The reason I was having a relaxing beer at Morgan’s that evening was because it had been a long, hard day at Lovstuen’s; long, because of the extra four hours I had had to put in that day; and hard, because of one Mr. Kadiesky, general manager, who had been hopping around my stockroom all day like a one-locust plague, giving orders where none were needed and failing to give any where they might have been of some value.
Mr. Kadiesky, like many egoists with small accomplishments, took his job with a deadly earnestness that brooked no humor. Immaculately dressed, he strode from floor to floor, and department to department, a frozen smile on his face for the customers and an ill-concealed frown for any clerk who seemed not be displaying sufficient “customer-sales consciousness,” a term he had dreamed up all by himself in one of his odd moments.
For the greater part of the year Mr. Kadiesky didn’t get too much in the way of anyone or obstruct to any great extent the normal flow of business, but when December began to roll around, he fell into a state of rapid metamorphosis. His mincing step became quicker and jerkier. He rubbed the back of an index finger more often across the hair-thin line of mustache that graced his upper lip and placed that index finger more and more frequently to the side of his temple, an outward manifestation of the creative processes which were supposed to be occurring within the confines of his narrow skull.
Everyone in the store, of course, knew precisely what was happening; Mr. Kadiesky was mentally designing the annual million-dollar display of jewelry and gemstones, a pretentious show for which the Lovstuen Company had long been noted.
After Mr. Kadiesy’s first week of mental travail there always followed another week of frenzied group planning. Designs of the intended display were hastily drawn and just as hastily discarded. More designs came and went or came and were changed beyond recognition until, finally, Mr. Kadiesky himself gave birth to a brainchild that was of sufficient merit to be acceptable to his vanity. Strangely enough, the final plan always turned out to be precisely like the one that had been used during the preceding years, except for certain innovations such as a new paint job for the props and new outfits for some of the elves.
I don’t know if the display was worth the million dollars accredited to it, but I do know that the star which always graced the top of the Christmas tree in the center of the display window was undoubtedly worth several hundred grand, a tidy little fortune for anyone who might be lucky enough to have it in his possession.
I am not a thief by nature, but every man has his price, and a few thousand dollars would come in mighty handy. Many times during the five years I had been in charge of the stockroom at Lovstuen’s—and, therefore, had been Mr. Kadiesky’s right-hand man in the final assembling of the display, the task that was now absorbing long hours—my thoughts had wandered toward that tantalizing bauble of encrusted gems. Now, as I sat in Morgan’s, nursing my second bottle of relaxation, the same thoughts kept tapping away at my brain with the persistence of Poe’s morbid raven.
Anyway, the whole setup offered an intriguing challenge. Protecting the street side of the display window was an ornamental steel grill, which, in turn, was connected to an alarm that was triggered to sound off at the slightest provocation. Besides that, police cars patrolled the street at irregular intervals, and spectators paused to gaze through the window during nearly all the hours of day and night. From the inside of the store the window could be entered only through a pair of double doors of steel, doors which could be firmly barred and time-locked against any intrusion.
Though the display window seemed impregnable, the Lovstuen Company protected themselves still further by insuring the gems for their full value; and each year the insurance comp[any, for its own protection, placed an armed guard in the store during the night hours when the establishment was closed to the public.
Yes, it was an interesting challenge, and I could not help but wonder what would happen to the pompous, egotistical Mr. Kadiesky if, after all the precautions against every conceivable eventuality, that star should vanish into thin air some night from the top of the tree. Yet, the possibility of that ever occurring was so remote . . .
My musing was suddenly penetrated by the tinny clatter of a piano, and as I looked in that direction a small girl came dancing out on the stage. She wore a pinafore over a short dress that reached only to the knees of her ruffled pantalets. A floppy hat shaded one eye, and a boa of white feathers was draped over her shoulders and dropped to her toes.
After once across the stage and back, she stopped struck a pose, and began singing in a contralto voice that was amazingly low and husky.
“The French are glad to die for love . . . “
She didn’t look to be more than five years old.
“They delight in fighting duels . . . “
She took off the hat and flung it aside, exposing a tight coiffure of golden curls.
“But I prefer a man who lives . . . “ Her pinafore went skittering away toward the discarded hat.
“And gives expensive jewels . . . “ She held up a left hand that glittered and sparkled beneath the lights.
By the time she had divested most of her raiment except for the feathered boa, which she handled with great dexterity, I realized this was no five-year-old I was watching finishing her song, and now clad in none but the scantiest of attire, she went into an acrobatic dance.
