The Alternative Detective (Hob Draconian)

BOOK: The Alternative Detective (Hob Draconian)
10.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The Alternative Detective

Robert Sheckley






There was a light tap on the door. I didn’t get excited. Occasionally someone mistakes my office for the back entrance to the dentist down the hall.

“Come in,” I called.

In walked a short, heavyset young guy dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, tweed sports jacket, Levis, and a wide leather belt with a brass buckle the size of a small serving plate that said remington firearms. He had black hair, brown eyes, and his skin was deeply tanned.

“Is this the Alternative Detective Agency?” he asked, like he didn’t quite believe it despite the cracked gold lettering on the door.

I admit the setup doesn’t look like much. A mean little office in a row of mean offices in a two-story office building that must have been old when Peter Stuyvesant was still stumping around Manhattan. A bookcase with the 1976
in it,
Volume 5, CASTER to COLE
missing. Scarred oak desk. Window behind the desk with a view of the crumbling storefronts on State Street. No carpet, but a permanent gray stain on the once-varnished floor where some sort of floor covering had lain, probably back a hundred years ago when Snuff’s Landing had been a prosperous Hudson River port. On the wall, a few bad imitations of Dutch masters that Mylar had put up during her brief enthusiasm for me and the agency. Back when she’d been planning to help me, had even considered becoming a detective herself. We’d had some dreams back then, before Sheldon came on the scene.

“I know it doesn’t look like much,” I told the kid. “That’s lucky for you; you got in just before the big expansion, while we’re still operating at the same old rates.”

That didn’t impress him, or even strike him as funny. He sat back in my client chair, which is made mostly of scuffed varnish and peeled imitation leather. He said after a while, “I guess Sam Spade’s office looked a little like this. But he had a secretary.”

“You been watching too many TV detectives,” I told him. “Now, what can I do for you, sir?”

“I guess you don’t remember me, Mr. Draconian,” he said. “I’m Frankie Falcone, your nephew.”

He was my sister Rita’s oldest boy. Rita lives in Oregon, so I don’t see too much of her. Must have been six, seven years since I’d seen Frankie. This was the first time Rita had sent me a customer, if that’s what he was.

“Take a seat, Frankie. How’s Rita?”

“She’s fine. She sent me this picture to give you.” He pulled it out of a knapsack he was carrying.

It showed a big frame house with a long shady porch. There was an old refrigerator on one side of the porch, a glider-type couch on the other. There was a wrecked truck off to one side and big trees behind. Standing on the porch from right to left there was Rita, there were Arlene and Doris, the fat twins. There was Frankie, shorter than Rita, and there was a sweet-faced girl with short fluffy blonde hair standing beside him. They had their arms around each other’s waists.

“Who’s this?” I asked.

“That’s Trish Johnson,” Frankie said. “We got married last year.”

“And these guys?”

The two dark, moustached young men, one tall and thin and serious looking, the other short and barrel chested with a scar on his cheek that could have been put there by a knife, turned out to be Antonio and Carlos Ordoñez, Mexican craftsmen who worked for Frankie during sailboarding season. The house backed onto woods and mountains. On the back porch, leaning against the clapboard wall, were two tall conical objects painted in bright colors like psychedelic sarcophagi.

“What are those?” I asked.

“Couple of my sailboards,” Frankie said. “That’s what I do.”

“Sail sailboards?”

“Yes, and I also design and build them. Falcone Double X competition boards, that’s what they’re called.”

So this chubby and bucolic youth was a designer, manufacturer and entrepreneur. I looked at him with new respect.

I put the photo in a desk drawer. “So what’s the problem?” I asked.

Frankie took a seat and told me about it.

After he graduated from high school, Frankie did a lot of odd jobs. For a while he pumped gas and fixed cars down at the local Flying A. Worked for a while as a driver for Weyerhauser until they closed the Hood River operation. Then he took a job working for Virgil Sibbs, who made fiberglass fishing boats. Virgil went bankrupt and packed up one day and went away. People had suspected he wasn’t much good anyhow.

Frankie started doing wood and fiberglass work, because he had more or less inherited Sibbs’ machinery. When sailboards began to get popular, he was right there at the start. He liked sailboarding and he was good at it. He started to build boards. Trish helped him study board and sail design. He turned out to have a feel for what one of those little hulls would do under a variety of sea and wind conditions. He had a sculptor’s touch with the polyurethane. Pretty soon a Falcone XX became known as a pretty hot board. People didn’t know the XX stood for Dos Equis, Frankie’s favorite beer.

Sailboarding became very big in the town of Hood River in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge. Sailboarding schools opened up, the beaches began to fill, first on weekends, then all week long, all summer long. Sailboarding was in, and the Columbia Gorge was one of the best places in the world to do it. True, you didn’t get the surf like on Maui. But a faithful and reliable wind howled down the Gorge most days, twenty, thirty knots or better. The waters were too tight to build up much wave action. This was a great place to learn speed and maneuverability in broken-water conditions.

Sailboard making is a highly competitive occupation. Frankie thought he’d made the breakthrough when Industrias Marisol, a Spanish company, ordered two of his boards, then another two. It was good publicity. Frankie started to hear about guys taking firsts and seconds on his Falcone XX boards at Lake Geneva and Palma de Mallorca.

