by E.B. Davis
This story was first published on E.B.’s blog.
Unlike most men, I knew what to get my wife, Janet, for Christmas: a new husband. The gift wouldn’t have made her a bigamist since I died two years ago. Janet deserved a great life and a reliable companion to share her years. None of my shopping has resulted in a gift to wrap, though that may have been due to my mixed feelings.
Like most men, I’ve wanted to protect Janet and our seventeen-year-old daughter, Ashley. The guy I had in mind would have to be physically fit, trustworthy and true, a St. Bernard dog of men. Protecting those you love when you no longer filled the physical realm hasn’t been easy. But I’ve learned to manipulate some inanimate objects.
Janet thought she could protect Ashley and herself. Because of her independent nature, she’s deluded herself, like most of mankind, mistaking independence for power. What a crock! Mankind’s power dripped like candle wax compared to the power of Heaven’s Niagara Falls. Janet sinned by conceit, but she wasn’t alone.
My sin? Gluttony. I haven’t blamed Janet, even if she served a pot roast with gravy that my fork couldn’t stop shoveling, because unlike me, Janet still fit into the same size eight as when we married. When my pants hit size forty-eight, my out-of-control weight problem had to be stopped, so I acted responsibly and went to the gym, where I dropped dead from a heart attack. They’ve assured me here, that I would have died from my heart problems before too long anyway. The gym hastened my departure.
I sensed Janet’s awareness of my spirit. Maybe she couldn’t hear me, but we were married for so long, she sort of read my mind and felt my presence. There were times over the last two years when I reached out to her, consoling her in a hug, felt her shiver at my touch, and our souls linked in commiseration. Kind of like now, as I watched Janet and Ashley through the side window of the SUV.
Sitting in the front passenger seat, Janet Gavin clutched the dashboard and gritted her teeth when the SUV hopped forward. The tires spun rubber on the parking lot’s asphalt. “Honey, let the clutch out slowly. I’ve told you before.”
The SUV jumped and then stopped abruptly as Ashley popped the clutch and stalled the car. “Mom, if you were less critical it would help. Dad wouldn’t have criticized me while I’m trying to learn.”
Janet peered out her side window and rolled her eyes so Ashley wouldn’t see her reaction. She reined in her feelings. “Ashley, I have to tell you what you’re doing wrong so you can correct it.”
The mall parking lot, devoid of traffic and lit by tall pole lamps, seemed like the perfect place to teach Ashley how to drive a manual transmission. Janet stopped glaring at her daughter, who wore a face of frustration, and turned her head toward the sounds of thuds, grunts, and men’s voices emanating from outside. Ashley had stalled the SUV behind the stores where employees unloaded trucks. An eighteen wheeler, backed up perpendicularly to Crofton’s Department Store’s loading dock, stood with its rear doors open.
“I thought the parking lot would be less crowded on a Sunday, especially after hours.” Janet looked at her watch. “It’s seven-thirty. The mall closed over an hour and a half ago.”
“Yeah, but Christmas is in two weeks, Mom.”
“Maybe they have to work overtime.”
Men loading the truck looked at the SUV and stopped working. Janet had assumed the sounds they’d heard would be the men’s laughter at Ashley’s poor skill on the clutch, but curiously, they weren’t laughing. The men watched as if the women trespassed on their territory. Stepping down off the loading dock, a man walked toward Janet’s SUV.
“Mom, that guy’s coming over here.”
“Lock your door. If he seems dangerous, move—but pull out slowly like I taught you.”
“Mommm,” Ashley whined.
“Shush, here he comes.”
Janet rolled down the window a few inches as the man approached. He appeared in very good shape, long legged, muscular and surprisingly old for a dock worker. From the few silver streaks snaking through his black hair, Janet guessed his age near her own.
“Good evening, ladies,” the man said. “If you could move out of the area, I’d appreciate it. We have a situation involving gasoline that could explode at any time.”
“Oh, my goodness, we had no idea.”
