The Big Cheese, Part Six: The Gong Show
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Roland started to get worried when by the end of the third song of the evening, Delphine hadn’t returned from the alley behind the dance studio. Also, his toes were starting to hurt from being stepped on so often by his dance partner, Juliette Dere.
“How long did you say you’ve been dancing?” he asked her.
She smiled right before she stepped on his foot again. “Not that long.”
A distant pop! echoed through the studio just as the song ended. It sounded a lot like a gunshot.
“Your friend won’t be coming back in,” whispered Juliette in her sensuous French accent.
At first, Roland had found the accent charming. But after getting his toes turned to hamburger meat by her insidious high heels and having to listen to her chatter on about absolutely nothing, he’d started to wonder if perhaps her voice was really a harbinger of doom. Now he was sure of it. And come to think of it, something about her perfume reminded him of … smoked Gouda?
“You’re the Big Cheese,” he said.
He tried to push himself away, but she pulled him close with a surprising amount of force, and the lapels of his suit jacket collided violently with her decolletage. “You’re not going anywhere, Detective.”
When she finally released her grip on him, she was holding his gun in her hand. Delphine was never going to let him live this down if he didn’t think of something heroic, and fast.
“But why?” he asked, trying to stall.
“Richard means well, but he is weak. He wasn’t doing enough with the operation. Look at me.”
Roland kept looking at the gun in her hand.
“I said, look at me,” she hissed.
His eyes trailed from the gun up her bare arm to her shoulder, with a brief stop at her cleavage before moving up to take in her collagen-filled lips and finally her eyes.
“Looking like this has a high price. Richard doesn’t fully understand the economics of beauty. Honestly, I can see why all five of his marriages, including this one, have failed.”
Roland wondered if the problem in his own marriage was that he too, didn’t understand the economics of beauty. But what man did? Surely not all women played these games. Maybe he should consider taking his wife to a day spa after all, he thought.
There was no time to philosophize further, however. Juliette’s eyes flicked to the back of the room and then back to his face. “Let’s get going, Roland. Your attempts to outsmart le Grande Fromage are coming to their conclusion.” She jerked her head toward the front entrance and indicated he should lead the way.
He couldn’t just leave Delphine in the alley! She might be bleeding to death that very minute. But there was nothing he could do from inside the studio, not with his own gun jabbed into his ribs.
They had almost made it to the front door when Roland spotted Kenji standing right outside in the harsh glare of the overhead fluorescent lights; the same kind that seemed to illuminate every strip mall overhang across the country. He was holding a cigarette. Who still smoked these days?
Kenji made eye contact but showed no sign of intervening. Roland started to panic, and tried to push the feelings down. If only he could send Kenji around back to help Delphine. He could handle Juliette himself. Hopefully.
Roland and Juliette made it out the door and onto the sidewalk where Kenji stood. Still he made no move, other than to look past Roland’s shoulder at …
“Hello dear,” said Delphine.
Both Juliette and Roland whipped around to see Delphine standing there, smiling. Roland’s training finally came back to him and he used the opportunity to knock his gun from Juliette’s hand, but before he could grab hold of her, she punched him in the face.
He stood stunned for a second, and the shock of the impact reverberated through his body. Anger flushed his face. Then he smiled and looked her straight in the eye while lifting his right leg and stomping on the toes of her left foot.
“Merde!” shouted Juliette, who kicked off her heels faster than Roland thought possible, considering they were shoes that resembled torture instruments, and took off into the parking lot at an awkward gait.
Delphine took off after her. Roland made to pursue them, but Kenji stopped him.
“Let them go,” he said in an even tone. “We’ll meet them at the car.”
Kenji shrugged and carefully deposited the cigarette into a nearby ash can. Roland noticed it had never been lit.
He heard shrieks coming from the darkness of the parking lot. He headed in the direction they seemed to be coming from, but the noise stopped before he could find anyone. Roland continued to scan the lot and a few seconds later saw them, standing next to a black Dodge Charger. Delphine held Juliette in a headlock while Kenji stood nearby.
