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We Can't Take You Riding In Our Car Car

It was a dark and stormy night. Robin and I, each of us well supplied with a cat to cuddle, snuggled down into the safety and warmth of our bed while we listened to the wind and the rain howl and crash against the windows. Little did we know that outside our house, camouflaged by the shelter of the storm, a terrible crime was taking place...

The next day dawned bright and sunny. Robin's car pool partner was picking her up that morning to take her into work and so she went out bright and early, leaving me half asleep and practising my world famous impression of the meat in a cat sandwich. Porgy was asleep on my right side and Harpo was cuddled up close on my left. Robin had been gone for about two minutes when the front door opened and she came back in. Perhaps she'd forgotten something. The cats and I ignored her. If we kept quiet, maybe she'd go away again.

"Alan," she said, "the garage door is open and the car has gone."

"What!" I sat up in bed, scattering indignant cats far and wide.

"The garage door is open and the car has gone," she repeated. "I've got to go to work. Can I leave you to deal with it?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

The door closed behind her as she left again and I struggled into some clothes and went out to examine the crime scene. The garage looked empty and forlorn. I closed the door. The lock had been levered off. Broken pieces of it were scattered on the ground in front of the garage. I opened the door again. I noticed that there were shards of safety glass glittering on the garage floor. Presumably the thieves had smashed their way into the car. I closed the door and went back into the house. My next tasks were obvious; phone the police and the insurance company so as to put the investigative wheels in motion.

First the police. I opened the cupboard where we keep the telephone directories, but the white pages were missing. I vaguely recalled that Robin had recently looked up a phone number. No wonder the directory was missing -- many years ago the gigantic pile of stuff in Robin's room reached critical mass and imploded. Now her room contains a small black hole which greedily absorbs anything that wanders within its gravitational influence. Over the years we've fed it cats, clothes, casual visitors and Mormon missionaries. I knew that I would never see the telephone directory again.

Oh well, time to see what the googles had to say on the subject. I soon found a phone number for the Wellington police and I rang it.

"Police, can I help you?"

"My car has been stolen," I said.

"Just a moment, I'll transfer you."

There was a beep, beep, beep in my ears as buttons were pressed and then a new voice said, "Watch house, can I help you?"

"My car has been stolen," I said.

"Just a moment, I'll transfer you."

After a couple more transfers I finally ended up with someone who seemed able to deal with my problem. I described the broken lock on the garage door and gave the police the registration number of my car. In return they gave me an incident number to use with the insurance company. I thanked them and rang off. Now to contact the insurance people. That was easy; their phone number was printed on the policy. I rang it.

"Insurance, can I help you?"

"My car has been stolen," I said.

"Just a moment, I'll transfer you."

Again I found myself involved in a telephonic game of pass the parcel. Eventually, after speaking to several people who denied all knowledge of anything whatsoever to do with insurance policies, I finally found someone who grudgingly agreed to take my details. "There's an excess of $300 on the policy," said the insurance man. "The car itself is valued at $3,300 so taking the excess into account you'll get $3000 back on the claim. We'll need you to fill in a claim form before we can take it any further."

That's the problem with cars and insurance. The value depreciates and so when you come to replace the car you find that it's worth next to nothing. No matter what happened over the next few days, it was clear that I'd be seriously out of pocket.

About ten minutes after I finished talking to the insurance people, the phone rang.

"Hello, this is the police," said a dark blue voice. "We've found your car."

"Gosh, that's impressively quick service," I said. "It must be a world record. I only reported it stolen an hour ago."

"The car has been abandoned on Black Rock Road. Can you come and meet us there, please?"

Black Rock Road is about half a mile away.

"I'll be there in a few minutes," I told the voice.

My car was sitting by the side of the road with a police car parked on guard behind it. The car was a mess. The windscreen was completely opaque, heavily gouged and spider webbed with cracks. All the other windows were shattered, smashed to smithereens. There were glass shards all over the floor and the upholstery and the road. There were several dents and scrapes on the passenger side panels where the car had crashed into something. The lock on the driver's door had been torn out so that the door could be opened. The ignition lock had also been forced apart in order to start the car, and the broken remnants of it were dangling down at the end of the exposed wires. The ceiling light had been ripped out for no very obvious reason. There was quite a lot of blood soaked into the upholstery and there were several large bloody smears all over the outside of the driver's door. Obviously whoever had broken into the car was utterly inept and had cut themselves rather badly in the effort to break in. The engine was still running, and the petrol gauge showed that the tank was still almost full. Obviously the car had been stolen, driven about half a mile and then just trashed and abandoned. It made no sense. Why break into a locked garage to steal a car, only to abandon it almost immediately? Particularly when there were other cars parked out in the open on the road. Surely they'd have been much easier to steal?

"Can you examine the car and see if there is anything in it that doesn't belong to you?" asked the policeman.

I glanced over the wreckage.

"That screwdriver isn't mine," I said. "And neither is the small stick on the floor. The cell phone on the back seat isn't mine either."

It seemed clear to me that we weren't breeding our car thieves for intelligence. What kind of moron leaves behind the screwdriver that they used to break into the car? And as for not noticing that your cell phone has fallen out of your pocket! Words fail me.

I sat in the police car while the policeman took a statement from me.

"This has all the hallmarks of a revenge attack," he said. "Why else would they go to all the trouble of smashing their way into your garage, only to abandon your car almost immediately and trash it so severely? Have you got any enemies who would do that to you?"

