by Gary Clifton
Cobock eased his pickup up into an alley.
A robust, outgoing man, he had retired the year before after 27 years as a cop in Kansas City, Missouri. The insurance investigator’s job was welcome relief from big city crime.
His wife of forty years had died of cancer the year before. His daughter lived hours away. Life had degenerated to working what Dixon Mason Mutual assigned, eating drive-through burgers or frozen delights, and spending too much time watching sorry TV with a beer in hand.
The house he had been assigned to investigate was the most unkempt of several stretched up the alley. The adjustor had reported a daylight burglary loss of just over $80,000, including flat screen TV’s, jewelry, and other appliances.
The local sheriff’s office had not been notified of the loss. The alarm company reported the system had been coded off the day of the burglary and never re-booted.
Cobock had called the insured to attempt an interview and advise that he was going to inspect the premises, but he had received a return call from an attorney, stating the man was in Chicago on business.
Bundling himself against the cold, he snapped photos, then crowbarred off a plywood sheet nailed over a smashed window. All broken glass lay outside the house on the patio. The window had been broken from inside. He found no evidence of forced entry.
Stepping through the opening, he found debris, sparse furniture, and decayed food on a table. The house had been unoccupied for weeks. And it had no connections to accommodate an elaborate TV system or any logical storage place for jewelry. The familiar signs of insurance fraud tripped his internal alert-meter.
He’d submit his findings, well aware Dixon Mason often negotiated a reduced claim in lieu of prosecution.
Then he heard it: the barely audible sound from down a hallway. Had a wino found his way in and fallen? A man down wouldn’t last long in the freezing cold.
The victim was no wino. An Irish setter sprawled inside a hall closet, whimpering. Had the homeowner left his pet stranded? The dog could not have locked himself in a closet.
His chronic aching back objected as he lifted the flaccid, collarless animal and climbed back out the boarded window. The dog was probably related to the reported burglary and might be known to neighbors.
A graying lady opened the third rear door he tried. Cobock instantly saw her as incredibly attractive.
Tantalizing cooking odor drifted out. Her hair was pulled back, and her bright blue eyes, framed in a face which seemed locked into a permanent smile, widened. “Charley? My God, mister, where did you find him?”
“Dave Cobock, insurance investigator, ma’am. He was locked in a closet.”
She motioned him in. “He disappeared last Sunday. I notified the sheriff, but they didn’t seem to care.”
He carried the dog into the kitchen. “Second house,” he head-pointed. “Reported a burglary. Do you know them?”
“No, mister... uh...”
“It’s a rental that’s been vacant recently. The owner told several other neighbors he hated dogs.” She looked at her bedraggled pet. “Did he...?”
Cobock shrugged and stooped to lay the dog on a blanket she’d spread.
“My name is Marian.” She flashed the rich smile. “Coffee, Dave?”
“Yes, ma’am. Sounds great. Uh, Marian, I mean. Marian is a lovely name.” In her presence, he stammered stupidly like a schoolboy.
She poured him a cup of steaming coffee.
“Did you see any sign of anyone down there last Sunday, or since... including the landlord?” He pointed. “They’ve reported a sizeable loss... Needed a truck and at least an hour to load.”
“I don’t recall anyone down there on Sunday, only Charley barking. I’ve seen the landlord there since then... Maybe Monday, I think... or Tuesday.”
Boarding up the window? he thought. He’d re-check inter-company databases. This guy probably had a history of shaky claims.
Marian peered in through the glass oven window, then turned back.
Suzanne’s kitchen smelled like this, he thought. Now it was relegated to frozen food wrappers and empty beer cans.
“I heard Charley barking down that way Sunday, the morning he disappeared. All bark, no bite, Charley. I never thought...”
Dave had already deduced the homeowner had been concerned that the barking dog would draw attention to the fake burglary and had locked the dog in the closet, where the dog’s bark could scarcely be heard. He wondered why the insured hadn’t killed the dog.
After several minutes of small talk, he finished his coffee and stood to leave.
Staring at him steadily, she appeared on the verge of speaking, but didn’t.
He wished he had the courage to be more aggressive, but he was forty years out of practice with pick-up lines. He noted a coat rack by the back door held only feminine garments and she had referred to Charley as “hers” and not “ours.” But a pair of heavy men’s boots sat beneath the coats.
Reluctantly, he walked out the back door into the wet cold. When he turned down the alley, he could see peripherally she was standing in the bright light of the kitchen window, watching.
She opened the door and called out, “Dave, have you had lunch?”
The words were heavenly music.
Turning back, he blurted, “Sounds like an outstanding idea, Marian.”
“You can’t eat out there in the alley.”
He started back through the mud, inadvertently touching the magic button. “Do you need help getting Charley to a vet? Your baby.” He grinned in the blowing snow.
“Charley was a gift from my husband. He passed away six months ago.” Her eyes teared up at the comment.
“God, Marian, I know your pain. I lost my wife last year. I saw the boots by the door and thought...”
“Oh, just a silly keepsake.”
“Trust me, I understand.”
His stride as light as it had been in thirty years, he sprang onto the back stoop. There’d be no stammering this time.
Copyright © 2016 by Gary Clifton