by Phil Rossi
I was working undercover as a private investigator when the agency decided to strip my pay. Hank was the house manager in charge of the assignments, while I played gumshoe, digging up the mischief in a musty warehouse.
Scheduled to receive two paychecks for my dirty work as a mole. One from the warehouse, the second through the agency. That’s when Hank decided to get cute with my earnings, ignoring the fine print of our agreement.
“The agency never sent this week’s check,” I phoned the office, calling out Hank.
“You’re already getting paid by the warehouse. That’s double-dipping, in case you didn’t know,” Hank said.
“I signed a contract with Reggie, who happens to be the owner of this agency and your boss. I’m done reporting until I get my money,” I told Hank.
Forget the folklore surrounding those film noir and hard-boiled detectives from yesteryear. The ex-cops and office managers I’ve come across are far from noble. Hank called back to say Reggie settled the issue in my favor.
I returned to the post, decked out in my daily garb. Flannel shirt, blue jeans, and steel-tipped boots. After Reggie secured the assignment, I posed as a grunt to snoop around the warehouse.
Undercover is a tedious and lonely slog. It often takes weeks to settle into a position and tap the gold. Nobody better know of your agenda, because once they do, you’re toast. If it’s the owner spying on his employees, one slip and the company could face a sick-out or a union strike.
With this much tiptoeing about, you can’t be too smart or eager. There’s two jobs at hand, and to keep the mission afloat you need to juggle the act.
On this case, Arthur became Reggie’s new client and golfing buddy. Arthur owned a nutraceutical and herbal supplements business. An ex-employee named Brad, ditched Arthur and his vitamins to begin his own start-up.
When I met Arthur in the agency’s conference room, he claimed Brad invaded his data base, lifting Arthur’s secret sauce and customer logs on his way out the door.
It remained Arthur’s word against an unassuming Brad. Or maybe he did know. Expecting Arthur to run a power smash in the name of revenge and a torched ego. Barricaded in the rafters of his warehouse while building his brand, I hardly saw Brad.
I wondered how long the agency would milk this gig when Reggie oversold my expertise, getting me a two-week extension. I couldn’t look for the swag anyway, too busy moping around the warehouse. A stalemate of loading, unloading, and stacking parcels, while the missing mother lode churned in the computer system.
Reggie couldn’t give a duck’s ass over my lack of progress either. Despite his plaques and citations, Reggie was a salesman first, then a private eye. More concerned with his incoming cash than his outgoing results. Along with the country club, time and patience made up his sales pitch.
On the flip, Hank was steamed to Hades. As the warehouse shut down for the weekend, an anxious manager tracked me down. When I explained the set-up, Hank bristled.
“I don’t want this extension to expire. You need to earn your keep and show the goods,” Hank said.
Fine. Maybe you and Reggie could do this bum work, and I could hold down a cushy surveillance, follow a cheating spouse, or tee it up on the links.
“What do you suggest?” I baited the know-it-all, armchair quarterback.
“Starting Monday, I want you to hack the customer base. Figure out a way to break into one of their computers. We need to produce the names this guy’s doing business with, or we’ll lose the job and bonus to another agency.”
Not that I’d be seeing any of that bonus money, I web-searched Arthur, his company, and jaded ex-workers. I discovered a monster. Once I found a former employee, I’d troll their social media to read the lovely sentiment they all shared.
Many posted about being overworked, underpaid, and verbally abused. Some of the women insinuated there were sexual advances by Arthur himself, a married man. Voices in the chat rooms egged the ladies on to press charges.
Arthur was a predator, with a trail of targeting weak and vulnerable people. And here I sat, taking my cut of his filthy cash. My life’s objective was to put a guy out of the game, who’s only crime might be looking out for himself.
* * *
On Monday, the warehouse intercom paged my name. Riding the service elevator, it came to mind I might’ve been burned. While I mined the gunk on Arthur, a paranoid Brad, or somebody close to him could have done a background check on me.
As Brad worked the phone, he motioned for me to sit and wait my turn. While Brad chatted on his business call, I spotted the pictures of his wife and kids. Still lifes of ball games, barbeques, and vacations. This chap appeared my age with his act together. I admired the man for strapping himself in and chugging for the gusto.
When Brad hung up, he paused to study the guy across his desk. I was fried. He must have outed me and here it came. I felt it.
“Thanks for coming in,” Brad started. I told him no problem–I was in the area. He didn’t laugh.
“I’m hearing positive feedback about your performance on the floor. I want to give you a raise and promotion,” said Brad.
“Great stuff–I’m all in.”
“Starting next week, you’ll be an assistant manager, in charge of shipping and receiving. It’s a good job. You’ll have computer clearance and access to the firm’s customer base and all of our suppliers,” Brad added.
“Looking forward to it. I won’t let you down.”
“Report to Joe after lunch. He’s the department supervisor and he’ll be expecting you. We’re going to start your training right away.”
When lunchtime came, I hopped in my car and raced for a fast food window. Protocol said to call Hank and brag about my fourth-quarter comeback. That would settle down the office and keep things moving. And once I struck the payload, Arthur could bulldoze Brad, his business, and his family.
Or, I could quit the agency and this sleazy business altogether. I had all I wanted with helping cannibals like Arthur while hurting guys named Brad. The rent and car payments were no longer worth it.
That’s when I floored the gas, scrambling for the turnpike and my getaway. Once I zipped the toll plaza, the blob in my stomach dissolved. Free from this racket’s cesspool, before its black tide crushed my soul beyond repair.
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Phil Rossi is a fiction writer and short filmmaker from northern New Jersey, right outside New York City. His flash fiction has been long and shortlisted while appearing in various webzines and anthologies. http://www.phil-rossi.com/