Ron Katz was a trial lawyer for more than 40 years before he started writing mystery stories. A Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of the Harvard Law School, he was a Fellow at Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute in 2016.
The Sleuthing Silvers and The Mystery of the Fishy Retirement
“I’ve just investigated my 597th Medicare fraud; what do you think?” Bernie Silver groaned.
“All I asked was ‘how are you?’” said his wife and business partner in Silver Investigations, Barb, “but I have a feeling that we’re about to have our 598thconversation about retirement.”
“First a gin-and-tonic,” Bernie responded, “and then we can return to the topic of the day.”
“The topic of every day, it seems,” she said. “The ‘R’ word. Why don’t you just pull the trigger?”
“Which part of ‘First, a gin-and-tonic’ didn’t you understand?” he replied with a forced smile.
“A little testy today, are we?” she resumed, as they settled into the easy chairs before the fireplace in their study. “And, aren’t you forgetting the many memorable cases we’ve had, like the lost marbles case that gave us Snowbie?” she asked, petting the little white dog nestled on her lap for their traditional cocktail hour cuddle. Snowbie’s cocktail of choice was a Puppacino--warm, whipped milk.
“My bad,” he apologized, “but I’ve never been faced with anything like retirement before. Much of my personal identity is tied to my work.”
“So, let me get this straight,” she responded, “Your identity is tied up with your work, but your work consists of boring Medicare investigations.”
“Just as I thought,” he moaned, “my wife doesn’t understand me.”
“Or,” she responded, “she understands you too well.” “Let me try another approach,” he said. “What makes retirement different is that in every other phase of my life—school, career, family—there were well-known expectations that I could try to fulfill. Try as I might, I can’t figure out the rules for a successful retirement.”
“What about just being a kindly grandfather?”
“Ok, but what about the other 95% of the time? Also, how many private investigators do you know who’ve become kindly grandfathers?”
“It would be a short list,” she conceded. “Probably why they are called private dicks for short.”
“That’s the price we pay for investigating people trying to get away with something,” he observed. “It takes its toll after 40 years.”
“You’re tired, dear, and frustrated. Why don’t we plan a getaway to collect our thoughts?
“Great,” he smirked. “How about beautiful Sun City, Arizona?”
“Good news,” Barb chirped, as she brought in the mail the next day. “We’ve been invited to a destination wedding, which solves the problem of where we go for our little mind-clearing trip.”
“I’ve never been to a destination wedding that cleared up anything,” he said. “And I bet we’ll be the oldest people there…but it’s got to be more amusing than Medicare fraud. What’s the destination?”
“Punta Pescadero,” a small town in Baja California where your grand-niece, Susie, is tying the knot with someone named Kendall Evans.”
“Susie is one of my favorites,” said Bernie. “I don’t know how she turned out so well given the antics of her playboy father, Alex.”
“Well, Alex Silver is one of the eight people requesting the pleasure of your company at these nuptials, along with his first wife—Susie’s mother, Jennifer—his third wife, Heather, and Jennifer’s second husband, Scott Clark. Looks like Kendall’s parents also divorced and re-married. So, we will have the rare pleasure of seeing the smiling faces of eight parents of the bride and groom, most of whom have different last names. Here, you can see for yourself,” she said, handing him the engraved invitation.
“Wow,” he exclaimed, “it takes two pages to get in all the information. They should attach a family tree, so we know who’s related to whom and why. It would be standing room only if Alex’s second wife, Lucia, came back from Rome to join the party, but she and Susie never hit it off.”
“It does look a bit like the class list in a continuing education course on step-parenting,” joked Barb, “but I’m sure that gathering in a small, isolated Mexican town at an emotional family event will enable them all to forgive and forget...”
“Right,” said Bernie. “What could go wrong?”
Six weeks later they alighted from an AeroMexico flight to Cabo San Lucas, at the south end of Baja California. They had decided to arrive after the rehearsal dinner on Friday night and then have a rest/recreation day on Saturday before the wedding ceremony on Sunday.
