PENNY WISE


                                                                   PENNY WISE

                                                        A Harry Bartlett Short Story

                                                          By Robert J. Ainsworth, Jr.


Northborough, Massachusetts                                                               Tuesday morning



Hello, Reader. My name is John Watson, and I am a retired British military doctor who served in Afghanistan. I met Sherlock…

Dammit, that’s been done before. And it’s not the truth anyway.  I’m Steve Malarkey,  editor of the Nantucket Observer and Harry Bartlett’s founding partner in the Fraud Detective Group. I’m writing this because Harry and a few others thought I needed a hobby due to 3 new places I find myself in: a wheelchair, a detective job, and a city, Boston.  My getting hammered every day may have also contributed to their suggestion.  

  Their idea was to write about our fraud cases and publish them (if it was good enough for Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s good enough for me). It would get the word out about avoiding scams, get us some publicity, and maybe generate a client or two. And maybe I’d be too busy to get sloshed; all commendable results.    

  One thing before getting to this case, and it’s for you literary-type folks. I don’t like writing in the first person. Never did in my newspaper gigs, won’t do it now. Writing “I, I, I”  sounds like a sailor obeying an order.

  Hope you enjoy the story.

                                                            


                                                                            ***


Business had been slow for the Fraud Detective Group since exposing the Nantucket scams. The hope for a steady stream of clients from the publicity and law enforcement referrals had vanished quicker than a casual fan down after the 6th inning with the Red Sox down a few runs.

Harry, Steve, and Uncle Louie decided a road trip to civic organizations would be a good idea. They’d educate folks about avoiding fraud, maybe generate a new client or two, and find new walls to look at; the ones at 221 B Brookline Avenue were giving them headaches. Today found them heading to Northborough, a suburban town of 14,000 forty miles west of Boston. Steve was cruising in the left passing lane on the Mass Pike; the handicap-enabled van hadn’t slowed his driving following the hit-and-run attack while biking.

 “Guess who came from Northborough?” Uncle Louie asked from the back seat. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Mark Fidyrch, that pitcher nicknamed The Bird because he looked like Big Bird from Sesame Street.”

“Not sure how I can work that into the speech,” Harry said.

“How about John Kellette, the guy who wrote, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”? 

“Strike two.”

“I like this one. Daniel B. Wesson, founder of the Smith & Wesson gun company.”

“You trading in your .357 Magnum?” Steve asked.

“No way,” Uncle Louie said, patting his black suit jacket. “But maybe we can visit his summer home, the White Cliffs house?”

“Swing and a miss, strike 3,” Harry said. “Steve, can you stop for throat lozenges? I’ve got a tickle in my throat.”

Steve turned into a convenience store on Route 20, the main road through town. Harry looked sheepish when he returned.  

“Do either of you have 2 bucks?” Harry asked.

“You’re broke?” Uncle Louie asked.

“Sort of,  it’s an all-cash business, and I have $0 in my wallet,” Harry said.

Uncle Louie rummaged in the pockets of his black suit for his wallet. Steve had fewer pockets in his well-worn jeans and won the race.

Harry thanked him and returned to complete his transaction.  

Ten minutes later, Harry stood at the wooden half-podium placed on a table, a lozenge swirling around in his mouth. Given the Senior Center audience, he decided to focus on avoiding elderly fraud scams using the telephone: the grandson needing money to get out of jail, the call asking to confirm your Social Security number, or the IRS demanding payment.

 People were settling down from their continental breakfast, so he passed the time by calculating the average age of the 23 attendees; the answer was 73. His calculation would’ve been higher except for one fifty-ish aged man standing in the back. The man was short, maybe 5’ 5”, a Joe Pesci doppelganger with a jutting jaw and a bulldog scowl. He approached the three of them after the talk. Harry expected to hear “yutes.”

“Rick Pound,” he said. “Hey, yuse gize are pretty good.”

Harry stifled a laugh. “We try,” Harry said. “You have an elderly parent here?”

“Nah, didn’t want the guys seeing me talk with you. I got us a room,” Rick said and started down a hallway. He turned around after a few steps. “You coming or what?”

“What,” Harry said.

“Fine. You know profits and all that fraud stuff, right?” Rick asked. “I know you do, I looked you up, just being careful.” He violently wrung his hands while he talked. “Profits suck at my new store, and I can’t figure out why. Think you can crack it?”

“Can’t someone on your staff check it out?” Harry asked.

“The wife, Penny, keeps the books. I pay her zilch,” he said and made a zero with his thumb and forefinger. “She thinks she’s so smart, change this thing, spend money on that. Bullshit, money don’t grow on trees.”

“How about hiring a CPA?” Steve asked.

