The Rhubarb of Doubt by Chris Green
I have nothing scheduled for the day and am just catching up on my Minecraft when Tara Vain pushes open the door to my office. I have my feet up on the desk and a blunt burning down in the ashtray. I was not expecting anyone. Since the downturn, there has been a lamentable drop in business. No-one can afford to hire a private detective any more. Custody battles are no longer pursued. Cuckolded spouses are tolerating greater degrees of infidelity. People are more readily relinquishing their identity to computer fraudsters. Things are so bad I have had to let my assistant, Brody go and have had to auction my prized Mercury GM. If things become any worse I will need to consider downsizing my premises.
The sight of a stunning babe in a summer dress and designer jewellery standing there takes me by surprise but not so much as when she comes out with her request. Not perhaps her request per se. She wants her husband found and tailed. No problem there. This is the kind of thing that Mason Edge Associates do as a bread and butter activity. The bombshell comes when she says that her husband is in Devon in England. We, of course, are based in Los Angeles.
‘This might seem like a stupid question,’ I say, ‘But why not hire a private detective in England? In Devon, perhaps. Surely they must have them over there.’
‘Because, Mr Edge, I live in New York,’ she says.
‘New York?’ I say. ‘This is LA, lady. Or didn’t you notice Sunset Strip on the way in?’
‘I liked the name,’ she says. ‘Mason Edge Associates suggests integrity.’
‘That’s good to know, Mrs …..’
‘Vain,’ she says. Tara Vain.’
‘Well, Mrs Vain. We do have a certain reputation around these parts,’ I say. ‘But I was unaware that this stretched as far as New York.’
‘I have a house in Los Angeles too, Mr Edge,’ she says, sitting herself down and adjusting the hem of her dress – upwards. ‘I mean, who doesn’t? But I no longer live there.’
I slide a leaflet across the desk. Is this to pretend that I have not noticed her long legs or might it be to get a little closer? Perhaps, it is a little of both. Maybe the gesture is unintentional. I can’t say that I’ve completely taken to Tara Vain. Well, apart from the legs. Everything seems to be a bit of a game to her. Perhaps I am missing Belinda more than I thought, at least in the physical sense. Belinda moved out to pastures new at the onset of the downturn. She was not ready for hardship.
‘This will explain my rates,’ I say.
‘No need, Mr Edge,’ says Tara Vain. ‘I’ve been on your website. This gave me the low down on the numbers. I’m sure you will do a fine job. Now, let’s get on.’
‘And the expenses will of course need to include flights,’ I say. ‘I assume they do have airports in Devon, England.’
‘Very droll, Mr Edge,’ she says. ‘I’ve booked all your flights and hired a car for you. I’ve even found you a comfortable hotel in Exeter.
‘Exeter. Yes, I do believe I’ve heard of Exeter,’ I say. ‘In the south-west, isn’t it?’
‘It’s a little way from London, yes, but I’m sure you’ll manage to find your way around. And they even have electricity there these days.’
‘And you believe this is where your husband is?’
‘Somewhere around there, yes. I’m sure you will find him. Devon is not a big place.’
I have the Google map up on the computer. Devon is a huge space but I let it go. After all, she is paying for my time.
‘Tell me! Why do you want me to tail your husband, Mrs Vain?’ I say. ‘Marital indiscretion?’
‘In a manner of speaking, I suppose,’ she says. ‘But it’s more complicated than that.’
Supremely confident up until now, she seems suddenly uncomfortable. She pulls the hem of her dress back down and leans forward. ‘Look, Mr Edge. I’ll be honest with you. OK? Matty has run off with my lover, Yannis. They are having …… an affair.’
‘Ah! I see,’ I say, not flinching. Deviation in one’s proclivities is becoming more and more commonplace in matrimonial cases.
Tara Vain bluetooths me some photos of her husband along with some of her and Yannis together on a yacht somewhere. She says she is not able to give me much more information on what exactly they might be up to as she has lost touch. They have both changed their phones, she says and she suspects they are both using different names for their social media activities. She suggests that Matthew Vain and Yannis Milos or whatever they are now calling themselves might be embarking on a new business venture together in Devon and this would be a good place to begin my investigation.
‘What line of business is your husband in?’ I ask.
‘Matty’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer,’ she says. ‘He’s done a bit of everything. He doesn’t stay at anything long.’
‘What about Yannis?’ I ask.
