The Big Cheese, Part Three: Jeopardy
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Detective Roland Magnusson of the Miami-Dade Police Department shook Delphine’s hand, but there did not seem to be much enthusiasm behind the gesture on his part.
“What in the name of all that is holy am I doing here?” he asked.
Before she could say anything, Delphine had the sensation they were being watched. She took Roland by the elbow and led him to the group of people waiting at the front of the baggage carousel. “I know I owe you an explanation, but let’s collect your things and I’ll tell you in the car on the way downtown.”
“I don’t like this,” he said as they stood at the carousel, backpack straps still trailing the floor.
“Me neither,” she said.
“No, I mean—”
The buzzer blared, the machinery started up, and everyone moved closer to the edge of the carousel, as if the game of getting one’s bag first was an Olympic sport. Californians were so competitive, thought Delphine. But she was no exception, and as soon as Roland identified his bag, they’d double-teamed it and were out of the building within thirty seconds.
When they were in the car and heading toward the freeway—Delphine relatively sure they weren’t being followed anymore—she began to breathe easier.
“Seriously,” he said. “You need to tell me what’s happening. Had I known it was you I was meeting, I never would have agreed to this.” He put a hand over each eye and rubbed.
Delphine thought it was cute, how he thought he had a choice in the matter, but it wasn’t worth it to burst his bubble. Instead she just said, “That’s why I instructed your superiors not to tell you anything.”
His hands shot away from his face. “You can’t just hijack people!”
“Well,” said Delphine, merging onto the 105, “it seems that I can.”
As they drove toward downtown Los Angeles, Delphine explained to Roland that she had in fact pulled a few strings in the Miami-Dade Police Department and “borrowed” the detective for an unspecified amount of time, to help with a top-secret investigation. She’d told them that national security was at stake and to not reveal her identity to him, and of course they had complied. She still didn’t tell him why he was there, however, and he didn’t seem to have the presence of mind to ask. Yet.
After much loud cursing and one very long stretch of silence, Roland spoke. “The last time we saw each other, I told you I didn’t want to see you again.”
“No, you told me you didn’t want to see me in Miami again.” She kept her eyes on the road. “Mr. Magnusson…”
“You can call me Roland.”
“Roland, let me be frank with you.”
“Let me be frank with you,” she tried again. “I’m in some trouble. I need someone I can trust, my life may depend on it. Despite what you might think, I was very impressed by how you handled Marge Flanders’ case. Even though for some reason you don’t seem to like me much…” here Roland snorted again, “you’re impartial, and not local, which is a tremendous advantage. I need your help.”
Roland said nothing then, just continued to stare out the window. She took his silence as a good sign.
“Welcome to downtown LA,” Delphine said a few minutes later, and pointed out the window at the fast-approaching (as fast as traffic would allow, which wasn’t very fast) cluster of skyscrapers. They exited the freeway and crawled through the downtown streets. Smaller buildings were dotted throughout the towering structures, but it still felt to her like one solid mass, and she remained awestruck every time she visited. Which wasn’t very often these days.
“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?” Roland asked.
“I guess I should do that, yes.” Delphine drove Roland past City Hall, hoping his sense of duty as a police detective would help him rally to the occasion. “I’m going to drop you off at a building up ahead and pick you up later this evening. In the meantime, you’re to go inside, find someone, and get some information for us. How’s your French?”
“Excuse me?” Roland said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. You probably haven’t even had lunch yet. Well you’re in luck! There are some top-notch food shops where you’re headed. I hope you like cheese.”
Delphine pulled into an almost-empty parking lot after flashing a badge to the attendant, and parked her Mercedes. When she turned off the engine and looked at Roland, he was staring at her blankly.
“Tu parles français, non?” she asked. “Aimes tu le fromage?”
Delphine thought for a moment, then pulled out her phone and called Marvis. “Marv, could you do me a huge favor? Could you pick up Zooey at 4:00 from school, maybe take her to the bookstore for a bit, and bring her by my place around 5:30?” She watched Roland taking in the city around them. He seemed surprisingly uneasy for a big-city cop, go figure. “Oh, thank you so much, I owe you one. Okay yes, I owe you another one. Gotta run, thanks dear!”
Zooey and Marvis would have a good time together, they always did on the rare occasions that Delphine had to offload her granddaughter due to work obligations. But that wouldn’t stop Zooey for giving her crap about going back on her word about their bookstore trip. Unfortunately, their outing had been planed before all this cheese business and right now, that took precedence. She had to go inside with Roland; clearly he needed some help getting started.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Roland swung his gaze back to Delphine. “Go where?”
