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Karma at the Charlie Hotel: Fiction by Louella Lester
Acceptable Margin of Inventory Loss: Fiction by Charlie Kondek
The Racing Rocks: Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
The Preacher Woman of Reverie, Oklahoma: Fiction by Ann Marie Potter
Justice Served: Fiction by Glen Bush
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oh how i wish: Poem by Rob Plath
Bird in Flight, Nullarbor Plain, 1967: Poem by John Doyle
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I Exist Inside an Invisible Poem Everlasting & Overflowing: Poem by Dr. Mel Waldman
Let me drop the last chapter: Poem by Partha Sarkar
Excursion: The Cruise Ship Chronicles: Poem by Jake Sheff
We'll Always Have Two Things to Hold: Poem by Chandu Govind
why nothing else matters: Poem by John Sweet
the pale grey light of forgotten afternoons: Poem by John Sweet
Orchestra Class: Poem by Elizabeth Zelvin
The Old Lady Shows Her Mettle: Poem by Elizabeth Zelvin
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Pretty Face: Poem by Peter Mladinic
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My Death Knells: Poem by Richard LeDue
Poems as Cheap as Christmas Lights: Poem by Richard LeDue
Dead Work: Poem by John Grey
How He Died: Poem by John Grey
The Man in Their Midst: Poem by John Grey
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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Charlie Kondek: Acceptable Margin of Inventory Loss

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Art by Kevin Duncan 2024

Acceptable Margin of Inventory Loss

By Charlie Kondek

 

In his third year of college, Cameron Cassel got a job as a sales associate and delivery driver for a chain of home and garden stores, and he’d been on the job a month when he thought about stealing from it. He asked his roommate, Derek, also a business major, about the idea. “How would you do it?” Derek wondered. 

     When he was working, Cameron divided his time between clerking in the store and using one of the chain’s several cargo vans to move inventory from one store to another. Since he was in and out of the stores so often, through the front doors or the rear loading dock doors, he figured he’d be able to simply scoop up items he was not supposed to take in addition to the ones he was. For example, he might start at the south Ann Arbor store and take three garden houses, ten bags of mulch, some lawn refuse bags, two toilet replacement kits, and a Weber grill to the Adrian store, where he would drop the grill and two of the hoses, pick up two socket wrench sets, deliver the remaining garden hose, refuse bags and mulch to the store in Irish Hills, then drive to the Jackson store where he would drop off the socket wrenches and toilet kits and pick up more items for Lansing.

     “The thing is,” Cameron explained, “the two or three people in charge of moving this stuff between stores don’t seem to know what they’re doing, and stuff goes missing all the time. Hell, I bet other people are taking things.” 

     “Acceptable margin of inventory loss,” Derek said, gesturing absently to a text book, where there was no such term. “I think that’s what it’s called. Every business assumes it will lose some of its assets to theft or accident.”

     “Right.” So, Cameron could help himself to, say, a leaf blower, and transfer the item from the van to his car if no one was in the parking lot to observe it, or dump it in a field and retrieve it later if someone was.

     “Maybe not a leaf blower,” Derek suggested. “That’s the kind of higher value item that might get noticed. Start small. Tools maybe? We can sell those.”

     “Yeah, but where?”

     Acquiring items, they reckoned, was feasible. Neither of them had any idea how to fence them. Cameron lifted some tools on his next run, a Craftsman hammer and a DeWalt wrench set, and while they removed these from their packaging and stashed them in an unused shed on the property of their apartment complex, they visited a lonely pawn shop at the back of a dilapidated parking lot on US-12. Neither of them, middle-class kids from the Detroit suburbs, had ever been in a pawn shop before, and they found it sleazy but enticing, a second-hand store where the items were of better quality and more desirable: jewelry, guns, musical instruments, power tools, electronics. Derek told the pawnbroker he’d gotten a new set of tools as a gift and was looking to sell some others he’d hardly used. The tub-bellied pawnbroker, who had a patient mustache and suspicious eyes, explained how it worked.  “I can give you a loan that you’d have to repay unless you forfeit the items, or purchase them outright. But I’d have to appraise them before I can tell you what we’ll offer.” They returned in a few days, having gone back to their hideout and “gently stressed” the tools by banging, wrenching and dropping them, and were paid $28. They spent it on a bottle of Jack Daniels and some cigarettes.

     It was only after Cameron had done this a few more times, he and Derek pawning screwdriver sets and vice grips at different pawn shops in different towns, that he gave any thought to whether he should. He’d abandoned any of the mild religion he’d had in his upbringing and recontextualized its edicts as suggestions, so any idea that thou shalt not steal was malleable, perhaps better phrased as, thou shalt try not to steal, but sometimes it’s okay, especially if it’s from someone that’s really not going to miss it. If he was being honest with himself, driving those vans along Washtenaw County back roads through the cerebral corn and lettuce fields of his student years, he’d have to admit he was making up his own religion. Business was his church now, the impending world of commerce the way he and Derek interpreted it. Capital and expenditures, profits and losses, opportunity and innovation, new markets and revenue streams – that’s really what they were doing, not “stealing” in the conventional sense. The truth was, Cameron eagerly seized Derek’s notion that his employer could afford, even counted on losing, the goods he took, and let this eclipse any consideration of ethics. Also unexamined was whether he or Derek really needed the money. They wanted it, certainly, to fund their activities of paying rent, buying books, going out and socializing, but the fact was they both worked part time to supplement a limited income afforded them by their parents, grandparents, and savings.

