The Way the Cookie Crumbles
By Bob Liter
Maggie Atley, my apartment mate at the time, came into the kitchen, sat across from me at the fold-down table and said, "There was a phone call for you while you were out. A Raymond Anders. Says he wants you to find out who’s crushing the cookies Heartland Distributing Company displays in Grunder's Grocery Store. I told him you'd give him a call as soon as you got back."
She smiled. I threatened to crumble her cookie.
"Nick, you need the money."
My name is Nick Bancroft. I'm a freelance reporter and sometimes private investigator. I was investigating a murder, a rare thing in Central City, and didn't much care about crumbled cookies. However, she was right about me finances.
She left for her library job after leaving a fresh pot of coffee. I fetched a cup, looked at the Springfield phone number she had written large enough so I couldn't miss it, and dialed.
"This is the strangest thing, Mister Bancroft," Anders said after we got past the introductions.
"Someone is deliberately destroying our products after we deliver them to the grocery store there. Nowhere else. Just in Central City. This person somehow crushes the bags of cookies without getting caught. No one will buy them, of course. We're losing money and it's got to be hurting our reputation there. We have always sold lots of cookies in Central City."
"Have you been to the police?"
"No, we don't want that, not yet anyway. Don't want the publicity. If this got in your local paper it would be a joke. Hurt our business even more."
"Look Mister Anders, I'm sorry. I'm working on a murder case that's taking all my time. I don't think I have time for cookie crushers."
"We thought it would be cheaper to hire you than to send a detective up there from here. We'd pay you five hundred dollars if you bring this nonsense to a halt. We don't even want to prosecute, too much publicity."
"Well," I said. "I'll see if I can work it in. Get back to you in a day or two."
I wondered why anyone would keep crumbling those particular cookies. Maybe teenagers. They might think it's funny. I was talking to myself again. I finished my coffee and headed for Grunder’s. Getting my mind off the murder investigation temporarily might jab my subconscious into thinking of something. Grunder’s is several blocks to the west of my place, on Lexington Avenue. It's the best grocery store in Central City, Maggie says.
At the store I pushed a cart and wandered from one isle to the other, watching. I watched women of all shapes and sizes, with children and without. I watched men, usually older. It was easy to imitate them. Most apparently had nothing better to do than pick up items, read the small print, and return them to the shelf.
A young professional woman raced through the store, grabbed items she'd apparently already decided to buy and went past me like an ill wind.
I moseyed down wide aisles, past islands of stacked cans or boxes, looked at candy, cakes and pies, and caught whiffs of enticing smells. My nose directed me to a corner away from the entrance where all sorts of delicious looking prepared food was offered for sale. It reminded me of a seed catalog where every flower looked perfect.
This, I figured, must be the picture women have in mind when they fuss over the way food looks on their tables. I followed, at a distance, two teen-age boys who should have been in school. They stopped at the candy aisle, fingered several packages of pimple producers, and selected a bag of chocolate kisses. They checked out with several over-the-shoulder glances my way.
I was approaching the cookie aisle when the store manager, Charlie Booker, spotted me. I'd known him casually for a couple of years. Did a story on his yard once. He plowed the whole thing and grew county-fair prize vegetables and flowers. You'd think a guy who raised food and sold food would be fat, or at least large, but Charlie was a thin, short, nervous guy with uneven teeth.
"You here to catch our cookie cruncher or are you just shopping?" he asked. "They told me you might look into it. Here's the latest batch of crunched cookies. I left them on the shelf so you could see what’s happening. Look at them. Why would anyone keep doing this? I think it's kids, but I can't catch 'em."
There were perhaps twenty bags of Heartland Cookies, each of them wrinkled and squashed as if a child who couldn't get the packages open had smashed the contents out of frustration.
"Let's go to your office. I'd like to look at your employee records. You do have background information on all of them, don't you?"
"Sure, more on some than others. The kids, the baggers, we don't have that much on some. They quit before we get time to completing their records."
I glanced through the records Booker had placed on a desk he cleared off. It was as exciting as counting money, someone else's. I had asked for only the last year's records and was checking the last of them without having seen anything interesting. Then I noted the Roger Warner file. He worked in produce, was a retired Heartland truck driver. He worked nights -- the store was opened 24 hours a day, every day -- and he lived in Central City.
I copied the address and drove to his house, only a couple of more blocks on Lexington and two blocks to the left on Bigelow. It was a small, white house set back farther from the street than the rest.
Figuring he was probably asleep since he worked nights, I pounded on the door like a storm trooper. He appeared eventually, his eyes bleary, his face partially covered by a two-day growth of gray whiskers. He wore a terry cloth robe that needed washing.
I opened the screen door and pushed past him.
"What the hell," he grumbled as he stepped back and looked at me with suddenly alert eyes.
"I'm here about the cookies. No sense in denying it. We have surveillance photos. You tell me what this is all about now or you can do it later at the police station."
He backed away and sank into a worn couch. He put his hands to his face and moaned.
"Well," I said.
"It's my pension. I drove for Heartland for twenty years. Now they're cheating me out of my pension. Had to take that job at the grocery store. The rats. I knew it was stupid, crushing their damned cookies. But I had to get back at them somehow. Now I'm the one who's going to get it in the end again. Oh, hell. Give me a chance to get dressed, I'll go with you?"
I sat on the couch beside him.
"You can relax. You're right. It was stupid. You promise me this cookie crunching will stop. Nobody needs to know it was you. One more crunch though, and you're in trouble."
He started to explain how the company had fired him just before he would be eligible to collect his pension. I stopped him. There was nothing I could do about that.
At my office I called Booker, told him to remove the crunched cookies and that the case had been solved. He wanted details. I didn't give any. Heartland wanted details, also. I told them I had solved the case, there would be no more cookie crunching and that they could send me the five hundred dollars in a week or so when they were convinced the problem had been solved. The guy I was talking to, a vice president, reluctantly agreed.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I would soon be solvent again.
Bob Liter is a retired journalist who has seven novels published by Renaissance E. Books. For information about his novels or to contact him go to his web site: www.mtco.com/~bobliter