Shopping list

FICTION: SHELLY’S WORLD: The Little Shopping List Case

Although most of our clients at Charles G. King Associates are insurance companies, manufacturers or lawyers, to be honest, I should really tell you about the calls we received from people who did not have offices on Park Avenue, 54-foot yachts, or second homes in Antigua.

People like Nick, a gentle soul who had phoned from his old pal Leon’s apartment (they had had a band called “Effervescence” in high school that played weddings, bar mitzvahs and birthday parties; but now Leon was an accountant and Nick was an English teacher). The conversations looked like this:

“Hello? I’m not sure I’m calling the right number. Do you investigate fires?”

“Yes. We do.”

“Well, my name is Nick, and…uh. I got your name from a friend who’s married to a firefighter. His dad works for an insurance company, and since your office isn’t not far from my house, I thought… uh…”

“Take a deep breath, Nick, and start over.”

“Right. Alright. So I live on East 28th Street, and last Wednesday my apartment caught fire. Firefighters came to put it out. It’s uninhabitable now, so I’m staying with Leon.

“Did anyone tell you what caused the fire?”

“No. I asked the fire marshal, but he told me I had to contact the Fire Investigation Division for their report.

“Do you have rental insurance? »


“Okay, Nick. So what can I do for you?”

“I wanted to hire your company. In case my landlord says I caused the fire.

“Did are you causing the fire?

“No. Oh, my God, no!

“Do you smoke cigarettes? Cigars? A pipe? Marijuana? A hookah?

“Absolutely not. And apart from a drip coffee maker and a toaster, I don’t even cook. I live on Domino’s Pizza and Chinese takeout. But I’m afraid someone will sue me, and I wondering if you could meet me at my apartment and tell me what caused the fire.

“Nickname. What do you do for a living? Do you own your own baseball team? Do you buy and sell small countries? Is your last name Rockefeller?

“I teach English at Ft. Hamilton High School in Brooklyn.

“I thought it might be something like that. So no. We can’t meet you at your apartment, and you can’t hire us, because you can’t pay us. Do you have a notepad and a pen ?

“Wait a second,” Nick’s response was followed by a rustle of paper. So okay. I have them.”

“Good. Write this at the top of your notepad: SHOPPING LIST.”


“Excellent. Pay attention, because I am going to tell you what you need to do to protect yourself in case someone says the fire was your fault. Do you have a good camera with a flash?”

“I do.”

“Great. As soon as you can, go back to your building. Take pictures of the front door and the door to your apartment. These are your establishment shots. Now please describe me your apartment.

“Small kitchen. Living room. Bedroom and bathroom. The kitchen opens onto the living room.”

“Very good. After you have taken your establishment photos, walk into your apartment and take 360° photos of each room. By this I mean images that you can line up edge to edge to create a complete panorama. Say- me how damaged your apartment is, Nick.

“Not bad for my bedroom and bathroom, as both doors were closed. Mostly smoke.

“How lucky are you. Photograph these rooms first. And the living room?”

“Practically a mess after the fire department left. Everything is wet and covered in black soot.

“So where was the worst fire damage?” »

“In the kitchen.”

“Okay, Nick. Here’s what I want you to do. Take another round of 360 photos in the kitchen. Don’t forget the floor and ceiling. Get close-ups of the appliances on the kitchen counters. your kitchen from all angles, including pictures of the counter space under the coffee maker and toaster Be sure to get pictures of the electrical cords and outlets If you can point your camera behind the stove and refrigerator, photograph those cords and outlets as well. Are you still with me, Nick?


“Good. After taking your photos, call the fire department. Give them the date of the fire and your civic address. Ask if you can retrieve the fire incident report and the fire marshal’s report If they’re not ready yet, ask when they’ll be finished and how much they’ll cost. Ask if they can be mailed or faxed, or if you need to pick them up. Then ask if they accept cash or personal checks, or if it has to be a money order. Don’t make any assumptions. Do you always write that?

“I am.”

“Next, I want you to compose a story for your own archives. In case you need to refresh your memory later. Were you at home at the time of the fire? If not, where were you? When and how did you learn of the existence of the fire? Does anyone else have the keys to your apartment? Do you have enemies? Have you recently broken up with a girlfriend? Do your neighbors complain that you put your music too loud? Do you complain about anything to them? Are you up to date with your rent? Have you had any problems with the electrical outlets? With one of your devices? Can you think of anything I didn’t ask that might be relevant? If so, write it down. Most important of all, however, are your photos. If the landlord, their insurance company, or anyone else alters, cleans up, or destroys the scene, your photos are a permanent record of what your apartment looked like immediately after the fire. OK?”

I waited for an answer, but… nothing.

“Nickname. Are you still there?”

Finally, I heard a clearing of the throat. “I am. Yes. I… It’s… uh… I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to thank you.

“You’re right.”


“Goodbye, Nick.”

“Goodbye. And thank you again!”

So this is it. A fairly accurate account of what happened when someone who couldn’t afford to call us called Charles G. King Associates for help: he got DIY instructions on the phone and the has been successfully implemented. Or, at least, I suppose so. After more than 30 years of investigating the fires, none of our pro bono cases have come back to bite our ass.

Copyright © 2022, Shelly ReubenOriginally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY – Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus and Falcon awards. To learn more about his books, visit