©2020, Joseph L. Thornburg. All Rights Reserved.
“Caesar, wait up!”
Benjy Baxter was just locking his car when he spotted Caesar Campbell, who was about to cross the street. He jogged to catch up with him.
“Get enough sleep?”
“Barely,” said Caesar. “I’m glad we told the staff to expect us late this morning.” After the events at the Leeway Lodge and the long drive back to East Kingsley, the two men needed the extra sleep. Now it was Tuesday and time to go back to work at BaxCam Coffees.
As they turned the corner on to Merchant Road, they stopped and looked ahead with a sense of vague apprehension. There was a long line outside of BaxCam Coffees—in itself not a total surprise—but many of the people in line were holding balloons, bouquets, and signs. Someone in the line saw the two men and cried out, “Look! They’re here!” The crowd burst into applause and whooped and hollered. Cell phones began snapping pictures. A chant began: “Cof-fee de-tec-tives! Cof-fee de-tec-tives!”
“Oh brother!” said Benjy. “What do we do now?”
“What can we do? Just smile and wave. We can’t turn around now.” They approached the crowd and were besieged with handshakes and autograph books and requests for selfies.
“Move aside! Oy, let me through!” It was Dainty, pushing her way through the crowd with Junnosuke. “These boys have got work to do!” She led the way, pushing people aside gently but firmly with her meaty arms. Junnosuke brought up the rear.
Once inside, they made their way to behind the counter. It was like being at a rock concert. “It’s been like this all morning,” said Cadence, a young woman they had hired a week before the convention. “Every time someone thought they saw you two coming, everyone went nuts.”
“But business has been good,” continued Alexandra. They had hired her when business began to boom after Licoricia’s murder. She was only 25, but shrewd and wise beyond her years, and they had left her in charge while they were away. “After #CoffeeDetectives began trending yesterday on Twipper, we’ve been going nonstop. I also took the liberty of hiring an extra hand. That’s Elijah.” She pointed to a one-man assembly line further down the counter. Empty cups with orders written on them were delivered to his left. The espresso machines and grinders were blurred by the motion of his hands. Measuring spoons whirled and rattled in his fingers like fidgets, clickety-clack, tap, tap, tap. Filled cups exited to his right. Elijah barked out customer names and drinks as if they were whole names: “Lisa Soy Latte! Bill Espresso! Maria Red Eye! Come on down! You’re the next drinkers at BaxCam Coffees!” And then the crowd burst into applause as Ms. Soy Latte, Mr. Espresso, and Ms. Red Eye made their ways to the counter.
“Wow,” said Benjy, a little stunned. “I shouldn’t complain. This is just going to take a little getting used to.”
As if there weren’t already enough commotion, another one began at the door. Someone was pushing his way through the line. The crowd registered its displeasure: “Get in line, man!” “No cuts!” “Wait your turn!” It was Collops, his arm in a sling.
“Collops,” said Caesar. “Good to see you. But I thought you were still recuperating.”
“Guys, I need your help. It’s Peccari—she’s been arrested for murder!”
The three men sat in a small room across a table from Peccari, separated from her by a thick pane of glass. A guard was in the room, and another just outside the door. Peccari looked like she hadn’t slept since she’d been in jail.
“I haven’t slept since I’ve been in jail!” she said. “But I didn’t do it!”
“Honey, we’re going to get you a good lawyer,” said Collops. “But I brought Caesar and Benjy along. I thought they could help.”
“What on earth happened?” asked Caesar.
“I don’t know! I went to a play Monday evening. The play ended, and I left the theater. I was cutting through an alley to get to the light rail station, and I saw a body. I didn’t want to touch him, but I said, ‘Hey, are you all right?’ He didn’t answer, and I could see blood. I ran out of there, and a block down I found a cop and brought him back. He called for help, and asked me to stick around. They asked me a bunch of questions. They said, ‘His name is Pearce Perdue, do you know him?’ I said, ‘Sure, he comes into the deli.’ I told them he’d come in a few days before and was being a real assho … a real jerk. Well, I guess that wasn’t the smartest thing to say, because the next thing you know, I’m arrested for his murder!”
