The Lunch Eaters – A Poached Yeggs Mystery

I’m Detective Staff Sergeant Deviled Yeggs.  I work homicide in the big city of Tracy.  My partner is Jim Wednesday.  Poached Yeggs, homicide detective and my nephew, has been working with Jim and me.  This time Poached did some overtime on his own.  Something did not seem right.  Maybe he was becoming a true detective after all.  But I’ll let him tell his own story.

The conference room at City Hall had a strange collection of people.  The mayor, Boaz Salmon Yeggs was there along with the police commissioner and the D.A. Randolph Edmund Jennings.  The mayor’s PR person was there also.  Detective Holmes was there from Doyle County, and Tuesday Wednesday from Stout County was there representing Detective Wolfe, who almost never left his office.  Then there was the group from our precinct: Captain Hart, Uncle Deviled, Jim and me.  I had a PowerPoint presentation cued into the system.

I started, “Good morning, everyone.  I am glad you could all make it.  I have solved the case of the death by poisoning of Dave Mitchell, the former Human Resources Manager for TraciMax Manufacturing.  He died after eating a lunch that consisted of gnocchi, laced with thallium and arsenic, enough poison to kill a cow according to our M.E.  And the M.E. cannot be here due to the latest of the deaths being processed now, at least doing the paperwork on it.”

I cleared my throat.  Odd how your mouth gets dry when giving a presentation.

Captain Hart used the gap to interrupt.  “For the commissioner’s sake, Poached thinks he has solved the crime, but he has not filed his report, nor has he arrested anyone.  And this presentation, I fear, is in his usual story-telling style.  It may be a while before Det. Staff Sgt. Deviled Yeggs has the Poached report in decent shape.  But having this crowd here is bold.  If your report makes no sense, you did so in front of the mayor, the D.A. and the commish.  Proceed, young detective with your job on the line.”

I thought, ‘Nothing like pressure!’  I continued, “There is a lot involved in the report.  It is more than the death of Dave Mitchell.  There are five other deaths involved, one the perpetrator, but my story-telling style might explain how I got to the result.”  I continued after a sip of water, which wasn’t enough. “When I did the usual interviews to find next of kin, friends of the family, and such, I found that Mr. Mitchell had worked at TraciMax since the company first opened its doors here.  His wife had died, but his daughter said that his only real friends were the Lunch Eaters, a group of executives with the company.  I contacted the company, but no one was very forthcoming.  The person who had taken the recently retired Mr. Mitchell’s place gave me forwarding information on the friends, but then said nothing more.  In fact, when I went back the next day, she told me that if I let the CEO, who was also the founder and owner of TraciMax, know that she had cooperated with the police, she could lose her job.

“But when I looked up the people on the list of Lunch Eaters, every one of them had died within the past two months due to poisoning, while eating lunch.  Uncle Dev, excuse me, Detective Staff Sergeant Yeggs was holding the case for Sam and Pam Smith open although the M.E. listed it as accidental death.  They ate a huge platter of beef stroganoff.  The mushrooms were toadstools, very deadly.  They were growing in the woods behind the house.  You would think that they would know the difference or be cautious with an unknown mushroom.  Sam had been the COO and Pam the CFO at TraciMax.”

Detective Deviled Yeggs interrupted, “My concern also was that there were no dishes other than the plates and the platter.  There were no loose mushroom stems in the trash.  I cannot see a couple eating beef stroganoff for lunch, at least not that much, and I definitely thought that cleaning up after cooking but before eating was strange, even taking the trash to an unknown dumpster.  No evidence that the meal was prepared there.  In interviewing the children, their parents rarely cooked and it was always simple meals.  They had the money to have a private chef, but they usually had restaurants deliver to the house.  Thus, why pick mushrooms in the woods but then have someone else cook it?”

I continued, “The others are equally strange.  Sam and Pam Smith were the first.  Then about two weeks later, the shipping/receiving manager, Ted Jones, who moved to Doyle County to start a menagerie style farm – you know, cattle, horses, llamas, sheep, donkeys, and who knows what else – he died after eating a huge bowl of goulash spiced with belladonna.  Again, there was belladonna growing on the farm, but he was a farmer. He should know what it was.  People die all the time by these kinds of accidents, but this guy knew what he was doing, and what spice was belladonna supposed to mimic?  Then, over in Stout County a month later, Lane Gibson died after eating a lunch of salmon almondine.  It probably smelled of almonds a little too much since it was laced with cyanide.

