Docksmire Shipping and Exchange Company (and the magical necklace, murder, and conspiracy thereof)
Isley Wright is always right!
So says a number of fliers, posters, and sarcastic citizens of the bay-side city your party finds itself in. The prideful claim of a local private investigator, it's soon to be put to the test. For the sake of Isley Wright's reputation (and justice, and the world not being taken over by a BBEG), the party is asked by a frustrated gnome for help.
Isley Wright is an apprentice wizard of no particularly great power and a private investigator of mixed repute. In his earlier days, he solved a handful of missing person reports, robberies, and even outed a dangerous doppleganger-but those were some years ago, and now he's known for interventions in domestic disputes, misplaced items, and similar, conventional jobs of no great significance. The local constabulary has used his services in the past, but nowadays his word isn't worth much and few members throw work his way-and at that, only when the case is too far below the city watch's concern to be addressed any other way.
Still, he remains proud, and there's no shortage of barflies willing to buy him a round in exchange for one of his countless stories. Unfortunately, he may be about to write his last chapter.
The Docksmire Shipping and Exchange Company (DSEC) has had more than one complaint failed over safety concerns, mismanagement, lost merchandise, poor conditions, bad pay, and even accusations of bribing officials. The owner is a mysterious old man known as "Mr. Goreshank" who oversees a number of shipping services or owns stock in docks along a profitable shipping route, most of which are of better reputation. He largely leaves DSEC in the semi-autonomous direction of Gerod Salda, a seemingly peaceful but overtaxed dragonborn who sees Isley as a nuisance whose constant "investigations" take away time better spent addressing the littany of complaints filed against him and the company, let alone hire a replacement for the late Losa DeMonte.
Mr. Salda is a patient man, but he is at wit's end with Isley, believing his chivalrous bravado as nothing more than vain attempts to recapture the fleeting fame of the gnome's younger days. He holds no ill will against the gnome (or anyone, for that matter), but has filed a restraining order and has threatened to sue if Isley doesn't cease and desist. But an upset businessman is the least of Isley's worries.
Joey "Jo-bo" Bogart is a middle-aged human who often, nervously fidgets with the fish-shaped ring on his left hand, rotating it around his finger with his thumb. It is a ring of waterbreathing, and perhaps the one possession that speaks to his good fortune; despite the steady and considerable pay of his position, he appears most times to be a day over needing to bathe, tired, and his beer gut gurgles like it's been some time since his last meal. He's the most liked by the junior employees, now that Losa has died, and questioning the dock workers reveals little about "Ol' Jo-bo" other than he's easy to work for.
Ratslin "Ratty" McCreed is a shrewd and opportunistic businessman who manages his work well enough to maintain his position, but whose shrouded thoughts and lack of eye contact make him untrusted in Mr. Salda's eyes. Despite a preference for more straightforward employees, Mr. Salda cannot afford to lose Ratslin's managerial experience with the current gap on his team. His nick-name often slips from other employees, but if questioned by the players, employees again try to change subjects or offer little information.
Hesiz "Eyes" Morsure is an orc with bronzed skin from some far, desert land. His eyes (after which he is named), are intense, and he seems to be incapable of blinking. He joined the other three managers only a few months ago, at the recommendation of Mr. Goreshank. Mr. Salda considers Heisz a hard read, impassive and austere; the employees consider him a fucking weirdo they wouldn't touch with an 11-foot pole.
Losa DeMonte was easily the most-liked of the managers, by the employee's reckoning. That was, until her death a month ago. Mr. Salda was somewhat annoyed by her constant micro-managing, questioning, and interference, and the other managers have no end to their complaints against her, but her earnesty and initiative were critical to the company's growth and success. She was young for an elf, but brave and adventurous and an oddity that caught business partners off guard in the right ways.
The Sinking of the Goodweather
A month ago, Losa DeMonte was killed by foreigners, ostensibly over unfavorable bargains, and then the skipper chartered for her trip across the bay to [nearby coastal community with adjacent jungle/swamp] was lost during its return to the Docksmire harbor. Story has it the captain was raving mad with fever or poisoned by the locals and he sailed straight through a coral reef or sandbar infamous for the number of ships it's dragged to the deep. No salvage attempt has been made because its hold was expected to be empty.
Losa DeMonte's family is thoroughly unsatisfied by the company's official report, but is afraid to push the issue publicly due to a number of coded letters from the late elf suggest suspicious activity, danger, and potential foul play. They instead took their concerns, privately, to Mr. Wright's detective agency. Unfortunately he's manage to accomplish little over the last month.
Thus enters the party, either hired directly by the DeMonte family or sub-contracted by Mr. Wright. The party is either lesser known than Mr. Wright (and thus welcome by Mr. Salda/not feared by Mr. Goreshank), or better known, and better feared/respected.