It was spring break for many colleges, so they found themselves in a long line of hardy partiers while waiting to go through immigration.
Suddenly Barb’s face brightened, and she took Bernie by the arm to a line with just a few older folks under a sign that said “Tercera Edad.”
“Where’d the line go?” he queried.
“Cabo’s a good place to be in Tercera Edad,” she said. “If my memory of high school Spanish is correct, Tercera Edad is the third age, what we call ‘senior citizens’ north of the border.”
“I don’t know Spanish,” he said, but that picture of a couple with canes under the words “Tercera Edad” makes me think you’re right. Is this a divine sign that I should retire?”
“That’s a small price to pay for jumping that long line of stewed students,” she said. “Waiting in it would have definitely lessened your golden years by at least two hours.”
Five minutes later, they proceeded to the car rental center to procure transportation for the one-hour drive north.
“Do we need to worry about bandidos?” Bernie jocularly inquired of the clerk.
The unsmiling response was, “Senor Silver, I think you will find the road much safer than the Tenderloin District in San Francisco.”
“Speaking of retirement,” said Barb when they were in the rental car,” it might be time to retire the bandido comments.”
“Punta Pescadero is not even a real town,” he replied, “but it has a private airstrip. What do you think that’s for?”
“If it’s for bandidos, or, more likely U.S. drug dealers,” she said, “that is all the more reason to retire your rather limited and offensive Spanish vocabulary.”
“Point taken,” he conceded. “But, speaking again of the R word, why aren’t you plagued by the same retirement doubts I am?”
“Keep in mind, dear, that women did not have near the opportunities men had when we were coming up in the world. I started as a private investigator ten years after you did, so presumably I’m ten years behind you in my retirement thinking.”
He grinned: “One of the few benefits of sex discrimination.”
“Yes,” she said. “You can agonize over retirement for the both of us. Silver Investigations will go on.”
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a Sugar Mommy,” he said. “Never thought it would be my wife of 30 years.”
Punta Pescadero was less a village than a collection of luxury homes, a private airstrip and the aptly named Paradise Hotel. Right by the Sea of Cortez, with access to world-class golf and fishing, it was definitely an ideal place to think about retirement.
“Perhaps I could get used to this,” observed Bernie.
“No doctors, so no Medicare fraud,” added Barb.
“Let’s just check in,” he said, “and forget about private investigation for a few days. I can feel some relaxation setting in.”
That lasted for about five minutes, until the desk clerk informed them that they did not have a reservation. “That’s not possible,” said Bernie through clenched teeth.
“Es posible,” answered the desk clerk. “Es verdad.”
“He says it’s not only possible, but it’s true,” Barb translated.
Just as Bernie was about to say something inappropriate, a hotel maid came into the lobby, dropped a room key on the reception desk and whispered in the desk clerk’s ear. The clerk looked relieved and said to Barb and Bernie, “No problema. One of the wedding guests had to leave suddenly. You can have his room as soon as the maid finishes getting it ready. The guest left before it was cleaned.”
“Great,” exclaimed Bernie, grabbing the heavy brass room key for Room 7. “We’ve been travelling for hours, so we’ll just drop our luggage off in the room.”
“Un momento, Senor,” the desk clerk said. “I will get someone to help you with your bags.”
Noting the all-too-familiar glower of impatience on Bernie’s face, Barb cut in. “We’ve been travelling for hours. We can roll the bags down ourselves.”
“Watch out for the geckos,” he said, pointing to the small creatures on the walls, floor and ceiling. Geckos were impossible to keep out of the lobby and out of the hotel in general, because the place was designed to let in the tropical light and air with large, open picture windows and open French doors.
They were directed down a few corridors to the end of one of the hotel wings. They pushed open the heavy door to Room 7 and plunked down their bags with relief.
Barb walked toward the bed but suddenly stopped, gaping. “Bernie, tell the desk clerk that the maid will need some disinfectant,” she said with a strained voice, pointing to a dead fish on one of the pillows. About a foot long, it had been diagonally sliced into three pieces.
