Sunday afternoon, John, Bobbie and Susan joined Adam, Justin and me at the downtown store after Sunday dinner. “Dad twist your arm to get you to work Sunday?” Susan asked.
“Actually not,” Adam said. “He told me what was going on and I offered before he asked. Why’d I spend Sunday afternoon by myself when I could be with Bobbie -- and you guys -- and get paid too?”
“You’re sweet,” Bobbie said and kissed him on the cheek.
As soon as we were all present, Mr. Sanford said, “I’ve gone back over records now since it seems things have been ‘undelivered’ and there seems to be a definite pattern. Everything we know went missing was in the warehouse inventory for this store. They are all expensive, top of the line items, mostly accessories and all are relatively small, easily transported. They were items which might have remained in stock for a longer period. Small, expensive, not likely to be missed for a while, so it would be difficult to spot a sudden trend. I've had Mrs. James use those kind of things to filter for a new inventory list. We'll focus on that list unless it becomes clear it's not doing any good. Justin, if you and your crew will take the warehouse, Mrs. James and I will do the inventory of the store itself.” He then gave us instructions as to how to proceed.
When we reached the warehouse, I assigned everyone to a section and we began work. An hour and a half later, Mr. Sanford came in the warehouse and called a break “How things coming?” he asked as he passed out icy drinks and crackers.”
“Think you might be on to something,” Susan answered. “I've only found a few things missing, but all are small and expensive. Not sure about how quickly they would move, but I don't think they would be everyday kind of sales.”
Only Justin, it seemed, had found nothing missing but, as he noted, “The section I’m checking has less expensive items and ones we would likely sell with the mid-range furniture or the Jameses next door might use in more or less average decorating.”
“We’ve found nothing missing at the store, which suggests that the ‘undelivering’ is being done out of the warehouse,” Mr. Sanford said. After the break, he joined us when we went back to the boring task of literally touching an item and then marking it off the inventory sheet or marking it missing.
By 4:00, we finished and Mr. Sanford took a look at the inventory sheets and did a quick mental calculation. “I’m surprised at what I guess is the value of the missing items. Looks to me like this adds up to five, maybe six thousand dollars. All little, but expensive decor. Now if I could just figure out how it gets undelivered.”
“Looks like a job for Sheriff Anderson,” John suggested.
“Wish it were,” Mr. Sanford replied, “but we’re still in the city limits. I’ll have to call the Chief. What he doesn’t bungle, one of his half-wit officers will, but guess I’ll have to start there.” He opened his cell and soon had the city police dispatcher on the phone. “Myrtle, Clarence Sanford here. We’d been doing inventory checking at the warehouse on East Main and found several thousand dollars worth of merchandise missing. Think you could send someone out to investigate? Yeah, I’ll be here.” He closed the phone and said, “I’ll have checks cut for you in the morning. Thanks for giving up your Sunday afternoon. I appreciate it.”
Elizabethton’s police department is, everyone knows, populated by cronies of the chief, not competent and well-trained officers. The young officer who arrived introduced himself as Officer Tenderson. While he was talking to Mr. Sanford, Michael leaned over and said, “Tenderson of the Mud Creek Jenkins, nephew of the Grandview Jenkins. His uncle is ex-Deputy Jenkins, now Officer Jenkins of the city police.”
“Him we know,” Justin said as we both started smiling remembering Deputy Redneck.
Officer Tenderson took his own sweet time writing up his report. I saw no reason for us being present, but he had said, “All y’all, just stay right here.”
Fifteen minutes after he arrived, the officer’s radio went off and he picked up the mike and said, “Officer Tenderson,” and was told he had a private communication. He walked away from us and came back five minutes later. As he approached, a police car, siren screaming, skidded to a halt outside the warehouse. The Chief and Officer Jenkins got out and came in.
“Justin Smith and Marcus Porcher, you are under arrest for grand theft,” Jenkins said. He then read us our rights and started handcuffing us.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Sanford asked. “What are you talking about? You’ve been led to believe...?”
The Chief ignored him at first, then said, “We got a tip. Justin, you and Marc rent unit nineteen at Elizabethton Self Storage, right? We got a tip that we’ll find stolen merchandise and drugs there.”
