The Big Cheese, Part Four: Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
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Roland found Delphine at the grilled cheese vendor. “We’ve got company,” he said, and then winced because he sounded like a villain on the “Hawaii 5-O” remake rather than a special agent on some kind of important cheese mission. His wife loved that damn show. He hated it, although Hawaii looked awfully nice.
“What are you talking about?” asked Delphine.
He pointed to the two large men coming their way and who, as luck would have it, were cutting off their route to the doors they’d entered through.
Delphine took his arm. “This way,” she said, and pulled him toward the Cheese Lounge.
“That’s awfully risky,” he said. “If there’s no exit back up to the main floor of the building…”
“We’re toasted, yes,” said Delphine. She opened one of the double doors to the Lounge and shoved Roland inside before entering herself.
“I think you mean toast?” Roland instinctively put an arm around Delphine as they tried to let their eyes adjust to the darkness of the room. “Oh, wait. I get it. Like grilled cheese.”
“That’s my boy,” said Delphine. “Now get your hands off me.”
A song by the Beastie Boys blared on the sound system in the Cheese Lounge, which seemed to be a darkened room with pub tables in the middle and more vendors along the walls. The room was maybe half as big as the main one, and it was packed. Roland didn’t want to think about what kinds of cheesy deals were going down in there.
“This way.” Delphine took off toward the back wall and he followed.
Roland’s police training kicked into high gear. He just wished he had his firearm, but it was in Delphine’s car. Smooth move, Rolly. Heads turned as they passed. Was it because they were moving so fast? Because no one recognized them and knew they shouldn’t be there?
Or was it perhaps the sight of a tall, young man running through a Cheese Lounge with a diminutive, white-haired speed demon?
He looked back long enough to see the entrance door closing behind the two thugs.
“They’ve made us,” he said, slipping into “Hawaii 5-O” speak again. They passed a bar, which could provide cover for them if needed. But then he spotted what Delphine had already seen—an emergency exit door, straight ahead.
Delphine was a fair distance ahead of him, which was good—she’d definitely get out of the building and could make it back to her car. What he needed was a diversion for those thugs, and that was when he remembered he was still holding the bag Sylvie had given him. He stuck his hand in … and a mass of huge thumbtacks jabbed into his fingertips.
“Mother—!” he yelled, and as he got to the emergency exit, spilled the contents of the bag behind him as he went through. At the top of three flights of stairs, Delphine was waiting for him, not even winded. He nodded and they walked as fast as they could to the car, got in, and pulled out into traffic. It was then that he was finally able to pull out the six thumbtacks that were still embedded in his hand. The spikes were long and probably would have stopped even the biggest of cheese thugs.
“What are those?” Delphine asked, looking at his hand, which still had three thumbtacks stuck in it.
“A gift from Sylvie, I guess.”
“Did she give you anything else?”
“Yes, but I’m not going to tell you until you fill me in. And don’t leave anything out.”
For the rest of the drive to Pasadena, Delphine explained everything to Detective Magnusson. She left out details about the Falls, the top-secret organization she still worked for (just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in), despite his repeated questions. She tried to stick to the current problem, which was quite sticky— being framed for cheese smuggling.
“Did Sylvie know who those goons were?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, but she knew they were looking for us specifically. It’s possible she could have called someone between the time I first met her to when I brought you over.” He paused before continuing. “Why were they after us, anyway?”
“That’s what we need to find out,” she said.
He laughed. “If it weren’t for them, I’d say this whole thing was ridiculous and take the next flight home. But I guess maybe you could use some help.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I can take care of myself quite well, but I admit, I’m less confident than I used to be.”
“I get that,” said Roland. “Never hurts to have backup. But I can’t believe you called me, of all people.”
“Working for the Falls, we were always separated from other agencies. Believe it or not, I don’t have many contacts I know well enough to trust. My gut told me I could trust you. Besides, what would you be doing at home right now?”
Roland’s silence spoke volumes, and when she snuck a look at his expression, it said even more. The idea of domestic bliss was overrated, she’d known that fact for many years. Perhaps he was learning it too.
“What’s next? Where are we headed?” he asked, changing the subject.
