch-costumed servers were roaming the premises with drink trays, tempting and teasing vulnerable guests to indulge in concoctions designed to put them in the proper spell. Was it to make them more susceptible to a charitable donation scheme or other gimmick our host had in mind?
“He’s up to something. I wonder if he’s passing around cocktails designed to make it easier for him to pick pockets?”
“Don’t you dare sample one,” Iris warned.
Fright Night was proclaiming itself with a creepy menagerie of characters and the games of a no-holds-barred prankster who could be a fugitive from justice. If he was that man, the genius behind the darkness was safe and secure behind his mask unless I could unmask him.
I looked about the noisy crowd to see if I could pinpoint anything like a suspect, but saw nothing to confirm my theory. The characters were playing their assigned roles and the crowd reacted to their various masquerades. The cast included villains taken from real life for the purpose of satire, such as a Kremlin dictator whose costume depicted numerous open windows through which critics and opponents of his regime met with “unfortunate accidents.”
The only neutral figure I observed was an inoffensive and rather sympathetic figure of Jack Pumpkinhead, who worked the crowd with his head encased in a pumpkin replica, his body swathed in an orange cloak and his hand clutching a plastic pumpkin from which he was selling tickets for some worthy charity, with the promise of a grand prize to the lucky winner. That put me on alert. It seemed an odd thing to do in such a setting. Was the seller working a scam? Was Mr. Pumpkinhead and our host one and the same?
I decided to put my suspicion to the test when the otherwise polite Mr. P. approached to ask me for a contribution to a cause I had never heard of and did so without providing an informative pamphlet or brochure regarding the cause. I leaned closer to his orange head and identified myself as a detective with a warrant for his arrest. I advised him that there were other officers present and that he would be wise to come quietly so as not to disturb his guests.
If I was wrong about his identity, he would respond with a laugh, dismiss me as someone who had one too many, and move on with his solicitations.
But I wasn’t wrong.
Panicked by my mention of arrest, he flung his pumpkin at me, turned and fled into the arms of the burly undercover cop disguised inconspicuously as a lovable Disney character. The lawman informed his prisoner that he was going nowhere except to police headquarters for questioning and identification purposes.
The possibility of an arrest had become fact, but I had to make certain who we had. Removing the man’s pumpkin-encased head was no easy task, but after a ferocious struggle with its wearer, I was greeted by a face somewhere between a smirk and a sneer, and a shock of orange hair he had no intention of revealing because it was too vivid a clue to its owner. Here was the evidence we were seeking–distinct clues to the identity of the wanted man.
“Just one question,” I asked the defrocked double-dealer. “You have a whole list of aliases. They won’t do you any good now. Why not come clean and give us your real name?”
“Which one would you like?” he asked contemptuously.
“Let’s get moving,” the cop said as he cuffed our captive and read him his rights “The party’s over, pal, and so are you.”
“Don’t be too sure of that. The game isn’t finished. I always have another card to play.”
“We do, too. A federal officer is waiting to ask you a few questions and put you in a nice warm cell until he transports you to court for arraignment.”
Mr. X glared at me as if it was all my fault and said that I would pay the price for interrupting his party and insulting him.
“Oh, don’t blame me,” I said in my defense. “I took my cue from a higher authority. Seems you landed on Santa’s list of holiday spoilers. It doesn’t pay to cross a saint.”
‘I don’t believe in saints or Santa Claus, you damn idiot!” he shouted with a grimace far more sinister than his customary sneer.
“And look where it has got you,” I retorted as he was led away in handcuffs before a suddenly silent throng, some of whom were undoubtedly wondering if this was all part of the act.
“There’s isn’t any doubt about his being convicted now, is there?” Iris asked as we headed for home.
“Not unless he plays another trick and cheats the law-and the detective.”
“And if he does, you lose the reward to which you are entitled for all your hard work. That’s not fair!”
“That’s a risk over which I have no control. His high-price lawyers might make a case for putting him under house arrest until trial. That would give him more than enough time to plot his escape and move on.”
“Elsewhere in the nation or into the wider world, courtesy of a forged passport.”
“He resumes his tricks and cheats until the law catches up with him again.”
“And there goes your reward.”
“I have my reward.”
“If I added Frosty the Snowman to our office display?”
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”