“The store management hasn’t updated their safety equipment, and we have a spill. Profits compete with safety. I don’t approve, but then no one asked me.”
“Thank you for letting us know. I really appreciate it,” Janet said, and couldn’t help but smile at the twinkle in the man’s eyes. His subtle flirtation, just his eye contact, let her know of his attraction. His articulate candor and his appearance attracted her, too. Janet felt relieved by her reaction. During her first nightmarish year of widowhood, she had no thoughts of other men. Over the last year, her feelings had changed from apathy to interest, but she hadn’t found anyone worthy, until now, perhaps. “We’ll get out of here and go home.”
“That’s a good idea,” the man said, and tipped his cap with a small grin revealing one dimple in his cheek. He turned away.
Janet rolled up her window and said, “Try it again, only slowly this time, and drive to the front of the mall.”
Ashley grinned, as she pushed in the clutch and started the car, and then looked at her mother. “For an older guy, he was hot.”
Janet skirted Ashley’s comment. Although they had talked about sex, the discussion had focused on Ashley’s future sex life, not her own, or more accurately, the lack of her own. Grimacing at her lack of shared intimacy, she said, “He took the initiative to come over and tell us of the danger, which I certainly appreciate, and yes, I found him attractive.”
“Yeah, hot,” Ashley said.
Seventeen-years-old and full of contradictions, Janet thought of her daughter. Perhaps those contradictions were a sign of Ashley’s increasing maturity since her father’s death. As Ashley slowly let out the clutch, the SUV moved forward smoothly around the back of the stores to the front parking lot.
“That’s really good, Ashley, but why are you stopping?” Janet asked, when she saw Ashley put the car in neutral.
“You can drive home in the dark on the street. I’m not good enough yet,” Ashley said. Another sign of maturity, Janet thought, learning one’s limitations. Her realizations were bittersweet. Next year, Ashley would start college, beginning a brand new cycle of life for both of them. But what would life hold for her?
Once in the driver’s seat, Janet pulled out onto the road and forgot about the gas leak. She asked Ashley about an item on her Christmas list. Ten minutes later, they pulled into their driveway.
I knew the long, lean, too muscular man attracted Janet, and “Dimples” had made his attraction no secret, but I didn’t believe him. The law prohibits gas storage around malls and shopping centers where the public congregates. Dimples had lied, I’d bet. I drifted over to the loading dock to eavesdrop.
A few days after Ashley’s driving lesson, Janet sat at her kitchen table wrapping gifts while enjoying a Christmas CD. With Ashley at school, her hours alone felt oppressive. This Christmas marked the third without her husband. Their strong marriage had survived the lean times and had grown during the flowering years of Ashley’s birth and childhood. As big as Steven had been, his death had created an equally big void. Tears fell from her eyes. She gasped at the sudden feeling of loss. Finding a man as loving as he had been wouldn’t be easy.
Closing her eyes, she examined her feelings and discovered unacceptable self-pity. Taking emotional control, she rose from her chair to provide a diversion, grabbed a tissue from the box on top of the refrigerator and wiped her eyes.
The image of the man she now thought of as “Dimples” formed in her mind. A wiggle of her eyebrows reflected her erotic thoughts. Sitting on her duff and feeling sorry for herself wouldn’t help bring back her husband. She looked out the kitchen window to the freshly fallen snow, glistening in the morning sun. Perhaps when Ashley went to college, she might start anew by taking some fun classes, developing new friends, and dating. Her love of adventure stirred within awaiting an opportunity.
Her jingle bells hung on the kitchen door’s knob. She gave them a shake. Jingle bells reminded her of Christmas like no other sound. After years of decorating her parents’ home, her mother, knowing of Janet’s love of them, had given the bells to her. They symbolized the Christmas’ of her youth when everything was new and possible. Leaning against the door, she conjured visions of Christmas at her parents’ house and candle-lit church services. Smiling through memories, she knew the magic of the season still lived within her.
That magic spurred Janet to accomplish the tasks on her list, one of which was a dreaded trip to the mall. But, she reminded herself, it was a necessary means toward an end. She finished wrapping and tidied up before driving to the mall.
