The Big Cheese, Part Five: You Bet Your Life
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After enjoying a quick lunch, Kenji, Roland, and Delphine sat under the pergola in Delphine’s backyard, each of them dangling their bare feet into a tub of warm, milky-looking water.
“I admit I was skeptical, but this feels really good,” said Roland. He wiggled his toes.
“Yes,” agreed Delphine. “Kenji, you’ll have to share this amazing foot soak recipe.”
“Ancient Japanese DIY,” Kenji said. “Good for not thinking too much.”
“Not thinking too much is the key to finding a good solution,” agreed Delphine. “Let’s not think of how to expose the Big Cheese.”
They were silent again, enjoying the beautiful weather and the amazing foot soak. A few moments later, Delphine reached over to shake Roland awake and he realized he’d been snoring.
“Sorry,” he said.
She settled back in her chair and sighed. “It’s okay. This is amazing.”
“Just don’t tell my wife about it,” said Roland.
“What?” asked Delphine.
He paused. Why had that come out of his mouth? “If she knows I like this sh—tuff, she’ll make me go to the spa with her or something ridiculous like that.”
“Don’t you want to do things with your wife?” asked Kenji.
“Sure,” he said. But it didn’t sound convincing, even to his own ears. The truth was, things hadn’t been all that great for a while. He avoided the issue by working all the time, and she avoided it by not talking to him on the occasions he was home. But he still loved her, at least he was pretty sure he did. He vowed to try harder when he got home.
“He doesn’t have to talk about his personal life with us, Kenji,” said Delphine. “Roland went above and beyond by getting intel from Sylvie, so cut him some slack.”
“Fair enough,” said Kenji. “It is true she was instrumental in arranging a meeting with Monsieur DeDieu.”
Roland nodded then winced. “She said I owe her a date next time I’m in town.”
Delphine dismissed him with a wave. “We’ll send Kenji on that assignment.”
Kenji’s eyes grew wide and the conversation devolved into bickering about past assignments, petty jealousies, and the question of exactly what went into Kenji’s amazing foot soak recipe.
Finally Delphine held up her hands. “Let’s just circle back around to what’s next, shall we?”
They removed their feet from the heavenly foot soak tubs. Delphine offered Roland some lotion—unscented, but still. Roland declined. He was already on the verge of not recognizing himself. As they let their feet dry in the sunshine, Roland’s phone buzzed. He took it out of his pocket and frowned when he checked the screen. “Sylvie’s calling.”
Delphine gestured for the phone. “May I talk to her, please?”
Delphine left Roland and Kenji to own devices for the rest of the day, so she could think. A plan was formulating in her stunningly clever mind, but she needed quiet. Kenji had offered to take Roland on a drive to see a little more of the city, or at least the area around Pasadena. Considering traffic, they’d be gone a long time and not go very far.
The following night was a ballroom dancing evening at the Sassy Steppers Studio, and it Delphine thought it could be the perfect opportunity to get everything sorted out once and for all. Unlike her previous desire for her investigation to occur in private, in case she wanted to employ means that were less than ladylike, her new plan needed a public space and witnesses.
After another foot soak and mug of tea, she made a few calls to put some non-cheese wheels in motion. That night she would tell Kenji and Roland about her idea, and the three of them would be able to hash out details together.
The two men arrived at her house that evening with dinner—fresh, delicious pho from Kenji’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant. Delphine cringed when she thought of what her conscientious granddaughter would say about all the wasteful takeout packaging. At least this establishment used mostly biodegradable materials. And the soup really was the best.
“Let me guess,” said Roland after inhaling his pho, “you have a cunning plan.”
“Maybe,” said Delphine.
“She does,” confirmed Kenji, and he pointed at her. “I know that look of hers.”
Delphine had baked them some cookies that afternoon, and she brought out a plate piled high with her signature chocolate chip masterpieces. She explained her plan to them. Neither man spoke until she had finished outlining the entire thing, and each had eaten at least three cookies.
