Anger consumed me. What a jerk! I’m not an avenging angel, so I carried no sword, but I’m developing my skills at moving air, and I’m talented with paperclips. After Janet left, I zipped into the guy’s office. A nameplate on his desk proclaimed his moniker as “Dave Taylor.” I hovered over his desk, contemplating my next move. Should I pass through him to freeze him to the core? Rustle papers on his desk to make him freak? Or paperclip his shoe laces together? I wasn’t feeling too angelic.
Taylor talked on the phone and jabbed his pen at papers on his desk. Exasperation filled his voice as he spoke. “How can merchandise just walk out our doors?” He paused, listening to someone on the other end.
Some of the merchandise is too big to fit under people’s coats. There are TVs on this list, appliances, hell there’s even a sofa gone!” I moved behind him so I could read the list.
“Mr. Carter, I want whoever is ripping off this store caught now. Corporate is holding me responsible for the theft. They’re breathing down my neck, and our profitability will go in the can during the season when we make our profits for the entire year.” He grabbed some tissues and wiped his forehead while listening to the man on the other end. But he jumped back into the conversation saying, “It’s time I called the cops. You’re head of security. If you can’t handle it, they will. You certainly haven’t proven that you can catch the thieves, so at least cooperate with the authorities.” Taylor slammed down the phone and placed one hand on his stomach, as if he had an ulcer.
Okay, so the guy had problems. I already knew that from eavesdropping down at the loading dock. Janet and Ashley had seen men loading a truck. I had asked myself why, at this time of year, the men loaded trucks with merchandise instead of unloading trucks. Most stores didn’t ship out merchandise, but brought it in by the truckload. From the few conversations I’d overheard, the loading dock employees had a nice profitable business of stealing and selling what they could load onto trucks during the off-hours.
Dimples must have been a member of the gang. He had lied to Janet, beguiling her with his physical attributes. Despicable! Women were always pushovers for lean and handsome men. If he’d possessed one ounce of fat, I might have given him the benefit of the doubt, but his rippling shoulders made me suspicious.
Like Taylor, I had been a businessman, and I felt sorry for him. He had no excuse for taking his troubles out on Janet, but there’s always another side of the story, isn’t there? Just when you peg someone for the biggest turkey, someone informs you that the turkey’s child has leukemia or his spouse just died. Then, you feel badly for casting judgment on them. Guilty as charged!
A half hour later, Janet met Bea in the bar of a mall restaurant. “I need a beach,” Janet said, as they sat in the booth.
“Let’s get Champagne Fizzes and pretend,” Bea said. The women had learned about Champagne Fizzes while on an Ocracoke, North Carolina vacation. Now, the cranberry juice mixed with the champagne looked seasonally festive and tasted delicious.
“Just close your eyes and think of Ocracoke.”
“I wish I could, Bea, but I can’t believe how that store manager treated me.”
“I can. No one gives a damn anymore, Janet. We live in a dog-eat-dog world and at Christmastime, the contrast between the ideal and the reality gets a lot of people down. Suicide and depression rates go way up around Christmas.”
“I know, but his actions were illogical. Doesn’t he care about repeat business? He wouldn’t care about me personally. But doesn’t he care about my money? I must spend several hundred dollars in that store every year.”
“Store managers come and go without reason. Headquarters may think he’s the best thing since sliced…. No, make that iPods, I seem to get older every minute.”
“The other night, one of their dock workers must have lied to me, unless the store manager lied to cover his lack of buying safety equipment.” Janet told Bea about their encounter with the dock worker. “No one seems accountable, especially the people at the top.”
“Want me to call The Washington Post with that news?” Bea asked.
“Maybe we should! Organizing a protest or getting the media involved maybe the only remedy. They should be publically shamed and condemned for their indifference. No one has respect anymore.”
“Janet, you’re spinning your wheels. Eat the chocolate, get Joyce something else, dry clean the sweaters—“
“And never go in that store again.”
“Yeah, and have another drink.”
An hour and half, appetizers and another drink later, Janet grabbed the door to the restaurant and pushed her way outside. Commiserating with Bea had banished the Grinch.
“Where are you parked, Janet?” Bea asked.
“Behind Crofton’s. Give me a lift.”
The short drive didn’t take long. Bea’s luck found an empty parking space next to Janet’s car. Janet got out, retrieved her bags from the rear seat, opened her SUV with the electronic fob, and pushed the button to open the hatch, but the hatch didn’t pop the way it normally did. The metal around the lock was punched out in a perfect circle. The hatch contained no lock. “Bea! Come look at this. Someone broke into my SUV.”
Bea shut off her engine, got out of her car and walked to where Janet stood staring at the hole in her lid.
“Unbelievable! What did they accomplish breaking into an empty cargo space?” Janet said.
