...... Mac lowered his voice as he topped off my coffee. "If you're looking for work, the guy at the end of the counter could use your help."
...... Leaning back, I assessed Mac's recommendation: late twenties, clean-shaven, shoulders of a former college linebacker. Probably a middle manager wondering why his wife wasn't as frisky as she used to be. He huddled over his cup If this were a bar he'd be well on his way to becoming a sloppy drunk. Instead his hands would shake all afternoon.
...... He didn't seem in a hurry. I finished my breakfast, careful not to get any on me, and walked over to see what he needed. Up close he was even more All-American, only the disheartened slouch keeping him from being a poster boy for milk.
...... Nodding towards an empty booth, I said Mac had sent me.
...... "The guy behind the counter. He told me you could use a PI."
...... Linebacker came off the stool so quickly he knocked his spoon clattering to the floor. "Do I ever."
...... By the time I picked up after him, he was seated with his hands folded on the table. Signaling Mac with two raised fingers I joined my new best friend. "So what seems to be the problem?"
...... He held out his hand. "Tim Alison, Assistant Manager, Berkshire Steakhouse, pleased to meet you. We've experienced some slippages and they've been traced to my shifts."
...... "Are you responsible?"
...... Tim puffed up. "I wouldn't be Assistant Manager if I wasn't."
...... "I meant whether you were responsible for the slippages."
...... He couldn't have looked more surprised if I punched him. "Of course I didn't steal anything. The problem is, I don't know who did."
...... Mac arrived with the two coffees. When he stood right next to me, the stains on his apron left little to the imagination. "Get you guys anything else?"
...... Tim shook his head.
...... "We're fine, thanks." I watched Tim spoon in sugar as if the caffeine wasn't doing enough for him.
...... "So you're really a private investigator?"
...... "You'll know for sure when you get my bill. What kind of slippages?"
...... Tim slurped and then smacked his lips. "Hamburger."
...... He nodded. "Everything's computerized at Berkshire Steakhouse. A Texas Max is eight ounces of hamburger, a Double Beef is six, and a bowl of chili is four. At the end of the shift I run a report which might say I sold a hundred of each item. That adds up to a certain amount of hamburger accounted for."
...... "Eighteen hundred ounces."
...... Tim sat back dumbfounded. "How'd you do that?"
...... "I was naive enough to pay attention in school. Go on."
...... Shaking his head in amazement, Tim continued. "Of course people make mistakes and then we fill out an Inventory Exception Form. Those get added into the calculations. You know, last week's ending inventory plus deliveries minus sales plus IEFs minus this week's inventory should equal zero."
...... "What kind of controls are in place? A hundred Double Beefs averaging six and a quarter ounces would throw off your reckoning by more than four burgers."
...... Tim's jaw dropped. "Why aren't you teaching at a college or something?"
...... "I slugged the Dean of Academic Affairs. She didn't much appreciate it."
...... "You hit a woman?"
...... "She was drunk at the time. How do you know the Double Beef is only six ounces?"
...... He was slow to catch up. "Oh, digital scales. We weigh everything. And even if the prep cook didn't pay attention, the readings are captured in the computer. I've seen the reports and they're clean."
...... "How much missing hamburger are we talking here?"
...... "A pound a shift."
...... I'd never investigated a misdemeanor before. "For what you're going to pay me you could replace two year's worth of missing hamburger and then some."
...... He winced. "I don't have two years. The Regional Supervisor wants this problem solved before more people decide they can get away with it. My job is on the line."
...... My last case I'd tumbled down a stairwell while trading punches with a guy who didn't want to appear in court. The previous case I was jabbed with a letter opener. "How do you want me to proceed?"
...... If Puppy-Dog Boy wasn't sitting on his tail it would have been wagging. "I can take you to the restaurant now, give you a feeling for the place before anyone comes in. Then I guess you just catch the thief."
...... All investigations should be this easy. "You said the slippages were traced to your shift. Who else who works those particular hours?"
...... "Berkshire Steakhouse utilizes the team approach. I always work with the same group of people. I hire them. I train them. If need be, I fire them. They're my people."
...... "Any of them bear a grudge?"
...... "Against me? I'm the team leader. They're my people."
...... Clients. You had to love them. After explaining my rates to the Moses of fast food and paying for the coffee as my first reasonable expense, I let Tim lead me across town to the scene of the crime.
...... He wasn't a bad driver if you didn't count the missed stop signs. At least he didn't get the sudden bright idea of playing lose-the-detective.
...... When we reached the restaurant I discovered Berkshire Steakhouse had become a bona fide crime scene. There were half a dozen cruisers with lights flashing and a smear of yellow tape blocking the entrance to the parking lot.
...... Tim grabbed the first empty spot on the street and was already arguing with the police by the time I caught up to him.
...... "But I'm the Assistant Manager."
...... "I'm sorry, sir. No one goes in."
...... Tapping Tim on the shoulder, I told him I'd handle this.