Don’t touch it,” he said. “I think I have a plastic bag with me, so we’ll just put it in the mini-bar refrigerator to preserve it for evidence.”
“I thought you were retiring,” she said.
“I don’t want a trisected tuna to ruin Susie’s wedding,” he responded. “A dead fish delivered like this is a well-known Mafia signal that soon you will be swimming with the fishes. So maybe I’ll investigate just one more case.”
“It could be worse,” murmured Barb. If I’m remembering correctly, in the movie,The Godfather, it was a severed horse’s head on the pillow.”
“We better get with Susie right away,” said Bernie. We may not be the first to hear about this.”
“Uncle Bernie, Aunt Barb!” Susie Silver exclaimed with a big smile when they appeared at her door. “Big hugs! I’m so happy you could come, especially so you could meet this guy,” motioning toward an earnest-looking young man behind her, “my fiancé, Kendall.” She hesitated before continuing, “But you look a little pale. I hope you’re sticking to the bottled water.”
“It’s great to see you too, Susie,” said Bernie, “but you’re right that we’re a little shaken right now. Do you know someone named Charlie Kieffer?”
“Why…yes,” she said, hesitating, while Kendall’s expression darkened. “How do you know that name?”
“It was on this bag of wedding swag left in what is now our room…along with a dead fish. Apparently, Charlie left in a hurry.”
Susie looked questioningly at Kendall, and then forged ahead. “It’s complicated. Charlie was an old flame of mine. He normally wouldn’t’ve been invited, but, coincidentally, he’s Kendall’s stepbrother, the stepson by a previous marriage of Kendall’s father, Jeremy, so we didn’t have much of a choice. It’s a little odd because Jeremy was left suddenly by Charlie’s birth mother. Jeremy then brought up Charlie with Lydia, who is Jeremy’s second wife, not Kendall’s birth mom. Long story short, Charlie, who’s always had problems while growing up in the same house as Kendall, caused quite a stir at the rehearsal dinner last night.”
“I’ll say,” grumbled Kendall. “I’ve never agreed with Charlie about anything except his decision to leave here today.”
“That is complicated,” remarked Barb. “What you’re saying is that Kendall and Charlie grew up in the same house, but they are stepbrothers, not related by blood, which is why they have different last names. Does that have anything to do with the problem Charlie caused last night?”
“What’s important is that he and Susie were a couple, and then Susie and I became a couple after Susie broke off their relationship,” responded Kendall. “What that led to last night was that, instead of giving a toast, Charlie decided to accompany himself on the ukulele.”
“What’s wrong with that?” inquired Bernie.
“His choice of a song: “If you knew Susie, like I know Susie.”
“Oh! Oh! Oh! What a girl,” Bernie sang softly as he and Barb returned to Room 7. “That’s the only other line I remember from that old tune, but I have a feeling that the lyrics are a lot more suggestive than that. Let’s look at the video from last night that Susie just emailed.”
A picture of an obviously inebriated Charlie appeared on the screen of Bernie’s phone. In the video, Charlie made an exaggerated bow to Susie and started drunkenly crooning:
“Susie has a perfect reputation No one ever saw her on a spree Nobody knows where Susie goes Nobody knows but me
“If you knew Susie like I know Susie Oh! Oh! Oh! What a girl There’s none so classy As this fair lassie Oh! Oh! Holy Moses, what a chassis”
The video then shows a menacing Kendall rushing Charlie and goes to black.
“What horrible bad taste,” said Barb. “I never have thought much of the hook-up culture of Susie’s generation.”
“Yes,” responded Bernie sarcastically. “The Sexual Revolution of our generation was clearly morally superior.”
“I think it was more discriminating,” she said, “Romance was more than a mouse click away. But we don’t have to argue that now. What do we do about this fishocide?”
“I’m not sure that’s much of a crime, unless it was meant as a threat of bodily harm against Charlie,” responded Bernie. “So, let’s keep quiet in order not to spoil the festivities. Also,” glancing at their refrigerator, “I would go easy on the fish-scented cold drinks for now.”
