DIANE

 

Diane was not just any housekeeper.  She worked for us for years; she happily babysat for our kids; she brought her kids’ hand-me-downs to us.  It would be an exaggeration, and a cliché, to say Diane was “a member of the family.”  But her Bronx-inflected greeting every Monday morning was part of our household routine, followed by her guiding of our vacuum and her wrestling with our laundry. Therefore, it was particularly shocking when a wad of several thousand dollars hidden transparently in a bedroom drawer disappeared, the same week Diane quit via phone message.

We left return messages for several days before Diane finally picked up.

“What happened?” asked my wife.

“Oh,” said Diane.  “I broke my leg in a skiing accident, so I won’t be working anymore.”

That response was not credible.  If Diane had said she injured a shoulder while bowling, or twisted a knee food-shopping, such things would have sounded improbable, but within the realm of possibility.  As to her skiing, it would be more plausible for me to say I was injured driving the lunar module.

Diane was not an athlete.  She was an overweight forty-something woman whose condition made her look much older.  Our already simmering level of suspicion boiled over.

“Is there anything else you want to tell us, Diane?” asked my wife.

Silence.

“Diane?”

“I can’t work for you anymore,” she said.

“Really?  After five years, that’s all you are going to say?”

“Un-hunh,” said Diane.  “My leg is in a full cast.”

The final embellishment sent us to the phone book in search of a private detective.  We had never looked in that section of the directory before but there were a surprising number of entries.  Most offered divorce-related services known as “infidelity surveillance.”  Several touted “low fees” and one offered “free advice.”

“Which one do we pick?” I asked.

“Free advice is a good place to start,” said my wife.

“You should probably call,” I said.

“Why should I call?  You’re a lawyer,” said my wife.

“But you are better at this sort of thing,” I said, reflexively adopting my default position of learned helplessness.  “Plus, he’s probably used to dealing with women, you know, checking up on their husbands.”

Like Diane, I’d embellished too far.

“That’s it,” said my wife.  “You’re handling this.”

I took the phone with husbandly resignation and dialed.  Though the address was local, the call was to an 800 number to assure, the ad promised, it would not show on our phone bill.  I expected someone who sounded like Humphrey Bogart to answer but, instead, a cheery female voice said:  “Detection services, how may I help you?”

“Um, I think I need to have a woman followed and photographed.”

“Is it your wife?”

“Oh, no.”

“Is she someone else’s wife?”

“Yes, she is, but, um, but that’s not why I’m calling.”

“Okay.  Why do you need to have her followed?”

“Our housekeeper has, we think, taken some cash from us and she says she can’t work because her leg is broken.  We suspect it may not really be broken because she’s not really the skiing type.”

“How much are you missing?”

“I’m embarrassed to say it is about $4,000.  It was in my bureau.”

“That’s a lot of cash to have lying around.  What sort of business are you in?”

“Is that relevant?” I asked.

“Not really,” said the woman.  “I just asked out of professional curiosity.”

“That’s good,” I said.  “I mean, there’s nothing improper about my business, but it is good you are curious, I guess.”

I was starting to feel uncomfortable.  Why did we keep so much cash around?  Some of my clients paid with cash; we simply liked to use it instead of credit cards.  Still, the sock drawer was not a good idea.  I resolved at that moment to buy a safe.  After all, if Diane had just taken $100 here and there, throughout the years, we would never have noticed.

Meanwhile, I described Diane, provided her address to the detective, and agreed to pay $250 for a day’s stake-out and photographs.  It only took two days for her to call back.

“The subject definitely does not have a broken leg,” reported the detective.

“Terrific,” I said.

“She shops a lot.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said.  “She just came into a lot of cash.”

“That’s not all,” said the detective.  “She changes outfits throughout the day and wears several wigs.”

“Hunh?”

“It looks like she is doing surveillance on her husband.  She follows him around town.”

“That’s interesting,” I said.  “It’s all news to me, so what do I do now?”

“You can charge her with theft.  Just call the police, and they will confront her with the pictures I took.”

The concept of Diane tailing her husband in a series of wigs was laughable.  But the idea of her on-going buying binge with my cash was not.  When I called, the police were businesslike, but also intrigued with my cache of cash.

“What line of work are you in?” asked the officer over the telephone.

“Some of my clients pay with cash,” I said, resigned.  “We’ve just been too busy to get to the bank.”

“Nice problem,” he said.  “Do you keep a gun?  A lot of divorce lawyers keep guns.”

“No,” I said.  “I do not have a gun.  I am a real estate lawyer; it hasn’t gotten that bad, yet.”

“Okay,” he said, sounding skeptical.  “We will have a talk with your housekeeper and see what she has to say.”

The next day, a young officer appeared at my door.  He handed me a thick envelope.

“Here’s your $4,000,” he said.

“Wow, how did you get it back?” I asked, impressed and relieved.

“We sat down with the perpetrator and told her what jail would be like.  We told her if she gave the money back right away, we’d consult with you, but perhaps you wouldn’t prosecute.  It didn’t take long.”

“She still had $4,000 right there?” I asked.  “She’s been on a shopping spree.”  It occurred to me with a sinking feeling that we might have underestimated how much Diane had found in the drawer.

“She had it, alright,” he said.  “Are you willing to drop the matter?”

“Did she say anything else?”

“Just that her life’s been crazy lately, and she thinks her husband is cheating on her.  So she bought new outfits and wigs.  I’m not sure if that’s so she could follow him around undetected or if that’s so she could impress him.”

While I pondered both improbable possibilities, he continued:  “I don’t think just a new outfit or hair style is gonna do the trick.  She’s no beauty.  But, hey, you never know.  Some guys, y’know, have different tastes.  So, are you satisfied?”

“Oh, yes, officer.  Thank you so much.  We won’t prosecute her.  This is definitely a lesson learned, perhaps several.  Great work.”

“Excellent,” he said.  Before he left, he handed me an envelope addressed to the Policeman’s Benevolent Association.  “I’m sure you’ll remember what we did.”

I thought about poor Diane, and how desperate she must have been to have done something so awful.  For a moment, I felt sympathy for her.  But then I pictured her promptly retrieving $4,000 and wondered how much more I may have contributed to her throughout the years.  I was careless and she was a crook — a regrettable combination.

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