"Well," I said, "one of my cats hates me, and he bites me whenever he gets the opportunity. But he has a perfect alibi. He was asleep on the bed all night. Anyway, he doesn't know how to drive a car."

"No," said the policeman. "I doubt if it was a cat who did this."

"I wrote a book review last month," I said. "I was very critical of the book. I said it was one of the worst novels I'd ever read; that the author couldn't write his way out of a wet paper bag. I was very rude about his writing competence."

"Ah! A clue!" said the policeman. "Where does the writer live?"

"America," I said.

His face fell. "No," he said, "I don't think that works either."

Neither of us could come up with any other ideas. It seemed that the motives of the morons would forever remain a mystery.

"We'll tow the car away for forensic examination," said the policeman. "We'll be able to get a good DNA analysis from all the blood he has spilled. If it matches anyone on the database, we'll soon find the little ratbag."

Soon a tow truck arrived and drove off with the wreckage. "I'll take you home," said the policeman. "I'd like to look at the garage." So I got my first ever trip in a police car. It was quite thrilling. He had his radio turned down low and an almost inaudible voice muttered mysteriously about crimes and criminals as we drove up the road.

All too soon, we arrived back at my house. We got out of the car and the policeman looked closely at the torn and mangled lock on the garage door. "They've obviously gone to a lot of trouble to force their way in," he said. He walked into the garage and looked carefully around. "Oh!" he said. "Look at this!" He was pointing to something on the floor. I went in to see what he was looking at. There were several large patches of blood on the garage floor and there, right in the middle of a puddle, was a single small footprint. The thief had been wearing trainers and the pattern of the tread was clear and sharp in the blood.

"We'll get the forensic people to look at this as well," said the policeman. "Lots of good clues here."

"This guy's lost a lot of blood," I said. "I wonder if he's had to have hospital treatment?"

"We'll certainly check that out," said the policeman.

"With any luck, he'll get a massive infection and die screaming in agony," I said.

"We can but hope," said the policeman.

Later that afternoon a forensic examiner arrived. I felt quite sorry for him. He was dressed in full police uniform with a thick anti-stab jacket covering his chest. He was sweating profusely in the hot sun and he looked enviously at the shorts and T-shirt that I was wearing.

"Now then," he said, "what have you got to show me?"

He took photographs of the broken lock and he dusted the garage door for fingerprints. "Nothing useful there," he said. "Just a lot of smudges. They must have been wearing gloves. I didn't find any useful fingerprints on the car either."

"What about the cell phone they left behind?" I asked.

"Oh that was full of clues," he said. "It had a lot of photographs of his bros waving their arms about in gangsta attitudes, and a whole heap of text messages to his mum."

"I suppose even car thieves have mothers," I mused. "I wonder what she thinks of his evening hobby?"

"Probably not much," said the forensic man. "Now where's the bloody footprint that the report mentioned?"

I took him into the garage and showed him the blood puddles. "I doubt we'll get much useful DNA from these," he said. "The floor is a bit dirty for that. But that doesn't matter; we got some lovely clean swabs from the blood in the car. I'll take a photo of the footprint though."

He stuck a small paper arrow to the garage floor. It pointed directly at the footprint so that there could be no doubt about exactly what to look at in the photograph. He put a ruled strip of paper down beside the footprint so as to give some indication of scale. Then he took the photograph and picked the pieces of paper up again. He also took a DNA swab, just in case.

"How long will it take to get the DNA results?" I asked.

"Probably about ten days," he said.

"Gosh, that's fast," I said. "I would have expected that it would take at least a month."

"Oh no," he said. "New Zealand has one of the best forensic lab services in the world. We get a very rapid turn round on results." He seemed quietly proud of that, and who could blame him?

The next few days passed in a blur. I was almost constantly on the phone with the police and the insurance company sorting out this and that detail. It seemed that there were an infinite number of i's to cross and t's to dot.

The insurance assessor confirmed that the car was a write off. It would cost far more to repair than the car itself was worth. In many ways I was pleased about that. I don't think I'd ever have felt comfortable driving it again, and I was particularly not looking forward to sitting on the upholstery that the thief had bled over so profusely. Of course I now had to buy another car and finding the money for that was not going to be easy. The slightly derisory $3000 that the insurance company was willing to pay out was merely a fraction of what I would have to pay for another set of wheels.

Since the car was being written off, I went to visit the wreck to reclaim whatever bits and pieces of my personal property might have been left behind. Interestingly, everything was still there. Even the CDs were still sitting happily in their cases. The thieves had not even bothered searching the car for valuables. My opinion of their intelligence plunged to new depths, though their motives remained, if possible, even more murky and puzzling.

The police interviewed the person who had left the cell phone behind. Naturally he denied all knowledge of the crime and, in the absence of any other evidence, they had to let him go. It isn't a crime to leave a cell phone in a stolen car. It implies a lot, but it doesn't prove anything at all. He voluntarily gave a sample for DNA testing so obviously he was quietly confident that he hadn't left any DNA behind. He wasn't the bleeder.

One week to the day after the car was stolen, Robin and I took delivery of a new (to us) Subaru Legacy. There's a button on the dashboard that, when pressed, causes a coffee cup holder to telescope out into the car. Who could possibly resist a feature like that? It was love at first sight.

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