‘Yannis’s an entrepreneur too,’ she says. ‘A rather dashing one. Yannis’s full of ……. surprises. That’s why I fell for him, I suppose.’
I am fortunate with the choice of hotel in Exeter as, on arrival, I discover a nearby one burned down the previous week. The oldest hotel in the country, apparently. We don’t have anything like that in LA. Everything is new. My room is quite small but the bed is comfortable and there are some paintings on the wall. Modern stuff, I suppose you might say. A bit like Dalí. There’s one called The Rhubarb of Doubt and another called The Damson of Hope. There are another two in the lobby, The Onion of Despair and The Marrow of Certainty. Lord knows what they mean but they are quite vibrant. Apparently, the manageress’s son is doing joint honours in Horticulture and Fine Art at Dartington College nearby.
I do not have a particular strategy for my investigation but I feel it would be a good idea to start with the gay clubs in Exeter to see if Matty and Yannis might be around. After all, the gay scene in Devon is unlikely to be an extensive one. It’s more of an urban phenomenon. I look in at a gay sauna place near the hotel. This is not at all like the establishments in you find in LA. No razzmatazz here. It is little more than a shed. There is no steam room, no jacuzzi. Just as well as I was not anxious to try these out. I have a quick look upstairs at the relaxation rooms and the so-called cruising area but clearly, Matty and Yannis are not there. I do not feel inclined to linger. In the evening, I do a whistle-stop tour of the two clubs in town that Google lists as gay haunts but again there is no sign.
After a similar foray into the unknown in downtown Torquay the following day, I begin to think that I might be barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps I am just showing my preconceptions of what gay life might entail. Belinda always used to maintain I was homophobic. They are the same as anyone else, she would say. She has one or two gay friends so I’m sure she’s right. There is no reason why they should be any different. There is certainly no reason why two men who have not hitherto come across as gay, at least to Tara Vain, would have habits that are different to two straight men. They might even play soccer or go fishing. They would not necessarily frequent gay haunts. I realise I’m not going to find them by pursuing this line of enquiry. It looks as if I might have to do some real detective work after all.
I wonder why Tara wants me to find her husband at all, especially as she intimated she does not want him back. My understanding is that under New York law, divorce is easy as finding a police officer in a doughnut shop. But, she is paying for the service so why should I complain?
Tara phones me from Chicago to find out how I am getting on.
‘Chicago!’ I say, ‘What are you doing in Chicago?’
She says that her hairdresser is in Chicago, so she has flown out to get her hair restyled. It is clear that while the rest of us are struggling, Tara has money to burn. I don’t pursue it. Instead, I give her an update on my progress, or lack of.
‘Matty and Yannis are probably looking to start some kind of business over there,’ she says. ‘In which case, they will be looking for premises. Why don’t you start looking around the commercial property agents?’
This was more or less what I had planned for the next day but I find it is often best to let the client feel they are in control so I agree with her and tell her I will report back. I take a careful look through the commercial property to let on Rightmove for a twenty mile radius of Exeter and come up with hundreds of selections. On the assumption that the pair would hardly come over to Devon to embark on a small venture, I filter the results by price, top down. This still leaves a sizeable number of choices. No-one seems to be taking up commercial property. The downturn seems to have hit them harder down here in the south-west. Business, it seems, is centred around London and the south-east. I decide to take a drive around the major towns and look at a few of the options. If I engage one or two of the agents in general chat, I might be able to find out something.
The Nissan Micra is smaller than I am used to, but everyone over here seems to drive around in these miniature cars. Something to do with the narrow roads, I suspect. It isn’t so much that they drive on the wrong side of the road over here as they are forced to drive down the middle. They do have something called the Devon Expressway but it’s more like a country lane. No need for my Pacific Coast Highway playlist on these roads. The other thing I miss is a dank-ass burrito. You can’t get one for love or money in these parts.
‘What line of business are you in?’ asks Myles Harman of Travis and Babb in Newton Abbot.
‘Import and Export,’ I tell him.
‘Aha,’ says Myles. ‘I guessed that it might be something like that. You’re not from round here are you?’
‘You noticed the accent, then,’ I say. ‘Look! I don’t suppose a colleague of mine from back home called in recently. A Matthew Vain. Perhaps with his er, partner, Yannis Milos.’
‘To be honest, Mr Edge, we don’t get a lot of Americans here in Devon.’
‘How many square feet of floorspace do you think you might need for your operation?’ asks Richie Lunsford of Creamer and Vest in their Dartmouth branch.
