The Big Cheese, Part Two: Family Feud
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The following morning, Delphine sat across from Richard Dere at the elegant boardroom table in the main conference room at the Falls’ regional office. The night before had been a long one—Richard insisted on calling in a team to inspect Delphine’s car and the four wheels of Beaufort d’Alpage, before confiscating the cheese and finally letting her go home. She wondered what had happened to the cheese after that. She had a hunch.
Now they were meeting again, ostensibly for Richard to ask her even more questions. She’d declined to bring her attorney, Frances Lance. Delphine felt confident she could handle this on her own and there was no need to disturb one of her best friends so early in the morning. It was 9:30 but Frances was a night owl and there was more than a 50% chance that she was off somewhere on a cruise anyway, being “retired,” like herself. That woman sure could party.
“For the third time, that is not my cheese, nor do I have any knowledge of how the cheese got in my car. I can’t even lift one of those wheels.” This was partially untrue. She didn’t know how the cheese had gotten in her car, but she could lift a wheel by herself. Still, it came in handy to play the old lady card sometimes.
“Then who moved your cheese?” asked Shipley, who sat two seats down from Richard. They all looked at him. He shrugged.
“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here,” said Richard, thumbing through a sheaf of papers in a manila folder. It wasn’t her employment folder—she knew for a fact hers was much fatter and a little more ragged around the edges. Kind of like Richard.
“Whatever I say doesn’t matter. We both know you’ve got your mind made up,” she said.
“That’s ridiculous.” Richard closed the folder with a flourish and pushed it to his right along the sleek table top, where it came to a stop in front of his assistant Judy, who sat next to him. “Let’s just go by the facts.”
“Okay, let’s,” said Delphine. “We saw two men standing by my car, and they took off when they saw us. Somehow Shipley determines my car smells—”
“It did smell!” interjected Ship.
“So we open the trunk,” continued Delphine while glaring at Ship, “and find four wheels of rare, expensive French cheese.”
“That’s not suspicious to you?” asked Ship.
One day, Delphine would thank Reginald Shipley for his generous contribution to mankind by perfecting his firm grasp of the obvious. But not today.
“Of course it’s suspicious,” said Delphine. “Just not in the way Richard is suggesting.”
“In light of everything that’s happened, it’s definitely suspicious,” said Richard.
Delphine wanted to throw herself across the shiny mahogany table and smash Richard’s nose in. She made a mental note to let her therapist know she still had some anger issues. (Everyone in LA had a therapist, even—or especially—semi-retired field agents. And almost everyone in LA had anger issues.) “That was over thirty years ago,” she said without so much as a quiver in her voice.
“Maybe you were right,” he said, eyeing her carefully. “Maybe we never did catch the Big Cheese.”
Richard was of course referring to the cheese smuggling ring they’d been assigned to take down in the late 80s. Someone had been bringing large amounts of rare, high-quality French cheeses into the States without paying any taxes on them. Taxes due to whom, they were never told, and it was never revealed which side/country/shadow government had instigated the project. Orders were orders.
The team had consisted of Richard, Ship, Delphine and her former partner Kenji Yamamoto, a woman named Sylvie Lowenstein, and a few others. Delphine was the team leader, only the second time (but far from the last time) she’d been awarded that distinction. Progress on the case was slow, almost nonexistent, until one Monday morning when Richard announced the project had been shelved and they were starting a new one involving the murder of a high-profile movie-prop mogul. No one spoke of cheese anymore, and Sylvie Lowenstein was never seen again.
On the few occasions someone did try to bring it up, Richard continued to insist they’d caught the Big Cheese—the code name for the head of the operation. Sylvie, it seemed.
But Delphine always figured that the real ringleader was still out there. Sylvie Lowenstein could not have been the Big Cheese. The woman was not clever enough to mastermind a smuggling ring, and at the same time, not stupid enough to try. But the project was shut down, and the subject eventually melted into obscurity within the organization. It was still a tender spot for Delphine though.
Ship gasped. “Do you think she’s back?”
Richard looked at Delphine, but only for a second before diverting his eyes back to his hands, steepled on the table. “I’m not sure.”
Delphine leaned forward and started to say something, but changed her mind. The less she said, the better. She didn’t need Frances to tell her that much.
Shipley’s eyes went wide, but he stayed silent too, and the gap in conversation grew longer. Judy began to fidget. Richard reached for the folder again. He opened it, riffled through it once more, then tossed it back at his assistant. This time it slid until it landed in front of Shipley, who reached for it but was too slow for Judy’s quick reflexes.
Delphine smoothed the cotton fabric of her blazer. “Are you going to charge me with anything?”
“Not yet,” said Richard. “We still haven’t determined the origin of the Beaufort d’Alpage. Until then, we’ll be watching you.”
She looked Richard in the eye and waited until he finally met her gaze. “Likewise.”
Delphine parked her car in the garage and decided to to check her mailbox before going inside. She stopped to admire the century plants growing along her driveway. Drought-resistant beauties, they were. No weeding required in the new, parched California.
She desperately wanted a bath, since she hadn’t gotten one the night before. Baths always made her feel better. But then she thought of Zooey, and her granddaughter’s passion for environmental causes. The girl kept telling her baths were wasteful. Delphine knew it was true, and she could see more proof each year of the havoc humans were wreaking on the planet. Sometimes it was so hard not to see everything as a giant dumpster fire. Especially in her line of work.