Losa's meddlesome habits left her with few friends among the company's management, and the number of accounting errors, missing money, manifest inaccuracies, and similar discrepancies leaves her family (and Mr. Wright) to suspect her death was not at the hands of locals, or that if it was, it could have been prevented but wasn't intentionally. As far as the sinking of the ship is concerned, there are accusations of everything from insurance fraud to genuine misfortune.
(If I was using my own computer and had more time, I'd photoshop an old timey ship manifest hand out for your players. For now, you can just have this)
Docksmire Shipping & Ex Co.
Captain: Thasby Flats
First Mate: Sabtien Volcona
Company Representative: Ms. Losa DeMonte
4 deckhands, signed below; 4 golems
Cargo: (Sent) — Cargo: (Return)
Tobacco, 12 pounds — Local commodities and currency of equivalent value
Rope, hewn, 200 yards
Rope, silk, 60 yards
Apples, red, 17 pounds
Farming equipment, assorted
Timber, oak, 23 logs
Hay, 100 bushels — Insured by: Montaigne Investments and Securities
signed below are four employees of DSEC
So who killed Ms. DeMonte?
No one here is innocent.
All three of the surviving managers are guilty for Losa's death and/or the loss of the ship, in some way.
Ratslin was told directly by Mr. Goreshank to have the ship scuttled. Supposedly quotas were done, and it was sink the ship for insurance money or have the whole company closed. In reality, the ship was meant to take a piece of secret cargo to the depths, where it would be "lost;" a recovery team was tasked with retrieving it from the wreck.
Heisz Morsure was the company's inside man. Recently appointed to his position, he was meant to guarantee the DSEC-side of Goreshank's plans, then make the recovery of the secret cargo before being "reassigned" by Mr. Goreshank as a punishment for the catastrophic loss of the Goodweather.
Jo-bo Bogart was bribed to tell the voyage's intended crew to remain at port whiel four company men went in their place. Jo-bo, it turns out, also moonlights as a treasure diver, using his ring of waterbreathing and his most trusted employee to sail out-illegally-by night to delve the depths. Without knowing it, he inadvertently discovered the wreckage of the Goodweather and unintentionally stole Goreshank's prize without knowing it. Due to the vague nature of the manifest's returning cargo, he fears no legal repercussions, but the number of "company men" snooping around DSEC since the loss of the Goodweather leaves him wary of discovery.
The secret cargo is a jade and bone necklace stolen from a temple revered by a tribe of lizardfolk. Supposedly it grants the wearer the blessing of Sess'inek: Eternal youth, regeneration, immunity to disease, and the ability to command snakes. Goreshank requires the first three, as he is advance in age and suffers from a sickness as of yet nothing has cured, but as long as the necklace remains in its water-proof box, it is protected from magical detection.
Something isn't right here…
There's a number of clues the party (and/or Mr. Wright) can discover to piece together Goreshank's subterfuge and the guilt of the managers. Even without your players having advanced knowledge of typical shipping company operating practices, it should be easy to relay to the characters that the number of discrepancies surrounding the Goodweather's loss are highly suspicious.
Typically, in a case like the Goodweather's where the cargo had no pre-negotiated price or byer, the ship would remain at its destination one week or until its contents were sold, whichever came first. Instead, the Goodweather was scheduled to remain two weeks, even after reporting 90% of its stores emptied in the first few days. In addition to complaints of "mismanagement" and "criminal inefficiency," the late Losa DeMonte went correspondence home describing her deckhands as "shifty, rude, and often returning to the ship late, if at all, sometimes bruised from 'barfights and fun.'"
The replacement crew were mercenaries hired by Goreshank to steal the necklace. Thereafter they lured Losa, the first mate, and the captain into an ambush of vengeful lizardfolk. They brought with them one golem, instructed to crush the crew at the beginning of the fight. Thasby tried to save Losa, but managed to fell the golem only after Losa was already bludgeoned to death. The mercenaries escaped while Thasby and Sabtien were poisoned, then taken prisoner by the lizardfolk.
The golem's remains remain in the road. Losa's body was recovered, and her death (and that of the captain/first mate) are blamed on the lizardfolk, based solely on the account of the locals, who themselves were told this by the mercenaries.
The mercenaries were lost at sea when another golem began smashing hole through the hull. Two of the golems sank straight down the ship; the third continues breaking any piece of wood within arm's reach.
Jo-bo beat Heisz by a matter of hours. Heisz rowed out with another team of mercenaries, also meant to be betrayed rather than paid once the necklace was recovered. Instead he came up empty-handed. He suspects a fortune hunter or one of the insurance companies recovered it and is still investigating the possibility. He is not suspicious of anyone within DSEC, but Goreshank keeps no shortage of "auditors" and "inspectors" around the docks 24/7 in case of the possibility.
