The Case of the Kosher Deal
by Mark Thielman
I could imagine a worse day in Boise, but not without boils, locusts, or the Boise River running blood red through Barber Park.
Outside a thunderstorm raged, downing powerlines and bringing the city to a standstill. Inside, we had a dead body. Someone had brought him to a lay-still.
The boss had invited me to the headquarters of the Potato Advisory Board. Some of the honchos were spitballing plans for a new promotional campaign, and she wanted her boots-on-the-ground to be there. Secretly, I wondered if that was the after-the-fact excuse she contrived when one of the administrative assistants booked my trip. Rumor had it that the women of the office liked me to be in attendance, especially in my Kennebec costume. They called me the Spud Stud. I didn’t complain. The Board’s checks always cashed, and their dental insurance was better than anything I could get through the Association of Private Investigators. It wasn’t a bad side hustle.
The P.I. business had been slow, and my few clients’ payments had become glacial. So, I found myself with free time and a low bank balance when Susan, my boss, called. It might be fun, I thought, a weekend in Boise. I agreed to go.
Susan picked me up at the airport. I threw my bag into the back of her Range Rover, then she took me on a quick tour of the Boise sites. Driving around, I should have spent more time looking at the sky and less at the state capital. Storm clouds gathered.
The directors gathered the next morning in the conference center on the top floor of the Potato Advisory Board. Along one wall of the meeting room they displayed every imaginable device with which to cook potatoes. Below the tool collage, well-tended decorative potato vines flourished in oversized stoneware urns. They gave the room a fresh farm smell, loamy and bucolic, not sweaty and pesticidal. The weather outside, however, pulled my attention away from the smells and utensils to the inbound storm. Mashers, peelers, nails, brushes, ricers, crinkle cutters, and scrubbing gloves, no matter how artfully mounted, couldn’t compete with a thunderhead. Sitting in the boardroom, watching dark clouds roll in from the northwest, I felt the pangs of regret. I’d rather be out on a stakeout anywhere, sitting in a hot car, eating stale doughnuts and drinking lukewarm coffee than the top floor of a building in an electrical storm.
Around the polished oak table, six board members and I sat. Susan stood poised and primped behind a lectern adorned with the Advisory Board’s logo. She wore a soft-shouldered Chanel suit, the color reminiscent of a ripe Bintje fresh from the earth, after the grower had washed off the dirt, of course. Susan’s eyes surveyed the table. “As you know, we are active in community service here in Boise. This year, we’re sponsoring the Shakespeare Festival’s performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor. In the play Falstaff says, ‘Let the sky rain potatoes.’ We’re hoping to enhance
the quality of life in Boise and to capture a bigger market share with the English-major crowd.” She smiled. “I’m proud to say I’ve got a small part in the performance.”
A few around the table applauded.
“Cut to the meat,” Fred Dursby interrupted. He had the leathery skin of a man who had spent a lifetime planting seed potatoes. He was the chairman of the board. “We didn’t come here for a charity report. We have a fiduciary responsibility.”
A loud clap of thunder punctuated his statement. I looked to see if it was raining potatoes. “Certainly, Fred,” Susan said. She segued into a presentation for an end-of-the-year marketing campaign. While a series of Norman Rockwall paintings flashed on the screen, Susan explained what we all knew. Potatoes crushed the holiday market. Mashed potatoes lined holiday tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Potato salad had become a staple at Fourth of July celebrations. Potato salad devotees divided along mustard/mayo lines as hotly as they did Republican/Democrat. Controversy had proven good for business.
“I got a question.”
“What is it, Fred?” Susan asked.
He pointed a thick finger my direction. “What’s he doing here? This meeting is for board members. He’s just another extra expense of the PR Department. Nothing but a pretty boy who entices housewives over to the vegetable aisle.”
I wanted to tell him that I was a corporate spokesperson who educated consumers that a skin-on potato contained more potassium than a medium banana. Or, invite him outside to settle this, man to pretty boy. Susan’s look, however, brought me up short.
“He is here at my request,” Susan said. “Now, if we might turn our attention to an underserved market.”
“Harrumph,” Fred said, and spun his chair to look out the window at the storm. Fred didn’t visit the Potato Pavilion much. I’m sure that the view from the top floor beat the pants off his patio in Blackfoot.
“Who put a potato up Fred’s ass?” Betsy Thornton whispered to me.
“He’s still mad about Ray Johnson. They were friends,” I said.
A while back I’d helped send Ray to prison. Ray had been a major potato player. Betsy had taken his spot on the Advisory Board.
“I don’t see what choice you had,” she whispered. “Ray murdered his wife’s paramour.”
“Fred’s not exactly a big-picture guy.”
We might have continued, but Fred spun his chair back around. He had angry eyes. I thought I saw a faint smile at the corners of his mouth. “Tell us what you’ve got.”
“Hanukkah.” Susan looked happy to retake control of the meeting.
The room fell quiet.
Billy Dalton, another board member, raised his hand. “Susan, people can’t even agree on a spelling for Chanukah. How can we market potatoes in that environment?”
Susan stabbed a button to advance her presentation. The projector’s blink corresponded to a burst of lightning outside. “Potatoes,” she said, raising her voice over the thunder, “are a side dish at every one of the holidays we’ve discussed. At Hanukkah, the potato latke is front and center.”
