The Dirty Laundry Thief

This tale, The Dirty Laundry Thief, is partly fiction (crime theory, imagined but not proven, in italics) and partly fact (the author’s experience). That said, let’s get on with it.

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The dirty laundry thief glanced both ways, up and down the hallway, but she was not concerned. All of the customers had checked out but one, the man staying in room 103, and he’d left for the day. She was the only housekeeper assigned to this wing, and the front desk staff people, including management, were notoriously lazy, not likely to wander the halls. Still, caution to temper her boldness was a good thing. So Em had told her and the others, time and again.

As she’d known it would be, the coast was clear. First, she pulled the Do Not Disturb sign from the door handle and stuck it into her apron pocket. “Housekeeping!” She called out, knocking on the room door. No answer. Opening the door with her master key, she stepped inside, leaving the door wide open and her cart in the hallway. Pulling the Do Not Disturb sign from her pocket, she placed it on the carpet inside the room, face down. If she was ever challenged, which she never had been, she would simply say the sign had been on the floor like that when she came in, and that she had forgotten room 103 had requested No Housekeeping Service.

Her eyes took in everything as she moved through the room, touching nothing until she turned through the suite’s wide archway into the bedroom. Perfect. Her target rested on the floor beneath the suitcase caddy in a plastic Walmart shopping bag, well out of sight of anyone passing the open doorway to the hall.

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Despite needing rest after making the 970 mile run almost nonstop to get my wife back to her mother in law apartment at her daughter’s house near Corinne, Utah, I was up early that fine Wednesday morning. Not feeling bad at all, I was honestly looking forward to getting to work on Pam’s “Honey Do” list. Knowing it would take a full shift to conquer the five separate projects, I’d crammed down a bit of the Brigham City motel’s “free” breakfast and, reveling in the brisk nine degree winter weather, arrived at the jobsite by 8:00 a.m. Go me.

The plan was to spend the day doing what needed to be done for Pam. After that, one more night at the motel, then head back to southern Arizona whenever I felt like it in the morning. My redheaded sweetie was up and at ’em already, no surprise there as she’s always been an early riser. Despite being totally worn out the previous day, she was squared away, sitting on the couch when I came through the door she’d unlocked when she saw me pulling into the driveway.

Like a lot of working folks, I tend to tackle the ugliest jobs first in order to get them out of the way, thus preserving my sanity. Number one task today: Remove the components of the adjustable bed from her bedroom, stacking them in the living room for later consideration by Pam, then set up the Sleep Number air bed. With the huge amount of gel foam on top of the fourteen inch latex mattress and a bendable bottom piece, plus the heavy steel frame and motor, even this part was no picnic, but I got it done and sat down for a ten minute “Whew!” break. Then came the setup of the new bed, necessary because the latex had not been soft enough and hurt my honey every time she lay down on it. The new Sleep Number was a duplicate of the one she has at the Border Fort in Arizona, highly superior to anything else she’s ever tried. It also cost nearly five thousand dollars. Can you say ouch?

But it’s worth every penny. Any bed that can ease her pain is worth it.

Setting up the Sleep Number looks really straightforward, but the company instructions were compiled by a tech writer wearing rose colored glasses. Not to mention that I managed to mess up here and there, requiring extra time to fix my goofs. The plastic base/foundation is solid once assembled, but one of the long side rails–made in two pieces that snap together like high tech Legos–simply refused to lock in as solidly as it should have. It won’t be a problem functionally, but I made sure that side ended up facing the wall so Pam wouldn’t notice it if it got a bit out of whack. Then the top pieces, two halves of the deck on which everything else rests, didn’t want to line up with the tapered studs designed to receive them.

Turned out I’d ignored the “A” and “B” raised lettering at either end of the cross supports and had installed half of them backward. That was an easy fix.

