Ron Katz has been a trial lawyer for decades. He published over 100 non-fiction pieces, including a book, before creating The Sleuthing Silvers in 2019. In 2016, he was a Fellow at Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute.
The Sleuthing Silvers and The Mystery of the Lost Marbles
“Have you lost your—” “Please save the Boomer humor, Bernie,” interrupted Al Jordan. “We’re talking serious money here.” Barb and Bernie Silver, semi-retired private investigators, were discussing a possible new case with their former supervisor at the Alpha Insurance Company, Al Jordan. “Like 72 cents?” queried Bernie. “I used to have hundreds of marbles when I was a kid, but nobody ever offered to buy one for anything more than a nickel.” “Times may have changed in the last 60 years,” chimed in Barb, holding out her smartphone. Pictured on it was a small white orb with green swirls called a Peltier Pearlized Patch Marble, selling for $31. “So,” Bernie responded, “if this chap—what’s his name?” “Edmund Salter III,” interjected Al. “If, to coin a phrase, he lost all of his marbles--even if he had 1000 of them--it would still add up to only enough to pay us for a few weeks, let alone to pay off any insurance claims.” You’re right about that, Bernie,” said Al, “and I’ve been meaning to talk to you about your rates, but we’re talking more about marbles like this.” He took out a picture of an Onion Skin Blizzard Marble, containing a starburst of colors from suspended bits of mica. “This puppy sold for $9775 in 2009, and it hasn’t gotten any cheaper since then.” “I told you we were in the wrong business, Bernie,” moaned Barb. “How do we get in on the action, Al?” “Well, you can start by taking this case. Mr. Salter’s marble collection, worth over $1 million, has been missing for ten days. Need I say that Alpha insured it?” “Why don’t you just send out one of your in-house investigators?” asked Bernie. “Why pay our per diem, which, by the way, is at its highest for lost marbles?” “Quite frankly,” Al responded, “putting it as delicately as I can, our investigators are too young to relate to the 81-year-old Mr. Salter.” “So am I!” exclaimed Barb. “Maybe so, but you’re a lot closer in age to Mr. Salter than my crew of millennials. Also…Mr. Salter may not be playing with a full mental deck.” “And what makes you think that we can deal with that?” grumbled Bernie. “All I know is that my young investigators can’t.” “Baby Boomers to the Rescue?” asked Barb. “You might say that,” said Al. “Show me what ya' got.” ***** “Millions for marbles, who knew?” asked Bernie when they were driving back to their home south of San Francisco. Barb’s phone rang. “Long time, no see, Al,” she said. “I’ll put you on the speaker.” “Forgot one little detail that also caused my investigators some heartburn,” Al said. “Mr. Salter has a yappy pooch named Snowball.” “No problem,” exclaimed Barb, “I’m a bit of a dog whisperer.” Bernie added, “Resisting Barb’s charms, that dog doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in—” “Love that Boomer humor,” interrupted Al, and he hung up. ***** “I’ve searched the web,” Barb mentioned later that day when she and Bernie were enjoying Margaritas before their dinner of chicken fajitas, “and marbles are a well-known collectible in certain circles. They’ve been around since ancient times. Take a look at this online catalogue.” “Buy me one of these for about $500, please,” requested Bernie, pointing to a translucent marble containing the figure of a white frog. “Surely you jest, Bernie.” “Nope. Al has told Edmund the Third we’re qualified for this investigation because we’re marble experts, and this marble is special enough to be a great icebreaker with this grump. Plus, it’s a business expense that, I am sure, Al will pay with a smile after we save him his million bucks. In short, my dear . . . we’re going for all the marbles.” ***** “My father is awaiting you in the study,” directed the middle-aged man with a vague wave. He was wearing a blue Oxford shirt, a down vest and khakis as he greeted them abruptly at the front door of the home of Edmund Salter III in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood. “I hope you do better with him today than I did,” he muttered, as he stalked out the door. The first sound Barb and Bernie heard as they approached the solid oak study door was, as Al Jordan had predicted, some yapping. As they