“He rips me off doing my company taxes. Two hundred bucks an hour for Christ’s sake,” Rick said. “But I get him back. Volunteers here do my taxes for free. They kinda don’t want to, but they cave and do them anyway.”

“What kind of business do you own?” Uncle Louie asked.

“Convenience stores, six of ‘em. Local places, sell Pepsi and pretzels and Playboy,” Rick said. “The new one makes 10% less than the others. Opened it a year ago.”

“Rick’s Rest Stop?” Harry asked. “I bought throat lozenges at the Route 20 store this morning. Nice place.”

“That’s the new one,” Rick said.

“Don’t forget you owe me 2 bucks,” Steve said.

“I won’t,” Harry said. “But that reminds me. Why don’t you accept credit cards?”

“And pay them crooked credit card crooks a billion percent? No way. That’s my money, I earned it, I’m keeping it,” Rick said. “So, can you find my missing profits?”

“Yes,” Harry said. He sat still. So did Steve and Uncle Louie.

Rick got a confused look on his face: eyebrows down, head tilted, lips scrunched together.  He looked at each of them in succession. Suddenly, his face changed. Light had dawned on Marblehead.

“I get it, you want to get paid. I respect that,” Rick said. “How much?”

“First, answer a few questions,” Harry said.

“Shoot,” Rick said.

Harry asked him a series of questions about the six stores: the items sold, pricing, the store size, the hours. He got machine-gun answers in return; the stores were precisely the same.

“Each place has a manager and an assistant manager; they cover the first two shifts with clerks. Other clerks handle the overnight shift,” Rick said.

“When are the shift changes?”

Rick said 6, 2, and 10.  

“Excuse me for a second,” Harry said and went to the front desk. He returned with a sheet of paper and an envelope. He wrote something, sealed the sheet in the envelope, wrote “Rick” on the front, and placed it on a table.  

“The answer is in there. The price is $1,000 today or $5,000 tomorrow, plus a $500 donation to the Senior Center,” Harry said. “You’ve got thirty seconds to decide. Steve, will you time this?”

“Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight,” Steve said.

“Oh, and the $5,000 is a fixed price until we find the answer.”

“Twenty-five, twenty-four.”

“You bustin’ my balls?” Rick asked.

“No, dead serious,” Harry said.

Rick rubbed his chin, weighing his options, trying to calculate what he should do. “It’d be stupid to pay you a grand for nothing.”

“Eighteen, seventeen.”

“If he’s right, you save the lost profits starting today, and it’s $4,000 cheaper,” Uncle Louie said. 

“But if he’s wrong. I lose the grand and keep losing the profits.”

Rick rested his chin on the back of his right knuckles. His right elbow was on his left knee, his head slightly bowed.

“The Thinker,” Uncle Louie whispered to Steve.

“Eleven, ten.”

“Nope, I ain’t paying $1,000 to some guy who looked at nothing. And I like the fixed price thing.”

“Your call,” Harry said. “We need a rental car.”

Rick called the green logo’d company. “It’ll be here in an hour.”

“Give me read-only rights into your accounting system, internet access, and a printer hookup,” Harry said. Rick gave Harry the password and arranged the other items with the Senior Center manager. Harry was active in two minutes. “I need your cell number so your store managers can call to confirm who we are.”

Rick produced a business card. “24/7.”

Harry typed into his laptop and printed out 2 sheets. “Sign these,” Harry said. The first sheet was a client contract. Rick made his scrawl on it. The second was Rick’s requirement that employees allow Harry to pull their credit report.

“I don’t care what their score is,” he said.

“Humor me,” Harry said.

“Whatever,” Rick said and signed.

 “See you tomorrow, here, 4 PM,” Harry said and stood up. “And bring the $5,000 and $500 checks.” They shook to seal the deal.

“Make them bank checks,” Harry said.

Rick waved his okay as he walked down the hall.

Harry let him get out of earshot, then asked Uncle Louie to get 4 reliable watchers to Northborough asap. “No, make it 3. And they need to blend in,” Harry said.

“Hey, something wrong with my black suit ensemble ?” Uncle Louie asked.

“In Boston, no, out here in suburban utopia, yes. I want jeans and t-shirts and sneakers, maybe sandals.”

“That stuff ain’t part of their regular haberdashery,” Uncle Louie said.

Harry tossed a credit card at Steve. “Go to the Solomon Pond Mall across Route 290. Find some regular store, not some teenage place like the Gap, and buy 3 sizes of everything and 1 set for Uncle Beau Brummell here.” He turned to Uncle Louie. “You’ve got an hour to get those guys out here and dressed.” Uncle Louie was making calls before Harry said, “guys.”