“I'm not even sure where Elizabethton Self Storage is,” I responded. “Is it the one out toward Mud Creek?”
“Yes, and you might make it easier on yourselves if you’ll just tell us all about it now. We’ll have a search warrant shortly and see for ourselves.”
Both Justin and I just stared open-mouthed at the Chief. “Are you saying Marc and I are responsible for the missing merchandise?” Justin asked, his face growing pale.
“Don't believe that for a second,” Mr. Sanford said. “Chief, isn’t that self-storage business outside the city limits? Isn’t that Sheriff Anderson’s territory?”
Mr. Sanford insisted the Chief call Sheriff Anderson and when he hesitated, went into the office to call him himself.
While we were being handcuffed, John called his dad and while Mr. Sanford was on the phone, Mr. Thurmond and Mr. Wilson came flying into the warehouse lot, skidding on the gravel. They piled out of the car and ran into the warehouse. As soon as they saw me and Justin, Mr. Thurmond said, through clinched teeth, “Officer, I give you ten seconds to get those cuffs off those boys. While you are at it, contemplate how you’ll answer the charge of false arrest and anything else I can think of.”
“We have evidence they have committed grand theft,” Officer Jenkins responded.
“What evidence? You have no evidence,” I practically yelled.
“We will as soon as we get a search warrant,” he responded, but removed the cuffs.
As Mr. Sanford emerged from the office, he said, “Sheriff Anderson is on his way. Chief, I’d had a feeling this warehouse was outside the city limits and I just checked to make sure. Seems the city limits runs right down the middle. The side I lease is in the county, Sheriff Anderson’s responsibility, not in the city where it would be yours. Guess you may as well go.”
“I’ll make a citizen’s arrest and hold these two until the sheriff arrives,” Chief said and took his weapon from his holster, looking like a comic cop on TV.
Mr. Sanford shrugged and said, “I called Elizabethton Self Storage and asked who rented unit nineteen, but was told they could not give out that information. If it is in your names, you'll have the right to open it, otherwise, I guess it's just a joke else something serious is going on. Regardless of what it is, I could never be convinced you fellows had anything to do with the missing merchandise, so not to worry.”
“Easier said than done,” I though to myself.
Sheriff Anderson arrived in fifteen minutes. After greeting everyone, he said, “Chief, holster your pistol. I’ll take over here. Mr. Sanford, you're in the process of checking inventory, correct?” Seems he also got a tip, a very specific tip. Mr. Sanford nodded. “I'll need a list of the missing items when you finish. In the meantime, Marc and Justin, if you'll come with me. Mr. Sanford, if you'll follow me out to the storage office, we'll check unit nineteen unless it's not rented to Marc and Justin. In that case, I sent a deputy over to Judge Alexander's chambers to get a search warrant so it can be opened. Marc, Justin, you can come with me.”
Mr. Thurmond asked, “Can we ride with you, Clarence, or do we need to take my car? I’m Marc’s lawyer and I think I need to be along.”
As soon as we were in the sheriff's vehicle, he said, “Look, I think I know you two well enough to be certain you haven't been stealing from Mr. Sanford, but if you have, you can save us all a lot of time and trouble by 'fessing up.”
Usually it is Justin's temper which gets out of hand before mine, but this time I beat him to the draw. Before I could say anything, he reached out and put his hand on my arm as he shook his head at me, then said, “Sheriff, I think I know you well enough to know you mean it when you say you do not think we'd do such a thing, and we haven't. Nonetheless, I'll not be surprised if you find unit nineteen is in our name and the missing merchandise is in it. Someone has done a lot of work to set us up, otherwise, the thief would have just kept quiet and sold what had been stolen. Who and why is beyond me. I will say I can think of nothing more foolish than stealing several hundred or even a thousand dollars worth of inventory when I would stand to lose a good job which can only become better if Mr. Sanford’s and my plans work out and there is no reason they shouldn't.”
Having calmed down, I said, “Well, what I make working for Mr. Sanford is not much and it'll not get better. In fact it is so little, I'll honestly not miss it as soon as I start college and my college trust fund kicks in. The only way I would been fool enough to steal from the store would be if I was off in the head.”
