With a genius IQ, a past career as a circus acrobat, and a black belt in karate, criminology professor Dr. Robert Frederickson—better known as “Mongo the Magnificent”—has a decidedly unusual background for a private investigator. He also just so happens to be a dwarf.
Now a detective in New York City, Mongo is hired by the widow of a famous architect to find out if her husband is really dead—because a new building just went up and it looks like his work. As Mongo begins to uncover the surprising truth, his investigation gives a whole new meaning to an architect’s façade. The intrepid sleuth will need all of his extraordinary skills to find his man without losing his own life, as some very powerful forces want to send him back to the drawing board.
With a freewheeling blend of mystery and science fiction elements, author George C. Chesbro introduces the man called Mongo, “the most engaging detective in decades” (Library Journal).
Shadow of a Broken Man is the 1st book in the Mongo Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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In another five minutes I'd have been gone. It was five fifteen on a Thursday afternoon at the end of the merry month of May; which meant I was tired of lectures, tired of grading papers, and especially tired of students. In addition to carrying a full teaching load, I'd spent the last three months on a case that hadn't turned out well; which meant too many bodies, a lot of filth, and a few innocent people whose lives had been permanently twisted out of shape. I was ready for a long vacation.
The man who clumped through the open door of my office was big and wore his muscles well. He obviously spent a lot of time out of doors; the sun had bleached his hair and seared a permanent tan into skin the color of cordovan leather. He was dressed in workman's clothes; laced boots, green cotton shirt and pants. Pencils, pens, and a piece of paper that looked like a business form stuck out of his shirt pocket. His blue artist's eyes, sensitive and quick-moving, belied his hayseed appearance; he looked like the kind of man you wouldn't mind buying a used car from. I put his age at around forty.
He glanced at the peeling nameplate on my desk, then at me. He did that twice; the implication seemed to be that I was sitting in someone else's chair.
"I'm looking for Dr. Robert Frederickson." His voice was a rich, rumbling baritone that was used to giving orders in large, open places, probably over the roar and cough of heavy machinery.
I considered sending him over to the next building, then sneaking down the back stairs. Instead, I admitted to being Frederickson and asked what I could do for him. I expected him to turn around and walk out. Shadows, gray ripples of doubt and discomfort, suddenly appeared and moved just beneath the surface of his pale eyes. The shadows were familiar to me; I'd watched them cloud people's eyes all my life. Dwarfs who aren't safely ensconced in some circus sideshow tend to embarrass people.
He surprised me. "Frank Manning tells me you're a licensed private investigator."
"Frank also says you're good." His tone was distant, the sound of an afterthought.
I nodded my head in a halfhearted invitation to sit down, and he disappointed me by accepting it. Whatever he had on his mind, it looked as if he wanted to go with the dwarf sitting in front of him. I'd already decided that I was going to find a delicate way of brushing him off, as opposed to the blunter numbers in my repertoire. Frank Manning was Dean of the College of Architecture at the university. He also happened to be a good friend of mine; I didn't want to offend him by proxy.
"How can I help you, Mr. —?"
"Foster," he said, quickly leaning forward in his chair and extending his hand. The chair groaned. "Mike Foster. Sorry."
The hand I shook was matted with calluses. "I assume you want to hire a private investigator, Mr. Foster —"
"Okay, Mike. Why do you need a detective?"
He hesitated a moment. "I'd like you to investigate a man who's supposed to be dead."
"Sounds intriguing," I said in my most neutral tone of voice.
"Have you ever heard of Victor Rafferty?"
Indeed I had, and I was begining to see the connection with Frank Manning. Anyone who appreciated beauty in functional design had to be familiar with the work of Victor Rafferty. Rafferty had been as exceptional — and controversial — in his field as Picasso had been in his; like Picasso, Rafferty would have been at home talking shop with Michelangelo and Leonardo. His architectural genius was represented by structures in every major city of the world.
Rafferty had, in effect, died twice. About five years earlier, he'd been involved in an automobile accident that had killed all the occupants of the other car. It had taken three firemen half a day to pry Rafferty out of the crushed-metal puzzlework. He'd been pronounced dead at the scene, but someone had detected a sign of life just as they were about to plastic-bag him. They rushed him off to a hospital and he survived, thanks to what were modestly referred to as a series of medical miracles and a steel plate to replace the portion of his skull that had been pulverized.
The effort had been largely wasted. Five or six months later he'd fallen off a catwalk into an open smelting furnace in a metallurgical laboratory he maintained in New York City. That kind of dead is permanent, I told Foster.
The big man squirmed like a witness who's been tripped up on cross-examination. "You're very well informed."
"I'm a building freak," I said with a half-smile.
"Of course he couldn't have survived that," Foster said, swallowing hard. "But they never found any trace of his body."
"There wouldn't be any body to recover — not after it dropped into a vat of molten steel. Wasn't there someone who actually saw him go in?"
"The only witness was a watchman at the laboratory. It was a Sunday."
"What's your connection with Rafferty, Mike?"