...... As my client stormed off, Officer Mendes shook his head. "Is he with you?"
...... "More like I'm with him."
...... "You got yourself a real hothead this time."
...... I nodded towards the restaurant. "And what do you have?"
...... "Kid skateboarding found a body out back, called it in on his cell phone."
...... "Ain't technology grand. Some jogger cutting through the lot suffer a heart attack?"
...... "Of sorts. He was shot twice in the chest."
...... "Any ID?"
...... Mendes smiled. "I'm not doing your job for you, am I?"
...... "I'll put a word in for you with the Chief."
...... "The Chief hates your guts."
...... "I'll make it a bad word." Tim paced the perimeter as if checking for a weakness.
...... Mendes turned to scream at a car that must have been going twice the speed limit. "Don't those assholes know how to rubberneck?"
...... "So what do you have on the victim?"
...... "He's a minor so I can't release the name. What I can tell you is he had a Berkshire Steakhouse paycheck in his wallet." Mendes stepped closer. "And get this. Guess what we found when we pried open his fingers."
...... "A cryptic clue to the killer's identity?"
...... "Ball of raw hamburger. I guess someone had a beef with him." Mendes cracked himself up.
...... I grinned to be friendly. "Any leads?"
...... "Don't you get it? Had a beef with him."
...... "Very funny. Keep helping me and maybe I'll put you in touch with a comedy writer."
...... "Think he'd have some fresh material for me?" Mendes nudged me with his elbow. "Fresh?"
...... "I'll pay the bill myself."
...... Mendes swore. "Man, no wonder the Chief hates you. I bet you don't appreciate his jokes, either."
...... "No but I laugh whenever he holds a press conference." I glanced over at Tim, making sure he hadn't decided to rush the tape. "Tell you what. I understand the need to protect the identity of a minor. That's why I'm not asking you to give me his first name, just a word that rhymes with it. If you can see your way to helping me out, I'll send you ten pounds of something which rhymes with break."
Mendes licked his lips. "Crank."
...... "Thanks. I have to admit you fooled me. I never would have tagged you as someone who liked fruitcake."
...... I was three steps away before he thought of a reply. "I'll arrest you for being an asshole without a permit."
...... Hearing Mendes shout at me, Tim finally snapped and I had to dig in with both heels to keep him from spending the rest of the day in jail. Then it took all my strength to push him back towards the cars. "Down, tiger."
...... "You don't have to take that kind of abuse from him. He's a public servant."
...... "I wouldn't say that too loudly."
...... Tim huffed and puffed. "I'm a taxpayer."
...... "Is there a Frank on this team of yours?"
...... My client was talking to me but his eyes were on Mendes. "Yeah, Frank is one of my busboys. Frank Clements. What about him?"
...... "I think he's dead in the parking lot."
...... Tim froze but I could see his mind crawling all over the news trying to make sense of it. "What do you mean, 'dead'? Frank is just a kid. He worked last night. He's never skipped a shift like some of the others. He was never any trouble."
...... "He's got two bullets in him. He also has a handful of hamburger."
...... "I don't understand."
...... "That's what you're paying me for. You head on home and I'll call you when I have something concrete."
...... Back in my car, I got in touch with my brother, the resident gossip and know-it-all. "How goes the soul-saving business?"
...... "Excellent except for the fact I haven't managed to sign you up as a client."
...... "They say selling starts when the customer says no."
...... "God prefers a more subtle approach."
...... I'd never have guessed that from the way my brother acted. "While we're on the subject of subtle, you hear anything interesting about hamburger?"
...... "I hear it grills well. Maybe you can come over Saturday afternoon and we can test the theory."
...... "I'm buried with paperwork. Anything else?"
...... "Just the terrible situation over at the Hindu temple."
...... "What situation?"
...... My brother sighed. "You don't even follow local news?"
...... "I hate to see my clients repeating their mistakes."
...... "In that case I'll summarize. Someone has been flinging raw hamburger at the temple. You can imagine the reaction."
...... "Nasty. Any suspects?"
...... "We were discussing this at the interfaith meeting yesterday."
...... My brother was not one to be rushed through a story which was fine so long as he didn't start quoting scripture to me. "And what were people saying?"
...... "There is a young lady of tender age who has been forbidden by her parents to see an older boy. Though age and not religion was the reason for concern, the timing suggests that the hate crime may be linked. Proverbs 14.30: A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot."
...... "Do you have a name for the boy?" Does it rhyme with crank?
...... "Nathan. He is not a member of my church or any other that we were able to determine."
...... Frank stole hamburger for Nathan and an argument turned fatal. Frank tried to stop Nathan from stealing the meat and died for his efforts. Neither scenario made sense. Who would kill over a pound of hamburger? "I don't suppose you have a last name."
...... "I was not the one selected to speak to Nathan. If I remember correctly, however, he works at the supermarket on Westerly. That's where he and the young lady met."
...... "Thanks." Disconnecting, I pulled out into traffic.