“I've thought of that,” Sheriff Anderson said, “but pretty much dismissed it.” He smiled but I realized, with another pain in the gut, there were very wealthy people who did steal because they were, so to speak, 'off in the head.'
I was surprised when we pulled into a storage facility on the opposite side of town from Mud Creek Road. Before I could ask a question, Sheriff Anderson said, “We'll check with the office here before going out to unit nineteen which is out on Mud Creek Road and in an unattended block of units.
Inside, James Ledbetter, owner of the storage units, was waiting for us. He owned a bunch of small businesses which he could operate by working part-time, one of which everyone knew about and no one talked about. He put in the first condom vending machines in Elizabethton's public restrooms. He was also a deacon in one of the small off-breed free Baptist churches outside of town on Mud Creek Road. In fact, it was in Greater Mud Creek metro, so to speak. He, everyone knew, insisted the preacher, “preach against the sin of sex.” Go figure.
“Sheriff,” he said as we entered the small office. “Boys.” “What can I do for you?”
“We’re here about unit nineteen. Could you tell me who rents it?”
“Not without a search warrant or the owner's permission,” he replied. “Rules, you know.”
I knew enough to know that if there was a buck to be turned with little or no effort, James Ledbetter never saw how rules to the contrary applied. I had a strong sense he was up to something.
“I've been told unit nineteen is rented to Justin and myself,” I said. “You have my permission to show the sheriff the records.”
Ledbetter got out his record book and had a signed contract ready at hand. Sure enough, unit nineteen had been rented to Marcus Porcher and Justin Smith almost a month ago. When I looked at the contract for the rental, I almost wet my pants. The signatures sure looked like mine and Justin's. “We'll need the duplicate key to the unit,” I said. “Seems neither Justin nor I have one.”
“Ain't got one. Renters supply their own key. You lost your keys, you have to get a bolt cutter and cut the lock. Seems when you boys rented the unit, you bought one of our deluxe models. I have a bolt cutter for when people walk off and don't pay the rent, but it won't cut that lock. You'll have to call Ace Machine shop and get them to come open it.”
“How's the gate operate?” Sheriff Anderson asked.
“One of them new digital systems,” Ledbetter responded. “Cost a pretty penny, but security is a major concern here. Each renter has a separate code.”
“Then I'll need you to come with me to let us in.”
“Oh, I'll just call Lucy Oakes. She lives across the street and keeps an eye on that facility.
On the way over, Justin had said, “Seems strange to me Ledbetter didn't seem surprised when you asked to have the gate opened. He had made it very plain we should have a key to the unit's lock, but never batted an eye when you said we'd need to be let in.”
“Noticed that,” was all the response from the sheriff.
Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the storage units and the sheriff walked across the street and knocked on the door of a house which looked ready to collapse. He came back following a woman who looked in the same condition. I was shocked when I realized she wasn’t nearly as old as I thought. She looked ancient, but closer I realized she was probably only thirty, thirty-five. As soon as she opened her mouth, the reason was clear. We had been shown a video about meth and meth addiction sometime this year and I recalled how disgusted and sick at my stomach pictures of meth mouth made me. It was nearly as bad on video as it was in person.
Lucy punched in a code and the gate opened and we drove in. Sheriff Anderson hadn't called the machine shop and I wondered how he'd get the lock open. As soon as he had parked the car in front of the unit, he popped the trunk and took out a wicked looking device which made short work of the lock. “Now for the unveiling,” he said as he lifted the unit's overhead door. Inside were neatly stacked boxes, each carefully labeled. “Looks like we have a very organized thief if those boxes have your merchandise, Mr. Sanford.” And they did. “I'll send a couple deputies down here to catalog what's in the boxes and check it off your inventory list as soon as you can get it to me. Before and during that, we'll be checking for clues as to who's behind this.” As he spoke, he kept looking around the unit. Suddenly he said, “What have we here?”