“And if you are wondering, TraciMax is more of a chemical company than strictly manufacturing.  They make specialty chemicals, mostly in batch tanks.  And two of their product lines involve arsenic and cyanide.  There are legitimate uses of both that do not involve poisons, and those industries are in the greater Tracy area.  But this left me in a pickle.  If someone else was killing these former executives of the corporation, who was it and my first thought was that there were more than five original Lunch Eaters.  I asked the children of the various deceased Lunch Eaters, and they suggested the company’s former administrative assistant, Della Hathaway.  I found her at an assisted living facility, decidedly upscale.  I was warned to not go as a policeman, so I pretended to be a freelance writer doing an article on the Lunch Eaters and how they had turned a startup company and made it the leader in its field in the world.  Blowing TraciMax out of proportion got her attention and she spoke very freely.”

Then Captain Hart interrupted, “And we cannot use any of her testimony since you did not identify yourself.”

Poached smiled, “I just wanted to know who was part of the Lunch Eaters or who might have had a problem with the success of the Lunch Eaters.  What I found was both.  As she praised each member of the Lunch Eaters, she would mention ‘Larry.’  I finally had to ask, who is ‘Larry?’  She huffed at me and said that until Larry’s wife got sick and Larry had to skip lunch to go home and check on her, Larry Larson was the glue that held the Lunch Eaters together.  Pam Smith would have never made it to the CFO position without Larry taking the standard accounting software and modifying it to meet the needs of the company.  Larry Larson was the electrical engineer on staff, but he got his professional engineer’s license, and he had actually started his college work in chemical engineering before transferring to electrical engineering.  And he had a love for computer programming back before everyone had a personal computer.  When the owner suggested to the staff that the company had a chance to expand, it was Larry who gave some engineering drawings to Sam Smith and Lane Gibson.  The drawings were mechanical drawings and electrical drawings.  He had been tinkering with improvements to the equipment for better efficiency and reduced heat use.  They were also designed to be easier to maintain.  Sam and Lane presented the drawings to the owner, and both got promoted as the company expanded to Central America and the Caribbean.  About that same time, Ted Jones benefitted from another software package that defined the entire production schedule to ensure that the raw materials were delivered on time and the products were shipped on time.  Before the software, some customers got their stuff late with excuses, but with happier customers, Ted was promoted to the manager of shipping and receiving, but what was there to manage when the computer made all the decisions?

My uncle asked, “And with making all the other Lunch Eaters the shining stars of the company. Larry was forgotten and passed over for promotion.”

Captain Hart growled, “Quit trying to get the Commish to promote you to lieutenant.”

The Commish said, “We’re working on it, but with this defunding thing, money is tight.”

I interrupted to get control back to the presentation. “I think Detective Staff Sergeant Yeggs is looking at motive.”

Tuesday Wednesday interrupted, “But what about the HR manager, Dave Mitchell, the last to be poisoned?”

I answered, “A full Human Resource Department covers payroll and that kind of thing, all the hiring process and layoffs, the benefits that the employees got, and job site training.  Since Larry was a computer wizard, he developed computer-based training systems, before the general industry had even thought of them.  He was an expert at every process and developed the standards that each employee used to prepare for the next higher paid job.  All Dave Mitchell had to do to get himself into the highest position in Human Resources was to tap of few keys on the computer each day.  And yes, the only one never getting a promotion out of the Lunch Eaters was the person who personally created the means that shot the others to the top position in each of their fields.”

Boaz looked at his watch, “Bro, can you get to the point of why I am here?  I have another meeting in about fifteen, twenty minutes.”

“Yes, Mr. Mayor.  Larry Larson went from not taking lunch with the other Lunch Eaters, called that because they were always going out with each other every Thursday for lunch.  But then, Larry’s wife got worse.  He was taking vacation and sick leave to get her to various doctor appointments.  His savings were depleted, what little there was, to pay for the nurse checking up on his wife while he was at work.  Then, the TraciMax owner thought it was a good idea to lay off Larry so he could spend all day taking care of his wife since his wife seemed to be more important than his job.

“Larry had no money.  He applied for all the government help programs, and they finally gave them something to subsist on, but they were deeply in debt by then.  Their son had to work his way through college, following in his father’s footsteps, even to the point of getting some of the next generation promoted.  When he saw what was happening, he committed suicide.  A month before, Larry’s wife had died.  She died three months ago.  When I reached Larry’s house, he was at the kitchen table.  He had died from arsenic and thallium poisoning.  Not gnocchi this time.  Larry’s favorite meal was lasagna.  His suicide note was several pages in length, confirming everything that Della Hathaway had told me and a few more details, including how Della was able to afford the swanky assisted living.  And he had, in his spare time, kept up with the Lunch Eaters by preparing meals for them.  Thus, this last meal for each was not a surprise.  And in each case, it was that person’s favorite meal.  They never suspected.”