Her Christmas list contained three items, including the exchange of a gift that she’d bought for a friend. She found no parking spaces in the mall’s front lot. Refusing to compete for a space against other drivers, she drove to the back lot and found a space nearby the Crofton’s Department Store’s loading dock. The gas leak worried her. But if other cars were parked there, she reasoned, they must have contained the leak.
Three inches of snow covered the parking lot. Janet sighed, thinking again of the past. Store personnel used to make sure the parking lots and sidewalks were clear for customers out of consideration. Now, no one bothered. So much for customer service, she thought.
Carefully walking by the deserted loading dock, she smiled, remembering Dimples, and looked for him. Another man now stood on the dock. He must have thought her smile belonged to him, judging from his visual examination of her. Embarrassed, she nodded in his direction and kept walking to the mall entrance.
Several hours and shopping bags later, Janet entered Crofton’s and went to the returns counter to wait her turn in the long queue. At the counter, she told the sales associate, “I can’t believe my friend lost so much weight. She needed to lose it, but at this time of year, I didn’t think she’d succeed.”
“That’s great for her. But I’m afraid that I can’t refund this gift. It’s a food item.”
“But it’s unopened. I can’t possibly give my friend Belgian chocolates when she’s succeeding so well on her diet. See the package? The wrapper is just as I bought it. She normally loves them, or I wouldn’t have purchased them in the first place.”
“We’re not supposed to give returns on food items.”
“That’s ridiculous. Godiva is expensive.”
“You’ll have to talk to the store manager,” the sales associate said.
“He’s upstairs in the corporate offices.”
“He won’t come down?”
“Not at this time of year. There’s too much going on for him to leave his office.”
“Well that’s backward. No such thing as customer service.” Janet blew out her breath in exasperation.
“I’m sorry. It’s not your fault,” Janet said, feeling sheepish at taking out her ire on the clerk.
Loaded down with bags from her shopping trip, her arms ached under their weight, and the bags’ handles cut into her hands bringing with the pain uncharitable thoughts concerning the store manager’s lack of customer service. The doors to the elevator opened as she approached.
Two Doberman-natured women lunged at the doors, knocking into her bags. One of the bag handles broke, dumping sweaters onto the floor, now covered in melted snow and street dirt. The women skirted her disaster. She saw one punching the close door button, which for the first time in history actually worked. The doors closed before she could pick up the soggy sweaters and transfer them to an intact bag. Tired and angry, she sighed to relieve her stress, leaned against the wall, and punched the “up” button again. When Janet finally emerged from the elevator and walked to the corporate office, the magical spirit of the season had vanished. She felt like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch.
After informing the receptionist that she needed to speak with the store manager, she found a seat in the waiting area and dumped her bags on an adjacent chair. She noticed a security camera mounted behind the receptionist’s desk pointed in her direction. What nerve, Janet thought. Customers were presumed guilty. She fought the temptation to stick out her tongue at the camera and flip it the bird.
No sooner had she leaned back to rest, then the receptionist directed her toward the store manager’s office, down the hall. The receptionist didn’t bother to get up, but pointed down the hall, “Third door on your right.” The store’s management had taken the concept of self service too literally, Janet thought.
“Thanks,” Janet snarled. She picked up her bags and walked to the office where she found a closed door. Lowering her bags to the floor, she knocked on the door. The door opened abruptly.
“Did you just kick my door?” a man asked. His cheeks folded inward toward his nose and mouth, which creased into a frown. The tall, thin man crossed his arms and hid his chest under a shield of rumpled, white dress shirt.
“No, I knocked,” Janet said.
He looked at her as if about to dispute her word. “What can I do for you?” he asked, but remained standing in the doorway, not allowing her to enter his office and sit.
“I need to return a gift that is now unsuitable to give a friend, but the sales associates said that food items aren’t returnable.”
“Definitely, not! There are health regulations.”
“But it’s unopened Belgian chocolates. The package is just the way I bought it.”