“What time did all this happen?” asked Benjy.
“It was about ten o’clock. The play started at eight, and ran about an hour forty five. It probably took fifteen minutes to get out of the theater and to the alley.”
“And you went alone?”
“Yes. At my arraignment I even showed them my theater ticket, but they said that doesn’t prove I actually went to the show.”
“Do you know how Perdue died?”
“They said he was shot. They found a gun near him.”
“And you don’t own a gun?”
“You’ve got to help her,” said Collops. He turned to his daughter. “Listen, honey. I can’t stay. Ichabod is running the deli all by himself and I’ve got to get back. I’ll come back as soon as I can.” He kissed his fingertips, waved apologetically to Peccari, then left.
Caesar said, “Did you see anyone leaving the alley when you went in? See anything funny?”
“No, nobody else was there.” She thought for a moment. “Well, maybe a minute before I reached the alley I heard a few sounds like gunshots, but I just thought it was a car backfiring.”
“Did the cops say when they thought Perdue was murdered?”
“What else can you tell us about Perdue?”
“He comes in maybe twice a week. Always kind of a jerk, but hey, you get people like that and you just grin and bear it. And he’s sleazy. Half the time he was insulting me, half the time he was trying to hit on me. This last time, a few days ago, he started screaming at Ichabod and me about his order being screwed up. I really don’t know what the problem was. I double checked his order and it was right. Anyway, he was making a real scene so we asked him to leave. He stomped out, threatened to sue us, said we were gonna pay, et cetera.”
“Well,” said Benjy. “This seems like an awfully flimsy case. Circumstantial, with a pretty weak motive. We’re going to see if we can talk to someone here and get more information. Hang in there, Peccari. We’re going to do our best.”
“Thanks, guys. If you can, keep an eye on my dad. I know this is just stressing him out big time.”
“Will do.” They went into the corridor to the front desk to talk to the clerk when a familiar voice behind them said, “Well, if it isn’t the Coffee Detectives!”
“Lieutenant Tennant!” said Benjy. “What are you doing here?”
“I got transferred to East Kingsley. Sort of a half-promotion. What are you two doing here?” He lowered his voice and did a bad film noir detective imitation. “Are you on a case?”
“You might say that.” said Benjy. The two men related what had happened to Peccari. “Is there anything you can tell us?”
“One, I’m in charge of the case. Two, Perdue’s wife, Paula, called us around 3am, Tuesday morning. Said her husband was missing; that he went out on business Monday evening, the 17th, but never came back. He said he’d only be gone a short while.”
“Hmm,” said Caesar. “You know, this business about Perdue being an angry customer being Peccari’s motive seems pretty weak.”
Lt. Tennant looked around and said quietly, “I’m inclined to agree, but the district attorney likes his cases quick and easy and clean. Peccari knew Perdue, she threw him out of her store, so as far as the DA is concerned, she automatically has to be the killer, right? And she has no witnesses who can say she was in the theater, at least for the duration of the entire play.”
“What about the gun?”
“All six shots had been fired. No prints on it, but your friend was also wearing gloves that evening. The gun is registered, bought legally, by a guy named Peter Palomino.”
Caesar chuckled. “Sounds like a porn star.”
“What can we do?” said Benjy.
“Make sure your friend gets a good lawyer, first of all. Listen, I know you’re eager to help your friend. I can’t say you’re officially working with the police department, but here.” He handed them some of his business cards. “If you want to talk to people, show them my card. It doesn’t entitle you to anything, but it might help open a few doors.”
“Let’s start with the wife.” said Caesar.
They knocked on the door of the Perdue residence. There was no doorbell. They waited, but nobody came to the door. They were about to knock again when the door finally opened. “I’m sorry, I was in the backyard when you knocked.” said Paula Perdue.