Captain Hart nodded, “And you have now established motive, opportunity, and to set everything in motion, the trigger of his wife dying and then the son.  If you can do better than spelling ‘cat’ properly in the official report, you will have done a good job.  All this ties together nicely, but why involve the mayor?”

“I went by the CEO, founder, and owner’s office before coming here.  He said that Larry did not have ‘IT.’ If he had ‘it’ he might have been running the whole show.  I asked what ‘it’ was, but he evaded the question.  He said if you saw ‘it’ you would recognize it, and he had done Larry a favor by laying him off.  Mr. Mayor, who are you meeting with in a few minutes?”

Boaz stood to leave.  “Among the group of people who are meeting to discuss the future of Tracy’s industrial complex, there will be the CEO, founder, and owner of TraciMax.  And, Bro, you just made my job harder.  The CEO did not kill any of his executives.  He did nothing legally wrong, but on a moral and simply decent level, I don’t know.  I will not see him in the same light.”  With that the mayor and his PR person left the room.

The commissioner then spoke, “Poached, you did a fine job.  I am like Captain Hart in that for your development, you need to make sure the report is spotless.  I will talk to the mayor and to the folks in Stout and Doyle counties.  Since this case will never go to trial, we have the option of burying it after the cases are closed or doing a full media splash and let the chips fall where they may.  This may become a political issue, but the justice issue depends on your well-written report.  I’ll take it from there.”

And this concludes the Poached PowerPoint presentation at City Hall.  Now that I, Detective Staff Sergeant Deviled Yeggs, am concluding this report, I think Poached just became a good detective.  I’m proud of him, but he won’t hear that from me.  He still must write the report.  I think he thinks that the word processor underlining words in red and blue is a reward for doing a good job.  He sure has a lot of them when he has me read over it.  And Poached does have a problem with painting a story rather than simply stating the facts of the case.

Credits

This story was initially written about 30 years ago.  When I first moved to the NASA project in northeast Mississippi, I would go out to lunch with the other people in our area of the building.  We did not call ourselves the Lunch Eaters, but we enjoyed each other’s company.  Each member of the lunch eating group was a character in his/her own right.  For example, one person who loved banana pudding (nanner pudd’n) was our expert in Latin.  He would say something in Latin on occasion and then say that he was just agreeing with what we had said.  Like I said, a bunch of characters.  Since I was writing in my spare time, I had created a more rural setting for the characters in the fiction that I wrote at that time.  In the initial story, the young private detective was working for the plant manager, who hoped to prevent the manufacturer from getting a black eye when the executives were all dying off at the same time.  The initial story unfolded as the detective gave his verbal report to the plant manager and having multiple homicides involved there was no way to shield bad press against the manufacturer.  And at that point, the young detective had no problems with it going public.  Somehow, the story stuck with me over the years.  Now, updated a bit in a new setting.

Della Hathaway is a mash of Della Street, Perry Mason’s secretary, and Miss Hathaway, the banker’s secretary on the Beverly Hillbillies.

And Larry Larson being a professional engineer is unusual for an electrical engineer, but I knew a few.  When engineers with a PE sign off on additions to people’s houses and other such mechanical or civil / structural issues, the electrical engineer is rarely asked to approve the drawings, but a PE must prove efficiency in the basics of each type of engineering, excellence in a few.  As for me upon graduation, I worked in Texas where, at the time, the initial exam was not offered, relying totally on the final exam after years of working as an engineer.  I then spent four years in the military.  When I got out, I met a dozen people with a PE license.  Only one of them had ever used his stamp and the yearly license renewal was quite expensive.  Thus, I never took the exams.  But I developed a shipping and receiving software program that automated each sale that the salesmen sent to the chemical plant down to scheduling the shipment by tank car (rail), tank wagon (truck), or barrels.  I also developed countless computer-based training programs besides teaching classroom courses on three continents, with people from three other continents coming to our offices for classes.  Sorry, Antarctica.  I redesigned a few processes to make the processes more efficient.  I did not, however, develop any accounting software, as Larry did.  And having done so a few times myself, if you are jumping from one area to another assisting people who need a little help, you can quickly learn how everything at the plant works.  For you people at integrated steel mills, I could, at one time, help you out on everything except a Basic Oxygen Furnace, just as an example.

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