Friday, March 18, 2011

"Shortages" A Hugh Monn Private Detective Story by: Lee Houston, Jr

A Hugh Monn Private Detective Story 
by: Lee Houston, Jr.
as published in
PRO SE PRESENTS Masked Gun Mystery #2 

I go by the name Hugh Monn. Since the end of the so-called ‘great’ war known as U. W. 1, I try to earn an honest living as a private detective on the planet I now call home.
Things had been mixed for me of late. On one hand, it had been a couple of cycles since my last case. But although I tried to be a gentleman and return what I felt I didn’t fully deserve, I wasn’t feeling the pinch from a lack of paying customers just yet, thanks to the generous payment from Dineena Vergas for the brief work I did discovering the fate of her Aunt.
Thankfully I wouldn’t have to push my luck much longer, as a new client walked into my office. He introduced himself as Phillip Thorndyke, a Human like me. Not that it was a rare event to see another Human on the planet Frontera; but like most of the other races in the universe, our species tended to be very spread out amongst the stars.
I stood behind my desk to greet him. He had sun bleached blonde hair, cut short; blue eyes, and was a bit on the buff side with quite a tan. I shook his hand over my desktop, noting immediately the firm grip and rough calluses on his palm. Between that and the average style work clothes he wore, I figured he must do a lot of physical labor somewhere outdoors for a living.
“Good to meet you, Mister Monn. If you’re available, I would like to hire you,” he announced, getting right to business as he sat down in the guest chair in front of my desk.

“What seems to be the problem?” I asked, sitting down, giving the chair enough tilt that it brought the back into contact with the wall to let me stretch my legs. With company present, it would have been impolite to put my feet up as I would have preferred to do.
Thorndyke cleared his throat and looked at the floor for a moment, clearly nervous about needing to hire a private detective. But he overcame his hesitance and started talking.
“I oversee operations at Pier Seven. Although all our business is on the commercial end of things, we handle a lot of shipping and receiving for this island, the rest of the planet, and beyond. Most of it is everyday things: food, retail merchandise, building materials, stuff like that. Every once in a while we also get the high end merchandise too. Valuable commodities like furs, precious metals, rare extraterrestrial treasures, and the like. All the high end stuff is secured in a separate storage facility on site. Everything is accounted for when it enters, but merchandise comes up short when it’s time to ship it onward.”
I leaned forward to indicate he had my full attention. “You suspect someone of actually ripping off the goods instead of clerical errors, I take it?”
“Yes. But I’m not sure exactly who, let alone how,” admitted Thorndyke, a guarded expression on his face.”
Despite what was said, I could tell he had suspicions. “How long has this problem been going on?” I asked.
“At least the past few cycles, ever since Big Louie became the new crew foreman.”
So that was it. “Who’s this ‘Big Louie’? Your boss?” I asked, fishing for a reaction.
“No!” was the adamant denial, but I couldn’t help thinking there was something more in that reply. “That’s what everyone calls him. He’s a Primoid. Are you familiar with the species?”
I nodded my head.
“No one but another member of his species can actually pronounce his last name, so everyone just calls him Big Louie,” explained Thorndyke, leaning forward a bit in the guest chair. “Since he had the most seniority, I had to promote him when my old Crew Foreman, Paul Simmons, decided to retire. It was a shame Simmons left, though. He was a good man.”
“I see. And how long has Big Louie been working for you?”
Thorndyke looked at me as if I had just touched a raw nerve, but I wasn’t sure how I accomplished that just yet. “You mean working for the city, since technically they own the docks. Big Louie had already been working there for a couple of years when I was promoted to be Pier Seven’s Chief.”
“How long ago was that?” I asked.
This time, a little fidgeting was the prelude to his response. “About three months. Before that, I was crew foreman and Paul was my assistant.”
“Any thefts before then?” I wondered if this was truly a recent problem or something long term that was just now being discovered because of the recent change in command.
“No. While they don’t happen every night, the thefts have become a regular occurrence.”
I made a non-committal, “Uh-huh,” and then asked Thorndyke what the rest of his crew was like.
“There’s Max Trent. Good man. He’s been with the Pier Seven company almost as long, but Big Louie beats Max’s tenure by a couple of months, so Trent is the Primoid’s assistant.” He stopped and scratched his head a moment in thought before saying, “After that, no one else has been there even half as long as either of them. Traditionally, positions with a high amount of physical labor have a huge employee turnover, and dock work is no exception. It’s a shame too. We’re always in need and will consider any qualified applicants. Good help is always in short supply.”
Now for the big question. I wasn’t going to waste my time on any witch hunt. “How do you know the thief isn’t someone other than Big Louie?”
Thorndyke was quick to respond. “We run a tight operation. Just Big Louie and I have access to the secured area where all the most valuable inventory is stored. But whether it’s just one or a gang ripping Pier Seven off, I’m definitely not involved. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be here!”
Not unless he was running a bluff and preparing to lead me down some kind of false trail he prepared in advance. “Have you noticed any strangers hanging around lately? Maybe someone paying more attention to things than they should be?” Just because his mind was made up didn’t mean mine had to be.
“No more than usual,” admitted Thorndyke. “There are always several ship captains overseeing their crews loading and unloading every day. While Pier Seven only handles the traditional nautical vessels that service Frontera, we do transport goods back and forth to the spaceport too. But you can see where this looks bad and why I want to hire you. Whatever happens, I’m not taking the fall!”
That was an honest enough answer. “So you’re not hiring me on behalf of the city?” I asked, concerned about how/if I was going to get paid because this guy’s pockets didn’t look that deep.
“No,” he admitted with a sigh. “They’re aware of the problem, but are trying to handle this internally at the moment. I’m not sure how they’d react if they knew I was here right now. But I want this resolved and my name cleared as fast as possible.”
But did it matter to Thorndyke who was actually guilty? I leaned back in my desk chair again to think things over for a bit. I had already developed a nagging feeling about this case, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. I based my fee on a sliding scale, depending upon the client and the situation, but ethics alone don’t keep you in business for long.
I turned my attention back to Thorndyke and quoted him my standard rate. “My fee is a hundred credits a day plus expenses. Agreed?”
He sat up straight in my guest chair, looking as if I had just asked him for a moon. “That rate sounds a little stiff considering it’s coming from my own funds, but it’s not like I have a lot of options here. I’ll pay you for two days up front now and see how it goes from there, if that’s okay with you.”
Despite his objection at the cost, he needed my help too badly to say no. His request wasn’t unreasonable, so I nodded my head in agreement. Besides, I liked clients that could pay up front.
As he got up to reach for his wallet, Thorndyke said, “There’s one thing I’d like to ask you though, if I may.”
“Sure,” I said, grabbing my light tablet out of the center drawer to prepare a receipt for him.
“Hugh Monn. Is that your real name?”
Something in the tone of his voice told me it was just more than idle curiosity. “No. It’s just a moniker that’s good for business,” I replied, accepting his funds while finishing the transaction. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Thorndyke actually looked a bit relieved to hear that.
I commed him the receipt and said, “The best way I see to start is: I’ll come to Pier Seven before midday pretending to be a potential client and check out the situation, maybe even meet some of your employees if it can happen naturally and not look like a set up. Then we’ll meet in private afterwards and discuss how to proceed from there.”
“Sure, no problem,” replied Thorndyke.
After politely escorting my client to the door, I went back to my desk and did a little research on the computer before heading out myself.

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