The first half of the deck went on smoothly, the only glitch being that the instructions say to “push them together” and neglect the part about needing to use a piece of scrap wood for padding and a hammer to make that happen. The second half of the deck…that was another matter entirely. It refused to finish the push-together movement, hammer or no hammer. Being a brilliant tactician, I figured out how to get enough force applied all along the jutting edge to make it slide together: I backed it away from the wall on the carpet, then slid-slammed the entire deck edge against the wall. Hard.

It worked very well. Never mind that I’d apparently miscalculated and smashed the plastic face cover to the electrical outlet. Didn’t have time to run to town to hunt up a new face plate, and the outlet would be hidden anyway, so the repair was made with generous applications of Gorilla tape. Pam just smiled when I told her; she doesn’t mind that the outlet is now mostly black (tape) instead of white (cracked plastic).

One might think the hard part was over at that point, but not so fast. Next comes the cover for the air mattress. That cover is a three-layer cake, the layers connected by sturdy zippers. Starting with just the bottom “receptacle” fabric, the instructions then show the long foam side “rails” lying in the cover all nice and arrow-straight.

To which I say, HAH! Not a chance. The best you can do is stuff them in there with great bendy-bows toward the middle due to the pressure from the fabric cover. Only when the air bladder is installed and inflated will there be enough pressure to force the cover into the proper conformation. The shorter cross-rail foam pieces make it even uglier. Adding the egg crate foam (which goes below the air bladder to protect it from wear) does help some, but when the rubber air bladder is carefully laid out in its coffin–uh, poor choice of words. In its protective foam, then…well, once the rubber hose from the air pump is connected and the remote is filled with batteries and the appliance goes through its startup routine and the installer has yanked and pulled and struggled to get the whole mess into some sort of sensible shape…yes, then the worst really is over.

After that, the duvet, zipped to the bottom cover. Into the duvet (on top) goes another piece of protective egg crate foam, then the plush topper is zipped into place, and the job is done.

Oh, wait a minute. Because of the heavy little air hose being at the head of the bed and sticking out, needing about six inches to curve safely toward the pump, the bed cannot go flush against the wall. Nor can Pam survive a “headwall-less bed, nor does it have a headboard. So what to do about the gap? At home, I would simply run up to Home Depot, grab some lumber, and build a stand to take care of that, but at Corinne? No time for that.

In the end, the solution was both creative and simple. One of the big cardboard boxes in which the Sleep Number bed had been shipped–yep, I could cut that to the right height. Then, folding the 26″ x 60” piece of cardboard so that it became an accordion shape, but durable vertically, I slipped that in behind the bed, first cutting out an area to allow the air hose safe passage. Gorilla tape again, securing the cardboard to the wall. Add two layers atop the accordion cardboard (more Gorilla tape), then a big “blocking pillow” Pam used for that purpose, add one of the two huge pieces of gel foam she’d been using previously, apply bedding, and NOW the job was done.

Task Number One complete. It was exactly one p.m.; the job had taken me a full five hours. Time for a lunch break.

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Off duty, the dirty laundry thief logged out and headed for the parking lot, the stolen clothing tucked safely out of sight until her husband picked her up. Once out of sight of the motel, she pulled out her treasures to examine them more closely. “Nice looking pair of Wranglers,” her husband noted, admiring the well worn and faded but still serviceable jeans. “Em will give you ten bucks for those, I bet. Unless they will fit me?”

“They will not fit you,” she replied, her eyes laughing. “You’re too thick in the middle and too short in the leg. We would have to stuff you into these like sausage.” She was proud of her haul; for having just one room from which to requisition, this wasn’t bad. Not the best by a long shot, but the dress socks would look brand new once they were washed and ironed, as would the tee shirt. All in all, fifteen more dollars than her official paycheck would show for the day. On average, her dirty laundry acquisitions netted them an extra sixty to seventy-five dollars per week, not much but all of it tax free. And it wasn’t like her targets felt the losses; they were all rich folks who could afford to pay many dollars for a single night’s shelter.

She and her sisters in crime were doing those people a favor. Teaching them to share. Except they didn’t know they were sharing.