“They made an assumption that could have resulted in a haul of gifts. In fact, they could have stolen the entire SUV,” Bea said.
“So, I should be happy, right?”
“No Janet. You’ve had a miserable day and this is just the cherry on top.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. But the last thing I need now is to have the SUV in the shop.”
Janet lifted the hatch. Inside, a man’s body lay, tied up with red ribbon like a Christmas present. A hole in his forehead and the gone look in his open eyes trumpeted his death.
“Oh my God!” Bea yelled.
Shocked, Janet pivoted in the opposite direction and hid her face behind her hands. The image of the corpse shattered her equilibrium, and she moved her legs to a wider stance so as not to topple onto the tarmac. She gulped the cold winter air to settle her stomach.
“Call 911. We have a situation,” Bea said. But Janet stood immobile. Bea leaned over and gently shook Janet’s arm. Finally, Janet responded.
“The last time I saw a dead body, it was Steve’s.”
“I’m sorry,” Bea said. “This really is the last thing you need.”
“Bea, I just fought with him. This is the body of the store manager.”
I accompanied Ashley from Science to English class. Since I always liked science, I had a great time in twelfth grade until the kids in her English class, required to stand in front of the classroom, read poems they’d written. My agenda didn’t include hearing badly rhymed teenage-angst, so I returned to the mall parking lot. Janet and her friend Bea stood rigidly by Janet’s SUV. Something bad had happened.
Bea cocked her head to one side. “The cops are coming. I hear the siren.”
They wouldn’t have called the cops without good reason. I circled round the car and spotted the open circle in the metal where the lock should have been on the hatch. Hoping Janet hadn’t stored presents in the cargo space and wondering about her spare tire, I slid through the hatch and…yikes, bumped into a corpse. I backed out just as a cop lifted the hatch.
"Ladies, stand over by the other car. In fact, why don’t you get in and wait out of the cold?” the patrolman said to Janet and Bea. He went back to his car once the women were stashed inside Bea’s car. Soon, other cars arrived. A man in a suit went over to Bea’s car. She lowered her window to talk.
“Hi, I’m Detective Ron Graham. Sorry you had such a nasty surprise. I need to get a statement from you ladies. Would you mind if I got into the rear seat to question you? We don’t want to contaminate the crime scene anymore than it is.”
The ladies acquiesced to his request and introduced themselves. He wrote their names and particulars in his notebook. I slid in the backseat along-side the detective. Once we were seated, the women recounted coming from the restaurant to Janet’s SUV and their discovery.
Inexperience and innocence go hand-in-hand with stupidity. If only Janet hadn’t volunteered more information than he needed to know.
“The man in my trunk is the store manager of Crofton’s Department Store.”
“How do you know that?”
“I got into a fight with him earlier today.”
“Really, what happened?”
“I tried to return something, and he refused.”
“Enough to make you mad.”
“More like furious,” Janet said. “Especially after I had to go up to his office to talk with him while carrying all my bags.”
Bea gave Janet a nudge with her elbow. She knew what Janet had said didn’t sound innocent. We both must have noticed a change in the detective’s posture.
“Ladies, I’ll have to take you down to the station so you can make a formal statement. I’ll also need to fingerprint you. A car will take you down to the station.”
“I can drive us,” Bea said.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” the detective said, rather pointedly, I thought.
Bea looked down and stared at her lap, dismayed. Janet looked like Bambi caught in the flames. Disbelief still marred her insight, but realization dawned. A tow truck pulled in.
“Detective, why is there a tow truck?” Janet asked.
“After we’re finished processing the crime scene, your vehicle will be towed to the compound so the technicians can go over it.”
“Obviously my fingerprints and those of my daughter will be on the car.”
“Yes, she’ll have to come down to the station and give us her prints, too.”
“I don’t want my daughter mixed up in this. She’s been in school all day, and you can check that.”
“Mrs. Gavin, I’m sure you daughter is innocent, but we need to eliminate her prints.”
“Can’t you come to the house and get her prints?”
“We used to take prints anywhere, but now we use electronic readers that take the impression so we can compare them to others in the system. Sorry.”
Now I was peeved, too. Couldn’t they have just taken ink impressions at the house and scanned them at the station? Maybe they could have, but now that Janet had made him suspicious, there would be no accommodations.
Taylor’s corpse in the SUV made me wonder if the thefts at the store were related to his demise. Had he called the cops like he told the security manager, Mr. Carter, he would? If they had a record of his call, then maybe the detective would look at other suspects. I knew a whole dock load of suspects were at the store, including Dimples.
When a patrol car came near Bea’s car to take the ladies to the station, I felt pained seeing Janet’s expression. As she got into the caged backseat, she looked at her SUV and the tow truck. Her eyes no longer held disbelief, but fear.
Come back next Monday for the conclusion!