“Sorry, no can do.”
“It’s expensive! She would normally love them, but now that she’s lost weight—”
“Doesn’t matter, I can’t change the law.”
“But I’ve returned other food items here in the past.”
“Not with me as manager.”
“Yeah, well, that’s probably true. The last store manager made sure the parking lots and sidewalks were clear of snow. The last store manager had the custodial department clean up melted snow and dirt from around the elevators. Look at my presents!” Janet reached into a shopping bag and took out the wet and fouled sweaters. “One of my shopping bags broke and dumped these gifts on the floor in front of the elevators. Are you going to reimburse me for their cost or at least the cost of dry cleaning them? The sweaters were brand new. See the tags. I just bought them.”
“Did any store personnel see the incident? Did you go directly to anyone to report it?”
“No, no one saw it. But the last store manager came down to the department rather than make customers troop upstairs. If I hadn’t been forced to come up here, if only you’d allow refunds for perfectly good, unwrapped chocolates, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“You can’t prove a thing, and returns on food violate the law. Maybe you should read your receipts before trying to return anything. It clearly states that food items aren’t returnable.”
“And maybe you should buy new equipment for your loading dock. I bet the EPA would be very interested in your gas spill the other night.”
“What are you talking about? We have no gas stored anywhere on the premises. I’d watch what you say, if I were you. Any damage to the store’s reputation, and we’ll slap a lawsuit on you as fast as Santa slides down the chimney. Now, I have a store to run. Good day.” He started to close the door, stopped partway and said, “Have a merry Christmas.”
Aghast, Janet watched the store manager slam the door in her face. Had the man with the dimple lied to her? Marching out of the hallway, her peripheral vision caught the receptionist watching her. Janet knew she looked like a cartoon character with steam hissing from her ears, but she refused to glance at the unsympathetic receptionist as she left, feeling betrayed by the store management and by Dimples. When she found the ladies’ room, she ducked inside, placed her bags on the floor and found her cell phone in her pocketbook. As she dialed her friend, Bea Goodwin, she glanced in the bathroom mirror. Who was that unhappy and disheveled middle-age woman?
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 gang member. 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!
I left him to his troubles, and drifted over to the high school to visit Ashley’s senior class. I wouldn’t even allow myself to contemplate what might happen to her next year as a college freshman. Janet used to call me a worrywart. Guess she was right.
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 publicly 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.
I drifted through the crowded police station. The heating had gone berserk and sweat poured off everyone and their woolen clothing. A bedraggled Santa looked wasted, his fake beard pulled down past his chin, which featured dark stubble. A woman pulled in for shoplifting screeched nearby. Floating upstairs, I found Detective Graham interviewing Crofton’s receptionist.
“That woman stormed into our offices just today. You can see her on the security camera,” she said.
“Do you know what she wanted, Mrs. Carter?” Graham asked. Carter was a common name, but I wondered about her relationship to Mr. Carter, the security manager.
“No, she didn’t give me an explanation for demanding to see poor Mr. Taylor. Just came in with a bad attitude and then started shouting at him. Ask my husband, Don, he’s head of security and saw her on the monitor.” Ah-ha! The wife, I thought.
“My partner’s questioning him now,” Graham said.
Pin the tail on the donkey, I thought, and Janet had dressed herself in the donkey suit. I perused the offices and found Graham’s partner sitting in another office with a guy I saw at the loading dock. Listening in, I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Yeah, she caused a real ruckus in Mr. Taylor’s office. But what you don’t know, is that I saw her driving her SUV behind the store a few nights ago, after hours.”
“Mr. Carter, what are you saying?” the detective asked. I now had a name to go with the face.
“I’m saying that we’ve had a big theft problem at the store. The thefts upset Mr. Taylor. I had tried to find the culprits, but now I’m starting to put two and two together.”
“You suspect Mrs. Gavin’s involvement.” I couldn’t tell if it was a statement or a question.
“Hey, I saw her in an SUV behind the store. One of our dock workers went over and talked with her.”
