Story Excerpt

The Case of the Truculent Avocado

by Mark Thielman

TheCaseTruculentAvocado_Kelly-DenatoArt by Kelly Denato

“Why don’t you just tell me why you killed the turtle?” The deputy asked, giving me the practiced stare he had undoubtedly learned in Intimidation 101.

I shook my head. “He is . . . was,” I corrected myself, “an avocado, not a turtle.”

The deputy paused, momentarily taken aback. The dead guy looked like a turtle: round, dark green shell, mostly smooth, pressed against the floor; light green underside facing up to the fluorescent lights arrayed along the ceiling of Uncle Bob’s Natural Food Emporium. All four green limbs splayed to the sides. Undoubtedly, whenever the deputy pictured a dead turtle, or passed one patrolling some county backroad, he always saw it belly to heaven, shell hard against the farm-to-market. Legs straining till death, trying to right itself. Likely, he had never run across a murdered avocado. Certain of his own rightness, the deputy tried again.

“What’s a man dressed like a turtle doing dead in the produce section of my little town’s fanciest grocery store?”

I rolled my eyes and looked around the employee break room of the Food Emporium. It was going to be a long day.

“Charles wasn’t a turtle. The produce manager was wearing an avocado costume. It is California Avocado Month here at the store. Though,” I added, “I can see how it might look that way.”

“What I see,” said the deputy. He slapped the table for emphasis, nearly knocking over his small digital recorder, “what I see is that you’re evading the real question I’m asking . . . And why can’t you sit still without squirming? Are you nervous?”

I wanted to ask whether the deputy had ever sat through an interview wearing a Russian Banana fingerling potato costume. It digs into your backside. If, however, you’re a potato and try to complain about a wedgie, no one takes you seriously. So, I thought better and decided to just answer the question I’d been asked. “No, I’m not nervous.”

“How did you end up in the same grocery store as a dead trick-or-treater?”

Now that was a question I had asked myself. I explained that I made my living as a private investigator. I liked the work, got to set my own hours and be my own boss. The job gave me the free time to work out at the gym regularly and I felt in the best shape of my life. The problem was that the work was sporadic and the clients’ checks didn’t always clear. A while back, I had helped a woman get divorced from her cheating husband. The woman had been some public relations flack who knew somebody who knew somebody at the Potato Advisory Board. One day, she made the introductions. I didn’t feel the need to mention that she had gotten the idea when she had seen me coming out of her shower. Anyway, my tanned and recently enhanced biceps paired well with the Idaho Russet costume they had me try on. Now, I had a part-time gig as the Special Assistant in Potato Promotions. The women at the Board called me simply, the Spud Stud.

“So the tur— avocado,” the deputy corrected himself, “he was your boss.”

“I am a special assistant for the Potato Board. I work with the produce manager, not for the produce manager,” I patiently explained, emphasizing the difference.

“I’m just a deputy sheriff in a small, quiet, conservative Texas community. Why don’t you explain, What exactly does a special assistant do?” The lawman leaned back in one of the break room’s plastic chairs and waited. His face told me that he didn’t really care about the answer but was looking for a lie on which I could later hang myself.

What could I say, that I was like a rodeo cowboy only without the leather tack and broken bones? I rode a circuit in my beat up Nissan Pathfinder with a footlocker full of potato costumes in the back. Should I complain that I bake inside a potato costume? Or, that the voice on my GPS is my only friend? No, I decided. I’d give him the script as written by the Board.

“I tout potatoes as haute and wholesome. I introduce people to the differing colors and nuanced flavors available from the array of potatoes grown by American farmers. I encourage customers to challenge their taste buds by trying the Potato Puree.” Here, I lowered my voice and ad-libbed, giving him inside information. “It’s really a blender smoothie, but the marketing department liked the alliteration of puree and potato. You should try one.”

As I said it, his glazed eyes told me that the deputy wouldn’t try anything from a blender that didn’t have ice, rum, and a pink paper umbrella, but I continued.

“The board likes alliteration. The only thing I’m not supposed to do is call a potato a tuber. Research says that people associate that word too closely with cancer.”

“Are you saying old Charlie died of cancer?” the deputy said, leaning in this time for emphasis. “’Cause it sure looks to me like he got stabbed to death with a carrot.”

“Actually, it looked to me like an organic heirloom parsnip,” I said, trying to move the investigation forward. “But don’t be ashamed, I’m a vegetable professional.”