“My former partner Kenji found out there’s a cheese consortium in that building there.” She pointed to a white building that had been renovated, but still retained its original architectural features. Instead of old and rundown, it was old and expensive.
“You’re going to have to back up a little more, Delphine. What in fu—”
“No more cursing!”
Roland’s face soured.
Delphine opened her door and gathered her purse. “Let’s just go in. You’ll see.”
“Have you ever thought about retiring?” he asked as he shut the passenger door.
“This is retirement. In my line of work you’re never really out of the business.”
They walked into the building and Delphine checked the notes on her phone to guide them through the lobby and down a long hallway. Kenji hadn’t been able to get her the old cheese files from the Falls, but he had somehow been able to find out about this place. Referred to as UCC for short, the Underground Cheese Consortium set up every weekday from 10-3 in the basement of the building they were about to enter. It was a good place to start.
“Kraft Parmesan,” Delphine said to a long-haired man dressed in overalls sitting in front of a set of metal double doors. He nodded once and let them in.
As soon as they went through, the smell infiltrated her nostrils. Sharp cheeses, hard cheeses, soft ones and moldy ones. Delphine inhaled deeply just as Roland’s stomach growled.
The space was enormous, but not packed with people. Maybe twenty booths of various sizes were set up in the center, and a few small food vendors with makeshift kitchens lined the walls, tables and chairs set up near each one.
“I’d ask, but I have a feeling you’re not going to tell me,” said Roland.
“No time right now to explain much. How about you take the right side and I take the left, and we meet over there at that sign that says ‘Cheese Lounge.’” She pointed to the back of the room. “Just talk to people, see what they’re selling. Keep an eye out for French cheeses.”
“I don’t know anything about cheese except that cheddar is orange.”
“You can tell by the names, by talking to people—but don’t sound too innocent or you’ll tip them off. What am I saying? You know how to do this. Now get going.”
Delphine wandered off and pulled her reading glasses out of her purse so she could inspect the goods up close. She made her way through the booths on her side of the room at a leisurely pace, smiling at each vendor. But try as she might, her innocent old-lady look was still met with suspicion, and she ended up keeping her questions to a minimum. She did pick up a few outstanding samples, including an incredible gorgonzola and a tasty Maasdam.
After a cursory check of the restaurant vendors, she headed toward the sign for the Cheese Lounge. It was placed in front of another set of metal double doors and as she got closer, she could hear the faint sound of music (Sinatra, if she wasn’t mistaken, and she knew she wasn’t). The smell of exotic cheeses, mixed with something a little more “herbal,” wafted by.
But before she could dive too far down the rabbit hole of what a Cheese Lounge might be, Roland walked up with a small paper tray and wad of napkins in one hand, and half of a grilled-cheese sandwich in the other.
“Best damn sandwich I’ve ever had. Hands down,” he mumbled, and took another bite. “Some kind of gruyere with caramelized onions. Better than s—”
“Just stop,” interrupted Delphine. Did you see anything?”
Roland swallowed and wiped his fingers on a napkin. “Not really,” he said. “But someone saw you.”
“There’s a woman back there who says she saw you wandering around and that she knows you. Come with me.”
The two of them walked the way Roland had come, Delphine letting him lead the way. Just as she started to think he’d been pulling her leg, they veered off the main path and headed toward a display that was set up all on its own, right up against the wall. Three six-foot folding tables were set up in a “U” shape, allowing buyers to peruse the outer side of the U. A tent covered the space, even though they were indoors, and an older woman wearing a sweatshirt that said BITCHIN on the front sat in the center of the space.
“Hello, Delphine,” the woman said as Roland brought them to a stop.
Roland pulled out a chair so Delphine could sit next to Sylvie behind the tables, then joined them, careful to sit apart from the two women, so he could observe them better.
But as soon as he sat, his mind wandered again, as it had multiple times since he first saw Delphine standing there in the airport. He tried to dismiss the fact that essentially he’d been bushwhacked, or whatever the law-enforcement bureaucratic word for “kidnapping for business purposes” was. But his anger kept bubbling up and each time it did, it irked him even more.
Delphine caught his eye and gave him a look of admonishment, like a disapproving schoolteacher. He shrugged and reached for a paper plate loaded with cheese samples.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” Delphine said.
“What else would I be doing?” said Sylvie in her thick French accent, sounding nonchalant, as if the progression from Falls agent to cheese monger was a natural one.
“What happened to you? One day you were just gone and the operation closed down.”
