Off the Shelf: D is for 'daycare'

My two private eye novels tweak some of the conventions of the genre and pose questions about the messy nature of identity and reality, but at their core, they are about crime. So I'm a crime writer, right? Then let's set the scene:

A man drives into a dead-end suburban lane. Basketball hoops in the driveways, skateboards and bikes are left on manicured lawns, wheels pointing up. Kids' stuff spreads out everywhere, lining the street, as if no one would ever steal from them.

He parks in front of the same white colonial he's been parking in front of for almost four years. He's here to pick up his daughter; the one he'll always imagine is small enough to fit in his pocket. Before he trudges up the walkway stones, someone from the neighborhood calls his name.

That someone from the neighborhood is standing next to his car, looking around, head twitching like a pigeon, afraid someone else might see that someone. That someone says, "N's been stealing money, you know. Cops have been here for weeks, watching the place. I've been trying to warn other parents."

This someone is talking about N, the person who has taken care of his daughter since she was two months old. The person who lives in the white colonial with the walkway stones is what you'd call a trusted family friend.

"N's been changing amounts on checks. You should go back and look at your checks and your bank account. Then call Detective S."

That's not a scene from my new novel. I was the young (well, mostly young) father confronted with ugly accusations about a person who was more than just a daycare provider. N was like a second Mom to our daughter Emma.

Emma had stayed at N's house from the time she was two months old until she was four, eight hours a day, five days a week (except for summers). My wife and I never liked to think about it, but during the academic year Emma spent more time with N than she did with us. As parents, we could live with it (or at least rationalize it), because Emma was happy and we had no reason not to trust N.

When Emma left the small daycare and went to preschool, we promised that she'd still be able to visit N. Last June, we decided to let her have one more week with N, a reunion of sorts. It made Emma quite happy.

Initially, I chalked up the neighbor's accusations as the ranting of a local crazy. Almost a full year had passed between my daughter's stays with N, and I assumed there was some neighborhood drama brewing that I wasn't privy to. I wanted no part of it. I wanted to run, to get as far away from the neighborhood crazy as possible. I didn't want to analyze the accusations, to see if it in any way applied to me.

I didn't run, but I nodded my head and said, "OK," in the right spots. Then I went inside that white colonial, chatted with N like nothing had happened, picked up my daughter, and drove home. My wife's reaction to the accusations was similar to mine: The neighbor was clearly nuts, mad at N for some reason. Besides, even if what the neighbor said was true, we'd have noticed money being stolen from us. Right?

After the kids were in bed and almost as an afterthought, I went through my old bank statements. I found six checks that had been changed. One hundred bucks a pop. Twos turned into threes with a pen. Both the numerals and the words. No one hacked into my computer or stole passwords or Social Security numbers. A personal check and a pen and we were out a considerable sum of money. How did we miss this? How did I miss this?

I'll tell you how. This 21st century digital boy uses online banking to pay bills and check balances. Online I can see every itemized debit card charge and every ATM withdrawal in a matter of digital seconds. Once a week I check the balances and scan all the itemized reports, looking for anything out of the ordinary, confident I'd never have anyone using my bank account without me knowing.

But I didn't check the checks, didn't balance the checkbook. We wrote so few checks as a family, and the ones we did write were to our trusted daycare provider, the person who took care of Emma for four years.

The irony was that money was being stolen from us as I was working on my second novel, "No Sleep Till Wonderland." The first novel, "The Little Sleep," was an homage to the past heroes of noir. For the second book, I focused on the present. I wanted a contemporary kind of crime to use as a springboard for the story. And what's more contemporary than identity theft/fraud?

So I researched and read newspaper accounts of data breaches, credit card and bank account fraud. I filled my head with elaborate stories about computers and stolen numbers, all while I was falling victim to a much simpler, more personal fraud.

Upon seeing that first doctored check, my stomach was simultaneously in my throat and in my shoes. I was sickened, embarrassed, furious and dreading the conversation my wife and I would have with our kids about why they couldn't see N anymore. All of that was ahead of me. But first, I had to make an 11:00 p.m. trip to the police station, photo copies and digital images of the doctored checks in hand, to talk to the detective whom the not-so-crazy neighbor told me to call. The same detective who had, in fact, been keeping our daycare provider under surveillance.

Going to the station was one of the most pride-swallowing experiences I've ever had. Followed by my experience the next day when I went to the bank to search for more forged checks. It was icy at the bank, to say the least. Each time the bank officials reminded me that I had only had 60 days to dispute a check and that I needed to balance my checkbook, I reminded them through finely gritted teeth that they had cashed six clearly forged checks without so much as a raised eyebrow.

But let's not end with my frustration, confusion and anger at the bank. Let's end back in the detective's office, where crimes go to get solved -- at least they do in novels -- and reset the scene:

Sleepy suburban police station, beginning of the third shift. The man sits hunched at the detective's cluttered desk, manila files stacked not so neatly. The man fills out his official report. His hand is a little shaky, and he sweats on the pen. He's written about a detective's office without ever having been in a real one.

The detective asks, "What do you do for work?"

"I'm a teacher and a novelist."

"Oh, yeah? What kind of novels?"

"Mystery, or crime novels, I guess." He stops there, and shrugs. He could say more, but he doesn't have to.

The detective says, "Huh."

Yeah. Huh.

Tremblay's second mystery novel, "No Sleep Till Wonderland," has just been published.

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