 Harry made a call. “Megan, how fast can you get to Northborough in jeans and a t-shirt?” 

“Soon enough, why?” Megan Webster asked. She and Harry had a good thing going after the Nantucket case; she was also the source of Harry’s tv publicity as the fraud and consumer rip-off reporter.

Harry explained his plan. “It’ll last 24 hours, and, yes, you get the perp walk if there is one.”

“Am I a soccer mom or an office worker on break?”

Harry picked the second choice.

“I’ll be there in 45 minutes,” she said and hung up. Harry guessed she’d red-line the Mini-Cooper and get there in thirty.   

 “How sure are you that…?” Steve asked.

Harry shot him an “are you shitting me?” look.

“Okay, okay, just asking. Let’s go shopping, Uncle Louie,” Steve said.  

Harry started typing on his laptop.  He grabbed the completed sheets from the office printer, flashing the bemused, elderly staffers his best altar-boy smile each time he invaded their office sanctuary.

Steve, Uncle Louie, and the posse arrived back at the Center on time. Megan was already sitting comfortably. Harry asked Steve to stuff $10 into the donation styrofoam cup; the office ladies had cheerfully delivered the group a tray of hot joe with cookies.

“That’s $12,” Steve said.

Harry looked over his assembled watch team. They looked slightly uncomfortable in their new outfits of jeans with Nike logoed shirts and New Balance sneakers. He figured that was because their usual jackets covered their firearms. Megan would blend in perfectly.

“Thank you all for getting here so quickly. This is a one day job, twenty-four hours. We’re working in teams, finding everything out we can about 6 convenience stores and the employees. Rule number 1: no guns. Stow them in your trunks. This is strictly talk, watch, and record,” Harry said. “Rule number 2: Shifts change at 6, 2, and 10. Sleep between shifts if you have to, but not in the store parking lot. Find some 24-hour place. Rule number 3: do the same thing, ask the same questions at each place. Write the answer or observation down as soon after it happens as you can. This is going to be like spending a day looking at open houses; pretty soon, they blend together. Rule number 4- take pictures and label them by the store number. Any questions?” Harry asked.

“The idea is to hit a store,  observe things, talk with the workers in regular chatter, then move on. Two at each shift change; one stays, the other follows the employee home, observes, then returns.”

Harry handed out sheets with the store location and specific questions and observations. They went through each one in detail. He handed out felt-tip pens from the Senior Centers supply closet; this time, Uncle Louie forked over a $10 bill, and Harry supplied an even bigger smile.   

“Why me?’ Uncle Louie asked.

“I like to distribute my debts,” Harry said.

The stores were on main roads in neighboring towns. Harry’s posse descended on the first location like a swarm of locusts.

Uncle Louie’s job was determining square footage; he asked for the restroom key and paced off the distance from the front registers area to the back of the store. He noticed that the flooring was one-foot square tiles and counted those on the way back as a double-check. He wrote the numbers on his hand.

Steve’s job was inventory evaluation since his chair hid him behind the rows of products. He rolled up and down, snapping pictures with his cell-phone, coughing to hide each click even though it wasn’t deafening.  When he finished, he moved his van to the back of the building and observed the food deliveries.

Megan was in charge of interrogation; Uncle Louie’s guys spoke in single syllables and she talked for living. She chatted up the employees about their kids,  upcoming summer vacations, and cars. She also was the final step: get permission to run credit reports.

One of Uncle Louie’s friends had a construction background; he did not need a tape measure to estimate the food shelves’ and refrigerator dimensions. He followed the workers' home and estimated the market value. He checked his estimate with a real estate pricing app.   

Friend number 2 counted customers, noting age and gender.

Friend number 3 was an ex-cop with on-the-job contacts to run the workers' criminal and driving records based on their license plates. He also did a fixed asset inventory of shopping carts,  hand-baskets, the registers, the safe and cleaning supplies.

Timing was crucial; Harry wanted someone inside to watch the register closeout and reopening. The group exchanged cell phone numbers to coordinate their movements.

Harry got a room at a local hotel and downloaded daily revenue and bank deposit information and analyzed it on a shift and store basis. He looked at electricity, trash collection, and delivery fee costs. The data called in by the posse allowed him to calculate revenue per customer, customers per hour, and other ratios. He also pulled a credit report on each employee.

One manager didn’t head home; Harry authorized the tracker to get into a minor fender-bender to get the address. He paid $200 on the spot to not report it because it would kill his insurance rates.

They were done by noon the next day; they’d witnessed 24 hours of activity and every shift change. Harry paid the 3 watchers $500. Harry had 4 hours to finish the data evaluation. He finished in 3, and they went to nearby Uhlman’s Ice Cream to kill the hour before meeting Rick.