It was when she was doing a series of contortions that the idea struck me. It hit me so suddenly that I sprang half out of my chair, upsetting my beer. This was it!
A waiter came rushing up. “Anything wrong, sir?”
“N-no,” I said. “I just had a brilliant idea.”
“Well, try not to have any more of them,” he mumbled, wiping up the spill. “One an evening is enough.”
I flipped the pencil and order pad from his shirt pocket, found a dry spot on the table, and scribbled a note. “What’s her name?” I asked, gesturing toward the stage.
He shrugged. “She’s billed as Miwata, The Living Doll.”
“Give her this,” I said, handing him the pad, along with a folded bill, “and tell her where to find me.”
A few minutes later The Living Doll appeared at my table. Her face was elfin as she peered questioningly up at me. She was clad in a silken wraparound garment that did little to hide what she had so recently displayed. She seemed no taller than one of Lovstuen’s Christmas dwarfs.
“Are you the one who speaks of big money?” she asked.
“Big—big money!” I said.
In one graceful move she left the floor and sat on the table directly in front of me. Her eyes were now almost on a level with mine, and I could see they were greenish with little flecks of brown. Devilishly impish!
“How old are you?” I asked, more from curiosity than anything else.
“Old enough to have a thirst,” she said, signaling the waiter.
I ordered another beer, and she got a gin something-or-other and took a big appreciative swallow.
“How big is big—big money?” she asked, eyeing me over the rim of her glass.
“Big—big—big money!” I assured her.
“Legit?” She took another long drink.
“A one-night performance,” I told her. “The greatest performance of your career.”
Suddenly I realized I didn’t actually have a plan. All I had was a nebulous idea that might be whipped into shape—or might not pan out at all. It would require some thinking, and I needed her help in the thinking.
Two couples had seated themselves at the table next to ours. “I don’t have all the angles figured yet,” I said. “Let’s get out of here. Go somewhere—“
“Look, buddy,” she said, drawing back. “I’ve heard a lot better lines than that. Now, if you’ve got something on the ball, let’s have it. If not call me up sometime when you do.” She finished her drink and set the glass on the table.
I grabbed her wrist, and found it surprisingly sturdy for its size. “No!” I pleaded. “Don’t go! Listen! This deal can’t wait! I’ve got to start moving by tomorrow morning and we’ve got ot plan it together. Tonight!”
I felt her relax a bit, and I remembered one of the lines of her song. “. . . square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks don’t lose their shape. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
I raised her hand. “Look,” I said, “how would you like to have all the cut diamonds you could hold in this hot little fist of yours—and more?”
That did it. She looked at her hand and then at me, and I could see that the song had meant something to her beyond mere words.
“You on the level?” she asked, finally.
I nodded. “Scout’s honor! We’ll go to my apartment—“
“Just a minute.” She drew her wrist from my grasp. “There’s something you should know, just in case you turn out to be a phony. I have a brother and he is not exactly what you would call a midget.”
“We’ll talk,” I assure her. “You can leave at any time.”
I got to my feet and lifted her down from the table. “Better get your gear,” I suggested. “If things work out, you may not want to come back.”
An hour—and a half a bottle of gin—later, we had most of the details worked out. Surprisingly, the plan had taken form almost on its own accord. She was now holding out for a fifty-fifty split, claiming she would be running all the risk.
I gave her another glass of gin and explained to her that my risk was fully as great as her own and, too, that the idea had been mine. “A sixty-five-thirty-five del should be fair enough,” I said, “considering all the circumstances.”
She leaned back, resting her head against my shoulder, and grinned up at me pixie-like. “All right,” she agreed.
The next morning I took her into the stockroom with me where Mr. Kadiesky was already prancing about; giving unnecessary orders, and introduced her to him. “Mr. Kadiesky,” I said, “this is Nancy, my little niece.”
She made an awkward curtsy that brought the hem of her dress nearly to the floor.
Mr. Kadiesky looked own his thin nose at her in a manner that clearly indicated he was far too busy to be bothered with infants.
“I’ll just have her a few days,” I explained, “while my sister is away.”
Childlike, little “Nancy” was immediately attracted to the seven dwarfs that were standing in line waiting to be transported to the display window. She fingered the material of their costumes, noted their tiny hats, and paid particular attention to their painted faces. Then she went and sat down beside an empty gift-wrapped box that was also destined to become a part of the display.
During lunch hour I hurried her off to a store a few blocks away and bought her the materials she pointed out, along with shears, needles, thread, and a few other necessities. Then I taxied her back to my apartment and left her there to her own devices.
