It was a brisk autumn afternoon and I was making my way through one of the parking lots on the outskirts of campus to fetch my car and run some errands. A few feet into the lot, I spotted a couple of campus police cruisers parked near a large oak tree in the center of the lot.
Curious, I decided to investigate. As I drew closer, I could tell they were assisting the driver of a car parked in the lot. I would have probably passed on by, but I noticed that one of the officers was Mark Singleton, one of my best contacts at the university. Mark had helped me write a few essays on campus safety and self defense my freshman year and we'd pretty much remained friends ever since.
“Mark,” I called out to him when I got close enough, “How are you doing?”
He walked up to me and shook my hand, “Pretty good, yourself?”
“Not bad. Looks like you've got a problem though?”
“Just another break-in,” he said, “We were just wrapping up. Not much we can do here. Don't walk too close to the car though, we're going to dust for prints later and besides, there's some broken glass laying around.”
I nodded my approval and continued walking. However, as I passed the car, I stole a glance inside it and was stunned by the sight. The passenger seat and a book bag in the floorboard were bathed in broken glass and where the stereo used to be was just a bundle of wires and connectors laying off to one side. It looked more like it had been in a wreck than a robbery.
Looking up, I spotted the owner and immediately recognized her.
“You're Claire aren't you?” I said motioning her direction.
“Yes, you're in my… my…” she stammered.
“British Lit class. We're Ms. Dagmar's section.”
She let out a small chuckle, “Yeah, that crazy woman. She's a trip.”
“So what happened here?” I asked motioning back to her car.
“Just a break-in, they said there's been a lot of these lately. Someone just smashed the window and took the stereo.”
“Oh, was it a nice stereo?”
“Not really, just the tape deck that came with the car. Nothing fancy about it. I'm more mad about not being able to drive it and having to clean it up.”
“Yeah, insurance will handle it. No sense getting too mad.”
“Exactly. Besides, I know a guy that can fix the window and the stereo was a piece of crap anyway so what's it to me?”
I nodded my agreement and slowly walked back to the car. After a few seconds of staring I motioned for Mike to come over to me.
“Can I ask you a favor? I want to play a hunch.”
“A hunch?” he asked.
“Just ask her if she'd be willing to open the trunk for you. Tell her you want to see if anything was stolen out of there.”
“What's going on?” he asked growing impatient.
“Probably nothing, but I'm still curious.”
Mike shrugged his shoulders and walked over to Claire. After a few minutes of whispering, Claire came over to the car with her keys in hand. Only pausing a moment to step around the tree, she reached down and opened the trunk.
“I don't see anything missing,” she said.
Quickly, I swung around in order to take a look inside. However, she quickly went to close the trunk but I reached up and grabbed the corner of the lid, blocking it, “What's on that towel?” I asked.
Mike's partner, who was fortunately wearing latex gloves, picked up the corner of the towel. “It's glass,” he said puzzled.
I looked over at Claire who's face had washed over with terror. I stifled a smile and broke off from the three of them, leaving the police to question her. I meandered my way over to a nearby trash can where, upon examination, I found a tape deck exactly like the kind Claire had described.
“Mike!” I called out, “You might want to see this.”
He disengaged from the questioning and joined me by the trash can. “I'll be dammed,” he said as his eyes settled down on the black box inside it.
“I think you have your man, or woman as the case might be,” I said.
“We sure do, but how the hell did you know it?”
“I didn't. I just played a hunch.”
“Well, where'd you get the hunch?” he asked.
“The first problem I had was with the car. When you rip a stereo out, usually wires go everywhere and sometimes break. But all of those wires were still neatly bundled and intact. Whoever pulled that stereo out obviously took time and care.”
“Yeah, we noticed that too but we figured it was just a gutsy thief or a happy accident.”
“True, but it was when she told me that the stereo was an old tape deck that I started doubting. I mean, what criminal would bash in a window in broad daylight to steal an antiquated stereo?”
“Ok, that one got by us. But, the trunk, how'd you know that?”
“I noticed that when she arrived this morning she broke the law and parked rear-first. It's a head-in only lot so she was lucky she wasn't towed. But most important was what happened to her car during the day.”
“What happens to all cars when they park under a deciduous tree in autumn?”
“They get covered with sap.”
“Exactly,” I said, “And if you look closely you'll see that it must have been a good day for tree sap because the car is covered in a nice coat of it that formed a seal over the back doors.”
“But the seal was broken on the trunk,” he finished.
“But she could have put anything in the trunk,”
“I thought that too, but then I realized she was a 95-pound girl with no obvious athletic talent and her books were in the floorboard. I couldn't think of much else she'd put there.”
“Well, I'll be dammed,” he said shaking his head, “That's pretty clever. You're a sharp one.”
“I have my moments.”
“Well, I need to get back over there. We've got work to do,” he said as he turned to walk away.
“Oh,” I called out, stopping him in his tracks, “When you go back over there, try to find the tire iron.”
“You don't think she broke the glass with her elbow do you? The towel was just to shield her hands.”
He shook his head in disbelief, “You should be a detective, you know that?”
“Maybe another day,” I said, “Right now, I've got errands to run.”