Chapter Nine

Campus legends about Northwestern University's Bobb-McCulloch Hall are the inspiration for Hanscom College's Benn-MacLachlan Hall.

While Candace filled her spare time dispensing advice to lovelorn co-eds, I spent mine avoiding people: Kate, who had actually called me about a second date despite what I could only assume was completely underwhelming sex; PimpFlyG, for whom my investigation was going nowhere; and the inseparable Julian and Sophia.

So I was more than a little relieved when I received a series of emails forwarded from the listserv of Hanscom College’s Benn-MacLachlan Hall.  One of the emails was from a Sydney Green:

Subject: WHO STOLE MY PANTIES FROM THE DOWNSTAIRS DRYERS?!

Actually, I don’t care who took them. I went commando to class today — in a skirt because jeans chafe — and am pretty sure I flashed my professor. He’s hot, but this was not the way I’d imagined him seeing my Sanjay Gupta.

I digress.

Please put my 17 pairs of missing panties in a bag outside my room (1139) … their matching bras and I miss them terribly.

I’m clearly not the first, but let’s make me the last.

She wasn’t.

It had happened again in the week since Sydney’s email, making a total of four women whose undergarments had disappeared from the public dryers in the basement of the dorm.

The student newspaper reported that Hanscom College’s department of residential life had interviewed the victims but hadn’t moved much further for fear of inciting a witch hunt.  The case had been handed off to the police, but with murderers and robberies to solve, The Case of the Missing Panties was not a priority.

So the women of Benn-MacLachlan Hall decided to hire a private investigator.  They also decided that I was the man for the job.

I met them at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in the main lobby of Benn-Mac.

About two dozen women sat in a semi-circle around me in overstuffed chairs.  The ten women seated closest to me were the six victims and their roommates or friends — one of whom was Lindsay, a coworker at the student center and the woman I assumed had suggested me for the investigation.  All of them were beautiful.

Those seated behind them were less attractive but didn’t know it.  They spoke about the potential that they would be next, less out of fear than of pride.  I wanted to tell them no one wanted their panties.

Those most distant had heard about the meeting and were intrigued by the prospect of a private investigation occurring in their dorm.

I asked the victims to tell me the details of each of the thefts.  There was no significant overlap among their stories.  Two had the same major and three were the same year, but otherwise they lived on different floors, traveled in different circles, dined at different sororities and dorms, laundered on different days, and had different relationship statuses.  And all had at least three different suspects — male and female — who could have stolen their undergarments.

So it came down to one thing:

“Please describe the items stolen.”

They stared back at me, stone-faced.

“I’m looking for trends here, profiling and whatnot.  So come on.  Thongs, polka dots, days of the week, the French cut kind actresses wore during sex scenes in ‘80s movies?”

They answered, and the only thing that surprised me was that Sydney Green wrote such an impassioned email for the return of white cotton panties.  There was no overlap here either.

“No need to worry, then.  Obviously you’d like your panties returned, but you shouldn’t worry that you’ve been specifically targeted.  These were crimes of opportunity.”

They wondered how I could be so certain.

“In my experience, guilty parties are either idiots or assholes.  Assholes are devious but rare.  They mastermind conspiracies that generally take advantage of idiots.  There is a chance that this person wanted only one of your panties and stole the others to make the crimes appear random.  But I’m also of the mind that most people, even assholes, do what’s easiest, and four thefts to obfuscate one is overkill.  Idiots are far more common — even here.  Because the simplest explanation is generally the right one, we’re dealing with a garden-variety idiot.  He, or she, is some misguided individual who thinks this is either hilarious or, because this is Hanscom, a statement about our social values — probably the former because even an idiot would recognize the flaw of targeting only women with this message.”

Lindsay interrupted, which I appreciated because I had begun to ramble, “What do you plan to do about it?”

“Well, you’ve come to the right asshole because I know how to catch idiots.”

Sydney asked how, but I didn’t explain further.  My plan would never work if everyone in the audience, and by extension the dorm, knew what was going to happen.

I excused myself and hurried back to my dorm for my laptop and a webcam.

* * * * *

Unfortunately, Ethan was asleep when I entered.  He had been similarly indisposed or out of our room for more than a week.  So I, once again, would hear nothing about his meeting with Snag.