Sylvie inspected the top of her right hand and shrugged. “Ask Richard.”
Delphine nodded once. “About that…”
Sylvie was silent, waiting for Delphine to finish, as Roland sat transfixed, watching them as he munched on cheese samples. Each woman behaved like a cat—friendly enough, but their metaphorical ears and tails flicked as they sized each other up. It was like they were getting ready to pounce on each other. He’d never seen anything like it, and that was saying a lot.
The long silence continued, and Roland could tell Delphine was figuring out how to play the situation. But he couldn’t help her though, since he still had no idea what was going on other than Delphine was in trouble and she needed something from Sylvie. And Sylvie didn’t want to give it up.
“I never thought you were le Grande Fromage,” Delphine finally said.
Sylvie scoffed. “And why would you?”
“It was implied,” said Delphine. “You left right as the project got shut down, everyone figured it was you.”
“Yes, well,” said Sylvie. “I made a few mistakes. I was less experienced then.” She looked at Roland and gave him a head-to-toe once-over before looking him in the eye and raising one eyebrow. “We do impulsive things when we are young. But as we grow older, we learn better control of ourselves.”
Roland felt a little warm under his nonexistent collar. She was a beautiful woman, but probably only slightly younger than Delphine. Still, it was uncomfortable to be stared at like a … piece of cheese?
“I’m sorry if you got caught up in something untoward all those years ago,” said Delphine. “But please, now you have a chance to help me. If you know of anything going on that is connected to that case, you’ve got to tell me.”
“I don’t have to tell you anything!” screeched Sylvie. “Oh, let me guess, I should do it because we women agents have to stick together. Because we need to have each other’s back in this age of empowerment. Well, ma soer, I watch no one’s back but my own.” She leaned back crossed her arms.
Delphine remained quiet while Sylvie’s gaze wandered to Roland again. Her glare was replaced by a smile and her eyes slid to his arms. Then something in the distance, over his left shoulder, caught her attention. He saw a shadow of recognition cross her face. And possibly fear.
“I’m just asking for a lead,” said Delphine.
“And what’s in it for me?” Sylvie asked, looking at Roland’s left thigh now.
Delphine sighed and threw up her hands. It was then that Roland decided to toss her a life preserver.
He set the empty paper plate on the nearest tabletop. “Delphine, would you go over there,” he pointed to one of the small restaurants, “and get me another one of those grilled cheese with onion sandwiches?” He flashed her a bland smile, hoping she’d catch on. She did.
She stood up and pulled her purse tightly to her side. “I’m sorry, Sylvie. I really am.” And then she left to get Roland another sandwich.
Roland slid his folding chair closer to Sylvie. “I’m still hungry,” he said, backing up his innuendo with a look that was as close to lascivious as he could get under the circumstances.
“Yes, well, we do have many fine things to choose from here,” she said.
He flexed his left thigh a few times. “I can tell that you still hold a grudge against Delphine,” he began. “I would too. But whoever caused all this trouble is still at large, Sylvie. You have an opportunity to help someone here. Isn’t there anything you can tell me?”
She looked skeptical. Time to break out the big guns. He glanced down at his right arm, drawing her eyes there too, and flexed his bicep. Of all the reasons to work out, he’d never realized that seducing a senior-citizen informant was one of the potential benefits.
Sylvie looked at his bare arm. Her mouth was closed, but one end quirked up. “You’re good, sonny, but not that good.”
“You have no idea,” he said, cool as a cucumber.
She laughed. “Okay, fine. Look, all I know is that one of our old informants called me out of the blue three weeks ago. I had not heard from him in years and suddenly he’s asking me for four wheels of a very—and I mean very—expensive cheese.”
Sylvie gave him a blank look. “The cheese. It was a Beaufort. If you are looking for the name of an individual, that would be Gerard deDieu. He came to me a few weeks ago, asking me to procure this rare cheese. He did not tell me why he needed them, nor did I ask. But now perhaps I’m regretting my involvement.”
Roland was in so far over his head all he could do was try to memorize what she told him with the intention of making sense of it later. He nodded. “Thanks.”
Sylvie looked over his shoulder again. “Now as much as I’d love to sample your merchandise like you’ve been sampling mine, I suggest you and Delphine leave posthaste, unless you want to meet with an unfortunate cheese slicer accident.” She nodded to his left and he turned in time to see two very large, angry-looking men coming their way. Sylvie slipped a small paper bag into his hands and pushed him out from behind the cheese display.
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Copyright 2022-2023 by Andrea C. Neil