“That sounds pretty good, only I won’t be joining you,” said Kenji.
“I understand,” she said. And she did. Kenji was being smart. “I think I’m getting out after this as well.”
“I thought you said it was like The Godfather?” asked Roland.
In response to her confused look, Kenji and Roland recited one of the most famous lines in film history together. She rolled her eyes. For men, 90% of life could be summed up by a Godfather quote.
When Kenji and Roland finally stopped laughing, Delphine caught Kenji’s eye and they shared a look. She realized she’d been wishing for many things when it came to her former partner, and in that moment she knew none of those wishes would come true. He looked almost apologetic, and she nodded at him and looked away. This was no time for sentimentality.
“I guess it’s up to you and me then,” said Roland to Delphine. “I don’t usually do these types of operations, but maybe it’ll be fun. How dangerous could it be? We’re talking cheese smugglers after all.”
“Kenji and I have been doing this kind of work for a long time,” she said. “And the most important rule is to never underestimate anyone. The more innocent the subject seems, the more unpredictable things can be.”
The next evening Roland and Delphine pulled into a parking spot directly in front of the ScriptDoctor storefront.
“Thanks for letting me drive,” said Roland. “I might need to get one of these.” He caressed the polished wooden steering wheel of Delphine’s E350. He knew his wife would never approve, but it was nice to dream.
“They’re gas guzzlers.” She reached down and adjusted her ankle holster again.
“Got your gun?” he asked as he watched her.
“Yes,” she said. “And everything else. Ready?”
He smoothed the front of his new black suit as they walked toward the dance studio and made sure his recording device was in place, as well as the small shoulder holster she’d insisted he wear. He was nervous, but mostly because he’d had so much trouble learning the dance steps Delphine had tried to teach him earlier that afternoon.
Delphine hooked her arm in his once they came through the door. She looked lovely in her grey gown. Any (over-seventy) man would be lucky to have her, he thought. His mind wandered momentarily to her granddaughter, Griffin. She shared much of her grandmother’s beauty and intelligence.
“Stop daydreaming,” snapped Delphine.
Roland wondered if Griffin was clairvoyant like her grandma was.
“This way.” She led them to a table on the far side of the room, where Marvis sat between her husband and Shipley.
“Saved you a seat, babe,” said Shipley, beaming at Delphine. He pulled out the chair next to him without getting up.
Delphine had told Roland about her dance partner, but Richard was even slimier than she’d made him out to be. Roland was prepared for confrontation between the two of them, but none came.
Roland scanned the room once they were seated. Sylvie walked in the door on the arm of Gerard deDeiu. Almost all the players were present, save two.
“Are you sure they’ll be here?” Delphine asked Ship.
“Oh yeah. I asked about his wife a couple a times. The man’s so jealous he’ll definitely show. And as for her, you know how persuasive I can be.” He raised his eyebrows at his dance partner.
“Delphine, do you need me to shoot anyone for you?” asked Roland.
Sylvie had led Gerard to the refreshments table and was handing him a cup of Fruit Smacko. And then Roland saw her.
A stunning, dark-haired woman entered the studio in an emerald-green dress that was slit way up the side, and way down the front. Delphine’s description of Juliette had fallen short.
“Does she look just like your wife?” asked Delphine, and Roland blushed.
“Um, no. Much less radiant.”
Ship adjusted the collar of his suit jacket and took a deep breath. “Time for the master to get to work,” he said, and made to stand up.
“I don’t think so,” said Delphine.
Marvis’ head bobbed once as she stuck out her tongue in concentration, and a split-second later, Ship yelped. “Hey!”
“If you value your other shin, you’ll sit still,” said Marvis. “God, I’ve been wanting to do that for years.”
Roland ran his fingers through his hair. “That’s right, time for the real master to step in.” He gave Ship a crooked smile and eased his way across the room toward Juliette.