“What’s his name?”
“Joe Smith. Hired on as seasonal help.”
“Not a distinctive name. You submit his prints to NCIC?”
“We don’t bother checking out seasonal help if they don’t use a cash register. By the time we’d find out anything, January would have come and gone.”
“You submitted his data for a criminal records’ check?”
“Yes, normal procedure, but with a name like Joe Smith, there were fifty-four possible matches, none of which confirmed a criminal record.”
“So you think Joe Smith and Mrs. Gavin were working together.”
“They seemed chummy. I saw them smiling at one another. We knew that some of the stolen items were too large for normal under-the-coat shoplifting. With the seats down, her SUV could hold a bunch of TVs, which were missing, and other high priced electronics.”
“She has no criminal record.”
“Maybe she’s having financial difficulty.”
“Hmm…Mrs. Gavin’s listed as a widow on the form my partner made her fill out. Maybe her old man didn’t have life insurance,” the detective speculated. “You have information on Joe Smith, a picture and where we can find him?”
“Sure, when we realized someone killed Mr. Taylor, I brought his personnel folder with me. There’s a picture in there that’s on his security badge. Here you go.”
The detective opened the folder, blinked with what looked like surprise, and then stood up. “Wait here, I want my partner to see this.”
Before the detective got out of the office, I rattled the window blinds, but the two dummies didn’t notice. They ticked me off with their stupid assumptions. Not only had I left Janet financially able, I’d made sure Ashley had the funds for college. If only the detective would check, rather than jumping to conclusions. After their accusations against Janet, I knew Carter and his wife were scamming, scheming murderers. Dimples, aka Joe Smith, would serve as the gang’s fall guy with Janet implicated in the frame. But how could I prove it?
I wandered through the station and saw Janet and Bea being led up the stairway. Detective Graham ushered Mrs. Carter down the hall. As Janet and Bea passed her, she pointed at Janet. “There’s your murderer. I’d swear she killed Mr. Taylor. We have her on the hard drive.”
Janet flinched from the accusation. Bea put her arm around Janet while looking outraged at Detective Graham. After stashing Mrs. Carter in another room, Graham gestured for Janet and Bea to take a seat in his office. He closed his office door. “Sorry, we’re playing musical rooms at the moment. Please don’t talk with one another—“
A knock resounded on Graham’s door, to which he responded. “We’re ready for Mrs. Goodwin,” an officer said from the doorway.
“Thanks, Charlie.” Detective Graham stood and asked Bea to go with the other officer. Bea had no sooner left the office when another knock resounded on the door. Graham’s partner came in and whispered to him.
“Make yourself comfortable, Mrs. Gavin. Do you want a cup of coffee?”
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” Janet answered. I knew if she drank coffee after noon, she couldn’t sleep at night. Waiting with Janet seemed to take forever. The clock on the wall advanced an hour. I heard phone calls, terse messages, laughter, and finally Detective Graham came back into his office.
“Please come with me Mrs. Gavin.” Janet stood and walked to a conference room. We both saw Dimples sitting at the table. I tried to temper my temper. Who was I kidding? I’m a lousy angel.
Impeccably dressed in a black suit with a red seasonal tie, he talked with another man at the conference table. Cool as a cucumber, I thought. What nerve!
Janet looked at Dimples with a confused look on her face. He glanced over at her, smiled and stood up, offering his hand and greeting her. Taken back, Janet went through the motions.
That’s right sweetie, he’s a conniving SOB!
Startled by my sudden intrusion into her thoughts, her eyes wandered around the room as if trying to find me.
“Mrs. Gavin. I’m so sorry you were caught in this mess. Have a seat.” Dimples pulled out a chair for Janet. She sat down facing the men at the table.
I found paperclips on a nearby desk, ready to menace those at the table. If they so much as frowned at Janet, I’d flick them in their faces.