When the week was up, or sometimes when their money was down to nothing, they would take whatever items they had (washed and ironed, of course) to aunt Em’s used clothing store where the thief could either receive cash on the spot or put the clothes on consignment in the hopes of getting a higher payout later–if and when the items sold. It was a joke, really; nobody ever took the consignment deal. Idly, she wondered briefly just how many other housekeeper “entrepeneurs” her aunt had on her supply payroll. Their extended family was a large one; she could never keep track of them all.

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Task Number Two: Remove the heavy front door from its hinges. Two of the three pins were tight enough to require a bit of hammer-and-screwdriver application, but this job really was straightforward…I thought. The door had to come off to replace the worn out weather sweep attached to the bottom. Surprisingly, the bottom of the steel clad door did not have a “wood sandwich” into which screws could be inserted to secure the new sweep. Instead, the old sweep simply pulled away from a double track, two open grooves, one to either side of a metal strip running the length of the door.

So metal screws would be needed, and all I’d brought with me were wood screws. Any found a little plastic bowl full of junk they’d saved which, lucky for me, contained all the right-sized metal screws needed. Yay!

Remounting the door, I messed up and apparently reversed the middle and bottom hinge pins without realizing one of them–the original middle pin–must have been shorter than the other two. At least, the longer pin I hammered back down in place…knocked the bottom cap out and onto the floor. Nobody seemed to care about that, so no time was wasted to correct the error. Curiously, the rehung door “binds” a little at the hinges, so that it takes a bit of a push or pull to move it; it no longer swings freely. Pam liked that, though. “It’ll stay where I put it!”

Yep. It will certainly do that.

Next: Change out the latch and deadbolt lock, switching from a round knob to a lever handle Pam can–with her arthritic fingers–open without too much extra pain. Before, she’d reported that she couldn’t get out at all and was effectively trapped. Not good.

Task Number Three: Set up her personal safe. The biometric feature didn’t work. According to the instructions, you pick the finger or thumb you wish to use…push the red reset button (inside the safe)…then push on the blue light atop the safe until it gives out a beep and a green light. Lift finger and repeat, this time getting two beeps and a green light. A third time, same thing, and the fingerprint is programmed in place.

But the blasted beast simply would not do the job. I could get it to take my thumbprint twice, acknowledging with green lights, but never the third time–nothing but three red lights signifying EPIC FAIL. Eventually, I gave up and told my redhead she was going to have to stick to using the backup key to gain entry–after I removed the batteries, that is, because until one fingerprint was properly programmed (which it never was), ANYBODY’S finger could open the safe.

Task Number Four: Thirteen pretty brass pull knobs installed on Pam’s kitchen drawers and cabinet doors. Beautiful, easy job. Loved it (especially after all those previous snags on the earlier, tougher jobs).

Task Number Five: Mount a little two-foot-long coat rack board on the wall. Amy had mounted that board once, but had used mollies in the sheetrock instead of locating the necessary studs. I detest sheetrock and took pleasure in mounting the rack right, with sturdier two-inch screws replacing the shorter stock screws, cinching them deeply into the studs. I couldn’t resist teasing Amy just a little, though, letting her and her husband, Jorge, know, “Shucks, Amy, you only missed those studs by three inches!”

All five tasks complete. It was seven p.m. exactly; I’d put in a solid eleven hour shift (ten and a half hours if you deduct the lunch break). Time to pick up tools, say my goodbyes to Pam and Amy, grab an awesome burrito at Filiberto’s for supper, and head back to the motel.

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Em praised the dirty laundry thief, as she praised every one of her “entrepeneurs” when they brought in salable merchandise. True, a pair of Wranglers wouldn’t bring as much as, say, some of the racier lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, but Wranglers always sold well. As long as her suppliers knew better than to offer nasty men’s underwear–which nobody would buy used, as opposed to a pair of lacy women’s panties, which they would–Em was content. She had found a niche, not a get rich quick scheme but a surefire, steady source of clothing that had kept her well fed.