The plan was for him to get into position and ask Juliette to dance as the second song began to play. He stood behind her and her husband. Delphine had told him about Richard as well. It would be a pleasure to steal his wife away for a dance or two. Sometimes he really liked his job.
Delphine watched Roland head across the room. She nodded once to Marvis, who stood and left the table.
“Okay then,” said Delphine.
“Okay what?” Ship reached under the table to rub his shin again.
“Okay, hello there,” said Sylvie, sitting down in the chair Marvis had just vacated. She looked stunning and as Delphine predicted, Ship couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Marvis had made her way to the back of the room, where Gerard DeDieu ate Ritz crackers with spray cheese and drank a cup of Fruit Smacko. Marvis pretended to reach for a snack, bumping hands with Gerard and laughing a little too loudly.
“Thank you for your service,” Delphine said to Franko, Marvis’ patient husband, who was still sitting at the table and watching his wife.
“The things we do for our country,” he said. He saluted her, got up, and walked toward the crowd.
The first song of the evening started to play; time for Delphine to get into position too. She glanced at Ship and Sylvie, huddled together in conversation. He’d forgotten about his regular partner. Perfect.
Sylvie got up and pulled at Shipley’s sleeve. They made their way onto the floor and began to dance. She was quite good, Delphine observed. Perhaps she’d invite Sylvie to join the dance group. They would probably get along quite well as friends, if they both made it through the night.
Delphine went to the front of the room and from there skirted the growing crowd until she stood next to Richard. She thought it wouldn’t take him long to notice her standing there, what with him being the the top regional agent of an internationally known undercover organization. But no. Nothing.
Finally she nodded to Roland, who stood near Juliette, and the two of them made their moves. Delphine tapped Richard on the elbow and Roland walked to stand right in front of Juliette. As he began to engage her in conversation, Delphine tapped Richard again, who noticed her that time.
The first song ended and the second began to play.
“Let’s dance,” suggested Delphine. She tried to keep her face clear of any emotion. When he didn’t move, she tried a weak smile, pulled on his sleeve, and just about muscled him out onto the parquet floor.
Roland had led Juliette out to the dance floor and they were attempting some sort of activity that was supposed to be dancing. Richard was also watching them.
“They make a nice couple, don’t they?” asked Delphine. Richard glowered at her as they embraced and began their own pathetic attempt at a foxtrot.
“I’m surprised you had the courage to show up here tonight,” said Richard.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“I could take you in for additional questioning right now.”
“Oh, you won’t do that,” she said. “That would end badly for you. However this evening will end badly for you either way.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Sylvie and Ship glided by, and Delphine watched Richard’s reaction at seeing their former informant. Surprise.
“Another old friend is here too,” Delphine said, tilting her head toward the back of the room. Marvis had successfully kept Gerard anchored to the snack table.
“We are all here to see you fall.”
“What?” he asked, losing step with her. Not that they’d ever really been in step.
“You framed me,” Delphine said. “You set me up. I’m no more the Big Cheese than she is.” She pointed to Juliette, looking very comfortable in the arms of Roland Magnusson. Who also looked a little too comfortable, in Delphine’s opinion. But she knew that all of them would do anything they needed to, for the sake of the mission’s success.
Just then there was a commotion elsewhere in the room. A few people gasped and some stopped dancing. Sylvie and Ship were the objects of attention.
Delphine and Richard watched as Sylvie slapped Shipley’s face and left him standing alone in the middle of the dance floor. That was the sign that Sylvie had gotten the information she was after. They’d been right—Ship had been in on framing Delphine as the Big Cheese. Of course he had.
“You had some help of course,” Delphine said to Richard, and got them started dancing again.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “The fingerprints on the cheese were conclusively yours.”
“Way back when, you tried to frame Sylvie,” she went on. “She told us all about it. She made the mistake of sleeping with you all those years ago, and when she refused to marry you, you blackmailed her into leaving the Falls. Then you conveniently inferred she was the smuggler. Now why would you do that?”