They introduced themselves and handed her Tennant’s card. She ushered them into the living room and bade them sit. She looked at the card. “So you two are investigators?”
“In a matter of speaking.” said Benjy. “We just wanted to ask you a couple of questions.”
“Sure, but I don’t think there’s anything I can tell you that I didn’t already tell the police.” She repeated what Tennant had told them about her activity Monday evening. “And later, the cops called back to say Pearce was dead.”
“Did your husband have any enemies?”
“A few business rivals, maybe. He works … rather, he worked as an investment banker.” She hesitated. “I do think he might have … been seeing someone.”
“Seeing someone? You mean you suspected he was cheating on you?”
Paula looked at her hands. “It’s just like in the movies. Husband starts going out of town a lot, starts working odd hours, that kind of thing.” She looked back at the two men. “So I did what the wives do in those movies. I began going through his things.”
“Did you find anything?” She walked over to a bureau, opened a drawer, pulled out some papers, then handed them to Benjy.
“A receipt for a fur coat,” said Paula. “Credit card charges for hotels downtown. Kinda adds up, don’t you think? Say, you don’t suppose that girl they arrested was his mistress?”
Benjy handed the papers back. “The police are still interviewing her. Thanks for your time, Mrs. Perdue. We appreciate it.” They got into Benjy’s car. “Caesar, you know what else I saw in that stack of papers? A bank withdrawal for twenty five thousand dollars.”
“Oof! You think that was for his mistress?”
“Or maybe he was being blackmailed.”
Caesar’s cell phone beeped. “It’s Innocenzio.”
“The NPS driver? What’s he doing with your number? As if I didn’t know.” Benjy winked.
Caesar ignored him. “Hello, handsome, what’s up? Really? When can we meet? Great, see you soon, thanks.”
“Got a hot date?” said Benjy.
“Not today; Innocenzio says he knows someone who knew Perdue. He’s going to meet us at BaxCam as soon as he gets off work.”
“So I have this friend, Paige, who knew Perdue. She’s an escort.” Innocenzio and Caesar had squeezed into the back seat of Benjy’s car.
“An escort?” said Benjy. “That might fit with Paula’s suspicion that her husband was cheating on her. I bet that fur coat was for her. And how do you know Paige?”
“I know all kinds of people.” said Innocenzio coyly. “Turn left at the corner and start looking for a place to park.”
Eventually, the three men made their way to an apartment building. They knocked on the door on the third floor. A woman answered. “Innocenzio!” she said, and hugged him. “Who are your friends?”
“They’re friends. We need to talk to Paige. Can we come in?” She led them into the living room. “Guys, this is Petunia. She and Paige are roomies. Petunia, this is Caesar and Benjy. We’re doing a little investigating. It’s about Perdue.”
Petunia’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not going to get any help out of Paige. She’s gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?”
“She packed her bags in a hurry on Saturday and took off.”
Benjy and Caesar exchanged glances, then Benjy spoke. “A friend of ours has been arrested for Perdue’s murder. We’re trying to clear her name. Perdue was shot with a gun owned by … who was it?”
“Peter Palomino.” answered Caesar.
But before Benjy could continue, Petunia laughed ironically. “That gun is mine.” All three men stared at her while she lit a cigarette. “Paige and I work for Peter. He’s kind of like our … agent. After one of my clients got a little, shall we say, out of hand one evening, Peter bought a gun and gave it to me for protection.”
“You know for a fact that your gun was used to kill Perdue?”
“Not for a fact—Peter might have bought more than one gun—but my gun has been missing since Saturday.” She took a long drag. “I had a client on Friday, then came home, and the gun was still in my purse. Petunia left shortly after I got home for an appointment, then came back in the evening. She went out again Saturday afternoon, then came back early, packed her bags, and left.”
“Just like that? No explanation?” asked Benjy.