“Ok,” she said. “So far as we know, Susie and Kendall are the only ones who know about this, and they said they’d keep quiet about it.”
“Good idea,” noted Bernie, “because they are the prime suspects. But I’m thinking that this piscine mutilation is antisocial enough that we’ll soon be hearing about it on social media.”
He was right about that. Susie’s dad—Bernie’s nephew, Alex—called Room 7 shortly after Barb and Bernie returned there. “It’s on Instagram,” he shouted into the phone without introduction.
“What’s on Instagram?” Bernie asked, “And, while you’re at it, what is Instragram? I’ve sort of lost track of technology after telegram.”
“The dead fish,” growled Alex. “Susie told me she filled you and Barb in about Charlie and the tuna.”
“She did, up to a point,” said Bernie. “Why don’t we meet at the restaurant to discuss this in person?”
“See you there in five minutes,” said Alex, hanging up.
“To the restaurant, Mrs. Silver,” Bernie said with a sweeping motion toward the door. “We are about to find out about Charlie’s tuna.”
They got to the restaurant before Alex and settled into a dark, wooden booth. A waiter quickly appeared to take their order.
“I was going to have the fish,” said Bernie, “but I think I’ll settle for a hamburger.”
“Bueno, bueno, Senor,” responded the waiter, “because we are out of fish right now.”
Gesturing toward the Sea of Cortez, Barb asked “How is that possible?”
“This morning the bin holding the fish was—how you say?—hijacked,” replied the waiter. “But we will have again when the boats come in today.”
Bernie raised an eyebrow, and was about to say something when Alex appeared, brandishing his phone screen toward them. Without greeting, he exclaimed, “This is Instagram!” as he held up a picture of the trisected tuna with the caption “Tell ‘em Charlie sent you.”
“I’m sure that’s quite witty,” said Barb, “but what does it mean?”
“It’s a take-off on the old StarKist Tuna TV advertisement featuring Charlie the Tuna,” responded Alex.
“With all due respect to the anonymous genius who made up this Instagram post,” said Bernie, “I don’t think the young people at this wedding will understand it.”
“All they have to do, Bernie, is google it, and, even if they don’t know the allusion, it speaks for itself. I just came from meeting with Susie and Kendall, and I can assure you that they understand it enough to be mortified.”
“Speaking of them,” asked Barb, “who do you think is responsible for ruining Charlie’s pillow?”
“You’re the detectives,” he said. “I was hoping you could find that out before this $100,000 wedding goes down the tubes.”
“The ceremony is in 24 hours, Alex. Do you think this could wait a bit?” asked Barb.
“Not if you want Susie to get married with a smile on her face…or get married at all.”
“You’ve got a point,” said Bernie. “I think I’ve got a plan.”
“Ok,” said Barb when they got back to their room. “Out with it, this grand plan of yours.”
“I was just trying to calm the father of the bride down,” replied Bernie. “Right now, my only plan is to talk to you about making a plan.”
“Why don’t we visit with Susie to see if we can get any more information?” she suggested.
After knocking on Susie’s door and getting no response, they pushed it open and saw her weeping hysterically on the bed.
“What’s wrong, dear?” asked Barb.
Susie didn’t answer; she just kept wailing while holding up her phone. Pictured on it was an Instagram post showing on a pillow another trisected tuna, this one noticeably larger than its predecessor.
When Susie finally calmed down, she whimpered, “I want to cancel the wedding. This is all just too weird.”
“Don’t even think of that,” said Bernie, with all the reassurance he could muster. “Remember that you’ve got Silver Investigations on the job, and you get our special Punta Pescadero rate, zero pesos per hour.”
“Uncle Bernie, I can’t possibly put you to all this trouble.”
“It’s 23 hours ‘til the wedding,” he responded. “If I can’t solve the mystery of the trisected tunas in half that time, I will hand in my detective license.”
Back in their room, Barb reminded Bernie that he was about to hand in his detective license in any event.