The deputy narrowed his eyes and looked at me hard. “So you know vegetables. With Charlie out of the way, you could be produce manager. Sounds like I found me someone with motive.”

I didn’t correct him this time.

“And the killer was someone Charlie knew. No sign of a struggle, didn’t even mess up the green paint on his turtle arms or legs.”

I know how interrogations are supposed to go, just answer the questions and never volunteer information. But I just couldn’t help myself.

“You’re right. He caught me stealing organic bean sprouts. I had to kill him. Once I got to be produce manager, I’d get first pick of the expired lettuce packages. Do you know the black market for that stuff?”

His expression stayed hard, boring into my face. “I think you’re mocking me. You know what they do to potato boys in jail?”

I turned my palms up and opened my arms wide. The courses that I had been to said that this was the classic body language for demonstrating nothing to hide. “Look, Officer, I’ve only been here three days for the potato promotion. I didn’t know Charles well. All I can tell you is that he was an angry man whose wife divorced him because he watched too much porn. Had a thing for girls and vegetables. Took his work too seriously.”

The deputy’s eyes dipped to the table for just a fraction. Apparently, he hadn’t known about the pornography. He should spend less time bent over the corpse and more time absorbing rumors over in Dairy and Cheese.

“I bet you’ll find a closet full at his apartment,” I said. “His ex got the house. And you know I didn’t kill him.” I held up my swipe card. “This store has a computerized timekeeping system. I just got here a few minutes before you showed up.”

The deputy sweated me for a full minute with his stare. I showed better judgment this time and didn’t offer up any mock confessions. He and I, I discovered, had differing senses of humor. Finally, he pointed a finger at me. That thick digit would have looked impressive under the glass at Uncle Bob’s butcher counter lying alongside the other sausages.

“Don’t leave my jurisdiction,” he said. “I’m gonna wanna talk to you some more.”

“Gonna wanna,” I repeated. “So does that mean I shouldn’t leave Produce, the store, the county, or the state?”

The deputy growled and stalked past me out of the break room. I stayed seated; I needed to think.

“I’m not sure making him mad is exactly your best strategy,” a silvery voice behind me said.

I twisted in my chair and looked. Babette the Baguette stood there, not in uniform.

“Hey, Babs,” I said simply.

“You know that’s not my real name,” she said as she moved to the table and sat down. It was easy to do; the deputy hadn’t bothered to push his chair back when he had stormed out of the room.

Debra Lanning had been a B movie actress who sacrificed her twenties and thirties around Hollywood chasing dreams of stardom. She had told me that her film oeuvre included being the third screamer on the right in Thief of Time and third bimbo on the left in Killing Time. I had to go look the word up: oeuvre, not bimbo. She rounded out her filmography with small parts in a couple of short-lived sitcoms.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Making him angry was probably not in my best interest. My teachers always said I had self-control problems.”

“I did a commercial for a men’s pharmaceutical to help you with that,” she volunteered.

“Different sort of self-control.”

“I also know a little something about handcuffs,” she said.

That drew a look.

“I had a part in a police drama,” the tone now barbed. “I was the PTA president who was also the junkie prostitute. At the end of the episode I got taken to jail. It was allergy season. Trust me, you do not want to sit in handcuffs with hay fever.”

“If I can stay out of the slammer until ten p.m., I’ll catch the local news and remember to check the pollen count.”

“All I’m saying,” she said, ignoring my remark, “is that I know a little something about bad career moves. Sounds to me like you’re making one.”

At the moment, I had to agree.

Here at the store, Debra was Babette the Baguette, the exotically accented loaf of French bread who shilled bakery items and signed autographs. A poster with an old publicity photo of her sat on an easel just inside the sliding front doors of Uncle Bob’s Natural Food Emporium.

She rose up slightly out of her chair and angled it a few degrees so that I was looking at her more in profile than I had been. My face must have reflected curiosity.

“Force of habit,” she said. “This is my good side. Always have to remember the camera angles.”

If she didn’t look quite as good as she did in the publicity photo, well, unlike any other baguette I’d ever had, I wouldn’t throw her out just because she gotten a couple days old.

“I doubt you have a bad side,” I said.

“You big sweet potato.”