“She only said, ‘You haven’t seen me.’ I did overhear her on the phone though. She said something about peppers.”
“That’s Pepper,” said Innocenzio, “Her sister in Port Pétarade. I bet she went to stay with her.”
“Do you think she took your gun?” asked Caesar.
“Maybe. I mean, I had it Friday, then Petunia takes off on Saturday, and when I went out that evening I noticed it was gone. I hadn’t left the apartment between my Friday and Saturday appointments.”
“Well, boys,” said Innocenzio. “I guess it’s off to see Pepper.”
Pepper opened the door a crack and peered at the men. “Innocenzio? What are you doing here?”
“We’re here to see Paige.”
“She’s not here.” She turned away from the door to talk to someone behind her, hidden from view. They couldn’t make out what she was saying. The other person said something, and Pepper came back to the door. “Okay, come in quick.” She undid the chain latch and let them in. Behind her stood, of course, Paige. Pepper shut the door and relatched it.
“What’s this about?” said Paige after hugging Innocenzio.
“These are friends of mine, Caesar and Benjy. A friend of theirs is charged with murdering Perdue.” Paige looked at the men warily.
“Listen,” said Benjy. “We aren’t trying to get you in trouble or anything. We don’t care about Perdue. We’re just trying to help our friend.”
The sisters exchanged looks, then Paige said, “Sit down, boys. Pepper, could we have a little privacy?” Pepper left the room. “Okay, gentlemen. I’ll tell you what I know, but I don’t want anyone knowing where I am.” The men all nodded. “I guess you’ve been talking to Petunia?”
“Yes, but she didn’t tell us where you were. We figured it out ourselves. Don’t blame her for that.”
“No, of course not.” She stood up and looked out the window. “Petunia and I worked for Peter. He gets clients for us, and he gets a cut. It all works pretty well. As for Perdue, he was a regular client of mine but he had a bad temper. I really didn’t want to see him any more. The last time I saw him was Saturday.”
“The day you left town,” said Caesar.
“Obviously, you didn’t shoot him on Saturday.”
She hesitated and took a deep breath. “No, but I was going to.” She faced the men again. “I was at Petunia’s and was going to go to an appointment on Friday. I asked if she had any breath mints, and she said it was in her purse. I saw there was a gun in there. I went to my appointment and came home. Saturday I had an appointment with Perdue, and I took the gun with me in case he got nasty. And he did.” She took another deep breath. “We were at a hotel. He shoved me against the wall. He said Peter was blackmailing him and that I was in league with him.”
Benjy looked at Caesar. “Blackmail. I told you.” he mouthed silently.
“Honestly, I don’t know anything about Peter blackmailing any one. But Perdue didn’t believe me. He made a move toward me and I pulled out the gun. I was going to shoot him but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I moved towards the door, threw the gun down, and ran as fast as I could. He didn’t follow, or at least I don’t think he did. I rushed back to Petunia’s, packed my bags, and here I am.”
“So Perdue must’ve taken the gun. And you know nothing about Peter blackmailing him?”
“Nothing at all. Peter got us clients, he got a cut. That’s all I know.”
Caesar thought for a moment. “By the way, do you own a fur coat?”
“Am I supposed to?”
“Is that a no?”
“Yes, that’s a no.”
Benjy stood up. “Well, thank you Paige. We really only want to help our friend.”
“You know, it’s only because you’re friends with Innocenzio that I even let you in.”
“And we appreciate it. Come on, guys, let’s go.”
The preliminary hearing began three days later. Benjy and Caesar met Lt. Tennant in the hallway outside the courtroom.
“They’re just doing all the usual legal blah blah stuff.” he said to them. He opened the door a crack. A coroner was on the witness stand. “The victim was shot five times, once each time through his patella, pelvis, pancreas, penis, and pituitary gland.”
“In your experience, would any of these shots, individually or in tandem, be instantly fatal?” asked the district attorney.
