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Once Upon a Crime



  Reprint cover, 2008

My name is Sean.  It's my first name and my last.  That causes a certain amount of confusion in bureaucratic circles.  My full, official name, the one on my birth certificate, is Sean NMI Sean.  I guess my mother had a sense of humor.  I never knew my dad.  He was away at war while I was growing up.  I think he came back, but not to my life.  That's not important to this story.

About my names.  Note that the pronunciation doesn't fit the spelling.  My names are pronounced 'Shawn' and that's got nothing to do with my heritage.  My middle name is NMI.  It means No Middle Initial.  You don't pronounce it at all.  So why am I telling you all this about my name?  I think you have to have some idea who you're dealing with in order to make more sense of the story.  Besides my name, this isn't one of the usual yarns you get nowadays.

You see, I'm a throwback.  I'm passé, out of date, a lost cause.  The world is no longer interested in me and my kind.  I'm no longer needed.  Or so they say.

I'm a P.I., a private dick, a peeper, a shamus.  I heard somebody with perhaps too much time on his hands even invented a writer's award named after me and my kind.  Imagine that.

  Original cover, 2005

They're wrong, though, the people who say nobody needs me any more.  People with problems come through my door every day looking for help.  Well, almost every day.  Most of the people who come through my door are middle class or the so-called blue-collar types.  The more upscale don't usually come through the door.  They call and ask me to come to their office, their home, their turf.  Sometimes it's just a power ploy.  Sometimes they just feel more comfortable in their own surroundings.  Sometimes they don't want to be seen with me, so we meet in my office or some other out of the way place.

I guess you could say I'm an ecumenical kind of P.I.  I don't care about a client's class, or where they live, it doesn't matter what scale they are.  Upscale.  Downscale.  Sometimes they're timid.  Sometimes they're scared.  I don't care how scared they are, or if they're timid or blustery.  They all have something in common.  They have a problem.  When they call me, or come to see me, it's not because I need them.  It's because they need me. 

I'm the guy they turn to when their polite lawyers in their thousand-dollar suits and seventy-five-dollar haircuts can't find the right writ, can't get the judge to listen to their objection, can't get that protection order enforced.  I'm the guy who'll deliver the goods when everything seems lost; the guy who'll find out if the dude is really crippled up like he claims; who'll locate that crucial witness or that one fragile link to truth.  I'm the go-to guy, the one who goes down those mean streets, as they call 'em.  The one who gets his hands dirty, the one who gets results and never (if he's any good) gets his name in the paper.

I'm very good.

I've seen it all in my short time, relatively speaking.  When I shave, cut my hair, and dress up in my good suit, I'm smooth.  I fit right in.  I can pass for just about any kind of body.  Indistinguishable from the hoi and the polloi, that's me, except in the height department.  I speak in complete sentences mostly, have been to more than a few symphony concerts, and I generally know which fork to use first at a formal dinner.

I'd just as soon have a good beer and a medium rare hamburger.


I was in my office the other morning.  It's not much, my office, and it's not in some upscale location, like Edina or Minnetonka.  But it gives me a place to hang out when the weather's too cold or, like this particular day, too hot.  So I was in my office.  I was waiting for a possible appointment.  A tentative appointment, because when the call came in the day before, I'd asked for a name.  I didn't get one.  The person on the other end had just hung up.  Unusual but not so surprising.  So I was waiting to see if anybody showed up.  While I waited, I was studying.  A detective novel.  By Richard Prather.  One of my training manuals.  His character is a P.I. named shell Scott.  He's an ex-marine out of WWII.  That was the last declared war.  Happened in the last century.

It was getting along toward eleven and there's a timid sort of rap on the door and this dark-haired... woman pushes it open just enough to peek in.  She's feeling tentative, a little hesitant.  I can tell that right away.

"Yes?  Can I do something for you?"  I say.  Not every opening line has to be an original, you know, sometimes just words strung together to get the job done.

"Are you Mr.... Sean?"

"That I am, ma'am.  As it says on my door, Sean Sean, Ltd., at your service."  Not entirely true.  I don't take every job that sidles through my door.  I'm picky.  That's why I'm not rich.  Being picky also helps me to stay alive and out of the hospital.  Mostly.

My high school geometry teacher would have loved the Ltd. on my office door.  She sometimes claimed NMI in my name meant No Measurable Intelligence.  I don't know why I added the Ltd.  Gives the line better proportion on the glass, I guess.

My hesitant visitor hesitated some more but finally she came all the way in.  Almost far enough to shut the door behind her.  Then she stopped again and looked around at my classically sparse yet utilitarian furnishings.

She was pretty good looking.  The hard-boiled P.I.s in the books I read in my spare time would call her a classy babe, a piece, a frail, a doll, a looker.  Don't read the line and try to sound like Humphrey Bogart.  I tried it and it doesn't work.

She still looked a little nervous but she took another two steps in my direction and closed the door.  I waved her to a seat beside my desk.  Then I sat down in the old chair I use.  You know the kind.  It's wooden with shaped arms, curved wooden slats for a back, a creaky set of wheels, and a grooved steel spindle in the center that winds the seat up and down, depending how high off the floor you want to be.  Since I'm only five foot three, I have the seat up pretty high so I don't bang my chin on the desk top whenever I sit down.  But that means I have to keep a small box under the desk to put my feet on.  Otherwise, sitting with my feet off the floor, I'd be swinging my legs back and forth like a little kid.  Wouldn't make a good impression.

"Mr. Sean," she said in her dark, husky voice.  "Mr. Sean, I'm in some trouble.  I need help and you were recommended to me."

"Really?  By whom?"  Now right away, see, I've blown my cover.  No private dick, certainly not your classic hard-boiled, would ever say by whom.


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