Since Babs and I were getting along so famously, I excused myself for a moment and went out to the deli. Uncle Bob’s keeps its selection of fine wines and craft beers there. I picked out a merlot and gathered a sleeve of plastic cups from the aisle stocked for football tailgating. I figured that since the police were keeping the customers away by swathing the store in crime-scene tape, the loss of a bottle of wine wouldn’t really matter all that much. Besides, if Uncle Bob made me pay for it, I’d let Babs use her employee discount.

She looked up and smiled when I came back inside the break room.

“You’re sure that a red is the right wine for a murder investigation?”

“I couldn’t chill a white,” I replied. “We keep the ice outside and I’m not supposed to leave the jurisdiction.”

“I could go,” she said. Babs had proved that she hadn’t arrived at work until after Charles’s body had been discovered. She was in the clear. I felt a small tingle of excitement that she was choosing to stay here with me.

I dug around the break room drawers looking for a corkscrew, without success. Uncle Bob, it seemed, didn’t want the staff drinking on their breaks. I finally cut the foil off the bottle with a paring knife and pushed the cork down inside with the Sharpie the staff uses when they mark down prices.

“Classy,” she said as she watched me pour the wine into plastic cups while keeping the cork out of the neck with the marker.

“Transports you back to Geoffrey’s in Malibu, I bet.”

She made a small, humorless laugh. “Most of those restaurants didn’t have a third bimbo section.”

“So how did you end up here?” I asked.

“After I left the industry,” she said, “or maybe the industry left me, I bounced around various jobs. I worked for a time at the Splendor Hotel on the Vegas strip. Everyone on the staff was a retired professional athlete or Hollywood celebrity. I worked the check-in desk with Mickey Tolanotti,” she said.

My face again betrayed me.

Babs gave me an incredulous look and explained, “Tolanotti pitched three seasons for the Cleveland Indians and had a six point fifteen ERA. He might have won the Cy Young if he hadn’t needed elbow surgery.”

I nodded.

“It was a concept hotel. People would pay extra to have their magnetic hotel key made by a guy who once hurled for the tribe or a girl who screamed ‘help’ in Thief of Time.”

“Go figure.”

“One day, a bunch of Chinese investors bought the place. They pink-slipped us all. Apparently they didn’t like baseball or slasher movies.”

“That’s un-American.”

Babs ignored me again. “Uncle Bob had been to the national grocer’s convention out in Vegas. When he heard about us getting canned, he offered us jobs. I took it.”

“And Tolanotti?”

“Beer distributorship in Cleveland.”

I nodded. “Makes sense.” I knew a little of this information. Every actress has a fan site on the Internet. I’d also looked her up on IMDb. I didn’t know about the hotel until Babette and I talked over lunch in the break room on my first day here. I loaned her a couple of dollars, she loaned me her employee discount. Together we’d shared Italian deli sandwiches and sea salt potato chips. Later, she showed me the dressing rooms where I changed into my potato costume. She had helped me zip into the gourmet Carola I was wearing that day. That experience had sort of joined us spiritually.

“And now it looks like I’ll be leaving here,” she said, her eyes downcast and she bit into her lower lip.

I tried to sound encouraging. “The store will be back open in a day or two. Business will likely be bigger than ever. You know what a little scandal can do.”

“I’ve learned today that I like special-effects blood better than the real stuff,” she said quietly, and chewed harder on her lip.

“At least you know that you get to leave in the front seat of the car. I’m still not sure I’m not riding out of here in the back seat.”

“All this trouble over Charlie,” she said, shaking her head. “He was such a rotten human being. I don’t think anyone would blame you if you had.”

I didn’t like it that the closest thing I had to a friend in this town was starting to believe I might have killed the produce manager with a parsnip. I felt moved to say something positive.

“He couldn’t have been all bad.”

“If you liked him, you might call him feisty,” she continued. “But nobody liked him. So we called him a hotheaded jerk who enjoyed giving orders. We called him the Potentate of Produce.”

“But he knew his way around fruits and vegetables.”

Another humorless grunt of laughter. “You need to do something.” Her eyes automatically cut to the left and right. Then she said, “You could run.”

I shook my head. “A fugitive in a yellow fingerling costume. Never able to go to a farmer’s market for fear of being recognized. My face plastered all over wanted posters in the canned vegetable aisle.” I shook my head solemnly. “That’s no life.”

The look she gave suggested that I was mocking. “You could solve the crime. . . .”

 

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Copyright © 2018. The Case of the Truculent Avocado by Mark Thielman

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