His hands were resting on the edge of my desk. The giant fingers of the right hand found the fingers of the left, interlocked, and squeezed; a knuckle popped. I was glad I wasn't in the middle.
"I'm married to his widow," he said quietly. "I mean, I hope she was really a widow. Maybe I'm not so sure anymore."
I studied his face. Foster didn't look like the type to be jealous of a dead man, even if that man had been light-years ahead of him intellectually, and more than a few light-hours socially.
Foster seemed to be reading my thoughts; he reached into his back pocket and took out a thin, glossy magazine. I caught a glimpse of the title as he unfolded it: MODERN ARCHITECTURE. He flipped it open to a marked page and laid it on the desk in front of me. There was a full-page photograph of a building; on the facing page was the beginning of what looked like a long, scholarly article. It was an impressive building, simple yet amazingly complex to the practiced eye; it had a grandeur that, even on the flat page, thrilled and swept up the viewer.
The caption identified the building as the Nately Museum. The architectural credits went to a Richard Patern of the firm of Fielding, Fielding and Gross.
I glanced up and found Foster watching me, or looking through me; I wasn't sure which. "My wife hasn't been the same since she saw that picture," he said, tension creeping into his voice. "She's convinced it's Rafferty's."
"She thinks he built it?"
"She says he planned it. Elizabeth knows every line of that building; she told me all about it just from looking at the photo. I read the article and she's right. She says the building is Victor's."
"How can she be that sure?"
"Apparently he discussed it with her a number of times, showed her some of the preliminary sketches. That was seven or eight years ago."
"Maybe he showed the sketches to someone else."
Foster shook his head; a lock of hair fell across his eyes and he brushed it away impatiently. "Rafferty never discussed or showed his preliminary work to anyone, except Elisabeth. Of course he had his own firm and assistants, but when he was working on one of his own projects he never shared the idea until it was ready for final blueprinting. In fact, he kept all his papers in a locked file."
"Is that what your wife told you?"
"Yes, and it's what I know from my own experience."
"What experience is that?"
"I'm a builder. I knew Victor Rafferty casually. That's about as well as anyone knew him, except for Elizabeth." He paused and held out his hands; his veins sprang up and writhed like snakes trying to escape from their fleshy prison. "That's where my brains are. Rafferty liked my work and I was prime contractor on a number of his buildings. After his death Elizabeth became executrix of his estate, which meant she was supervising a lot of his unfinished projects. We met and ... we fell in love." He suddenly, self-consciously, placed his hands in his lap. "The point is that I know there's no way Rafferty would have told anyone about that building until the final drafting was ready to be done, and Elizabeth says he never got beyond the preliminary sketches he showed her. All his personal effects like that were locked in a safe after his death. I checked, and they're still there."
"Well, maybe somebody else simply got the same idea."
Foster shook his head again. "That isn't likely," he said emphatically. "Other people just don't get Victor Rafferty's ideas. Still, according to Elizabeth, that museum is almost exactly the way Rafferty planned it."
I spoke slowly. "Do you think this Patern could be Rafferty?" "I really don't know, but I strongly doubt it. I've never met Patern, but I've worked on a few of his buildings. Mostly shopping centers; nothing to compare with Rafferty's work — until this. Besides, I don't see how Rafferty, if he is alive, could operate under an assumed name. He's too famous. Was too famous," he added uncertainly. He fumbled in his pocket and came up with a snapshot which he shoved across the desk to me. "This is what he looked like."
I was reluctant to look at the photograph. I knew what Rafferty had looked like, and I didn't want Foster to assume I was going to take the case. But I picked up the photograph anyway.
It had been taken at a beach and was overexposed; Rafferty seemed to be floating in a puddle of light. He looked as if he wanted to be someplace else; his smile was forced and didn't touch the black, hawklike eyes that were his dominant feature. The widow's peak in his black hair was crested in the wind like the waves in the camera-frozen sea behind him. His body was thin and pale. The few black dots that were bathers in the surf behind him only made him seem more alone, trapped in an alien environment. I found the picture depressing.
"That picture was taken before the accident," Foster said. "Of course, he looked different afterward; pretty wasted."
"He looks pretty wasted here," I said, shoving the photograph back toward him.
"Rafferty was a very cerebral person. He lived in his mind, never took very good care of his body. Why don't you keep the picture?"
I left it in the no-man's land of the desk between us. Victor Rafferty wouldn't be the first man to fake a death in order to escape certain problems, such as a wife he didn't want. On the other hand, men who do such things don't usually have as much to give up as Rafferty had. "Can you think of any reason why Rafferty would want to operate under a false name, assuming he is alive?"
"I don't know," Foster said after a long pause.
It seemed to me that the question bothered him and he wasn't sure; I made a mental note to come back to the point. There was an aura about Foster suggesting that more than the Nately Museum was disturbing him; it wasn't what he said as much as the way he said it. Perhaps he was jealous of a dead man after all. "You're still left with a witness who claims he saw Rafferty fall into that open furnace."
"Yes," Foster said.
"Then what you're really interested in is the Nately Museum. Did Patern steal Rafferty's idea, and if so, how? Is that right?"