Another man I hadn’t seen before spoke. “Mrs. Gavin, my name is Walter Campbell. I’m Chief of Police. Crofton’s security manager, Mr. Carter, tried to implicate you in theft and murder, but when he tried to implicate ‘Mr. Smith’ here,” he said with a chuckle, “he cooked his own Christmas goose. We recognized ‘Mr. Smith’ and called him. He’s actually Saint Bernard, regional program manager of the FBI’s Organized Retail Theft Division.” He turned to Bernard and said, “I almost bit my tongue laughing when I saw your picture. You haven’t gone undercover in years.”
“This Christmas, we were spread thin. Besides, it’s good practice.”
Janet sat perplexed. She asked, “I’m sorry, but I’m confused. What happened?”
Agent Bernard turned to Janet. “Crofton’s corporate office contacted us about four weeks ago. Shortages were escalating at the store. They weren’t sure of Mr. Taylor’s involvement, so they asked us to investigate. Since the store hired extra help during the Christmas season, I signed on and went undercover. Carter, his wife, and the dock supervisor were ripping off the store big time. While his wife kept track of Taylor, Carter arranged the location of his security officers, avoiding detection. The dock supervisor used the seasonal help, who had no idea what they were doing, loading merchandise onto the trucks. Using miniature cameras, I recorded their actions and documented the trucks used to haul the merchandise. We’ll have no problem convicting them, and within a few hours, their extended gang will be brought down.”
“What happened to the store manager?” Janet asked.
Campbell took over from Bernard, “After you left Taylor’s office, Carter or his wife turned off the security camera in the office area.”
“Carter must have recognized you from the night when you were teaching your daughter to drive stick. He feared you saw too much. We had placed taps on Taylor’s and Carter’s phones. In his last conversation with Carter, Taylor threatened to call the cops,” Bernard said.
“After you left, we believe Carter killed him. We’re working with the forensic team now to obtain evidence, and we’re confident we’ll get the evidence we need to convict. I’m not sure how he knew the location of your vehicle. When he saw you on the camera giving Taylor trouble, and then found your SUV parked near the loading dock, framing you for murder and blaming you for the stolen merchandise killed two birds with one stone,” Campbell said.
“I’m astonished. I had no idea what I saw that night,” Janet said.
The man, standing on the loading dock earlier in the day, must have been Carter, I surmised, and then listened to what Dimples was saying.
“I didn’t think you saw anything, but even so, I made up a quick story to get your daughter and you safely out of the area. We already got your friend’s statement. Let’s get yours so you can go home,” Bernard said.
I hung around to make sure Janet safely made it home. She composed and signed a formal statement. A patrol car took Bea back to the parking lot to get her car since Janet’s statement took longer. As Janet left the station with a patrolman, Bernard, aka Dimples, met her at the door.
“I’ll take her home, Officer.”
“That’s nice of you, Agent Bernard,” Janet said, with a smile.
I sat in the backseat because I still didn’t trust Dimples. After Bernard got on the road, he seemed nervous, like he wanted to say something to Janet, but didn’t know how. Finally, he came out with it.
“I understand you’re a widow.”
“Yes,” Janet said. “Two years.”
“I’m a widower, three years,” Bernard said.
“Heart attack,” she said.
“Cancer,” he said.
“I’m glad you drove me home because I wanted to ask you a question,” Janet said.
Bernard laughed, “It’s an old nickname.”
“You’re that good?”
“No, I’m no saint, but I’m trustworthy, loyal and true—like a St. Bernard dog.”
“I’ve always liked St. Bernards,” Janet said.
“Good, because I’d like you to have dinner with me on Friday night.”
“You won’t serve dog food, will you, Saint?”
“No dog food, but I might show up with a cask under my chin. Something smooth, like Canadian Club.”
“It’s a date,” Janet said.
My mission seemed complete. Dimples met all the qualifications I had on my list, but the case and his lack of middle-age spread still made me suspicious. I decided to hang around, at least until Valentine’s Day. If Bernard doesn’t come through with a dozen red roses, I’ll perfect my skill with rubber bands.
You can find more of E.B.’s short stories, and more Christmas short stories, in KRL’s Terrific Tales section.