entered the wood-paneled, book-lined room, Edmund Salter III shot them an unpleasant glance and returned his attention to his oversized computer screen. Although he was a little stooped, he had the build of a former athlete, strong features and a full head of iron-grey hair. A little white dog approached Barb, stopped barking hysterically and started tentatively and slowly wagging her tail. “She’s a rescue mutt,” said Salter gruffly, without looking up. “She likes--maybe ‘tolerates’ is a better word--only me.” “May I sit on the floor at her level for a moment?” asked Barb. “Knock yourself out,” continued Salter sarcastically. “Her name is Snowball, but my late wife called her ‘Snowbie.’” Barb got on the floor and held out her hand, which retained a slight scent of the filet of sole she had eaten for lunch. Snowball’s wagging tail accelerated, and she let herself be petted by Barb. “You are a sweetheart, Snowbie,” purred Barb. Salter brightened. “She never acts friendly like that. Must be that you resemble my late wife. Snowbie still remembers her even though she’s been gone five years. They had a unique bond, especially after Jane got sick.” “I always carry dog treats for just such an occasion,” responded Barb. “May I give her one?” “If she’ll take them, sure,” answered Salter, warming up to this unexpected friendship. “She would be the first to ever refuse them from me,” said Barb, handing a treat and then two others to the dog, which looked like an oversized, curly-haired Chihuahua. “My wife loves dogs and vice versa,” said Bernie. “And I love marbles, which I played endlessly as a kid and which is what brings us here today. Thanks for agreeing to help us start our investigation of your missing marble collection. I just purchased this,” he said, removing his recently purchased marble from a pretentious silk pouch and holding it up for Salter to admire. “Hmm, a sulphide frog marble,” Salter mused. “May I take a closer look?” “Sure,” answered Bernie, “take your time.” He handed it to Salter. “Nice,” commented Salter after inspecting it for a few moments under a magnifying glass. “You know, those insurance investigators who came earlier didn’t know the difference between alabaster and clay marbles.” “Neither do I,” thought Bernie. All that came out of his mouth, however, was “Millennials think they know everything, but between the ‘likes’ and ‘you knows’ in their conversation, no one could accuse them of being articulate.” “You betcha,” said Salter. “Even my only son doesn’t approve of my marble collecting. In fact, he doesn’t approve of most things I enjoy. Sometimes I get the feeling that he thinks I’m just wasting his inheritance.” “Speaking of that,” re-directed Barb, “we were sorry to hear that your collectible marbles have gone missing. Can you tell us a little bit about your collection?” “I’m advised on collectibles by Patricia Selden at Sutter Auctions. She has given very profitable advice over the years and has also become a good friend. She brought some valuable specimens here two weeks ago for possible purchase, and we compared them with some that I had in my safe. I told her I would think about it. Several days later, when I opened the safe to look for some marbles to show a friend, they were gone. They were in a big cherrywood box, hard to misplace.” “Who has the key to the safe?” “Patricia does, because sometimes, when I am not available, she needs access to show the marbles to potential buyers. Also, my son has access, because the safe contains the documents pertaining to my final arrangements. That’s it.” “Do you mind if we speak to your son and Patricia?” “Not at all,” said Salter as the doorbell rang, setting off a new round of barking from Snowball, who had been resting peacefully on Barb’s lap. He looked at his watch and said, “That must be my yoga instructor, Karen. You’ll have to excuse me.” “No problem,” said Barb, rising as she brushed off some dog hair. A fit young woman carrying two blue yoga mats entered the room. “Carol, meet Mr. and Mrs. Silver,” Salter said. “Nice to meet you,” said the young woman, “but, Edmund, after five years, you should know my name is Karen.” “Yes, yes, Carol,” stuttered Salter, “I mean, Karen.” ***** “Well, that worked out better than expected,” said Bernie when he and Barb were back in the car. “Once Snowball became your friend, Ed became much more cooperative.” “That feigned marble enthusiasm of yours didn’t hurt either,” responded Barb. “Also, I thought Ed was sharp, at least until Carol a/k/a Karen made her entrance.” “I agree,” said Bernie. “It will be interesting to speak to his collectibles adviser.” *****
