Tilting At Windmills: The Case Of The Small Shopping List
Published: May 27th, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Case of the Small Shopping List

Although most of our clients at Charles G. King Associates were insurance companies, manufactures, or attorneys, to keep myself honest, I really should tell you about the calls we got from individuals who didn’t have offices on Park Avenue, 54 foot yachts, or second homes in Antigua.

People like Nick, a sweet soul who had telephoned from the apartment of his old buddy Leon (they’d had a band called “Effervescence” in high school that played weddings, bar mitzvahs, and anniversaries; but now Leon was an accountant and Nick was an English teacher). The conversations went something 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 ... um. I got your name from a friend who’s married to a fireman. His father works for an insurance company, and since your office isn’t far from me, I thought ... um...”

“Take a deep breath, Nick, and start from the beginning.”

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“Right. Okay. So I live on East 28th Street, and last Wednesday, my apartment went on fire. The fire department came and 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 said I had to contact the Division of Fire Investigation for his report.”

“Do you have renter’s insurance?”


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

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

“Did you cause the fire?”

“No. Oh, God, no!”

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

“Absolutely not. And other than a drip coffeemaker and a toaster, I don’t even cook. I live on Domino Pizza and Chinese take-out. But I’m afraid that someone is going to sue me, and I was wondering if you could meet me at my apartment, and tell me what caused the fire.”

“Nick. 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.”

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“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 afford us. Do you have a pad of paper and a pen?”

“Wait a second,” Nick’s response was followed by the rustle of paper. Then, “Okay. Got ‘em.”

“Fine. Write this at the top of your pad: SHOPPING LIST.”


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

“I do.”

“Great. As soon as you can, return to your building. Take photos of the entrance door, and the door to your apartment. Those are your establishing shots. Now, please describe your apartment for me.”

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

“Very good. After you’ve taken your establishing shots, go inside your apartment and take 360º degree photographs of each rooms. By which I mean pictures that you’ll be able to line up edge-to-edge to create a comprehensive panorama. Tell me how bad the damage is to your apartment, Nick.”

“Not bad to my bedroom and bathroom, because both doors were closed. Mostly smoke.”

“Lucky you. Photograph those rooms first. What about the living room?”

“Pretty much a mess after the firemen left. Everything is wet and covered with black soot.”

“So the worst fire damage was where?”

“In the kitchen.”

“Okay, Nick. Here’s what I want you to do. Take another set of 360º degree photographs in the kitchen. Don’t forget floor and ceiling. Get close ups of the appliances on your kitchen counters from all angles, including pictures of the counter space under the coffeemaker and toaster. Make sure you get shots of the electric cords and the outlets. If you can angle your camera behind the stove and refrigerator, photograph those cords and outlets, too. Are you still with me, Nick?”


“Good. After you’ve taken your photos, call fire department headquarters. Give them the date of the fire and your street address. Ask if you can pick up the fire incident report and the fire marshal report. If they aren’t ready yet, ask when they’ll be done, and how much they will cost you. Ask if they can be mailed or faxed, or if you have to pick them up. Then ask if they accept cash or personal checks, or if it has to be a money order. Make no assumptions. Are you still writing this down?”

“I am.”

“Next, I want you to compose a narrative for your own records. In case you have to jog your memory later. Were you home at the time of the fire? If not, where were you? When and how did you learn about the fire? Does anyone else have keys to your apartment? Do you have any enemies? Have you recently broken up with a girlfriend? Do your neighbors complain that you play your music too loud? Do you complain to them about anything? Are you up-to-date with your rent? Have you experienced any problems with electrical outlets? With any of your appliances? Can you think of anything I haven’t asked that might be relevant? If so, write it down. Most important of all, though, are your pictures. If the landlord, his 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. Okay?”

I waited for a response, but ... nothing.

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“Nick. Are you still there?”

Finally, I heard a throat clearing. “I am. Yes. I ... It’s... um ... I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You just have.”


“Good bye, Nick.”

“Good bye. And thank you again!”

So there you have it. A pretty accurate account of what happened when someone who couldn’t afford us called Charles G. King Associates for help: he got DO-IT-YOURSELF instructions on the phone, and would implement them to good effect. Or, at least, I assume so. Since after 30 plus years investigating fires, never once did any of our pro bono cases come back to bite us in the ass.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com