He was silent as they passed by Juliette and Roland, who had never moved from their starting point, both of them being too two-left-footed to make much progress.
“Did you ever stop to think that perhaps she was lying to you?” asked Richard. “Ask yourself what she has to lose if you knew the truth.”
Delphine’s mind raced. “Are you and she—?”
Richard laughed. “Oh please,” he said. “Look at her. And then look at Juliette.”
“True. You always did like them young and not very smart.”
The song would end soon. Delphine mentally shuffled through different possibilities of what was going on. Sylvie could have been the Big Cheese long ago. But was she still?
“Come with me,” she said, leading him toward the back of the studio.
Richard tried to stand his ground. “Why should I?”
“Because if you don’t, I’ll break your legs before you can say Beaufort d’Alpage.”
Delphine was tense but excited; she was on the verge of finally being able to use her strong-arm tactics against someone and the prospect made her happier than it should have. Roland caught her eye with a questioning glance and she shook her head. He was to stay on the floor with Juliette.
Sylvie and Ship followed close behind Delphine and Richard, and the four of them went down the back hallway and out the emergency exit, into the alley behind the strip mall. Marvis and Gerard emerged a few seconds later.
The group was well-matched. Delphine was the most fit of everyone, and Sylvie had confessed she also had some fighting skills. Jiu-Jitsu mostly, if Delphine wasn’t mistaken. Shipley and Richard were trained but dreadfully out of shape. This wasn’t Marvis’ fight, and she’d never been in the Falls, but as Delphine’s closest friend, knew what was up and could give a good kick to the shins—or a little higher up, if need be.
“Let’s get to the bottom of this right now,” demanded Delphine. “Richard, you and Shipley put those wheels of Beafuort in my car and then faked the report stating my prints were on them. You were so obvious it was pathetic. And Sylvie, you used to be le Grande Fromage.”
Gerard’s mouth dropped open and he stared at Sylvie. “Non!”
Sylvie rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Gerard, you are about as smart as a round of Brie.”
“But I never knew!” he exclaimed.
“Mon dieu,” said Sylvie, putting her hand to her forehead.
“That’s mon deDieu!” said Ship. He looked from face to face expectantly, waiting for a laugh. “Or is that mon fondue?”
Sylvie shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“Anyway,” said Delphine. “She was the Big Cheese. But she’s not anymore. She handed the reins over to Richard right before the operation got shut down.”
“The operation was handed over to me from someone else as well,” said Sylvie. “It has been a tradition, of sorts.”
Delphine nodded. “Richard ran it for years, with no one suspecting anything.”
“Or caring all that much,” added Sylvie.
“Until recently. Richard, you got greedy. You knew the Falls wanted you to retire, but you still needed money for your new hobby.”
“You’ve got a new hobby?” asked Ship.
“His hobby is his new wife, you ass,” said Marvis.
Everyone was silent and all eyes were on Richard. He began to move his hand as if to reach inside his jacket and Delphine’s senses went on high alert. She prayed that her mic was recording everything and she cursed herself for not having pulled her Smith & Wesson 340PT from her ankle holster before this all started.
But Richard didn’t go for a gun. He pulled out a package of gum and took a stick before offering the pack to the group.
“Oh yes please!” said Ship. “You never know when your life might depend on fresh breath.”
“Your deductive skills are as sharp as they ever were, Delphine,” said Richard. “But I’m afraid you’re not quite up to speed.”
“You’re not le Grande Fromage?” asked Gerard deDieu.
Delphine did her best not to let her jaw drop to the ground with surprise. Everyone looked confused.
“Non, you French oaf,” sneered Richard. “I’ve already handed the reins over to someone else.”
Ship put a hand to his chest. “Me? Has it been me this whole time?” Someone threw the pack of gum at him.
In a flash Delphine knew. She turned to Sylvie. “We’ve got to—”
But she never finished the sentence. Delphine’s world went dark.
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