Patricia Selden was, as the Silvers had expected, fashionable and attractive, as she greeted them in her ultramodern office, with a view of San Francisco Bay, at Sutter Auctions. She was a bit younger than they had anticipated. With a professionally practiced smile, she quickly got to the point: “I assume you’re here about the lost marbles.” “Literally and perhaps figuratively as well,” responded Bernie. “Jumping right into our interview, do you think Mr. Salter has any memory or other mental issues?” Selden reddened a bit, then said “I think he’s doing well for his age.” “Could you be more specific?” queried Barb. “Well, his memory is not always perfect, and he is a bit frail, but, to me, he seems perfectly competent. We discuss his marble collection at least once a week at his home, and sometimes we travel to marble collector shows together. I’ve been working with him since I was a young intern here. The older advisers were not very interested in collectible marbles, so I’ve made that my niche. Fortunately, the marble market has been good to my clients, especially Edmund. “How good?” “In round numbers, he’s invested $300,000 in a collection that’s now worth $1 million.” “Given that high number, I assume you haven’t had any problems with Mr. Salter.” “Not with him. But from time to time his son, Edmund IV, calls to complain that this is not a good way for his father to spend money.” “Speaking of that, how do you charge Mr. Salter for your services?” She hesitated a beat before answering. “Since I started out advising him when I was an intern, my hourly rate is low for an auction house like this one--$25--but over the years, as Ed and I became closer, he has mentioned providing me a $100,000 bequest in his will. So, I have kept the hourly rate low.” “How friendly are you, if I may ask?” inquired Barb. “I. . . I understand that this is a serious matter, so no offense taken. I would say that, to Edmund, I am the daughter he never had.” “We appreciate your candor,” said Bernie, getting up. “Please let us know if you observe any unusual activity in the marble market.” ***** Back in the car, Barb said “Shall we go from the daughter he never had to the son he did have?” “Good idea,” responded Bernie. Edmund IV is an English professor at San Jose State, which is not too far from here. He’s expecting us this afternoon.” “Do you think he will have motives anywhere near as compelling as Patricia’s?” asked Barb. “Despite her obvious motives,” observed Bernie, “I don’t see her as a thief. I think she might be playing a longer game.” ***** Edmund Salter IV’s cramped office at San Jose State was filled with books and several pictures of his wife and two teenage children. There was one photo of his late mother and none of his father. Commenting on that absence while the professor was getting them coffee from another room, Bernie said “Why am I not surprised?” The younger Edmund returned and inquired, “Have you found those stupid marbles yet?” “We’re just starting our investigation,” demurred Barb. “I take it that you’re not a fan of marble collecting.” “Not at all, but it’s no worse than many of the other expenses my father incurs on a regular basis.” “Like what?” “Oh, he has a half dozen or so young women servicing him every week. Also, I would say that his little mutt lives like a queen, but most queens would envy Snowball’s lifestyle. Have you seen her palatial doghouse in the backyard?” “Servicing?” “Not what you’re thinking. But all these young women think he’s somewhat helpless, tend to all of his needs and provide him with companionship.” “We’ve met Patricia Selden and his yoga instructor—I think her name’s Karen. Is there anyone else?” “Oh, yes. There’s his physical therapist, Heather; and his masseuse, Tara; and his housekeeper, Marta; and his dogwalker, Brittany.” “Can you give us their contact information?” “With pleasure. Although they’re independent, sometimes I think they all work for the same company, which I have nicknamed Vultures R Us.” “Is it possible,” asked Barb, ignoring the sarcasm, “that he’s just lonely?” “Perhaps,” the son answered, “but would that be so unusual for an 81-year-old widower?” “I don’t