Publicly, Mr. Goreshank regrets the tragic loss of seven employees. H ehas offered to compensate their familities, but he has spies and thieves search DeMonte's family's home, try to glean information from them through conversation, and intercept their mail; far less subtle methods have been used to search Jo-bo's and Ratslin's homes, who have both reported break-ins and vandalism but nothing stolen.
If the party sails across the bay/however-far-your-campaign-setting-requires and go searching for clues, the lizardfolk community is not difficult to find. Just the party's luck, Captain Thsaby Flats and his first mate are still alive.
Captain Flats is a minotuar and former pirate who found God and turned his black flags into honest sails. He worked with DSEC for several years, more than once defending crew and cargo from assailants. He was well-liked by everyone, once they got over his… well… minotaurness. His first mate, Sabtien Volcona, is a tabaxi of adventure and daring-do. She was Thasby's natural choice for a partner, as fierce and brave while half his size. They remain prisoners of the lizardfolk, who decide daily what to do with the duo according to omens they claim to see in the mud and the smells of the swamp. Thus far they have spared the crew members undue harm, but they remain in a semi-subdued state until the lizardfolk decide to release or kill them.
Bad people, what do?
The party is free to investigate as they see fit. If they earn Jo-bo's trust, or convince him Mr. Goreshank is too dangerous to hide from, he'll admit to everything he knows-the mercenaries on the ship and the necklace. Ratslin is more shrewd and reserved, but he suffers a guilty conscious; while his loyalty can no longer be bought (he won't sink another ship, metaphorically speaking) he fears discovery and regrets his subterfuge. Heisz is a cold case that will reveal nothing he isn't forced to, and even then he will attempt bold-faced lies or half-truths, anything to protect himself and his boss. He's also a powerful sorcerer (relative to the party's level) and is protected by Mr. Goreshank's men.
Questioning employees carefully, or convincing them to trust the party and not Mr. Goreshank, can reveal lots of useful information. The fact that the crew member's signed to the manifest remained at dock, how they distrust Goreshank, and Jo-bo's nighttime jaunts to salvage wrecks.
Going to the site of Losa's death reveals plenty of damning evidence. Why would she be bludgeoned, if her accused killers rely on spears and teeth? And then there's the testimony of the captain and the first mate, which is at least enough to prove foul play, although there's no evidence Goreshank was behind the stolen necklace or Losa's death. Still, the party should be smart enough to make at least some of the obvious connections; Goreshank's diseased state and the necklace's curative properties, the mismatch of cause of death and the enemy's weapons, the betrayal by the mercenaries Ratslin was bribed to allowing onto the ship…
And then what?
Mr. Goreshank, presumably, is either killed by the party or arrested. In his absence, his considerable holdings are dissolved or turned over to their head managers; in DSEC's case, the company falls into the care of the exhausted dragonborn who's perhaps had a little too much heart ache over the damnable enterprise. Depending on your party's interests and actions, he may be willing to turn over a considerable share to them, if not complete ownership; otherwise he retires and leaves the company in the care of Jo-bo (assuming he survives), and if not Jo-bo then Jo-bo's sidekick treasure hunter. DSEC offers free travel and accommodations to the party wherever they need them.
But what about the necklace?
You can make the lizardfolk a bunch of demon-worshipping people-eaters, or endearing, lovable, simplistic folk who just want to worship mud and bone necklaces peacefully. In my case, I designed them as the latter for my game, and the intent is to have the party return the necklace to their care in exchange for the release of their prisoners, gaining them potentially powerful allies in the swamps across the sea.
If the party is kind and patient with Isley and involve him in the investigation, he will try to take more credit than is due in his recount of their adventures unless the party intervenes. If the party ignores his services and conduct the investigation by themselves, he may retire from the PI life depressed and bitter or may try even harder to grasp at any possible straw to prove his invaluable participation in the discovery of DSEC's horrible tragedies. If the party leaves him in a position to benefit, his rebuilt reputation puts him back in the good graces of the community and the law, and as such he becomes a good source of favors and information. Perhaps by the time the party returns to the city, he's accepted a formal position as the head of Special Arcanomagical Investigations?
The DeMonte family is grateful for the truth. They are themselves no powerful family of wealth or favors, but the party can expect always to be welcome in their home.
As far as reward money goes, there's no much offered at the outset of the adventure, but Goreshank does not travel lightly, and depending on the party's level, they might recover a magic item or two from Heisz (like a wand of magic detection). They could even convince Jo-bo to part with his ring of waterbreathing, as it now brings him only bad memories and guilt.