“What potato would we push?” Billy asked.
Betsy raised her hand. “Would we be accused of not being culturally sensitive if we recommended the Yukon Gold?”
I shook my head. “I think the choice is obvious. The Russet makes the best latke by far. The higher starch content means that cooks don’t need to add flour to act as a bonding agent. Latkes hold together and you get a more pure potato taste. That is until you cover them up with apple sauce and sour cream.” I sat back, pleased that I’d been able to share a little of my expertise with the meeting.
“Look, Spud,” Fred said. “We’re not really interested in your opinion. It is all right if I call you Spud, isn’t it? I figure that we’re on a first-name basis.”
“FFFFFred,” I said, “then why am I here?”
“I’m glad you asked, Spud.” Fred’s wolflike smile broadened. “I think that this campaign needs a new face. Someone to appeal convincingly to the Jewish market.”
Susan stepped in front of the projector, casting a shadow on the screen. “Fred, the purpose of this meeting is to discuss a new campaign—”
“I’m on the board, Susan,” Fred interrupted, “and we decide the purpose of these meetings.” He turned away from her and addressed the other members seated around the table. “I’ve got a marketing specialist outside who I’d like you to meet. I think he’d be perfect for this project. I’ve personally hired him away from the CIA.”
“You hired a spy?” Billy asked.
Fred shook his head. “Better. The Cruciferous Industry Association. Cruciferous vegetables, you know, include broccoli. That veggie is having a good year. But cruciferous also includes the Jerusalem artichoke. This boy knows our market.”
I saw a couple of board members lean into the table. Fred seemed to be getting their attention.
He sensed it too. “The young man I’m about to bring in has a background in Jewish studies and in vegetables.” He turned to me and flashed that smile. “His nickname at the CIA was the Kohl-Rabbi.” He paused to let that sink in before continuing. “He’s a triathlete so he’s got muscles like old Spud here.”
“But, Fred,” Susan said, “we have a spokesman.” She looked over at me. Her pale face told me that this turn of the meeting surprised her.
“Well, Susan, times change.”
She pointed at me. “Fred, we gave this man a Golden Tattie at our annual banquet last year for outstanding contributions to the association. Now you’re suggesting that we might let him go?” Another clap of thunder interrupted Susan’s question.
Fred swiveled in his chair. He looked directly at me. His wide smile told me that he was settling Ray’s score. “The Potato Advisory Board has suffered losses at the top before and survived. We’ll be just fine.”
Betsy stood. “This topic was not mentioned on the agenda. I’d like to take a short recess.”
“That’s fine,” Fred said. He gestured to one of the offices off the conference room. “I’ll go fetch the Kohl-Rabbi. Stick around, Spud. You can see what a real professional looks like.”
Fred walked down the hall. The rest of the assembled crowd socially distanced themselves from me. I felt like I carried a contagion. After a few minutes, Susan came over. I wondered if I should hand her a face mask.
Susan stammered, uncertain about what to say. “I’m sorry. We have to stick together. I had no idea he planned to do this.”
I glanced around the room. The other board members were pairing up. “Will they follow him?”
Susan looked down at the floor. “Fred is the Chief Chieftain, the Big Burbank, the Super Santina—”
“I get it,” I said. “I’ll talk to him. See what we can work out.”
Susan grabbed my arm. “Are you sure?”
I smiled. “That’s the good thing about being a P.I. I’ve faced cheating husbands, thieves, and deadbeats. One tyrant with an agenda is nothing.”
“Good luck,” she said and quickly walked away.
I talked a good game, but the thought of confronting Fred still made me nervous. I paused and tossed back a glass of water, wishing it were something stronger.
Betsy appeared alongside me. “That man is impossible. He never darkens the door of this place. Then he shows up and thinks we all need to bow and scrape . . . He’s . . .” Her face twisted into some contortion halfway between a sneer and a pout. She drifted off; I turned to watch the rain. Then, admitting that I was stalling, I swallowed once and strode down the hall.
Billy appeared at my side. He muttered something I didn’t hear. I waited patiently for him to repeat himself. I couldn’t afford to alienate another employer if they put my firing to a vote. Wordlessly, he wandered away.
Outside, four office doors split the short open space between the boardroom and the elevator. I listened at the first door, heard nothing, tapped and then opened it. The room sat empty. The second door also yielded nothing, neither Fred nor anyone resembling a Kohl-Rabbi. Maybe, I thought, Fred Dursby had experienced a change of heart. Then, consumed with regret for the unkindness he showed to me, a loyal employee, he and his thick knuckles had grabbed the marketing lackey and fled the premises, opting to deal with a millennial flood over an awkward social situation.
Or maybe not.
I tapped on the third door and grabbed the knob. It resisted my attempt to turn, feeling stiff in my hand. Perhaps they’d locked me out, but I refused to be dissuaded. I pushed harder adding my shoulder to the effort. The frame surrendered with a crack. I’d have to explain that to Susan.
Inside, I found another dark and empty office. Lightning illuminated the room in flashes.
I turned to leave. I felt bolstered in my theory that the pair had escaped back to Blackfoot.
That’s when I saw the single right shoe by the door. . . .
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Copyright © 2023. The Case of the Kosher Deal by Mark Thielman