“Well, if I’d been shot in the penis I don’t think I’d want to live, would you?” snickered the coroner.
“Just answer the question!” barked the judge. Lt. Tennant closed the door again.
“How does it look for Peccari?” asked Caesar.
“Not good. And there’s more news. On Sunday, someone shot Peter Palamino. And with the same gun.”
“If Perdue kept that gun after he saw Paige,” whispered Benjy to Caesar, “then he might’ve killed Peter.”
“Especially if Peter was blackmailing him.”
“Did you boys find out anything?” said Lt. Tennant.
“Yes,” said Benjy. “We think Perdue killed Peter, but we still have no idea who killed Perdue. We’ve run out of leads.” The men fell silent. Caesar started pacing. He turned at the sound of high-heeled footsteps behind him. It was Paula—and she was in a fur coat. She nodded at them then entered the courtroom.
“Hang on!” said Caesar. “Paula thought that fur coat was for Paige, so what’s she doing with it? How did she get it? Benjy, do you remember the name of the fur store?”
“Yes,” said Benjy. “Pangborn’s Pelts on Paso Pepinos.”
The owner of Pangborn’s Pelts, a Mr. Percival Pangborn, eyed the two men suspiciously as they rushed in. He hovered his finger over the silent security alarm. Surely these two men in polo shirts and jeans weren’t there to buy a fur!
“May I help you, gentlemen?”
“We need some information about one of your customers.”
“I’m terribly sorry, but that’s confidential. We are not in the habit of disclosing such information to … gentlemen such as yourselves.”
Benjy produced one of Lt. Tennant’s cards and handed it to Pangborn, whose eyes popped. “Oh,” he said, coughing. “That’s a completely different matter. About which patron are you inquiring?”
“Oh yes. He placed an order recently for a fur coat. One like that one.” He pointed at a mannequin wearing a coat that reached to its knees.
“When did he come to pick it up?”
“He didn’t. It was to be delivered.”
“Do you know to whom?”
“Let’s see.” Pangborn went to a ledger and flipped through its gilt-edged pages. “Why, yes. It was to be delivered to Paula Perdue. His wife, I’m sure.”
“When was that coat delivered?”
Pangborn returned to the ledger. “It was supposed to be delivered Monday evening, the 17th, around 9pm. But the delivery boy brought it back.”
“Nobody was home.”
“Is he sure?”
“Yes, sir. He knocked several times and nobody came to the door.”
“And he didn’t leave it there.”
“Sir, one does not leave a $47,000 mink and sable fur coat by Panos Petrou on a doorstep!”
Caesar and Benjy dashed back to the courthouse . They arrived in time to hear the judge call for a short pause in the proceedings. Peccari sat at a table with her attorney, who got up to powder her nose. Caesar and Benjy paraded over to Peccari, but a policeman tried to prevent them. Lt. Tennant came up and said, “It’s permitted, let them talk to her.”
“Peccari, how are you prospering?”
“I just can’t believe this is happening. I’m innocent, but I’m going to be put to death! I’m already pondering my final repast. A portion of plantain and paneer pakoras, a pu pu platter, a plate of perdeli pilav, port to drink, and plenty of pecan pie.” She seemed momentarily preoccupied from her predetermined doom by the appeal of such a meal.
Her attorney, a Ms. Persephone Primrose, had come back. “At what position are we in the presentation?” said Caesar.
“We’re practically done with Mrs. Perdue. I’m cross-examining her. I just have a couple more points to discuss.”
“Ask her this.” He leaned over and whispered in her ear, which was adorned with a pink pezzottaite earring, to preserve his privacy from the prying pinnae of proximate passersby.
“How does that pertain to the proceeding?” said Persephone.
“Please promise me you’ll perform this task!” Persephone decided to play ball. People were returning to the pews, and the judge called everyone to order. Paula put her petite posterior upon the witness platform. “Mrs. Perdue,” said the judge, “may I point out you’re still under a promise of no perjury.”
