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by Abigail Van Buren

Outstanding but Maladorous Employee Stands All Alone

DEAR ABBY: I have been engaged to "Bill" for two years. He's a wonderful man, and I have always gotten along well with his family -- until now.

We allowed his sister (I'll call her Denise) to store a few things in our basement until she moved. A few days ago, Bill and I visited her new apartment, and I was shocked to see on her wall an expensive painting of mine that I had stored in my basement! I refrained from saying anything while we were there, but on the way home I mentioned the painting. Bill said that Denise had owned that painting for years. I didn't force the issue, but when I checked my basement, my painting was missing.

Abby, my grandmother's china was also missing. I don't want to jeopardize my relationship with Bill because of what Denise has done, but the painting is valuable and the china is my only link to my deceased grandmother. I also wonder if the other items I have missed over the months have found their way into her sticky fingers. I can't sleep for thinking about this.

If I don't do something about this, I'll be restless and angry. But if I confront Denise, I may lose Bill. What do I do now, Abby? -- SLEEPLESS IN MISSOURI

DEAR SLEEPLESS: You can't ignore the obvious. Tell Bill about the china and the other items that are also missing. Make an inventory. If possible, gather proof that the missing items are your property -- photographs, testimonials from relatives, etc. Try to enlist your fiance as an ally, and talk to his sister. Her problem may be kleptomania, which is defined as "a persistent neurotic impulse to steal, especially without economic motive." The condition is treatable with psychiatric help. If your fiance won't cooperate, report your losses to the police.

Bill's sister definitely has a problem; however, I'm as troubled by your fiance's failure to back you up as I am the thefts. If you can't count on him, you'd be wise to rethink your engagement before your losses mount any further.