know,” answered Barb. “Your family photos are lovely. How often does he see your family?” “Before my mother died, he was still busy with his neurosurgery practice and they travelled a lot, particularly to international conferences where he was the featured speaker. After mom died, we had him over for dinner every Sunday, but that sort of petered out. Somehow the financial advantages of being a medical doctor rather than a doctor of philosophy in English literature would always come up when he visited.” “Is he close to your children?” asked Barb, trying to fill out the family dynamic. “Generally, teenagers are not very interested in their grandparents, and mine are no exception,” answered the professor. “Changing the subject a bit,” said Bernie, “he mentioned that you have access to his safe, where he keeps the collectible marbles and his will. Is that true?” “Yes, but anyone who’s been to the house regularly knows that he keeps the key to that safe in his unlocked desk drawer. He’s always pulling the key out when he shows off those damnable marbles.” “Have you seen his will?” “Which one? One of his lawyer friends showed him how to do a handwritten will, and he seems to write a new one every month.” ***** “He has more motives than Patricia,” observed Barb as they headed home. “Let’s reserve judgment until we talk with Karen, Tara, Heather, Marta and Brittany,” responded Bernie. “Sounds like roll call at a Girl Scouts camp,” murmured Barb. ***** The next Saturday, they drove to their favorite hotel in Carmel, La Playa Blanca, to rest from the eight interviews of the preceding week. “Let’s see,” said Bernie while brunching on an egg white omelette, sipping a mimosa and gazing at the ocean, “We’ve talked to six daughters that he never had, plus one son that he wishes he hadn’t.” Added Barb, “These lovely and talented young women all track the pattern we saw with Patricia Seldin. They practically give away their services to him in exchange for being promised $100,000 in his will…and I wouldn’t be surprised if these constantly changing wills provide handsomely for Snowball too.” “So,” Bernie observed, “everyone’s a suspect, and therefore no one is a suspect. They all seem nice enough, except Ed the Fourth, and it’s hard to blame him for being a little testy, living on a professor’s salary while his dad’s harem, when providing companionship, has strawberries and cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” “I wouldn’t call them a harem,” Barb rejoined, “just a very high form of assisted living.” “I’ll say,” agreed Bernie. “One of them comes to his home every day but Sunday.” Assuming an attitude of prayer, Barb added, “Even the Lord needed one day of rest.” ***** “Today can’t be our day of rest,” said Bernie the next day, “because we owe Al Jordan a report tomorrow.” “I have a feeling we’ll hear something today,” responded Barb. “These interviews will have created some pressure, and someone has to have a guilty conscience.” Just then the phone rang. “Bernie, this is Ed Salter. . . the marble collector,” said the voice, somewhat haltingly, over the speaker. “Sorry to bother you on a Sunday, but something has come up. Can you and your wife stop by at 4 p.m. today?” Bernie looked at Barb, who nodded. “Barb says she will be delighted to see you and Snowbie then, Ed. We’ll bring some dog treats.” ***** When they pulled up to Salter’s home later that day, all the shades were down and they heard Snowball barking incessantly in the backyard. After no response to the doorbell, they circled behind the house and saw Snowball standing in front of a rather elaborate doghouse. She was barking because the entrance to the doghouse was blocked by a large cherrywood box. “This doesn’t look good,” said Bernie. “Why don’t you take Snowball to our house, if she’ll go with you, while I call Joe Kelly at the SFPD?” Enticed by some treats from Barb’s purse, Snowball allowed Barb to pick her up and carry her to their car. ***** About three hours later, Bernie and Joe Kelly arrived at the Silvers’ Tudor-style home, looking grim. “We found Ed sitting at his desk, unresponsive,” said Bernie. “There were no signs of forced entry, but, of course, all seven suspects have keys to the house. I’ve told Joe about all the suspects, and he will start investigating immediately. His team is finishing up now at the Salter home.” “No need for more detective work,” responded