SHELLY’S WORLD: The Case of the Bic in the Back

By Shelly Reuben
SHELLY’S WORLD:  The Case of the Bic in the Back

Every so often, someone views us through an unflattering lens, and ... Ouch. Like a sock in the jaw ... we are accused of having committed a terrible wrong.

Charlie and I once investigated a case (all names changed) where such an accusation was made. Not against us, but against one of our favorite clients: Courtland Motors.

First, let me tell what kinds of fire investigations we did at Charles G. King Associates.

INSURANCE. These kept us busy right from the start. When a policyholder put in a claim after a fire in a house, business, or vehicle, a rep from the SIU (Special Investigations Unit) would call us in to determine if the fire had been incendiary or accidental before deciding to pay or deny the claim.

MANUFACTURERS. If a fire was said to have started in a product, be it a television set, a lawn tractor, or an electric toothbrush, the person who purchased the product (or his insurance company or his attorney), often sued the manufacturer for all damages resulting from the conflagration, contending that the product was defective or had a design flaw. Ergo ... “Call Charlie King!”

LAW ENFORCEMENT. Sometimes, after a politically sensitive or controversial fire, we would be contacted by local law enforcement, a District Attorney, or the mayor’s office, as they wanted to avoid being accused of partiality. Charlie, considered to be an objective outsider, was asked to find out where and how the fire started, who started it, and if an arrest ensued, to testify in court.

We did other kinds of fire investigations, too, but the above is a good start.

In this instance, Duncan Da Silva, customer liaison manager at Courtland Motors, contacted us after he received a letter from a buyer so infuriated, you could almost feel angry spittle shooting off the paper from the nib of his pen. He wrote:

“This month, my precious daughter Kathleen started college at SUNY Binghamton, which is a three hour commute from our residence in Scarsdale. Wanting her to drive safely home on weekends, I spent several weeks researching new cars, as her well-being was my only concern. From every reputable source, I got the same answer: Courtland Motors is the safest vehicle to be driving if you are involved in an accident, and it is the least likely one to be the cause of an accident.

”Well, Sir or Madam, I am horrified and incensed as I write this. On Monday – exactly two days ago – my beloved Kathleen pulled out of our driveway and began to drive to Binghamton for her college orientation. She was less than two hours from home and was travelling west on Route 17 when she suddenly smelled smoke. She pulled off the road, opened the driver’s side door, and barely escaped before the car burst into flames. Because Kathleen left her purse and cell phone in the backseat of the

car, she had to rely on a passing motorist who stopped, called 911, and took care of her until the fire department arrived.

“Since I anticipate that you are going to try to duck your responsibility for having sold me a dangerously defective car, let me state right here that my daughter does not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, take drugs, or engage in any other dangerous behaviors.

“This letter is to advise you that I intend to sue Courtland Motors, and that I will be writing multiple Letters to the Editor to decry “The World’s Safest Car” as false advertising, and spare other loving parents from the grief we that we have endured.

“Wilfred Lancaster”

After we accepted the assignment, Duncan sent us his complete file, including his response to Lancaster’s letter, a memo from their legal department, and a copy of the fire department report (which amounted to little more than “Vehicle fire. Undetermined cause.”) Duncan told us that the car was being stored at Barkley & Son Auto Salvage, and he asked us when we could do the inspection. We responded, “Tomorrow.”

I had gone with Charlie on many other investigations by then, and could always follow his line of reasoning from the area of least fire damage to the fire’s point of origin. But not this time. There I stood beside him, and all I saw was a four-door sedan, blackened by flames like a marshmallow that had been left in a campfire too long. At least that’s how the mid-section looked. The front and rear of the car appeared marginally less burned, with big swaths of the original green paint still on view.

It was an impenetrable mystery to me. But ... ah ha! ... Not to Charlie. First, he circled the vehicle. He pointed out that both the driver’s side window and the window behind the driver were opened about 4 inches; he examined the engine compartment which, even to my then-untrained eye, I could see was comparatively clean. None of the plastic components had melted (fuse box, air cleaner assembly, hoses), and the hood liner was unburned.

Next, Charlie turned his attention to the inside of the car. He inspected the dashboard, the instrument panel, the areas of, around, and beneath the steering wheel, and the gear shift console. Everything was covered in soot, and some of the upholstery was singed, but nothing worse. Nor was there any burn-through to or from the engine compartment.

Hm. I thought, watching him. “What now? Oh, wise one!”

And ... Wham, out of the blue, Charlie did something I had never seen him do before.

He took a clean blue tarp from the back of our Jeep, cleared the ground on the left (driver’s) side of Kathleen’s car; and he spread the tarp out there on the ground. Then he slowly and methodically – I photographed every phase of the operation – began to excavate the passenger compartment of her car.

I watched as he located whatever he thought was relevant, examined it, and gently positioned it on the shiny blue tarp. Item by item, he extracted a burned tissue box, a pair of melted sunglasses, a transistor radio, an atlas of New York State, a car owner’s manual, two empty paper coffee cups, a crumpled donut bag (empty) and an unzipped leather purse. Inside the purse were: a ball point pen, a cell phone, birth control pills, a cosmetics bag, and ... and ... and ... a half-empty box of Virginia Slims Menthol cigarettes.

After finding the cigarettes, Charlie continued, just as meticulously, to sift through the rest of the debris. Minutes later, I heart a snort of satisfaction. He pointed to the floor behind the driver’s seat and said, “Photograph that.”

There, lying amidst the rubble like a baby Moses in the reeds, was a slightly burned but perfectly recognizable blue Bic Disposable Lighter.

In Charlie’s oral report to our client, he conveyed this scenario:

“Kathleen Lancaster was driving west on Route 17. About halfway to Binghamton, she pulled a cigarette and her Bic lighter out of her purse. She lit the cigarette, and tossed her purse and the Bic lighter into the back. She continued to drive until, tired of smoking, she flicked the still-burning cigarette out the front window. Airflow outside the car promptly forced it back into the opened rear window, where it fell on the floor. It smoldered there for a few minutes before igniting nearby combustibles, which burst into flame and caused the fire in the car.”

Duncan Da Silva told Charlie to hold off on a written report, and to just send him our photos. The customer liaison manager then tactfully (but firmly) communicated our findings to the still indignant father (who probably hadn’t known about the birth control pills, either). Duncan subsequently sent Wilfred Lancaster the relevant pictures, after which, Courtland Motors never heard from him again.

No apology. Of course. But no lawsuit, either.

How did it all end? I’m not sure, but I’ve always had a sneaky suspicion that, despite his initial antagonism and accusations, when the time came to buy the sainted Kathleen a replacement car, her doting father swallowed his pride and bought her another Courtland Motors sedan, too.

Copyright © 2022, Shelly Reuben - Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - evesun.com Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated  for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.