I continue to be amazed and delighted at the subtle ways inspirations arrive. Case in point: Four years ago, a neighbor hired a tree-cutting crew that chopped trees, felling them onto our property. Then they left.
Although the neighbor assured us he would contact the company and arrange for them to come back to clean up the mess, months passed. Then one day the newspaper had a front-page article about tree-cutting scammers, and the company used by our neighbor was named the worst of a bad lot.
Armed with that information, I visited our local police department to see if the company could be charged with trespassing and property damage.They could not. Although that may sound like an unlikely inspiration for a novel, this visit resulted in my meeting an officer who was to become the model for a character in a book I didn’t even begin to write for another three years.
You’ll meet him as Detective Darren McElroy in The Babbling Brook Naked Poker Club – Book One, And yes, there is a Book Two. As for the tree contretemps, we hired someone to clear away the debris, sent the modest bill to the neighbor, and he paid it. End of that story! But a reminder such random events can often be mined for story gold.
Although my interacting with the police was a very bad idea, I drove Josephine to the Montgomery Safety Center where the police station is located. I would have been happy to wait in the car, but Josephine insisted I go in with her. Reluctantly, I did so.
We entered through the public entrance to find ourselves in a small anteroom. A woman sitting behind glass, bulletproof no doubt, asked us our business. I let Josephine do the talking, although I was the one carrying the evidence.
“We’re here to report a crime,” Josephine said.
“What kind of crime?”
“A burglary. Or maybe it’s a robbery. At any rate, it’s a theft.”
The woman directed us to open the door to our left and take a seat, saying an officer would be with us shortly. A lock release buzzed, and I pulled the door open on a small conference room with a table and chairs, wishing I could usher Josephine and the bag of receipts inside and escape.
We sat down, and within a couple of minutes, a police officer came through the door carrying a notebook.
I concentrated on my breathing, trying to tamp down a feeling of irrational panic. I was safe and anonymous. I was simply the companion of the person here to make a report.
The officer introduced himself as Detective Darren McElroy, and we told him who we were. He took his time, shaking our hands and then sitting opposite us and opening a slightly battered notebook to a fresh page. That gave me time to calm down enough to notice the air of quiet authority he’d brought into the room with him. I had the fanciful thought that if I were in imminent danger, I would want this man protecting me.
Although that air of competence was unusual and made him immediately appealing, he wasn’t otherwise remarkable, except perhaps for the fact he had very short hair and was clean-shaven. Fortyish was my guess. I wondered if his friends called him Mac. He looked like a Mac.
He wrote our names, double-checking the spellings, along with the time and date, and we watched him do it in silence. Then he looked up and asked our business. I had a sense he was weighing and measuring us, and I sat up straighter and folded my hands in my lap so I wouldn’t be tempted to fidget.
I let Josephine do the talking, and she did a creditable job of laying everything out in a logical fashion with little embellishment. She also added to her report of Eddie’s thefts the fact that the son of a recently deceased resident and the daughter of a second resident who’d been moved to the memory unit had subsequently discovered valuable items missing. That was a surprise to me, since I’d heard nothing about either loss.
Occasionally, the officer interrupted Josephine’s account to check on a name or ask for more details. Throughout, he took careful notes. Although I was watching him do it upside down, I could see his handwriting was as neat and precise as his demeanor and grooming.
I wondered what his wife was like, and whether he had any children. I could easily picture a skinny towhead with hair as short as his, begging him to play catch. But then I noticed he wore no wedding ring. Did that mean he was single, or did he simply not wear it at work?
I shook my head in confusion at the direction of my thoughts since I’d given up checking out guys some time ago.
“As far as you know, this Eddie,” he stopped and looked at his notes, “Mr. Colter, never stole anything from you personally?”
Josephine nodded. “That’s correct.”
“And I take it that’s true for you as well, Ms. Subramanian?” He looked at me with eyes that were more aware and probing than I preferred.
I also nodded.
“Then why are you two reporting this rather than one of the victims?”
“I’m not reporting. I’m just here to give Josephine . . . support.” I’d almost said a ride, but decided that sounded too disengaged.
“The majority of the victims,” Josephine said, “are elderly. They have difficulties getting around. Which is why Eddie does their shopping.”
I shared a moment of amusement with Detective McElroy at Josephine’s assertion that the victims were elderly. As if she wasn’t. Then I recalled watching her put a standard-shift Mazda Miata through its paces on Sunday, and the intelligent and wide-ranging conversation we’d shared at dinner. Josephine might have enough gray hairs and birthdays to be classified as elderly, but the label clearly didn’t fit.
“If I were to speak to these other ladies and this gentleman who were present for the confrontation with Mr. Colter, would they back up what you’ve told me?” the detective asked Josephine.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You see, Eddie told this cock-and-bull story about having a sick daughter, and I think Myrtle believed him. She was ready to give him more money, not take this accusation any further. And Bertie does whatever she tells him.”
“What about the others you say he stole from?”
“They were all angry about it. But I don’t know how they’ll react if they believe Eddie was doing it for a sick child.”
“You’re certain he doesn’t have a daughter?”
“He might, of course. But she doesn’t live with him, nor does she visit, according to the rental agent at his apartment complex.”
The detective blinked. “You went to his apartment?”