Delphine inched the car forward in the horrendous afternoon traffic toward the freeway interchange to get on the 210. The official exit was a quarter mile ahead, which meant they’d make it there in another ten minutes. “We’re headed to my house to meet my granddaughter. We’ll have some dinner and maybe play a game.”
She knew that wasn’t exactly the answer he’d been expecting, and she enjoyed watching the look on his face.
“How are you with kids?” she asked.
“They’re just tiny grownups, right?”
When they arrived at her house, Marvis was waiting with Zooey out front. Roland got his bag out of the trunk while Delphine greeted her granddaughter.
“Thanks again, Marv,” said Delphine as she gave Zooey a hug. Marvis waved and got into her Cadillac, zooming off so quickly her tires squealed.
“Where have you been?” asked Zooey, sounding much older than seven. She eyed Roland with suspicion, while he looked at her like a gazelle who’d just been asked to have drinks with a cheetah.
“I had some work to do, sweetie, I’m sorry.” Delphine gestured at Roland. “This is my friend, Mr. Magnusson, but you can call him Rolly.”
Roland glared at Delphine. “No, that’s not my name. It’s—”
“Rolly Polly, Rolly Polly,” sang Zooey.
“That’s not how it goes,” said Roland.
“Rolly Polly, Rolly Polly!” Zooey scooped up her grandmother’s hand and they walked toward the front door. Delphine looked back and gave Roland a sly smile as he picked up his suitcase and followed them inside.
The three of them made dinner together, which Delphine found to be a task unto itself. Roland was about has proficient in the kitchen as a seven-year-old, and no matter how many times he asked Zooey not to call him Rolly Polly, she did not relent.
At one point during their meal prep, Roland looked so dejected that Delphine felt compelled to make a half-hearted attempt at intervening. “Zooey dear, stop calling him that.”
“Yeah, or I’ll arrest you,” said Roland. “I’m a police detective, you know.”
Zooey stopped dancing around the kitchen and looked at Roland. “My daddy always says he’s going to arrest me when I do things he doesn’t like,” she says. “But he never does.” And she skipped into the living room, singing her song.
“I hope her dad is in law enforcement,” said Roland.
Delphine shrugged. “Sort of. This line of work is a bit of a family business.” She wasn’t about to reveal the nature of her sons’ work; she wasn’t allowed to anyway.
As soon as they finished eating, Delphine’s son Sean came to pick Zooey up. She hugged her grandma goodbye and sang, “Bye, Rolly Polly!” all the way out the door. Sean gave his mother a look that she read as disapproval for having such a young gentleman friend over after dark. Kids could be so annoying, even if they were top-notch operatives.
Delphine closed the door and turned to Roland. “She reminds me so much of Griffin when she was that age,” she said. She watched his face as she spoke, hoping to gauge his reaction at the mention of her other granddaughter’s name.
“She was cute,” said Roland. “Zooey, I mean. But I think I get adults more than I do kids.”
Delphine hoped that was true, and it wasn’t instead a case of him not understanding women. “Anyway,” she said, “Now we can talk.” She motioned for him to follow her to the kitchen, where Kenji stood at the counter, having come in through the backyard undetected. He was making them a pot of tea.
Roland tensed up and seemed to go on the defensive, until Delphine introduced her former partner and told the detective not to worry. Kenji often showed up in the kitchen unannounced. And undetected.
“What did Sylvie say after I left her table?” Delphine asked Roland after they’d all sat down at the island to drink their tea.
“She gave me a name. Gerald DeeDoo, something like that?”
Kenji and Delphine exchanged glances. “Gerard deDeiu,” said Kenji. Delphine nodded.
“She said he asked her for four wheels of something called Beaufort d’Alpage,” Roland continued. “She also sounded like she was genuinely sorry she’d done it.” He looked between Delphine and Kenji. She couldn’t help but feel a little bad for him, like she would for a lost puppy.
Kenji smiled and poured them each a mug of tea, and Delphine told Roland the tale of the Big Cheese case from years ago. Then she recounted the mysterious appearance of thousands of dollars of cheese in the trunk of her car a few days ago.
“So that’s what I smelled when I pulled out my suitcase,” said Roland, wrinkling his nose. “I hope my clothes don’t smell like that.”
“There are worse things that a car trunk could smell like,” said Kenji. Delphine nodded.