"Well, not exactly," Foster said haltingly. "I ... think I'd like you to look into more than just that."
"I know," Foster said more forcefully.
"I don't know for sure." Foster rocked nervously in his chair, then suddenly seemed to reach some kind of decision. He abruptly leaned forward, his massive hands bracketing Rafferty's picture as if to prevent the escape of some dark secret that might be lurking there.
"Rafferty's haunting our marriage in a way I don't understand," he continued. "I'm not jealous of his memory, if that's what you're thinking. Victor had more brains than I do, and he sure as hell was more famous. But I've got my own strengths, and I don't envy any man. I know Elizabeth loves me, and I don't ask for anything more. In fact, I don't think Victor and Elizabeth were happy together — at least, not in the last few years of their marriage. Victor was too much of a genius, if you know what I mean. He lived in his own world and didn't share much of it with anybody, not even Elizabeth. Elizabeth's a red-blooded woman; she needed — needs — a whole man, a real man."
He paused, reddened. "I'm sorry. That was a stupid thing to say. I didn't mean it the way it sounded."
I wasn't sure whether he was apologizing to me or for me; it didn't make any difference. "I understand what you're saying," I replied evenly. "Go on."
"I'm sure there's something important concerning Victor that I don't know about. It's tearing Elizabeth apart; she tries to hide it, but she's been beside herself ever since she saw that photograph of the museum."
"Why don't you just ask your wife if there's something else bothering her?"
"Because I know. I know my wife. I did ask her and she denied there was anything; but just my asking upset her terribly. I never mentioned it again and she hasn't volunteered any information, but I'm convinced that something happened to Victor in the months between his car smashup and the accident in the foundry lab. Whatever it is, I think it's driving my wife out of her mind." He paused, continued more quietly: "Elizabeth's very nervous. She doesn't know I'm doing this, and one condition of your taking the case is that you don't talk to her about it."
"I haven't said I'd take the case, Mike."
He flushed. "I ... I thought —"
"In one week I'm going to be sunning in Acapulco."
Foster looked at his hands as though they'd betrayed him. "Maybe you could recommend somebody to me." His voice had thickened with disappointment. "I made up my mind to look into this thing, and I'm going to do it; but I don't want to get taken by some smart-ass joker. I know finding a good private detective isn't as easy as they make it look in the movies."
I enjoyed my first good belly laugh in four months. "The only place you're likely to find a dwarf private detective is in real life, hiding in a university."
Foster smiled almost shyly. I seemed to have taken some kind of pressure off him. "Frank says you're a criminologist."
"True. You'd be amazed how limited the demand is for dwarf private detectives; I don't eat much, but I still have to eat."
"Now you're pulling my leg. I looked up some of your press clippings after Frank mentioned you. You're pretty famous yourself."
I grinned. "That's because I get weird cases, Mike."
That amused him. "Frank also says you're a circus star."
"Former circus star," I corrected him. A wink. "I gave up the circus; too common for a dwarf."
Foster waited until he was sure there was a joke to get, then laughed. The laugh quickly turned sour, and he dropped his eyes. "I've known Manning for a few years. He's not like a lot of these ivory-tower architects who don't know a nut from a bolt and couldn't care less. Anyway, when he recommended you I thought I was really in luck."
It suddenly occurred to me that I had received my Ph.D. and left the circus at about the same time that Rafferty was — maybe — getting himself killed for the second time. Maybe it was some kind of omen.
In honor of omens, I gave it some thought. The background checking Foster wanted could boil down to nothing more than a lot of reading: if not in bed, then in a cool, secluded library. Considering the length of my legs, I could always use a little extra walking-around money in Acapulco.
"Let's see what I can come up with in a week, if anything," I said. "That's it if you want me. If I think it's worth more digging, I'll turn it over to somebody else. Or I can give you a name now. It's up to you. My rate is a hundred ten a day, plus expenses."
"That seems pretty steep," Foster said.
In fact, it was fifteen dollars cheaper than my usual rate, and twenty-five cheaper than he'd pay for a big agency. He was getting my friend-of-a-friend rate. But I didn't say anything. I'd begun to regret the offer almost as soon as I'd made it; I really didn't feel like working.
Foster made his decision. "You'll agree not to talk to my wife?"
"As long as I'm working under the other conditions I outlined."
He nodded, fumbled in his pockets. "I'm sorry. I thought I'd brought my checkbook along. I guess I didn't."
"Well, you send me a check for one day's pay as a retainer. While you're at it, you might send along a good snapshot of Rafferty, taken after the accident."
"Will do. Thanks, Frederickson."
"Don't thank me yet. Has it occurred to you that you could discover some things you don't really want to know?" He thought about it, shook his head. "I want to save my marriage. I don't believe the truth ever hurt anybody who didn't deserve to get hurt."
I suppressed the temptation to tell him how wrong he was. "You must have asked Frank Manning about the building. What did he say?"
"He didn't say anything. He told me it was professional ethics not to comment on another man's work."
Excerpted from "Shadow of a Broken Man"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
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