...... If Nathan worked at a supermarket he could damn well steal his own hamburger. Maybe a syndicate was at work. Maybe while Frank stole the hamburger, Nathan was in charge of obtaining buns. I should see if anyone was missing a bag of onions.
...... Inside the supermarket, I was directed to the canned food aisle where I found Nathan standing in front of a soup display, hands on his hips.
...... He turned. "Can I help you?"
...... I handed him a twenty. "I borrowed this from Frank last night. He said I should give it to you since I wouldn't see him before I leave for my trip."
...... "Sure. I'll give it to him tonight." Nathan raised his hand to stifle a yawn. "Sorry."
...... "Up late?"
...... He glanced down for a second before rolling his eyes. "It's embarrassing."
...... Silence and a welcoming face were a PI's best friends.
...... Nathan shrugged. "I spent the night outside my girlfriend's house, rushed home this morning to take a shower before coming here."
...... "I wish. Her parents have forbidden her to see me. They say she's too young. Can you believe forbidding a relationship in this day and age?"
...... "Your parents are different?"
...... "It's just me and Frank." Nathan began to pace in circles. "But I'm crazy about Sachi and not being able to see her is tearing me apart. I'm even spilling my guts to you and you're a complete stranger." Nathan shook his head. "Love can be a killer. You know what I mean?"
...... "I do."
...... The store's PA system crackled to life. "Nathan C, please report to the front office. Nathan C to the front office."
...... "Duty calls. Don't worry, I'll give Frank the money. And hey, thanks for listening."
...... "No problem."
...... I hadn't beaten the police by much but it was enough. Nathan hadn't known his brother was dead. He also probably wasn't involved in the hamburger scheme or he'd question why there wasn't any when he arrived home this morning.
...... Back in my car, I called Mister Holier Than Thou.
...... "I was wondering if you could talk to your counterpart at the temple. I'm looking for a name."
...... "Are you expecting me to rough him up if he doesn't talk?"
...... "Try not to let the discussion escalate into a brawl. I need to know who's the most likely candidate to respond to the hamburger-slinging with violence."
...... "If I help you solve your case sooner, you'll get a jump on that paperwork that keeps you from breaking bread with your brother."
...... I almost laughed. Which Biblical verse advocated blackmail? "Yes, I could probably join you on Saturday."
...... "There is an angry young man who goes by the name Indra, in Hindu mythology the God of War and Rain, Lord of Wind. I'll see you Saturday at noon.
...... After getting enough details to track Indra down, I tipped an imaginary hat to my brother. "If I'm late, make mine medium rare."
...... Since Indra was yet another young man I made my usual rounds of the convenience stores and gas stations. I hit the music store, the burger joints. Two kids who admitted knowing Indra hadn't seen him for a few days.
...... The police could blanket-search better but I owed my client more than simply tipping the law. Besides, I still had nothing more than conjecture.
...... A young lady outside a laundromat suggested I try the public library.
...... Nathan is heartbroken. His kid brother blames religious intolerance and responds in kind. Indra sees the hate crime and raises the stakes to murder. The story was tragic enough - and the motive stupid enough -- to make me think it was probably true.
...... I wondered how my client would react when all he'd wanted was for the numbers to line up correctly.
...... At the library, I started in the reference room. Indra had signed up to use Internet Station 5 and that's where I found him.
...... "I'd like you to come to the police station with me."
...... Indra stuck out his lower lip and crossed his arms, the very picture of petulant defiance. "And why should I?"
...... "Because if you turn yourself in, you just might not spend the rest of your life behind bars."
...... The lower lip trembled. "I don't know what you're talking about."
...... I glanced at the computer monitor, saw a picture of his namesake killing a dragon. "If you want I'll suggest a lawyer. If you already have one in mind, you can call on the way."
...... He phoned his mother first.
...... Escorting Indra into the police station, I felt like some 50's television dad bringing him downtown to apologize for a misguided prank. I was getting old enough that the clients, the suspects, the victims, they could all be my kids.
...... Indra was crying in the interview room when I left.
...... I dialed the new number my client had given me, explained the whole story, said I'd enclose a final report with my bill.
...... Tim rattled off a bunch of curses. "I feel like it's all my fault. If only I'd caught him red-handed he'd still be alive. I'm the team leader. Why didn't Frank come to me?"
...... "The weight of love, family, and religion is not so easily calculated. There's no point blaming yourself for human excess."
...... "What a waste." From a clatter in the background I assumed the police had allowed the staff back into Berkshire Steakhouse. "What's going to happen to the kid who shot Frank?"
...... "That's for the courts to decide."
...... "I can't believe how this mushroomed."
...... "Something my father used to say when he pried me and my brother apart: 'Where's the beef?'"
...... "I don't get his point." Tim's voice sounded distracted.
...... "Our father was saying we were fighting over air. Words. "
...... "Yeah, well, I gotta go." There was a click and Tim was gone.