How could things have gone so wrong in the course of twenty-four hours? One moment she was practicing with Ship for their upcoming dance competition. The next, she was having to defend herself in a possible smuggling case.
Where was Sylvie? Was the Big Cheese really back? Had he ever stopped his operation? And why would he (because it most assuredly had to be a man at the helm of something as ridiculous as a cheese smuggling operation) come after someone like Delphine? She had so many questions she couldn’t keep them straight. Her head was swimming in cheese.
No mail, but she could tell someone was watching her. So she walked across the street to Kenji’s house. He was raking invisible leaves in his own gravel-and-succulent front yard. She knew he knew.
“How’d you hear?”
Kenji stopped his gardening and leaned one elbow on the top of the rake’s wooden handle. “Please.”
He always seemed to know things before she did.
She admired his grey eyes, just a few shades darker than his silver hair, which was now long enough to make him seem dangerously handsome. He had always been handsome though. They’d been partners in the field for over twenty years, and at some point—long after her beloved husband Charles had passed away—that partnership had crossed from professional to something more. Those kinds of relationships were forbidden by management, but they were spies—good at hiding things. They’d made it work for many years, until Delphine had retired. Kenji had stayed on, and they’d lost touch for a while. When an unfortunate mishap led to his new partner’s untimely death, Kenji retired too, and one day several years ago, Delphine had come home from a vacation to Santorini and found Kenji living in the house across the street, as if they’d been neighbors forever. Their friendship rekindled, but the romance never had.
Delphine looked at him but said nothing, waiting for him to talk. You couldn’t rush Kenji—if you tried, he’d make you regret it.
Finally he sighed. “I really don’t have much to tell you. I heard what happened, but nothing more.”
“He’s back,” she said.
“Yes. The Big Cheese.” He nodded in thought. “It would appear to be so.”
They were silent for a few beats before Delphine said what they were both thinking. “It’s possible he never left.”
Kenji stared at the gravel.
“But why now? Why me?” A car went by and Delphine jumped. It was a bad sign if she was already this jumpy. It felt even more like she was reliving the olden days.
“As for the first question, you know as well as I do that there are only a handful of motives for why men become desperate. As for the second question, heck if I know.”
Delphine nodded. Then, hit by a rush of memories and emotions and physical sensations, she knew what she needed to do. She couldn’t sit around and knit socks until the problem went away. “I need to get to the bottom of this before they manage to pin something on me. I need access to the old files.”
“I doubt that would be possible,” said Kenji. “But I still might be able to help.”
He said nothing, just went back to raking his gravel.
“Well, let me know if you come up with anything.”
“You wouldn’t consider coming out of retirement and partnering with me on this, would you? They’re going to find a way to take me down unless I find Le Grande Fromage first. We could do it, you and I.”
Kenji shook his head. “Tempting, but no. I am out of the business.”
She knew he’d decline, but she had to ask anyway. He didn’t seem to miss their old life as much as she sometimes did. She smiled, almost getting lost in Kenji’s grey eyes again. This wouldn’t do at all. There was no time for romance, real or imagined. She turned to leave.
“Yes?” she said, her voice higher than she would’ve liked.
Delphine nodded and went home.
Delphine sat on her back patio and ran her fingers through her short, white hair. She’d given up coloring it long ago; that wasn’t her style. Neither was worrying so much, but here she was. Someone was out to make her life miserable … or worse.
There was no one she could trust. She wanted to trust Kenji, but reason dictated he was not necessarily in the clear. No one could be considered safe. She was on her own. Although she remained smart as a whip, and still had the ability to kill someone with one hand, Delphine also knew that she was still human, and one day her luck would run out. She fussed with her hair again.
When the water had cooled to the perfect temperature, she placed her bare feet into a plastic tub filled with sudsy water that she had brought outside. She would forego her bath, but splurged on a nice foot soak. Her daughter-in-law Greta, Griffin’s mom, had given her some lovely bubbly concoction for Christmas that smelled of lavender and lemon. She sipped green tea and thought.
In the movies, you rarely saw anyone sitting around thinking. That was prime storytelling real estate, wasted. People wanted to see explosions, murder scenes, maybe a little romance. How much of that was real life? This was real life, thought Delphine. Soaking your feet, drinking tea, thinking.
The next day, Delphine stood at the American Airlines domestic baggage claim at LAX, waiting for an arriving passenger. She knew who she was looking for, but the traveler didn’t know who he was looking for. He would recognize her though.
She checked the time on her phone. Almost noon. Hopefully they’d miss rush-hour traffic back to Pasadena; she’d promised her son she would pick Zooey up from after-school care and take her to the bookstore. But rush hour effectively ran daily from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. so it was a crapshoot.
Passengers on the first flight of the day from Miami began to trickle in and surround the baggage carousel, and Delphine saw him before he saw her. She took a few steps to her left so he’d have a clear view.
When the man saw Delphine, he stopped dead in his tracks. She registered surprise in his eyes, then fear, and finally anger. He looked back the way he’d come, perhaps debating whether he could make a run for it, but his whole face showed defeat now, and he walked toward her, the straps of his backpack trailing on the ground.
Delphine put on her best “Welcome to LA” face and extended her hand. “Mr. Magnusson. How wonderful to see you again.”
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Copyright 2022 by Andrea C. Neil