Then Industrias Marisol asked him for five custom boards, specially rigged, and they wanted them in a hurry. They promised to pay as soon as the boards arrived.


“So I shipped five of my competition boards to Industrias Marisol, this place in Ibiza, Spain. They got my full assortment. A short board, a slalom, a speed board, a wave board and one transition. Everything fully equipped. Masts, booms, universals, sails, board bags. They’d bought my boards before, so I trusted them. They needed the boards quick for a European tour and offered me a third above what I usually get. I got the order together and shipped them out. The agent from Industrias Marisol called me from Spain and said his check would be in the mail next day. I get a notice from my shipping company that the boards have arrived and cleared customs. Two weeks go by. No check. I telephone Industrias Marisol but there’s no answer. I send a telegram. Nothing. I don’t know who’s got my boards or my money. More than ten thousand dollars’ value in that shipment.”

“What do you think I can do for you, Frankie?”

“Get back my money for me. Mom said you’ve got contacts over there.”

I thought about it. Theoretically, Frankie had an open and shut case. Assuming the paperwork was in order, he could lodge a claim in a Spanish court for recovery. Spanish justice is sometimes slow, but it works pretty good.

But maybe it wouldn’t have to go that far. Maybe just having somebody talk to the Marisol guy would clear things up. Nobody wants the law called in. Maybe someone just needs to tell him, give the guy back his boards or send him his money. Most people are honest but absentminded. And I wouldn’t even have to do it myself. I had Harry Hamm working for me on Ibiza.

“I can’t make any promises,” I said, “but we do have one of our operatives in Ibiza and I’ll see what I can do for you. I’ll need a retainer before I begin.”

“How much of one?”

“A couple hundred would be a good beginning.”

“How about a hundred and we’ll make a bad beginning?”

I accepted. It would barely cover our telephone and cable costs, but what the hell, I’d needed a case to give to Harry. If I didn’t keep him working, I was going to lose my operative. And then my whole scheme would fall apart.

I wrote down the pertinent information from Frankie. He was going to Philadelphia that evening for the convention, back to Oregon two days later. I told him I’d be in touch and to give Rita my love.

After Frankie left, I thought long and hard. Was this the long-awaited sign? Was it time for me to shed America and its strange ways and return to my Europe of sweet memory? Ibiza—it had to be! And yet, it didn’t seem possible. Frankie’s case wouldn’t pay much; not even my airfare to Spain. Reluctantly, I decided against going myself. This case must be one for the other operative of the Alternative Detective Agency.

I rolled a sheet of paper in the typewriter and typed out a letter of instructions to Harry Hamm, my man in Ibiza. But I thought to myself, it’s coming; my day is coming.








Mom lives in Florida and she loves my being a private detective.

“Who did you kill recently?” she cackles when I come to the Golden Shores Retirement Center for my semiannual visit.

She introduces me to her friends, “Hey, Sadie, meet my son Hobart, the private detective.” Sadie, skinny little stick in a pale yellow spotted dress, looks me up and down.

“Hey, Mom, you know I don’t kill people,” I remind her.

“Then who’d you shake down recently?” she asks, and bursts into gales of laughter. My mom is, like they say, uninhibited. It’s something my father always held against her. And when I visit him at his retirement home—the Southern Breezes Trailer Court in Key Largo, Florida—he always asks after her with a supercilious air.

“Your mother, the loudmouth—how is she?” he asks.

“Pick up a telephone and find out,” I tell him. “She’s only a couple hundred miles away, straight up A1A.”

“You don’t have to tell me where she is; didn’t I put her there myself?”

“Well, why don’t you ever get in touch?”

,” he says to me in his fake Yiddish accent, “I had to live with that woman for twenty-seven years, the first eighteen or so raising you, and the rest taking care of her swollen ankles until the good Lord blessed me with the idea of a retirement home.”

Actually, it hadn’t gone that way at all. It was Mom who had finally left him, declaring that twenty-seven years of his acid wit and general air of know-it-all unpleasantness was quite enough, thank you very much. Especially since they had been unable to agree on where to retire. Mom liked Golden Shores because she had a couple of friends there, like Mrs. Salazarri who used to run the deli in Asterion, New Jersey, where we had lived for a lot of those years; she’d decided to retire after her husband Pep’ was killed by a teenage stickup kid from Irvington. And Golden Shores was not far from the North Miami Elder Citizens’ Center, with its Ukrainian folk dances on Tuesday nights and its bridge raffles, ping-pong ball guessing contests and other forms of hirth and milarity.

“Me call her?” Pop asked. “You must be crazy! Start talking to that woman and I might end up hooked again.”

Pop talked in fishing analogies. He had come down to Key Largo for the—you guessed it—fishing. Bonefish, marlin, yellow-tail. He was a tall, skinny, old guy with a very tan face and a big grin. Always a couple days’ worth of white stubble on his face. He’d been shaving every day during his working life as a tailor and furrier, and he figured that was enough.

BOOK: The Alternative Detective (Hob Draconian)
10.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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