In certain circles, hers was the most popular used clothing store for miles around.

“Wait.” She’d felt something in the watch pocket of the jeans. “What’s this?” Extracting the key, she thrust it toward the dirty laundry thief’s face. “You did not check the pockets?”

“But I did!” The thief was shocked and more than a little frightened. Yes, she had checked the other pockets, but had never thought to check the little watch pocket. Who carried anything there these days?

Getting hold of herself, Em continued in a calmer voice. “You realize what this means. The odds are that the man who lost this will not realize it until much later, but if he does…”

They both understood. No one reported dirty laundry missing, but a key was another matter entirely.

“Well,” her mentor decided, reassuring the larcenous housekeeper as best she could, “we can only wait and see. If he does not report this before he checks out of the motel, he will not likely report it at all. But be ready, little one. Be prepared. If when you go in tomorrow, they tell you to be on the lookout for these things, you must not show your shock as it shows on your face now.”

The dirty laundry thief left Em’s clothing store in a daze. Yes, she must prepare herself. She was not a bad liar when it was necessary, but she was not natural at it, either. At least she would not be caught off guard.

But she was quite sure she would not sleep well this night, if at all.

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Coming in from the cold at around 8:30 p.m., I opened the room door before it hit me. The Do Not Disturb sign was lying face down on the floor, about one foot inside and one foot to the left of the doorway.

All my senses flashed to Red Alert. It meant nothing that I’d never before found evidence of someone entering a motel room who wasn’t authorized to be there; my nature is combat oriented at its core and always has been. There was no feeling of anyone still being there, but….

Letting the door swing closed on its own, I moved farther into the room, eyes sweeping for anything out of place. Almost immediately, I realized my dirty jeans were not draped over the chair where I’d left them the night before, but perhaps I’d stuffed them into the Walmart bag prior to leaving for Pam’s? Once a cursory examination of the suite confirmed that there were no obvious monsters currently in residence, I knelt to check the bag.

No jeans.

Could my count be off? I remembered changing jeans, but had I actually gotten around to doing that? Just in case, I checked the suitcase, knowing I’d brought two pairs of clean Wranglers with me. If I had changed pants, there would be only one clean pair remaining.

There was only one.

We had a dirty laundry thief.

Eventually, having turned it over in my mind and searched the same places enough times to be certifiably insane–the definition of insanity being that of doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result–I visited the night clerk at the front desk and explained the situation.

She was incredulous. “Who would steal dirty laundry?”

I shrugged. “A larcenous housekeeper who noticed the jeans would fit her husband, maybe? Or an alien might have taken over my mind for a bit this morning, so that I moved them without knowing it. Got me.” I finished by humming the theme from The Twilight Zone. “I’m not expecting reimbursement, not making a claim, but figured management needed to know so that if they have a problem employee, they can deal with it sooner rather than later.”

Incredulous or not, the clerk was also conscientious, heading down to check the lost and found area in Housekeeping, just in case. Clearly, finding the jeans was about as likely as finding a rich vein of gold in your back yard, but she tried.

Later that night, the theory came together in my pondering brain. What if the dirty laundry thief was part of organized crime–okay, not big time Mafia stuff, but maybe a small family oriented enterprise, fencing the goods through a used clothing store owned by one of them? That could even make sense. It was a nearly foolproof concept, “nearly” being the operative word here. What if Spirit had decided to use me to uncover the scheme, subtly “helping” me to forget to transfer the key from one pair of jeans to the other? I wouldn’t have reported the theft, either, had not the key been involved.

Intrigued, I got out of bed to check the dirty laundry Walmart bag one more time. Was anything missing other than the Wranglers? Turned out the answer was yes. The previous day’s tee shirt was gone, as were the socks. All that remained were the western shirt, perhaps too fancy and too likely to be identified and thus left alone, and the shorts. Of course the shorts; who’d buy a guy’s used crotch wear? Ew-w-w!