“My juices are flowing,” he said. “This is not Medicare fraud. This is for Susie.”
“By the schedule you’ve set, we’ve got about 12 hours to solve this thing before the wedding’s called off. Where do you suggest we start?”
“The Instagram post Susie showed us came from Charlie’s stepmother, Lydia. Let’s chat her up. Susie showed me a picture of her and said she’s at the pool.”
Lydia Evans, the current wife of Jeremy Evans, was in a poolside cabana by herself, absorbed in a cigarette and some tequila. “May we join you?” Barb asked. “Susie said she’d let you know we were coming here. We’re her great aunt and uncle, Barb and Bernie.”
“Thank you so much,” she said. “I don’t know why I feel responsible for what my stepson, Charlie, did at the rehearsal dinner last night, but I do. That seems to have started these other disgusting events, and now Charlie has gone back to the States.”
“Obviously someone wanted to intimidate him with that mutilated tuna,” said Bernie, “and now we’ve seen a new Instagram post of the same type of mess showing up in your room.”
“Yes, it was there when I returned from the beach at around noon. Why would anyone want to do this to me?”
“Why don’t we start with Charlie?” said Barb. “Do you know why anyone would want to inflict this on him?”
“Take your pick,” Lydia said. “There were a lot of angry people after Charlie’s ukulele recital last night.”
“That must have been hard to take,” sympathized Bernie.
“You have to understand the context, Mr. Silver.”
“What context?” he asked, “and please call me Bernie.
“Well, Susie hurt Charlie pretty badly when Kendall swooped in. Charlie really wanted to marry her.”
“So, this was his way of lashing out because of that?” queried Barb.
“Yes, and then someone lashed out at him with that horrible fish.”
“And who do you think did that?” Bernie followed up.
She looked at him intensely. “Alex or Kendall,” she responded through tightly pursed lips.
Barb and Bernie next went to Alex’s room. His first wife—Susie’s mother, Jennifer—was there. After a strained greeting, she sheepishly left the room.
“I thought you and Jennifer weren’t on speaking terms,” said Bernie.
“That’s old news,” said Alex. “It’s over ten years since we divorced, and we’ve recently become friendly planning for this wedding.”
“Hmm,” said Bernie, quizzically. “What does Heather,” Alex’s current wife, “think of this friendliness?”
“Not that it’s your business,” Alex bristled, “but a little friendliness doesn’t really count when it’s your former spouse. Changing the subject to something much more important, how is your investigation going? Susie is about to call the whole thing off.”
“I think we’re making some progress,” said Bernie, as Barb looked askance.
“How’s that?” asked Alex.
“Well, for one thing,” responded Bernie, “I think we’re dealing with two different perpetrators.”
“What makes you figure that?” questioned Alex.
“Well, what do you see when you compare these two tuna corpses?
“Two gutted fish. Is this a joke?”
“Not at all,” responded Bernie. “Look at the slices.”
Alex looked blank, but Barb picked up on what Bernie was saying immediately. “The diagonals go downward to the left in the first picture and downward to the right in the second.”
“Precisely,” exclaimed Bernie. “The first one was done by a left-handed person and the second by a right-handed person.”
Alex immediately brightened. “Why are you suddenly looking so chipper, nephew?” asked Bernie.
“Quite frankly, Uncle Bernie, until this moment, I was afraid that Susie or Kendall had done this to Charlie—they were so angry. But they are both right-handed.”
“And you?” Bernie pressed. “I’m sure it won’t surprise you that the father of the bride is a suspect when his daughter has been humiliated at her own wedding.”
“I am left-handed, it’s true,” responded Alex. “But my first ex-wife can provide an alibi for me. We were together, um, all morning, and I was told that Charlie checked out at 10 a.m.”
“I am sure that Jennifer will be surprised that it is she who is providing an alibi for you,” said Bernie, “but we will check it out and get back to you. In the meantime, do you have any pictures from the rehearsal dinner last night?”
“Dozens. I will email them to you.”
“We’ve got six hours, Bernie,” said Barb when they returned to their room. “This is not really the time to be looking at pictures of the rehearsal dinner.”
