In a town where happiness is only temporary, a private dick can become a millionaire.
Hester Browning, Decade City’s best private investigator, walked down the street to her office one dreary Thursday morning, weaving her way down the pockmarked streets. They still showed the scars from the most recent gold riots, the craters now filled with scummy water deposits from last night’s torrential rains. There was just enough sunlight poking through the smog to reflect the smokestacks surrounding the town, and the Sulphur dioxide clouds speckling the skies.
Hester wasn’t expecting any clients to be waiting for her as she climbed the stairs to her office. Rains tended to keep the people away – at least until the acidity went down. As she rounded the corner on the 3rd floor, she used the toe of her newest Mary Jane pumps to nudge the carcass of a swamp rat towards the lawyer’s office. Whether the swamp rat had died on its own, or was planted, Hester didn’t know or care. But the ambulance chasers could have it as a mascot as far as she was concerned.
Shaking the last of the liquid poison off her coat, she opened her office door. The glass insert reading “H. Browning Detective Agency” rattled in its frame as she shut it, removing her raincoat and hanging in a metal cupboard labelled “HAZARD”. Her secretary, Cecil, was already at work, sorting through the phone messages, placing them in order of importance.
The H. Browning Detective Agency was unique in Decade City, in that they accepted all manner of clients. This is why all citizens of the town – from wildcatters to mine owners, burlesque dancers to the good-time boys - beat a path to her doorway. Hester prided herself on her no-nonsense manner in solving cases – not easy in this dangerous and desperate town – generally considered the worst on the fifth planet from the suns.
“Morning, boss”, Cecil rattled off without looking up. “Want a cup of java? Carlos has finally paid off his debt for the gun-for-hire case. It’s primo stuff.” He shuffled all but one pile of notices into the garbage bin.
Hester turned him down regretfully. “Thanks, Carlie but I don’t need any jitters today. I’m going to the Wildcat Café to pin down my snitch. And the way things are tightening up between the rival mining gangs, I’ll need all my wits around me.”
The intrepid duo slogged away on the more mundane aspects of the agency, dealing with billing and the odd client that made the muddy trek up the rickety stairs. The weather forecast was calling for yet more rain, so people were still sticking inside as much as possible.
Outside, the bitter bargaining for control over Decade City’s lucrative platinum mines was reaching a fever pitch. Tempers were on edge on even a sunny day – and the addition of precipitation was fueling the theatrics and rhetoric on all sides; the City was a tinder keg waiting to go off. Even if the planet’s atmosphere was too smoggy to see the cabal’s indoctrination screens, all the city’s residents – even the off-worlders -could feel the tension.
Despite the rain, Hester had to make her way through the shoddy shanty town of the Wildcat miners. She was desperate to solve the murder of her previous snitch – Nawal McDaniels had been garroted and tied to a three-stage pneumatic drill as a message from one of the mining companies. Which one, Hester had yet to find out. Nawal had been researching the corruption behind the bargaining process on her behalf. It was her fault Nawal was as stiff as a fossilized bearded mammoth. Until Nawal’s untimely and violent death, Hester had not realized matters had reached the critical tipping point into all out violence.
Now, after the perverse and twisted death of McDaniels, the Great Phosphor Fire of ’48 and the tightening of mining embargoes, it was clear that she had to step carefully. Hester refused to take the easy road and sweep the issue under the rug. She would solve this horrendous crime and make those bastards pay for they’d done. Not just because it was the right thing to do – a private dick needed to close all cases or risk losing her business.
As the clock drew closer to 5, time seemed to pass at a glacial speed. The clock chimed five on the dot at the same time a massive boom rocked the office, rattling the door window in its frame so hard it cracked. Hester and Cecil shared a foreboding glance with each other before racing to the window overlooking Decade City.
In the distance, in the direction of the Wildcat Café, the entire shantytown was now hidden by walls of flame and smoke. The dry tinders and cardboard construction of the shanties only fuelled the fire. Series of random booms continued to go off sporadically as Hester and Cecil continued to look on the scene in disbelief. They could hear the screaming and yelling of the assembled rioters over the mobilized tracks of the cabal tanks.
Cecil turned from the window, shaking his head. “It’s going to be a long night”.
Hester turned from the window and made her way to the cabinet marked “Hazard”. Tossing her raincoat onto the desk, she removed the hidden partition to reveal her stockpile of weapons. Sometimes the Private Detective had to move beyond using their keen sense of intuition and snitch networks and get the big guns involved.
With her semi-automatics and Dalekanium rocket launchers locked and loaded, Hester looked dangerous enough to deal with the desperation she was sure to find in Wildcat country. The addition of a brand-new pair of Mary Jane’s to her gun-fighter’s uniform took her beyond dangerous to an unpredictable menacer.
As she prepared to leave the office, she paused in the doorway, carefully placing the bandoliers of ammunition across her shoulders. “Leave the java on, Cecil. I’ll be back by daylight – with Nawal’s killer as a trophy. Take my messages for me – if they must know where I am, say I’m out on a hot date.”
Cecil saluted her as Hester left the office. “See ya, boss”.
As Hester walked past the swamp rat corpse, she hoped the undertakers on the second floor had a surplus handy. If she did her job correctly – they’d have a rush on coffins by morning.
Amanda Ellis is a writer of settler and indigenous descent. She has had works published in the journals Valiant Scribe, in(Parentheses) and Rabbit. She recently attended Sage Hill Writers’ Workshop and is a member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. She does not live in Saskatchewan, but enjoys rural vistas of cabbages as she wrangles ideas and her side hustle as a Social Justice warrior.