Then I noticed that on my desk was a shoe box labeled “Case 1001: Jason Baxter Suicide.”  I opened it.  Inside Ethan had collected Jason’s keys and phone.  There was also a typed transcript of Ethan’s interview with the drug dealer.

I smiled, now kind of loving my strange roommate.

I grabbed the keys and Ethan’s report and put them in my bag with my video camera and laptop.

I had just enough time before having to be at work to set it up and make one other stop, I hurried to Allison’s room.

* * * * *

I could hear music blaring through the door.

I knocked, and Allison asked who it was.

“It’s Grover. Can I come in?  I need a favor.”

No response.

“It’s for an investigation.”

I heard her move toward the door.

“Why don’t you ask Kate?”

So Allison knew.

“Fine, I will.”

Real mature, but it was the truth.  Kate was my only option because Candace wouldn’t play along.

Reluctantly, I dialed Kate’s number.  This would be the first time we’d spoken since our date.

She answered.

“Hi, Kate, I need your panties.”

* * * * *

I watched the laundry room of Benn-MacLachlan Hall from the ancient computer at work.

With few events to set up for, Andy and I covered for Lindsay while she ran offense at her dorm, persuading those on the way to the basement with laundry baskets to wait until later to do their laundry.

So far the video had shown no more action than the dryer spinning Kate’s undergarments.  We’d decided to skip the wash cycle because they were mostly clean and no thief would waste the time, and quarters, drying pilfered panties.  His, or her,  m.o. — TV cop talk for modus operandi, which is Latin talk for operating procedure — was to wait until the victim switched their clothes from the washer to the dryer.

I gave the perpetrator some credit for that: Dried panties are easier than wet ones to take and store and won’t be missed for an hour or more, people remember that in 30 minutes they must dry their clothes or risk serious wrinkling.  Dried clothes are more commonly forgotten.  While I’m giving credit where it’s due, Kate had been pretty cool about the whole thing.

Kate had, quite rightly, given me some attitude for not returning her calls and asked whether the nature of our relationship would be that I only contacted her when I needed something (both of which were good questions).  After making out like a bandit, I left with a bag of her underwear, which included the ones she had been wearing.

Between glances at the monitor, I read Ethan’s transcript.  He had reproduced his and Snag’s conversation verbatim, and it would have been indecipherable had he not included notes in the margins.

In short: Jason Baxter had been dealing drugs to the rich teenagers who attended New Briar Academy, the elite high school just north of Hanscom College.  And, while Jason’s supplier, who Snag didn’t know, wasn’t thrilled about his dealing to kids with nosy, stay-at-home moms, he appreciated the money he was getting from this emerging market and was upset when his income took a hit.  Jason’s supplier thought he either started taking money for himself or, more likely, business hadn’t been as good since a sophomore girl at New Briar ended up in an overdose-induced coma.  Also, Ethan wrote that Snag would get the name of Jason’s supplier for him.

It seemed prudent to continue following every lead, but I instantly grew interested in pursuing an investigation of the comatose New Briar student.  If Jason Baxter’s death was a murder, revenge seemed a better motive than greed: Disguising a murder as a suicide wouldn’t be the way a drug supplier would send a message to delinquent dealers.

I looked again at the video of the laundry room.  No change.

I reached in my backpack for Jason’s keys, got them out, and tried to account for each one.  One was the magnetized key to the main door of The Den.  That was obvious.  The other was his room key.  Another looked exactly like the numbered ones used at the student center that were carried by most club presidents, so I assumed his fraternity had a locker on the premises.  There was a car key, which might be worth trying.  And there was another on the ring that looked much older and more worn.

I asked Andy if he recognized it.

“Yeah, actually.  Where’d you get that?”

“It was on this set of keys I found.”

“We were supposed to have gotten all of those back when they changed the locks.”

“What do you mean?”

“After my freshmen year, they upgraded security here because after so long, keys get lost and duplicated, and almost everyone on campus seemed to have access to the building whenever they wanted.  There were a lot of break-ins.”

“Do you recognize this one?”

“There are a few cabinets with the old locks in the basement — near the loading dock — because nobody ever used them or the keys were accounted for.  That would be about the only place on campus worth checking if that key works.”

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