Rick walked into the Senior Center. Harry, Steve, Megan, and Uncle Louie were playing pool.  

“Who’s she?”

“A friend,” Harry said. He wasn’t lying.

“So, you been to the stores?” Rick asked.

“You have the checks?” Harry asked.

Rick waived the rectangular paper. “You got my answer?”

Harry waved the envelope. “Let’s take a trip. We’ll be back soon.”

They returned to the room in forty-five minutes. “What the hell just happened?” Rick asked. “We walked in, bought a beef jerky, then left.”

Harry stood at the semi-podium with a laser pointer while Steve operated the laptop’s projection onto the wall.

“Your new store manager and assistant manager are ripping you off,” Harry said. “But you could’ve known this before you hired me, and definitely before you hired them.”

“No way this is my fault,” Rick said.

“It’s absolutely your fault,” Harry said. “Steve, start with the credit scores.”

Numbers appeared on the wall, two for each staffer. The first was their credit score a year ago, and the second was yesterday. Most pairs were consistent and over 600. Two were over 800 now, but under 500 a year ago.

“Steve, home values next, please.”

Only 4 numbers appeared. “Most of your employees rent. 2 own 500k homes. Guess which ones.”

“Let’s look behind door #3 for store stats, Steve,” Harry said, and rows and columns of numbers appeared. Store #6, the new store, had lower revenue per customer. The numerator, revenue, was lower for that store. The denominator, number of customers, was the same.

Rick was getting anxious, tapping, and fidgeting. “Get to the point.”

“One last slide: physical assets inventory,” Harry said.

 Each store had the same items except one- Store #6. Rick bounded up to the wall and smashed his fist into Store #6’s numbers. “What’s with the 3?”

 “Your manager and assistant manager installed their own register when they opened the store,” Harry said.  “They don’t take every dollar through their register because it would  be too suspicious, but they take enough to explain the lower profits.”

“I hired them before the store opened; they wanted to learn how to start one from scratch,” Rick said.

“They already knew,” Harry said and brought up their resumes. “By the way, I talked with Penny. Wise woman. She had the same ideas I did,” Harry said.

“And why is this my fault?” Rick asked.

“Because you’re too cheap to hire enough accounting staff,” Steve said.

 “Or to hire a CPA,” Uncle Louie said.

“Or to have registers that track inventory and accept credit cards,” Harry said. “My guess is you’d increase revenue by 15%, way more than the 2% fee. And you’d reduce the security company pick-up fees,” Harry said. “And you’d know if different stores need different items.”

“Or to trust an expert who knows what he’s talking about,” Megan said.

Harry handed the sealed envelope to Rick. He ripped it open.

“Read it out loud,” Uncle Louie said.

“Manager and assistant manager.” Jesus H. Christ,” Rick said. He looked at Harry, then at Uncle Louie. They could almost see the gears grinding before he eventually handed over the checks. “Those bastards screwed with the wrong guy.” Rick whipped out his cell phone. “Get me the Police Chief,” he yelled as he ran down the hallway.

Megan sprinted after Rick. “I’ve got an arrest to film. Dinner tonight, Harry?”

Harry, Steve, and Uncle Louie packed up. Harry asked the receptionist for an envelope, then placed Rick’s check in it. On the way to the Mass Pike, they stopped at a Post Office. He addressed the envelope to the Senior Center Director and added a note from Anonymous.

                                                 

                                                                            ***

An empty pizza box joined the empty Sam Adams bottles on the FDG conference table. They’d finished rewatching her tv segment on the arrests.

“Do I get to hear how you knew it was the store manager and the assistant?” Megan asked.

“Rick’s answers eliminated most of the possibilities. After that, it was a science experiment: all of the variables were constant except the personnel,” Harry said.

“What about the locations, different areas might buy different things?” Megan asked.

“Maybe that might change things, but not by much,” Harry said. “The only possibilities were Rick was stealing from himself, which has happened- check out Crazy Eddie, or it was the staff. He didn’t seem sharp enough to pull that off, so that left the staff. Clerks likely didn’t have the access, so that left management. I wasn’t sure how they did it until the inventory came back with the extra register. Very clever on their part. They saw an opportunity, made a fast decision, and implemented it. The All-American success story.”

“Except for the stealing part,” Megan said. “You have a limerick for this one?”

“I worked on it while you all were at the stores,” Harry said. He cleared his throat.

                 A store owner was acting quite devilish      

                 His love of profits was nearing a fetish

                 He held every sou

                So tight it turned blue

                And Rick was the Pound that was foolish.




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