‘I was thinking we might need a large premises and perhaps one or two smaller units as well,’ I say, hoping that this might perhaps remind him of a recent enquiry by other Americans. It doesn’t. I broach the subject directly but he all but ignores it. There seems to be some kind of language barrier. I’ve noticed it once or twice since I’ve been here. It’s as if my accent masks the fact that I want a normal conversation. It’s as if I am speaking to them from behind a TV screen and they don’t know how to respond.
‘Are you OK with premises on an industrial estate or do you need to be in town?’ asks Ben Shaver of Sadler Betts in Paignton.
‘I’d need to consult with my clients, Matthew Vain and Yannis Milos,’ I say. ‘I don’t suppose they’ve called in themselves, only I know they’re in the area.’
‘No. I don’t recall the names,’ says Ben. ‘In fact, you are the first one to enquire about commercial property for some time. There’s been a bit of a slump in the market, recently.’
‘The south coast of Devon has a rich history of smuggling,’ says Kieran Wagstaff in the Salcombe branch of Sadler Betts. He clearly does not get a lot of opportunities to chat and sees himself as something of a local historian. As I am a visiting American, he sees it as his duty to educate me.
‘And there’s talk that on dark nights it still goes on today in these waters with all the remote coves and no coastguard patrols. Contraband, drugs and lately even people come into the country this way. When Sadler Betts took on those units you are looking at the particulars of, I did wonder if this was what they had once been used for or perhaps what they would be used for in the future.’
‘But you have had no enquiries,’ I say.
‘No I’m afraid not,’ he says. ‘Not even from a developer. And we’ve had them on our books for several months now. The market is a little weak at the moment.’
Kieran Wagstaff’s words set me thinking, though. What greater entrepreneurial opportunity for two American wheeler-dealers could there be in these parts than a bit of good honest smuggling? Granted, Matty and Yannis had not taken up any of the Sadler Betts units but they could well be based somewhere around here. I decide to concentrate my search on this particular stretch of coast.
YMCA is an odd name for a juice bar, I think to myself. A juice bar? A brightly-coloured juice bar surrounded by lush vegetation, screaming out its presence, here in the otherwise sleepy village of Wembury? Could this be it? Y.M.CA? Of course. Yannis and Matty from California, with the underlying tongue in cheek gay connotations? It has to be. Perhaps it is the start of a chain of juice bars they are setting up all around the south coast. And beyond. I peer inside. There, amongst the palms and yuccas that decorate the place, are several young people sitting at tables, sipping smoothies. I can just make out the two figures behind the counter. These match the pictures I have of Matty and Yannis.
I call Tara Vain, half expecting she will be in Miami buying a crystal chandelier or in Denver buying chocolate confections, or something. How would she like me to proceed? But, her cell is switched off. I discover I don’t have another number for her.
I take another look inside YMCA, my eyes right up to the glass. This could easily be a tourist stop-off in L.A. The walls are bedecked with pictures of Malibu and Venice beaches, the Hollywood Sign, The Beach Boys, orange groves and all things California. It looks as is if Matty and Yannis might be trying to establish a brand. This is probably how Burger King, KFC, Subway, Papa John’s all got started. Begin with a small outlet somewhere by the coast where rents are cheaper than in the capital and slowly but surely expand the franchise worldwide.
I’m thinking, it won’t do any harm to go in and have a healthy smoothie, avocado and strawberry or kiwi and almond, or perhaps a purple power smoothie with mixed berries and vanilla extract. I step inside. West Coast singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit is playing softly. I quietly sit myself down at a table near the window. To my surprise, Matty and Yannis come straight over to greet me. In his striped apron, Matty looks taller than I imagined and Yannis seems to have filled out a little since the photos of him were taken.
‘Ha! A fellow American,’ says Matty, even before I have spoken. How can he tell, I wonder? Is it the way I carry myself, the way I dress, my haircut?
‘From downtown L.A.’ says Yannis. How does he know? Has he seen me around the city, perhaps?
‘The game’s up, dude,’ Matty continues. ‘It’s over. We know Tara sent you.’
‘You were quicker than the last guy,’ says Yannis, smiling. ‘The last one took nearly two weeks.’
‘What! ………. ‘ I say, trying to take aboard what he is saying. ‘Why?’
‘I agree,’ says Matty. ‘You’d think she could find something more worthwhile to spend her inheritance on, wouldn’t you?’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved