THE WORST DETECTIVE STORY EVER WRITTEN (POSSIBLY)
Author to remain anonymous
Robbie Roberts was having a hard time staying awake and he wasn’t sure why. Could have been the coffee that he didn’t get to drink because he spilled it on his pants. Could have been that his wife had her boyfriend over again so he had to sleep on the couch, and he never slept well on the couch. Could have been the change to daylight savings time a few months earlier. Every year it seemed like his body was just becoming acclimated to the change in time when the time would change again and he’d find his sleep patterns all screwed up again. He’d petitioned the governor to see if he could get an exemption from the biannual time change, but had not heard back. Whatever the reason, he just couldn’t keep his eyes open, which was never a good thing when you were driving.
Now, under normal circumstances, a tired driver would pull over at a wayside rest or a bar and grab some coffee or a beer and maybe a few minutes of shut-eye. But these were not normal circumstances. Far from it. The large refrigerated cargo van Roberts was driving carried perhaps the most precious cargo in Minnesota. Nightcrawlers. Thousands of nightcrawlers. All destined for bait shops across central and northern Minnesota to be sold for fishing opener in four days’ time.
Roberts was well aware of the great responsibility on his shoulders. Like most young boys in Minnesota, he had been forced to miss school to go fishing on fishing opener weekend. His father had made him get up before dawn. On nice days the temperature hovered around freezing, the wind blowing, often pushing cold rain or snow in his face as he struggled to keep warm. No food or drink was allowed until a fish was caught using what his dad called the ‘magic bait’ – the nightcrawler. His father, like many in the state, regarded the nightcrawler as sacred. He often kissed the worms before he put them on the hook, certain the show of affection would bring good luck.
Nearly a dozen miles of Highway 10 between Rogers and Elk River had been driven by Roberts while he dozed, the road mostly straight, but he woke when he clipped a road sign and knew something would have to be done. Roberts saw the sign for Lester Road, and turned right. He had taken Lester before when he had stopped in a bar on his way to his AA meeting and needed to make up some time. The road was only posted at fifty, but he assumed that was just a guideline since he could easily do seventy.
It was still two hours before dawn, Roberts staying mostly on the road. He looked at the clock on his dash and thought he may have made up enough time to pull over for a snooze when he noticed the headlights approaching in his rearview mirror. As the vehicle closed the distance between them it flashed its lights. Roberts thought it might be a police car having trouble with its flashing lights or perhaps his wife trying to catch him and give him the lunch he had made for the trip but left on the counter at home, but he wasn’t sure. The lights continued to flash; the vehicle directly behind him now. Roberts decided he better pull over.
Roberts slowed and pulled off on the shoulder, the gravel crunching under his tires. The trailing vehicle did the same, coming to a stop roughly five feet behind. Its lights went out. Roberts looked into his sideview mirror, trying to understand what was happening, seeing only darkness. He was wracking his brain for an answer when suddenly a light popped on. He thought he might have a reason for what was happening but quickly realized it was only the malfunctioning cab light that was on. He turned it off.
Roberts remained sitting, lost in thought, a place he had been lost many times before, when a smile suddenly crossed his face. He knew. Nightcrawlers. Whoever was behind him wanted nightcrawlers. They had likely seen the sign on the back of the truck - “I’ve Got Worms” – and wanted some bait. It had happened before a few times. Anxious anglers wanting the freshest worms they could get.
The sound of closing doors on the vehicle behind alerted Roberts that the occupants had gotten out. A moment later a dark figure appeared at Roberts’ window, knocking on the glass. Roberts was surprised to see the man wearing a stocking cap pulled over his face. It wasn’t that cold, especially when you used the heater in the vehicle. Maybe theirs was broken. Roberts rolled down the window. “I’m sorry, but I can’t sell you any crawlers from the truck. You’ll have to go to a bait store.”
A gun poked through the window and the man in the mask said, “Get out.”
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time.”
The voice was deep and sounded angry so Roberts thought it best he do as the man said. He climbed from the van, the man backing away to allow him to exit. “Listen. I’m really sorry about this, but my boss has made it pretty clear there will be no sales from the truck. I’d like to make an exception but…”
The man poked Roberts in the chest with the gun. “Quiet! Move to the front of the van.”
Roberts did as he was told, the man in the mask prodding him with the gun in his back.
“Take off your pants.”
Roberts turned to face the man. “Now just a minute here. I don’t know who you are, but I’m not that kind of guy. My cousin Bob likes this kind of stuff, and I guess that’s fine for him, but I…”
“Take them off!”
Roberts figured he had no choice and seeing how he didn’t even know the man, he felt a little embarrassed as he unzipped his trousers and pulled them down. It was then that he realized he had his boots on and the pants would never go over the boots, so he had to bend over and untie the boots to take them off, all the time watching to see the guy with the gun didn’t come up behind him and try something his cousin might like. He finally managed to step out of his boots and slacks.
“Give me your pants.”
Roberts was trying to size up the guy in the dark, which wasn’t easy, but from what he could make out the guy was bigger than him. “These are never going to fit you.”
“Shut up,” said the man. “Go stand in the ditch.”
Roberts turned to look in that direction, but it was impossible to see how deep the ditch might be. “Can I at least put my boots back on?”
“Move!” The man poked him roughly with his gun again.
It was spring in Minnesota. Many ditches had water from the recently melted snow pack running through them, this one being no exception. Roberts moved cautiously off the gravel shoulder, feeling the incline going down to the ditch. He took two steps down, hit a muddy spot, and ended up on his butt. As Roberts sat, considering his next move, his truck and the vehicle behind roared to life and drove away.
The sound again. Buzzing. Insistent. And then it was gone. Sheriff Harry Ball lay in bed, eyes half open, thinking he recognized the sound that had been bothering him off and on for the last hour. And then it happened again.
“Guess I’m not going to get to sleep to noon today.” Ball sat up, swung his legs out on the floor, and looked to his right. His phone flashed in time to the buzzing. “Hello?”
“Sheriff?” A woman’s voice.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“Park her where?”
“Sergeant Parker, sir. From the Becker police.”
Ball sat silent, thinking. “Oh, yes. Sergeant Parker. I forgot women are being allowed on the police, now.”
“I’ve worked for you for six years, sir, and women have been in law enforcement for…”
“Whatever. What did you want?”
“We found a man walking down Lester Road in his underwear.”
“My God. When is this stuff going to stop. Don’t people think we have better things to do than chase them around in their underwear?”
“He had been robbed sir.”
“Yes, sir. Someone took his pants and his truck.”
“Are you sure he hasn’t been drinking? I mean, why would someone who took his pants need his truck too?”
“Not sure sir, but the truck that was stolen was no ordinary truck. It was full of nightcrawlers for fishing opener.”
Ball sat stunned, trying to absorb the enormity of the news. “The whole truck was stolen?”
This was much worse than he had imagined. “I’ll be in as soon as I can.”
An hour later, Ball’s six-foot frame filled the doorway of the Becker police department conference room. His thick brown hair, still damp from his shower, had been finger-combed.
Lacey Parker, sitting at the oval table in the room, swiveled in the direction of the door. “Sheriff. Your…”
“I know. I couldn’t find my comb. Why someone would break into my bathroom and steal my comb, I’ll never know.”
“It’s in your front shirt pocket, sir.”
Ball looked down to see the comb. “So it is. Good job with that observation test, sergeant.” Ball removed it from his pocket and ran it through his hair.
“No buts, sergeant,” said Ball. “Except maybe his.” Ball pointed to Roberts who stood on the opposite side of the table at the dry-erase board drawing something. “My God. Who is that and why has he pooped in his underwear?”
“That is Mr. Roberts, sir. He is the one I called you about. The man who had his truck stolen.”
“And his pants.”
“It’s all coming back to me now,” said Ball.
“I asked Mr. Roberts to draw a picture of the robbery scene,” said Parker.
Ball stared at the picture on the board. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the man who robbed Mr. Roberts looked just like him.”
“He hasn’t gotten around to drawing a picture of the robber yet,” said Parker.
“I see. Carry on Mr. Roberts.”
Two hours later, the drawing was complete.
“So, the man who robbed you had a mask and it was really too dark to have any idea what he really looked like?”
“Yes, sheriff,” replied Roberts as he sat at the table.
“Interesting. And had you seen this man before?”
Ball looked at Roberts before glancing at Parker. “All right. I need to ask you some rather personal questions now, Mr. Roberts. What size pants do you wear?”
“And what color were the pants that were stolen?”
Ball blew out a breath and looked at Parker. “Damn, this could be tough. There are probably a lot of men with that size. It’s even my size. And the pants I’m wearing right now are khaki.” Ball glanced down at his lap to see his fly was open, hurriedly zipping it up. He looked at Parker again. “You could have said something, Parker.”
“I tried, sir.”
“Well, when it comes to my crotch, you’re going to have to try a little harder.”
Ball turned back to Roberts. “Do you have a picture of the truck that was stolen?”
“Not even on your phone? Everybody takes pictures of their trucks with their phone. I’ve got several of mine.” Ball pulled out his phone and found the images of his truck, showing them to Roberts as he leaned over the table.
“Nice pictures, sheriff.”
“So, how are we supposed to find something when we don’t even know what it looks like?”
“It was a 2019 Ford Econoline 250. White with our slogan on the back and sides in red. I’ve got worms.”
“Sorry to hear that, Mr. Roberts. And what is the slogan on the truck?”
“I’ve got worms.”
“I understand you have a health problem, Mr. Roberts,” said the sheriff. “But if we are going to find this truck, we need to know the slogan.”
“I’ve got worms.”
Ball stood, his face red. “Listen, Roberts. Either you tell us the slogan or…”
“Sir,” said Parker. “The slogan is “I’ve got worms” sir.”
“I’ve got worms is the slogan on the side of the truck, sir.”
Ball looked down at Parker and sat. “Now we’re getting somewhere. This truck should be much easier to find than his pants.”
Just then the door to the conference room burst open, the on-duty officer leaning his head in the room. “Sheriff! The governor is on the phone for you.”
Ball stood and said, “I’ll take it in my office,” before turning to Parker. “And get him some clean underwear.”
Ten minutes later Ball was back in the conference room to find Roberts drawing more pictures on the board. He had traded his tidy-whities for light blue boxers with small red hearts. Ball pointed at Roberts and said, “I have boxers just like that.”
“Those are yours, sir,” said Parker. “You left them at my apartment last week.”
“Right. Well, we need to find this truck and we need to find it now. The governor says it contains the nightcrawler supply for the northern two-thirds of the state for fishing opener and that he will have no choice but to cancel the opener or have everyone use minnows for bait if the truck isn’t found. He’s afraid it could ruin any chance he has to be re-elected.”
Ball and Parker, with Roberts in the back seat of the squad, took the car to the scene of the crime. The trio stood by the side of Lester Road, heads down, looking at the tire tracks in the gravel.
“This is where I pulled over,” said Roberts, still in Ball’s boxers. He walked close to the ditch and pointed. “And that’s where I slid down in the ditch.”
“So, it wasn’t poop,” said Ball as he looked at the mud trail.
“No, sir. I don’t do that anymore.”
“Glad to hear it.” Ball looked Roberts in the eye. “Is there anything else you remember about the man who stole your truck? Anything at all?”
Roberts looked down at his boots. “The only thing I remember was his breath. It smelled a lot like the pasta I had for dinner last night.”
“Interesting. Anything else?”
“Well, you know, his voice was kind of familiar.”
“Familiar, how? Like you’d heard it on television? Maybe that new show on Amazon with Al Pacino. Do you think it was Al Pacino?”
“Boy, I don’t know. Could have been I guess, but it sounded more like my wife’s boyfriend to me.”
Ball looked at Parker. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That his wife’s boyfriend sounds like Al Pacino?”
“Actually, sir. I was thinking the man who stole the truck could be his wife’s boyfriend.”
“That’s a hell of a leap, Parker, but I like it,” said Ball. He turned to Roberts. “Do you know where we might find this boyfriend?”
“He was at my house when I left this morning.”
“Great! Let’s go, Parker.” The officers climbed into the squad, Ball leaning out the window. “What’s your address, Roberts?” The man recited his address for Ball, Ball turning to Parker and saying, “Got that sergeant?”
Ball said, “Thanks Mr. Roberts. You’ve been a great help,” and spun his tires in the gravel as he pulled away.
It was a fifteen-minute drive to Roberts’ home except for the stop at Bernie’s Bar where Ball and Parker each had the patty melt with cheese and shared a pitcher of beer. By the time they arrived at Roberts’ house, the sun was setting, both of the officers a little groggy from the beer and their big meal.
Ball parked in the gravel driveway behind a white van that said ‘I’ve Got Worms’ across the back. He stared out the windshield and then looked over at Parker. Ball yawned. “Maybe we should do this tomorrow? I’m awfully tired.”
“I don’t know, sir. The governor seemed pretty set on getting this wrapped up as soon as possible.”
Ball turned his attention back to the truck and sighed. “I guess. Okay, let me take the lead on this. We don’t want to scare them off.”
Ball and Parker got out of the car, walking to the front door of the modest rambler, and knocking on the door. A woman with poufy red hair, almond-shaped blue eyes, and ears that were hidden under her hair, opened the door. A real stunner.
“Can I help you?”
“Are you Mrs. Roberts?” asked Parker.
“I am. What is this about? Has there been an accident?”
“Well, yes,” said Ball. “There has been an accident up on ten. How did you know?”
“I didn’t. I mean…”
“We’d like to ask you a few questions, Mrs. Roberts,” said Parker. “Do you mind if we come in?”
The woman looked behind her and said in a loud voice, “The police are coming in.”
Parker and Ball glanced at each other before entering the house, following Roberts down a short hall and into a living room straight out of the seventies. Shag carpet, orange fabric chairs and sofa, boxy television with a bunny ears on top.
Ball looked around then shouted, “Nice place! Looks a lot like mine!”
“You don’t need to shout,” said Roberts.
Ball glanced at Parker again with a confused look before both of them sat on the sofa.
“Won’t you have a seat?” said Roberts. “Can I get you anything?”
“What do you have?” asked Ball. “I’d love some chocolate ice-cream if you have some. We didn’t have time for dessert.”
“Sorry. No.” Roberts sat opposite the officers. “What is it you want? I’m very busy.”
“Busy doing what?” asked Parker.
“I hadn’t decided yet.”
“I see,” said Parker.
Ball glanced at Parker and then looked at Roberts. “I’ll get right to the point, Mrs. Roberts. Your husband was robbed this morning and we are trying to find out who did it.”
“My God! Is he all right?”
“Apart from his underwear, he seems fine. But the truck he was driving has been stolen.”
“Robbie drives all kinds of trucks. Usually he drives an armored van for the banks in the area. Did the thieves get a large amount of money?”
“Something much more valuable, I’m afraid,” said Ball. “The supply of nightcrawlers for fishing opener. Who is to say how much that might be worth?”
“I’d say roughly thirty thousand,” said Roberts. “Of course, that value would increase exponentially the closer you get to fishing opener. Fishermen would pay just about anything to get their hands on nightcrawlers for opener.”
“You’re probably right,” said Ball. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about bait would you?”
Before she could answer a man about Ball’s height and build walked into the room, beer in hand. “What’s going on, honey?”
Ball stood and walked up to the man, holding out his hand. “Sheriff Ball. And who might you be?”
“Um, I just stopped over to help Mrs. Roberts with her plumbing,” said the man. “I’m her neighbor, Bill Johnson. People call me ‘Big’.”
“Big Johnson,” said Ball. “And who calls you that?”
Johnson smiled and squeezed Roberts hand. “Some people.”
Ball stepped back, sniffing, a sour look on his face. “You know, Mrs. Roberts, I’m still a little hungry. You wouldn’t happen to have any pasta, would you?”
Roberts stood. “I made some for dinner last night. There’s leftovers in the refrigerator. I’ll just go heat some up for you.”
“How often do you help Mrs. Roberts with her plumbing, Mr. Johnson?” asked Ball after she left.
“As often as I can.”
Ball narrowed his eyes. “Are you any good?”
“She seems pretty happy with me.”
“Huh. Well, I’ve been having trouble with a leaky faucet and…”
Just then Roberts returned with the pasta on a plate. Ball breathed in the aroma and then took a bite. And then another. “This is excellent.”
Ball quickly finished the pasta and returned the plate to the woman. “Well, I guess that’s about all we have for now…”
Before he could finish, the front door burst open, Robbie Roberts rushing in. His face and bare legs were red. He was breathing hard. He looked at the scene in front of him, finally focusing on Johnson, pointing at the man. “Those are my pants!”
“Where did you get those boxers, Robbie?” asked his wife.
“They’re his,” said Robbie, pointing at the sheriff.
Ball raised his hands in the air. “Hold on there. It was nothing like you may be thinking. His underwear got all poopy so Sergeant Parker here gave him a pair of mine.”
“Oh, Robbie,” said his wife. “I thought you were done with that.”
“I am. It was only mud.”
Everyone was silent for a moment, Ball finally saying, “All right, then. I guess we’ll be on our way.”
“Wait a minute,” said Mr. Roberts. “Aren’t you going to arrest them? Johnson has on my pants and he obviously drove the worm truck here and she drove the car that they used to pull me over. You’ll find the gravel on her shoes in the tray by the front door matches the gravel from the side of the road where they took my truck.”
Ball looked at the others. “Just wanted to see if you noticed everything we did Mr. Roberts. Thanks for your help.” He glanced at Parker. “Cuff them, Sergeant.”
Later that evening, Parker and Ball lay naked on their backs in her bed.
“The governor was pretty happy to hear we found the worms,” said Ball. “He said he didn’t think it would help him catch any fish, but he’d use them anyway so people could see he was a real Minnesotan.”
“I thought he was raised in New York?”
“Huh. You know, his accent did seem a little funny.” Ball took a drag on a joint and handed it to Parker. “I happened to notice some tidy-whities in your drawer. I only wear boxers.”
“Must have been from Big Johnson’s brother, Hardy. Probably left them here when he was working on my plumbing.”