Sheriff Anderson took a pair of latex gloves from his pocket and slipped his hands into them. He picked up a bale of pot -- while I’d never seen one in the flesh, watch TV very long and you’ll see pot in bales. Putting the weed aside, he reached inside and opened a box and picked up a large ziplock bag with white stuff inside. “If they can’t pin the theft on you, they’ll have you go down for dope. Marc, Justin, as I said, it would take a helluva lot to convince me you had anything to do with this, but I'd suggest you two not be around the store until we can get to the bottom of this and,” he grinned, “don’t leave town.” I didn’t feel like grinning, just puking.
“I don't think that's necessary,” Mr. Sanford said, “We both know these fellows had nothing to do with this.”
“I do,” the sheriff replied. “It's more for their protection than anything else.”
Justin and I nodded in agreement.
When we got home, Mom and Clarisa were both on a tear. Seems dear old dad's Raleigh office had released a statement about his concern for the apparent lack of support for North Carolina statutes by the school board and school administration in their disregard of homosexual behavior during the spring prom. The short statement concluded with the announcement that he would be addressing the ministerial association Wednesday. He had called Mom and told her he was very displeased because it seemed clear now that she was responsible for her son’s indulgence in illegal and sinful behavior as a result of her allowing that queer Indian faggot to set foot inside his house and turn Marc queer.
“I guess he really is running scared this year,” I said. “Well, it's not his house; that queer Indian faggot had nothing to do with my being queer but, since I am, I'm sure glad he is because I love that queer Indian faggot,” I said, pulling Justin's lips to mine for a lust-filled, love-filled, all-out passionate kiss, the kind we usually avoided in front of Mom or Clarisa out of respect for our two mamas.
Clarisa had long since stopped saying anything about our usual expressions of affection, but after the kiss went on and became hotter and hotter, she finally cleared her throat and we broke the kiss. As we did, Justin laughed and said, “That's nothing, Miss Clarisa. You should see us when Marc is really hot and horny.”
“I've seen enough already,” she said, trying to sound very disapproving.
“Well, dear old dad is not the major problem right now,” I said. “I guess he is going to make sure he gains points and we have a hard time -- or not so hard...” Clarisa gave me a look that definitely made it clear I had crossed the line. “Sorry, hard time. What we have on our plates right now is pretty serious.” Justin and I told the two of them what we had found out about the missing merchandise at the downtown store. Nothing, apparently, was missing at the other one.
As soon as we finished, Mom said, “Call Mr. Thurmond right now.”
“Mom, Mr. Thurmond and Mr. Wilson were with us and, besides, I don't think we need a lawyer,” I responded. “Neither the sheriff nor Mr. Sanford think we are involved in any theft.”
“I'm sure they don't,” she replied. “That's not the point. Someone has worked real hard to set you two up. You don't know what else they may have done or have up their sleeve.”
The phone rang and when Mom answered she said, “Thank God. I’ll tell the boys.” She hung up the phone and said, “That was Mr. Thurmond. He just wanted to assure me he was looking out for your interests, but he did think this is serious and, Justin, he said he'd have another member of the firm represent you.”
After we had talked a while longer, trying to figure who and why, Justin and I went to our place. Having worked in a warehouse all afternoon, we were more than in need of a shower. Of course, we had other needs as well and took care of them too.
We had just settled down for some serious cuddling when the phone rang. Justin was closest so, after a quick kiss, he reached for it. “Justin here,” he said and listened. Finally he said, “Sounds like a real break. I’ll tell Marc.” He listened some more and said, “Won’t that kinda destroy the chain of evidence?”
“Destroy the chain of evidence?” Justin had been watching too many crime shows.
After listening for a while longer, he said, “We’ll check by after school tomorrow. Bye.” He turned to me, “Sheriff Anderson called to say he had the surveillance tapes from the security cameras at the storage lot. He hasn’t had time to check anything yet -- they got three domestic violence calls about the same time and he was needed even though he’s not supposed to be on duty today. We’re to check by tomorrow after school and maybe help him view the tapes. He thinks one of the cameras will show anything going on at unit nineteen. Now back to where we were.”
We didn’t quite make it. The call reminded us of just had how deep the doo-doo we were in might be. Neither of us slept very well when we finally gave up and went to bed.