“I thought you didn’t want to be part of this,” said Roland, glaring at Kenji.
Kenji shrugged. “I couldn’t wait to see how it ended.”
“Are you okay?” Roland scrutinized Delphine for signs of injury. “I thought you might have gotten shot.”
“Oh no, not me dear. But I’m afraid Richard’s dancing days are over.”
Juliette struggled against the headlock, to no avail. Delphine’s grip was ironclad. “You think you have solved all your problems,” Juliette gasped, “but I assure you, they are just beginning!”
Still silent, Kenji handed Delphine a nylon zip tie and she expertly bound Juliette’s hands behind her back.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Delphine. “I’m out of the cheese game. However, a nice grilled Gruyere sandwich sounds pretty good right about now. What do you say, boys?”
Delphine, Kenji, and Roland sat in her backyard with mugs of fresh coffee, and their feet soaking in some of Kenji’s magic bath salts. She had just told them the long version of what had happened in the alley with Richard.
Richard had lunged for Delphine, who was momentarily blinded by his arm across her face when he unsuccessfully tried to grab her arms. Gerard had stayed out of it, but Marvis took out Shipley with a well-aimed kick to the family jewels. Eventually Delphine got free, and she and Sylvie ganged up on Richard, wrestling his gun away from him. Then Richard accidentally shot himself in the foot, and that was that.
Roland was leaning back in his chair with sunglasses protecting his shiner from the warm California midmorning sun. “I could get used to life out here,” he said.
“It’s quite nice,” said Delphine. “But you also haven’t had to go to the DMV or drive to Thousand Oaks at two in the afternoon.”
“Like Miami is so great,” he muttered.
“Hawaii is nice,” said Kenji.
“Hmm.” Delphine did love her home in Pasadena, and enjoyed being close to her son Sean and his wife Zenia, and Zooey of course. Delphine had called Southern California home base for a long time, but might she be ready for a change of scenery, before it was too late to enjoy it?
“Sylvie is going to take over as the Big Cheese again, isn’t she,” said Roland. It was a statement, not a question.
“I expect so, yes,” she agreed.
Kenji nodded. “Yup.”
“My boss called this morning,” continued Roland. “He says I’m in the running for a promotion. Something about a special accommodation from the CIA.” He let his head loll to the left to took at Delphine. “You’re not CIA though.”
“No, but it’s the closest I could get to giving you good feedback without naming our organization.”
“Because if she did that, she’d have to kill you,” added Kenji.
Roland laughed, but no one else did.
Delphine stared into the depths of her coffee cup. “They asked me if I wanted to come back.”
“Wow!” said Roland. “That’s cool.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could tell Kenji had turned in his chair to look at her. She knew what he was thinking. He probably missed the old days too, but that nostalgia came bundled with aching knees and the innate sense that life was meant to slow down a bit when one reached their seventies. Not because they were too old to keep up, but because the wisdom that came with age dictated a desire for peace, rumination, perhaps even solitude. Yes, she knew Kenji felt the same.
“Can I come work for you, or be your partner?” asked Roland, who seemed to already be plotting a move to LA. “Together we could do some real good.”
Delphine shook her head. “I told them no. That’s just not me anymore.”
“You can take the woman out of the spy operation, but you can’t take the spy instincts out of the woman,” countered Kenji.
“True,” she said. “But I’m done with bureaucracy.”
“And you were also offered the position of Big Cheese, were you not?” asked Kenji.
Roland sat up. “Really?”
“Yes. But as I said, I’ve no interest in running anything other than my own affairs.” She sighed. “I would have loved to taste that Beaufort, though.”
Kenji smiled and got up from his chair. He walked to the patio table under the pergola, leaving wet footprints behind. When he returned, he was carrying a tray, on which rested a huge charcuterie board. He placed it on a patio table in front of them.
“You sly fox,” said Delphine.
And thus concludes the story of The Big Cheese! I hope you enjoyed it! Be sure you’re signed up for the Ace Writes Newlsetter to catch the first installment of a brand-new story coming your way in April of 2023!