“Yes, your honor.”
Persephone stood and perched on her periwinkle polka dot pumps. “Mrs. Perdue, pray tell where did you procure that pretty fur coat?”
Paula looked partially perplexed, but responded placidly, “It was dispatched from Pangborn’s Pelts.”
“And did you purchase it yourself?”
“No, it was a present from my … late husband Pearce.”
“I see. Very philanthropic of him. It looks perfect on you.” Paula looked pleased. “You said it was dispatched. When was that?”
“When? It was Wednesday, a pair of days past Pearce’s perishment.”
“I see. But per the pelt emporium, they tried to dispatch your present Monday evening.”
“I must’ve missed it.”
“You didn’t hear a person pounding on your portal that evening?”
“Well, no. I don’t always hear the door.”
“The delivery peon said he tried plenty of times.”
“I didn’t hear it. Perhaps I was preoccupied in the powder room. What more would you prefer I say?”
Persephone pretended to be puzzled. “Well, this is particularly perplexing,” she said. “The delivery peon pounded on your portal plenty of times and you didn’t pick up on this, but when Caesar Campbell and Benjy Baxter came to parley with you on Tuesday and pounded on your portal, you proclaimed you were in your backyard, possibly on your patio, when you heard them pounding. Is that account precise?”
“Well … yes.” She bit her lower lip.
“Please, Mrs. Perdue. I am not of the position that you were in your place that evening waiting for Pearce.” Paula peered at Caesar and Benjy, who peered back at her pitilessly. “Make public your location!”
Paula grabbed the ponderosa pine perimeter of the witness stand and stood up. She pounded her piqued paws on the podium. “I wasn’t home! It was me! I used a pistol to put perforations in Pearce!” The district attorney choked on his percolated piping hot panda dung tea. Persephone primped her pageboy locks in triumph.
Paula sat back down. “Pearce came home Saturday. When he stepped out of the parlor, I went prying into his pockets like I’ve been doing lately, and I found the pistol. I don’t know where he got it, but I was pretty positive he didn’t purchase it himself. On Monday, when he said he had an unexpected powwow to pop into that evening, I got suspicious, and pursued him. I saw him talking to … one of those profligate painted women peddlers you see parading on the pavement. They proceeded to a hotel. I waited for them to emerge. He came out alone and started perambulating down the pavement. When he turned into a dark narrow passageway, I confronted him, and then I plugged him. I polished my prints off the pistol, you know, like they do in the picture shows, and pitched it to the ground. I presumed the police would point a finger at whoever purchased the pistol.”
The perturbed judge, whose name was Paulo Patricio Portela Pereira Pinhero Proença from the poor part of Portimão, Portugal, pummeled his gavel to pacify the pandemonium in the packed courtroom. “Place Mrs. Paula Perdue in protective custody for the murder of Pearce Perdue. The case pertaining to the prisoner Peccari Pancetta is put aside.”
Outside the courtroom, Caesar, Benjy, Peccari, Collops, and Lt. Tennant were celebrating Peccari’s release.
“So guys,” said Lt. Tennant. “What about Peter? Was he blackmailing Perdue?”
“Our guess is, if one of his workers snagged a particularly rich client, Peter would blackmail him for extra money. I don’t think Petunia or Paige knew anything about it. Perdue picked up the gun after Paige dropped it, used it to kill Peter, and then Paula used it to kill Pearce. But that’s just a presumption.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Dad, can we get something to eat somewhere? I’m starved!” said Peccari.
“What are you in the mood for, honey?” asked Collops.
“A portion of plantain and paneer pakoras, a pu pu platter, a plate of perdeli pilav, port to drink, and plenty of pecan pie.”
“That’ll cost a pile of pesos!” Collops pulled Lt. Tennant over to him and joked, “Could you possibly put Peccari back in the penitentiary? Her penchant for peculiar provisions will precipitate my poverty!”
And everyone laughed. Ha ha ha!