“Who is Gerard deDeiu?” asked Roland.
“Gerard was one of our informants from the case,” said Delphine. “He seemed to be around a lot, but I never found him to be very useful. And I don’t know where he is these days.”
“Yes,” said Kenji. “I do recall seeing his name in some of the files.” Because of course having an almost photographic memory was among one of her former partner’s many desirable attributes.
“I had no idea all these people were still around, and still dealing cheese,” said Delphine.
“Why would you?” asked Roland. “Unless you were in the cheese underworld yourself.”
Delphine caught Kenji scrutinizing her, no doubt considering the possibility. “Oh please,” she said, giving his shoulder a little nudge. “I’m practically lactose-intolerant these days.”
They sat in silence for a moment, sipping tea.
“Do you think deDieu could be the Big Cheese?” Delphine asked Kenji.
He sat with one knee crossed over the other and slowly turned his mug in his hands. “I’m not sure he is capable of such planning, but he is your only lead.”
Roland stood up to look out at the backyard. “When are you taking me to my hotel?” he asked.
“Oh, you’re not staying at a hotel. You’re staying in my guest room. That’s why I had you bring your bag inside. No budget for a hotel, I’m afraid.”
Roland stared at her. “Of course not,” he said, and stuck his hands in his jeans pockets. But he pulled one hand back out, holding a slip of paper. “What’s this?”
“How would we know?” asked Kenji, who gave Delphine a look as if wondering why she chose such a simpleton as her new partner.
“Sylvie’s number,” said Roland, cringing.
The next morning after breakfast, Delphine and Roland set off for Montrose. She had Roland drive the short distance up the 210 while she rode shotgun.
“We’re being followed,” she said as they passed the exit for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was where her daughter-in-law and Zooey’s mother, Zenia Puddle, worked as a mission planning systems engineer. Needless to say, the family didn’t talk about work around the dinner table very often.
“I noticed that,” said Roland, his eyes darting to the rearview mirror.
She was impressed. Maybe requesting Detective Magnusson’s help wouldn’t end up being a total bust.
“Do you know by whom?” he asked.
“I don’t recognize the car, and I can’t see inside. Too much glare.”
“Me neither.” Roland peered at the map on the car’s in-dash monitor. “Hang on.”
He hit the accelerator with a little extra force and Delphine watched his face as the car responded almost instantly. A look of surprise and then satisfaction came over him. Delphine loved her car. Zooey wanted her to get an electric car, and what with the price of gas and the unsustainability of it all, she knew she should … But she sure did love her Mercedes.
Roland wove in and out of freeway traffic and passed the exit they were supposed to take, which was Ocean View Boulevard. He continued up the 210 to La Crescenta Avenue, exited, and pulled onto a side street, letting the car idle in front of a well-maintained Craftsman home, complete with a robed man walking a tiny dog in the front yard. The man stared at them, and Delphine gave him a little wave.
A minute later, Roland pulled away from the curb and drove the rest of the way to Montrose, where he parked on Honolulu in front of the Lost Bookstore.
“You sure you want me to wait here?” he asked, turning off the car’s engine.
“Yes,” said Delphine. She sat stone-still in the passenger seat. Her phone rang, and she pulled it out of her purse. “It’s Richard,” she said.
“Put him on speaker.”
Delphine reached over to the driver’s side of the car and pushed a button on the steering wheel. “Hello, Richard.”
“Where are you?” Richard asked.
“Getting my hair done, and then I’m off to the gynecologist. Why?”
Richard paused before answering. “We were able to track down the origins of the Beaufort d’Alpage.”
Delphine never had any doubt that he would, and she was one hundred percent certain of what he’d say next. She and Roland shared a knowing look.
“And?” she asked.
“And we found your fingerprints on the rinds. Also, they don’t appear to have come through official channels. Only two wheels of Beaufort came in to the US within the last three months.”
“Well well,” she said.
“That’s all you have to say for yourself?” Richard asked.
“Would you like me to recite some poetry?”
“We need to talk in person,” he said.
“We can meet at my gynecologist’s office. I can text you the address, she’s in Santa Monica.”
“I’ll be in touch, Delphine.” Richard hung up.