     Years later, Cameron would marvel at how poor he’d lived as a student, but it was a temporary poverty with a solid backstop.

     As a third year of college tumbled into a fourth September and then a fifth and final half-year in which he obtained the remaining credits needed to graduate, Cameron continued to steal. This was made easier when Derek, whose job waiting tables put him in proximity to a class of people better acquainted with extralegal enterprise, met “Sweet Pete,” a tattooed, dusty man that bought goods of unquestionable origin with no questions asked. “I run a little business at swap meets across southwest Michigan, Indiana and Ohio,” Pete said. “The cops don’t watch these the way they do pawn shops, and anyway nobody cares who I am – just another junk man.” Freed from the challenge of having to take only items that could be seldomly and plausibly explained to various pawnbrokers, Cameron stole more frequently and indiscriminately, sometimes even taking requests from Sweet Pete. He took portable work benches, Allen wrench sets, bar-b-cue accessories, Carhartt t-shirts, Yeti thermoses, cordless drills, batteries and bits and, yes, a leaf blower.

     Cameron was never caught. He graduated, and went on to have a successful career. There were no consequences for his years of thievery.

 

#

 

     Well, no consequences of which he was conscious. In the years to come when he worked for various consultancies as an analyst and strategist, he was lauded for his presence and what he contributed to an account, if not always for the quality of his output. Things were said of him like:

     “Cameron’s a good schmoozer but he’d rather have others do the work.”

     “Yeah, he’s great in a room but also great at avoiding deliverables.”

     “He’ll be a good manager.”

     “Of course he will. He’s buddies with Adamson.”

     As a manager, any deficiencies Cameron had in setting expectations were balanced by an ability to pressure his team into meeting uncomfortable deadlines, and he was adept at helping advance the careers of his direct reports – if he liked them. He could just as easily ignore someone until they transferred to another role or quit. “You gotta know who your people are,” Derek would opine over a scotch in the deep brown sanctuary of a 19th hole. He was a VP of operations at his family’s trucking company. “You gotta know who to invest in. Some people?” He’d make a dismissive wave with a hand that held a cigar.

     Cameron was on his way home to West Bloomfield from working late at his office in Detroit one night when he stopped into a liquor store on Grand River for a six pack. He passed a young black man standing at the cashier’s counter on the way to the coolers in the back, where a man with an axe handle in his hand suddenly burst through an opened door shouting something in Arabic, then in English, “Lock the door!” The cashier behind the counter reached below it and Cameron – and presumably the young black man – heard a deadbolt ram shut in the entryway. Now the man with the axe handle neared the black man, who exclaimed, “Ay, yo, what is this?” He had just gotten these words out when the proprietor swung the axe handle.

     A rack of potato chips was smashed as the black man scampered backward and the proprietor pursued him up an aisle, swinging wildly. He shouted, “Empty your pockets! Let me see your pockets, thief!” To which the black man, dodging, fleeing, shouted, “Get away from me, man! Let me out of here – I ain’t done nothin’!” More merchandise was smashed, and now the black man was reaching into his pocket. He produced a gun.

     “Oh my God, let him go!” Cameron shouted. “It’s not worth it!”  

     The proprietor took one more swing at the now armed man and bolted back the way he’d come, shouting something in Arabic to the man behind the counter. Cameron didn’t see that man heft a shotgun, but he heard it. He heard both guns as he slipped to the floor and started crawling. He had no idea guns could be so impossibly loud. There was also the sound of punched aluminum and shattered glass, the stink of gun smoke and spilled wine. He couldn’t count the shots that went back and forth, and he kept crawling on the linoleum, fumbling for the handle of the backroom door from which the proprietor had emerged. He couldn’t seem to open it, and his fingers were still scraping at it when a great silence finally drove the panic out of his brain. Was it over? The man with the axe handle was gently shaking him. “It’s over.”

     Cameron used the wall to pull himself to a standing position, and he leaned against it to survey the outcome. Shelves of junk food contained seared holes. Panes of glass had vanished from the beer coolers, which contained the upper half of the young black man. His lower half, legs splayed, lay in the aisle, and from this, mixing with beer and refrigerants, emanated spreading canals of blood. Were there really shoplifted items in those pockets?

      “My God,” Cameron uttered. “It’s just… it’s just inventory loss. Acceptable margin of inventory loss.” There was still no such term. “Did you have to…?”

     The proprietor, balding, swarthy, in a polo shirt, shook a cigarette loose from a pack. His colleague, brandishing the shotgun, was cautiously approaching. “Easy for you to say,” the proprietor said. “It’s not your inventory.” He yanked a mobile phone from his pocket.

     The other proprietor was unnecessarily covering the dead man with the shotgun. His colleague lit up while dialing the police. Cameron looked down to see he had pissed his expensive pants.

Charlie Kondek is a marketing professional and writer from metro Detroit. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at MysteryTribune.com, Yellow Mama, Hoosier Noir, Bull, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. More at CharlieKondekWrites.com.

Kevin D. Duncan was born 1958 in Alton, Illinois where he still resides. He has degrees in Political Science, Classics, and Art & Design. He has been freelancing illustration and cartoons for over 25 years. He has done editorial cartoons and editorial illustration for local and regional newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His award-winning work has appeared in numerous small press zines, e-zines, and he has illustrated a few books. 

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2024