“Just to the complex. We wanted to see where he lived.”
I was certain Detective McElroy was struggling not to smile about our amateur sleuthing.
“We discovered he’s living well beyond his means,” Josephine said.
“And you know that because?”
“Megan, that’s the lady who rents the apartments, she told me what they cost.”
“Maybe he has roommates.”
“No. Megan was certain he doesn’t. But he does have lots of visitors of the female persuasion.”
McElroy’s lips twitched.
“She has a crush on him, you see. And it’s too bad, because she seemed like a nice girl. Eddie is not nice, but he’s very good-looking, which I’m sure prevents many women from recognizing that he’s pond scum.”
“Yes. Well.” The officer cleared his throat and concentrated on his note-taking.
I was almost certain the words he’d just written were “pond scum.”
“And you, Ms. Subramanian? Is that your opinion as well?”
“I agree, Eddie Colter is definitely pond scum. Toxic pond scum.”
He looked across at me and blinked, and I clamped my lips shut. This was no place to put my Eddie prejudices on display.
“Besides,” Josephine said. “Having a sick daughter does not give him the right to help himself to other people’s money.”
That statement, which brought us back to the issue at hand, showed off Josephine’s tart side to good effect.
“Do you have any evidence?”
“Yes, we do,” Josephine said.
I handed over the bag, and Josephine and I watched as he went through it. He glanced at the receipts and then concentrated on the spreadsheet and the affidavits.
“What I get from this is that he overcharged eight people one time each by about $10 on average.”
“That’s only what we can prove,” Josephine said. “But he’s been shopping for some of these people for over a year. And we discovered they never check their receipts and change, so it’s likely he’s stolen a good deal more.”
“But all you can document is roughly a hundred bucks’ worth.”
“Theft is theft.”
“Of course it is. But to get this department involved, I need stronger evidence that he’s stolen a lot more than this.”
“What about the baseball card? And the necklace? Don’t forget those.”
“Those are rumors. And you’re a third party.”
“So that’s it?” Josephine said. “You do nothing?”
“I can arrange for someone to speak to Mr. Colter. Likely that will put a stop to it.”
“Can you do it now?” I said.
“Why the rush?”
“Josephine feels insecure. You see, Eddie has access to a master keycard. And neither of us doubt he’s capable of more than a little petty larceny.”
McElroy sat back and rubbed his knuckles across his lips. “Okay. Where’s this Eddie likely to be right now?”
I glanced at the time. “He should still be at work. And I need to get back. I have an activity in twenty minutes.”
“Tell you what. You head on back, and I’ll follow along and talk to Eddie. Let him know we’re aware of the situation. That should stop him from harassing you.”
“Can’t you arrest him?” Josephine’s voice held a uncharacteristic plaintive note. Given my experiences with Eddie, I didn’t consider it an overreaction on her part.
Detective McElroy shook his head. “Doubt it would stick. You’d be better off reporting this to whoever’s in charge at Brookside so they can fire him.”
“The manager is his uncle,” I said.
“Like I said, I’ll talk to him. Let him know I’m keeping an eye on things and that if anything happens to either of you, I’ll be looking into it. Would that help?”
“Guess we have to hope it does,” Josephine said, sounding more like her usual self.
“I have a request,” I said. “Please don’t mention my name when you speak to Eddie.”
He cocked his head. “You have a history with Eddie?”
I knew what he was asking. Especially after Josephine said Eddie was good-looking.
“He’s a bully. I try to avoid him whenever I can. But, well, once I didn’t quite manage it.”
He sat back, pursing his lips, giving me that aware look that made me feel he knew more about me than I would like him to know.
“And?” he said.
“He grabbed me and tried to kiss me.”
Josephine shifted. I glanced at her to find her lips set in a firm line.
“When was this?” the detective said.
“Two weeks ago. I’ve been avoiding him ever since.”
“I hope you can see, Officer, that something needs to be done,” Josephine said.
He nodded. “I see no reason to mention your name, Ms. Subramanian. After all, you weren’t involved in confronting him about the thefts. I would have advised against that, by the way.” He turned that piercing look on Josephine, who didn’t seem the least bit fazed.
“I quite agree with you, but Myrtle and Bertie were determined.”
“We’d better get back,” I said, standing. “Thank you for your help, Officer.”
“My pleasure. Here’s my card. If anything makes you uncomfortable, you can call me. Anytime.” He handed us each a card, then came around the table and opened the door for us.
I turned and glanced back at him as I held the second door for Josephine. He looked solid and reliable, and I was glad to know he was on our side.
“Do you think that did a bit of good,” Josephine asked as we got back in the car.
“I don’t know. But I do know I’m not comfortable leaving you alone until we see what happens when he talks to Eddie.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Come to dinner with the group tonight. We can squeeze in one more, and I’ll feel better knowing where you are.”
“I do think something needs to be done about that young man before someone gets hurt,” Josephine said, pursing her lips. “And I thought we were doing it today. But now, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”
“So, you will come to dinner with us tonight?”
“I’ll still have to come back to my apartment afterward.”
“I could spend the night? On the couch. With my phone set to speed-dial Detective McElroy.” I’d looked at his card before putting it in my purse and realized we’d used the wrong form of address.
Much to my surprise, Josephine said, “Yes, I’d like that.”
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