“When you think about it,” said Roland, “espionage regarding illegally obtained gourmet cheese is pretty ridiculous.”
“Yes,” she agreed, balling her fists. “Welcome to my life.”
“Fingerprints on a cheese rind? Is that even possible? Who would…” He seemed to be having a hard time keeping up, but she was still glad she had his help. He was decent behind the wheel at least.
“Let’s see if we can find out,” she said.
Roland got out of the car but leaned back into the door opening. “You sure you’ll be okay? I can handle it if you want.”
She shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Sometimes it hits me how much I miss all this.”
“Looking for cheese smugglers?” Roland asked, grinning.
She smiled too. “All of it.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather be having a cold beer on a tropical island, but whatever floats your boat.” He stood up, closed the car door, and sat on a bench in front of the bookstore, which was still closed.
Delphine got out of her car and straightened her blazer (taupe today). “If I’m not back in twenty minutes, come in after me,” she said, and walked across the street to Cousin Roman’s Bakery. Behind her, the Mercedes’ alarm chirped softly. Roland was starting to grow on her.
Delphine knew she was being watched by Roland, but also by someone in the bakery. When she entered, she made a beeline for the table in the front-left corner of the shop, and sat down next to Gerard deDieu.
Two espressos, a platter of pastries, a small pile of napkins, and two clean plates created a pleasant enough tableau. Delphine placed her purse—which still contained the .38—next to her place setting. The espresso was still steaming.
Gerard, a tall, heavy-set man, sat back in his chair and eyed her as he crossed his arms across his chest. His tailored suit contained not one wrinkle, which made Delphine even more suspicious of him. But then again, she had never trusted French men.
“Thank you for meeting with me,” she said to him, and waved over a server. “May I have an espresso, please? Thank you.” The man nodded and went to make her drink. She pushed the cup that was meant for her toward Gerard, the ceramic scraping noisily on the marble tabletop.
“Sylvie can be very persuasive,” said Gerard in a thick French accent.
They shared a look.
“No, she is not le Grande Fromage,” he said. “And before you get any of your big ideas, neither am I.” He reached for a pain au chocolat and tossed it onto his plate.
That would have been too easy, thought Delphine. She tried to remember what Kenji had told her the night before as they’d gone over the plan. She had plenty of experience with extracting information, but strong-arming was usually her method of choice. Give her a sharp enough pencil and she could get anyone to spill the beans. But Kenji had always been better at what she dismissed as “talk therapy.” Both he and Roland had insisted on keeping things as peaceful as possible. Sissies.
Kenji had gotten some dirt on deDeiu, including the fact that despite his supposed high status in the cheese underworld, he was not in fact all that smart. She could see it now.
“I never said that you were le Grande Fromage,” said Delphine.
“Yes, but you are hoping.”
The server brought Delphine a fresh espresso, and she nodded in thanks. “Hope is the mother of fools,” she said to Gerard, who had begun to eat his croissant with a tiny fork. The dainty utensil looked wrong in his big, meaty hand.
“What are you saying about my mother?” he huffed.
“She’s not le Grande Fromage, is she?”
“What?” he asked.
“Is she French?”
“My mother or the Big Cheese?”
“The Big Cheese.” Delphine was closing in.
“No, he is not French, this Big Cheese!” Gerard slammed his baby fork on the table.
“So it’s a man!”
“What is a man?”
“Is it you?”
“Non! Wait a moment…”
Delphine continued her volley. “Your mother is a man!”
“This is preposterous.”
“That your mother is le Grande Fromage?”
“She is not!”
“Then who is?”
“Who is my mother?”
“Yes! Who is the Big Cheese!”
Delphine took a small sip of her espresso. She would have to wrap this up, otherwise they would still be going at it by the time the lunch crowd rolled in. She’d hoped for entrapment but it seemed the cost to her own sanity would be too high. She should have met him someplace private and used her strong-arm tactics, phooey on Kenji and Roland for insisting on no violence. Maybe it was simply time to leave town and start over someplace new.
After tossing some money on the table, she picked up a pain au chocolate from the platter, wrapped it in a napkin, and walked out the door as she put it in her purse, hoping not to get crumbs on her pistol.
Ready for Part Five? Here it is!
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