You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Little Gratuity

A Little Gratuity

A short story by Michael R. Lockridge

Sergeant Hansen put down his binoculars to answer his departmental phone. He felt it buzzing on his belt. He had only been at this particular location for about an hour, and was not expecting a call from headquarters. He glanced at the number displayed, as he flipped the phone open to answer. There was just dead air. Out of habit, he noted the number, closed the phone, and then picked up the binoculars to return to his observation.

Hansen shifted in his seat, then refocussed his binoculars. Department vehicles never seemed all that comfortable, even after sitting in them for many years. At least the night was cool and comfortable.

His personal phone buzzed just as he got the binoculars back in focus. He put them down again, and took the phone out of his jacket pocket. He looked at the number, and hesitated a moment in answering. The number was the same as the one displayed on the other phone. He did not recognize the number.

He flipped the phone open.

“Good evening, Sergeant Hansen. I hope you are enjoying the view.”

“Do I know you?” Asked Hansen.

“I doubt that you do. However, it is my duty and pleasure to meet you.” Said the voice on the phone. “We can see you right now. We know what you are looking for, and have some information you might value.”

If that were true, they would know he was working alone. Whoever they might be.

Hansen thought about closing the phone and changing his location. It would be prudent.

“Before you decide to go, Sergeant, just listen a moment longer. If we were going to arrange for an accident, it would have happened by now.”

Hansen considered this, and had to concede that it was logical.

“Go on.” He said. If the information proved valid, it could help build his career. It could lift him off of the career plateau he seemed to be sitting on.

“Not on the phone. We need to meet. Hang up, and I will text coordinates to you.” Said the voice.

Hansen closed the phone. Moments later, a short vibration indicated that the text had been received.

The message had GPS coordinates. He entered the coordinates into his navigational computer, and started his engine. The location was about ten minutes away. It was in a rather non-descript part of town. Low threat, plenty of people around.

When he arrived at the coordinates, he was in a free parking lot in a mid-level restaurant district. Hansen parked, and waited. A moment later, he saw two quick flashes of light across the street. A young man was standing there. He put something in his pocket, and then began to cross the street toward Hansen’s car.

Hansen cleared his jacket from the area around his holster, and placed his hand on the grip of his revolver.

The young man stopped about ten feet away. He held his jacket open for a moment, and then held his hands in clear sight. He made a turning motion with one hand, indicating that he wanted Hansen to roll down his window. Hansen did so, but not with his gun hand.

“Evening, Sergeant Hansen.” Said the young man. “I have been requested to escort you into the Spring Fern, to meet with some associates.”

Hansen hesitated. It was risky, but the reasoning of his mystery phone caller still held. They could have hurt or killed him several times, already. He had already stretched department policy. May as well go all the way.

The sergeant took his hand off of his weapon, and stepped out of the car. He intended to retain his weapons, but the young man did not even suggest he leave them or give them up.

The Spring Fern was a rather unassuming restaurant, featuring American and Chinese cuisine. Hansen had taken his unrefined taste there several times. The young man escorted him past the hostess, who did not appear at all surprised. Whoever he was to meet had connections, but not particularly lofty ones.

Once Hansen was seated at a quiet booth in the back of the restaurant, the young man left him. A waitress came and set up a tea service, without glancing at Hansen or saying anything. Hansen waited.

Less than five minutes later a rather smallish man came and sat across from Hansen. A very young woman of astounding beauty accompanied him. “Barely legal” was the phrase that came to mind. She sat next to his host, and studied him openly. She did not seem to match his host in any quality.

“Tea?” Asked the man across from him. Hansen nodded. The man was a bit rat-faced, and though well dressed had the appearance of a relatively successful street thug. For the first time, the events were taking on something of the flavor Hansen had expected.

The man did not offer a name. He poured tea for the young lady, first. Then for Hansen, and then for himself. At least his owner had taught him some manners, thought Hansen.

“Are you hungry, Sergeant? I could order a meal for us, but we really won’t need that much time.” Asked Rat-face.

“No, thank you. Since my observations have been observed, I figured I would be going home. I may have to rethink my approach.” Hansen said, with unusual candidness.

“You are probably wondering why someone so low on the totem pole was chosen for this meeting.” Rat-face said. “Oh, don’t look so surprised. The fact is both you and I are not up there very high in our respective institutions.”

Hansen noticed that the man seemed to take great pleasure in the term, “respective institutions.” He was obviously recently elevated in his education, and enjoying the taste of a new vocabulary. A lap dog learning new tricks. Lap rat.

“You were chosen, Sergeant, largely due to you rather lowly position.” Continued Rat-face. “We know that you are gathering information on what is mistakenly considered a case of modern slavery. Flesh trafficking. That sort of mistaken concept.”

The young man sipped gingerly at his tea. It was apparently not his drink of choice, but he worked hard at enjoying it. Apparently his masters were fond of tea.

That done, he looked up at Hansen. He did his best to present a winning smile. He failed.

“My associates are well connected.” He said. “They obviously know a bit about you. Your habits. Your assignments.”

“Hmmm. So, other than this very poorly shrouded threat,” Replied Hansen, “You are telling me that someone in my department is a source of information for your masters. This, of course, doubles your threat, since it promises reprisals from inside. Career troubles. Accidents. Do I have this right?”

The impoverished smile grew forced. Hansen thought he was doing rather well. He might be able to turn this thing, maybe get some information. Career building information.

“Sergeant, what some of our mutual associates want from you are a few favorable reports.” Said the Rat-faced man. “Perhaps a bit of misdirection, as well. Coming from your level, these reports will serve quite well. They will be lost in the sea of paperwork, yet reach the right eyes.”

Hansen was satisfied. He had forced the dance, and thought he was gaining control.

The Rat-faced man nodded to the young woman at his side. She got up and moved to the side of the booth next to Hansen. She sat close, and was quite compelling. A distraction, but one he could work through.

“Besides being quite beautiful, Melody is quite special.” Rat-face said, referring to the young woman sitting by Hansen’s side. “She, in many ways, does not exist.”

Hansen could feel the considerable heat from her body. In that way, at least, she very much existed.

“Where she comes from is a secret. I certainly don’t know. Where she goes, and with whom, also remains secret. Many very powerful men share secrets with women like her.”

It was dawning on Hansen just how far up this could go. How many people had a vested interest. Important people. Powerful people.

“I assume you have some kind of proposal?” Hansen asked. Physical threats he could handle. This, however, felt like a mountain was hanging over him. One misstep and he would be buried. He had been out of his league from the beginning.

“We just want you to be open to a little guidance.” Said Rat-face. His smile was quite genuine, now. His career was about to get a boost. Perhaps a bone from his masters.

“Just that you accept a little guidance in creating your reports.” He continued. “You will continue to report the facts, of course. We just want to assist you in knowing just what the facts really are. What you see, what you hear. That kind of thing. Nothing dangerous.”

Hansen shifted in his seat. She sat so close. She didn’t exist. Women like her in the company of men of power. A tool. A weapon. Untraceable.

“We might feed you some valuable information, from time to time.” Said Rat-face. “Career building information. Information that will serve the greater good, so to speak. If it draws eyes away from my associates, all the better. Yes?”

“Melody, give the man his special gift.” He continued.

The young lady slid a key across the table. It was attached to a fob. On the fob was written an address and a phone number.

“Just to make your decision a little easier.” Said Rat-face. “Her apartment. I think she would enjoy a bit of company. Any time. Just think of her as a little gratuity.”

Hansen began to sweat.

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