This settled my mind, more or less. From that point forward, I slept well.

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The dirty laundry thief did not sleep well. She had tossed and turned until the morning dawned, except that the morning did not dawn. It was snowing outside and heavily overcast. The roads would be terribly slick, the visibility poor, and the outside thermometer read seven degrees above zero. She would have to go to work nonetheless. She dreaded this day.

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I greeted the day with deep pleasure. Never mind the “slow and dangerous road” challenge; the GMC hit the freeway at 7:00 a.m. and we were headed home to southern Arizona, the truck and I. Each mile might be slow going for a while, but every mile took me in the right direction, and I was getting an early start.

Sunshine or no, it was a zippety-doo-dah day.

By seven thirty, the traffic in all lanes was down to ten miles per hour. With footing slick enough to turn anything lacking studded snow tires into a sled, I kept to the middle lane, left plenty of room between me and the next vehicle ahead of me, and relaxed. Called Amy and told her about the key. “I left a letter for you but no key…if the worst scenario happens and the batteries fail for the combination (on Pam’s safe housing her medications), I’m sure Jorge knows how to reverse the blade on his Skilsaw and cut through a side. And we’ll just go buy a new safe if that happens.”

Amy was cool with that.

Pam next. Not much surprises Pam, any more than it does me. Lots of things stress her, though, and my goal in the conversation was to reassure her that she would not lack medications if worst came to worst. For her part, my wife informed me that she was really beaten up badly from the 970 mile run north. She couldn’t do that any more; she would have to fly. With escort, of course; I assured her that if she were to attempt a commercial flight without an escort in her present state of health, Amy and I would both have cardiac arrests. She understood, even chuckled a little.

The first sixty miles, down through Salt Lake City from Brigham City, took two and one half hours to cover. Slow going indeed. But then road conditions began to improve dramatically. Things were looking good, and I was heading home, though I did wonder from time to time how the dirty laundry thief was doing.

After all, I’d also visited with the day clerk before leaving the motel, adding the socks and tee shirt to the list of missing items and telling her, “I believe you have a pro in housekeeping.” She decided to update the Head of Housekeeping regarding the addition of missing socks and missing tee shirt to the list, just so her staff could keep an eye out. In other words, she’d just told the Head Fox that the farmer had reported some missing Chickens, so the perpetrator would now be warned. I also informed the clerk that I would be writing this post, followed by a letter to the top management of that motel (not located in Brigham City), though I would not be naming the motel. It is, after all, our favorite motel in all of Utah. Between reaching good road conditions and enjoying the new refurbished radio in the truck, I was having a great day.

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The dirty laundry thief was having a lousy day. Housekeeping had been given the word: The customer who’d stayed two nights in room 103 had reported missing laundry and, most importantly, the key to his disabled wife’s safe housing her medications. The thief struggled through a multitude of emotions, none of them positive. Overwhelming fear of being caught ranked highest, but guilt ran a close second. She had never once thought of her dirty laundry acquisitions as being harmful to anyone, but messing up a sick person’s meds was not a good thing in anybody’s book.

It was hard, this shift. Very hard. Every cell in her body ached to turn in her resignation and get out of there, away from the place where they might accuse her of what she had in fact been doing. Em advised strongly against cutting and running; it might look suspicious, and it would also be better to wait until she could be sure of a favorable recommendation from this employer before seeking out the next one.

What her future held, she no longer knew. She doubted, however, that it was going to turn out all roses and sunshine. Just get through this day, she told herself again and again. If she could do that, her days off were coming up. Finishing up one room, she moved on to the next, which happened to be room 103. Dully, blocking her emotions as best she could, she began cleaning and straightening and–what? The man who’d reported his laundry stolen along with a key, he had left a tip for housekeeping, one edge tucked under the phone on the nightstand to keep it in place. Not just any tip, either, but a $20 bill.

What did this mean? She could make no sense of it. She did, however, tuck the twenty safely away without hesitation.