Barb. “Snowbie has given us the solution. This was wrapped around her collar.” She held out a piece of onionskin paper, handwritten and headed “Last Will and Testament. “I tried calling you when I found this, Bernie, but your phone was off.” “Yes, I generally don’t take calls at crime scenes.” “What it says,” Barb continued, “is that Ed had recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Because, as a retired neurosurgeon, he knew what suffering lay ahead, he thought it was best for all concerned if he accelerated his demise.” “What did he say about this?” asked Kelly, holding up a clear evidence bag containing a large cherrywood box with the top removed. It contained rows and rows of colorful, glistening marbles. “I’ll read you that paragraph,” said Barb, taking the will back from Kelly. “Salter says, ‘In an effort to stave off the loneliness of old age, I ended up promising bequests of $100,000 each to the young women who provided priceless help to me in various ways. Unfortunately, the recent stock market dip caused a shortfall in my estate plan of approximately this $600,000, plus another $100,000 to insure that Snowball will be well cared for. The proceeds from the insurance on these marbles would have more than made up that shortfall, so I falsely reported them missing, hid them, and started sending out feelers in the black market. I now realize that what I did was foolish and wrong. Don’t ask me why, but, somehow, I felt that life owed me something for inflicting me with old age. Luckily, I came to my senses before it was too late, realizing that, as someone once said, youth is a gift but age is an art. Perhaps that’s a bit trite, but it is my truth at the end of this road.’” “What about his son?” asked Bernie. “Did Ed the Third leave anything to Ed the Fourth?” “That’s the last paragraph,” responded Barb: “’It’s sad that my ambition for my son wasn’t right for him, which prevented us from having the relationship we both ached for. Hopefully that will not carry through to the next generation, so I give all of my estate--minus $700,000, divided equally, for my female service providers and for the care of my late wife’s beloved dog, Snowball--to my son’s two children, to be administered by my son in trust until both of the children are 30 years old. Hopefully that will relieve my son of enough expenses, like college tuitions, so that he can research and write about English literature in a way that, I am sure, will make me proud. I know he will let my grandsons live their lives as they wish, regardless of what he thinks is best for them.’” ***** “So, you’ve solved the case of the lost marbles,” said Al Jordan, with a satisfied grin on his face. “I guess Baby Boomers rule.” “Not so sure, Al,” replied Barb. “The young women we met during this investigation were all impressive, and I think they genuinely cared about Ed. Who’s to say what the last years of his life would have been like without them?” “You might be right,” observed Al. “In order to understand the elderly, you have to walk, or limp, for a mile in their shoes.” “Now who’s attempting Boomer humor?” asked Bernie. “On that rare occasion when it’s done right,” responded Al, “it can be funny. Oh, one other thing. Salter’s son dropped by earlier today to take custody of the marbles and to sign a release. When he learned how much their value had appreciated, I think he had a renewed respect for his dad. He seemed to be at peace with the situation, except for Snowball. He’s never warmed up to her, and--having heard from his dad how well Snowball and Barb got along--he asked whether you would be interested in adopting her.” Barb reflexively smiled, but Bernie held up a hand before she could utter a word, saying “Not if that’s how you think you can pay our fee, Al.” “Not at all,” responded Al. “But, somehow, you owe me one for Snowball’s trust fund. Spending that amount, even on the greatest canine luxuries, would take at least 20 years, and Snowball is no spring chicken. Plus, I can see from Barb’s glow that Snowbie will hardly be a burden.” Grinning, Barb rejoined, “You are right about that, Al. It’s not even profane—because it’s literally true--to say that Snowbie has become one rich. . .” She paused. Bernie thought it was for effect, but she surprised him by saying “pooch,” and then “I think the Millennials are right--we should declare a moratorium on Boomer humor.” *****