“No, Barb, this is precisely the time for that. Here, for example, is one of Charlie playing the ukulele. Do you see anything of interest?”
“Hmm,” Barb replied. “There are not many left-handed ukulele players, but he clearly is one. However, what motive could he possibly have to leave a mutilated fish in his own room?”
“Well,” Bernie replied, “he was a disappointed lover, and he had just disgraced himself at the rehearsal dinner. What better way to ruin his ex-girlfriend’s wedding than to make it look like she or her groom-to-be did some horrible thing to him?”
“It’s a bit convoluted,” she said, “and there’s one other big problem.” He wasn’t here when the second fishocide occurred. How are you going to explain that?”
“Trust me,” he said, heading out the door.
She followed, commenting, “I like that spring in your step!”
Bernie strode to the opposite wing of the hotel, where Lydia Evans and her husband, Jeremy, were staying. Lydia looked unwelcoming as Barb and Bernie asked if they could speak to her for a few minutes, but she reluctantly let them in.
“We’re going out to dinner with the bride and groom in 30 minutes,” she said. “So please make it quick.”
“This won’t take long, Lydia,” said Bernie. “It’s about Charlie.”
“No surprise there,” she responded. Most things in my life for the past 15 years have been about Charlie. He suffered when his mother left Kendall’s father, and I’ve been picking up the pieces since then.”
“And three of those pieces were parts of a tuna, correct?”
She slumped. “How…how did you know?”
“It wasn’t easy,” answered Bernie. “The obvious thing to think when we saw the fish was that someone was wreaking revenge on Charlie for having acted like a boor at the rehearsal dinner. But that didn’t really fit the facts. The obvious suspects, Susie, Kendall and Alex would be the last ones to want to spoil the wedding with an uproar like this. And, since Charlie’s room had not been cleaned when we dropped our luggage there, he was really the only one with easy access to it. So—and now I’m speculating a bit—he thought that this would be a good way for him to get his revenge by ruining the wedding and seeming like a victim to boot.”
“You’re right,” she sighed. “By the time he got to the airport at Cabo to go home, he thought better of it and called me to dispose of the mess. But you had already dropped your luggage in Room 7 by then.”
“Ah, now I see,” said Barb. “Your maternal instinct kicked in and you wanted to protect Charlie from having even more scorn heaped on him by his peers and family gathered here, so you mutilated the second tuna and posted the picture of it. Since that happened after Charlie’s departure, you thought it would take him off the hook, so to speak.”
“I was desperate,” she said. “And I didn’t count on two detectives being on the guest list.”
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am, Uncle Bernie,” said Susie. “I don’t know what I would have done had you and Aunt Barb not figured things out and had I not received abject apologies from Charlie and Lydia. Would you do me one more big favor?”
“Hard to say no at this point,” gushed Bernie. “The truth is, I was a little bit depressed when we arrived here, but helping you and Kendall make it through to the wedding has put me in a much better place.”
“Great,” she said. “Would you preside at the wedding?”
“I don’t think I have any authority vested in me to do that,” he said. “Besides, what about the person you’ve already lined up to do that?”
“He’s just a local rent-an-officiant,” responded Kendall, “and he will get paid. Regarding your clerical authority, check out the Universal Faith Church on the Internet.” Kendall held out toward Bernie a phone screen with an advertisement for ‘Instant Ordination.’ “I think we can vest you with all the authority you need for the next 24 hours.”
“Dearly beloved,” Bernie intoned at 3 p.m. the next day, looking beatifically at the audience, especially the front row with eight beaming parental and step-parental faces. “Although this is not the first marriage that we here have witnessed or perhaps even participated in, that makes it no less special. Most of life is repetition, but it is the positive energy we put into those reps that makes them special…”
“So, I take it from your sermon, Reverend Silver, that you might be ready for your 598th Medicare investigation,” observed Barb later on, grinning.
“I think I will buy myself a pair of Mexican boots while we’re here,” Bernie responded.