She went with me again the next afternoon, a stuffed handbag suspended over one shoulder by a strap. The dwarfs and most of the other props had already reached their appointed places in the display window where Mr. Kadiesky was now officially holding forth.
I carried in the rest of the display—toys, dolls, empty gift-wrapped boxes of various sizes, rubber balls gaudily painted—and placed them under the tree in the manner indicated by Mr. Kadiesky’s chart. When all was finally in order, Mr. Kadiesky alone remained in the citadel to give the scene its final touch, the million-dollar display of jewelry, after which the steel doors would be barred and locked and the key handed over to an official of the insurance company.
With the help of Roger, my young assistant, I cleaned the stockroom of the rubble that had accumulated during the last few days, tossed the debris into the incinerator that graced the rear wall, ignited it, opened the draft, and clanged shut the iron door. Then I washed up and went across the street to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee.
At precisely eight p.m. Mr. Kadiesky and I, along with half a dozen more of the store’s personnel, were gathered on the street outside the curtained display window. A wintry wind had sprung up and little puffs of snow were skittering across the sidewalk.
Mr. Kadiesky gave a signal to someone at the door who gave a signal to someone in the store who, in turn, gave a signal to someone else who pressed a button to set the heavy curtain into motion, and the rest of us gave out with a suitable number of “ohs” and “ahs” to gratify the ego of Mr. Kadiesky as the display was slowly unveiled to all who cared to behold.
In the center of the dimly lighted scene was the Christmas tree with toys and boxes arranged at its base. At the far right-hand side was a doorway over which was painted WORKSHOP, and from the doorway a dwarf was advancing in a jerky motion along a hidden track. In his 4extended hands he held a plush box containing a solitaire and a diamond-encrusted wedding band, tilted at the proper angle so the spectators on the street could get an unobstructed view. After traversing the entire length of the window, the dwarf paused before an oversized Santa Claus who gave three mechanical nods of approval. Then, turning about and following another hidden track, the elf-like figure disappeared behind the Christmas tree, obviously to send the gift upon its way.
Another dwarf and another followed at irregular intervals, each bearing a glittering gift for Santa’s gearshift approval, until seven in all had made the journey. Then the cycle was repeated.
Mechanical dolls sat here and there, but did little more than move their heads from side to side and give an occasional wink of a glassy eye.
Dominating all was the star atop the tree. In the center of its velvet face was a blood-red ruby. Surrounding the ruby was a circle of sapphires, and extending outward from the circle into each of the five points of the star were three converging rows of graduated diamonds. The other side of the flat star was nearly identical. Concealed red and blue lights were focused upon the star in such a manner that while it turned slowly about on its spindle, bringing first one side and then the other into view, the thousands of facets of the clustered gems filled the entire scene with a scintillating snowstorm of refracted lights that showered down over the gems in the tree and in the hands of the jerky dwarfs.
Yes, it was a glittering, beautiful—and expensive—display, and we all took turns shaking the hand of Mr. Kadiesky, genius, and gushing out our congratulations.
Once clear of the crowd that was rapidly gathering, I raised the collar of my coat, snapped the brim of my hat down, faced into the wind, and entered the first movie theater that presented itself.
Some three hours later I was seated near the broad windows of a cafeteria, a cup of coffee and a folded newspaper on the table near me, and a clear view of the Lovstuen display directly across the street.
It was now near midnight, the storm had increased a bit, and there were but a few late stragglers upon the street. Only occasionally did anyone pause to give the Lovstuen display the attention it so richly deserved.
I sipped my coffee, unfolded my newspaper, and waited, as jittery as a beetle.
Suddenly, and with preliminaries, the lid of a large gift box snapped back and an elfin figure popped up. The figure wore the same kind of attire as the mechanical dwarfs and had the same painted face and the same pointed nose. It remained frozen and immobile as someone gazed into the window.
I glanced quickly around me. There was only one other customer seated near the windows, a book propped up on the table before him. It was extremely doubtful he was even aware of the Lovstuen exhibit.
My gaze swept back to the scene again. The onlooker had gone, and the elf was now out of the box and walking jerkily along the hidden track toward Santa, for all the world like one of the dwarfs. It didn’t pause to receive Santa’s approval, but turned sharply about and disappeared behind the Christmas tree.
I wanted to laugh but checked myself. I knew what would happen to the jewels of each dwarf as it passed from sight behind that tree, so I wasn’t surprised when, as the cycle began to repeat itself, the gift box in the hands of each dwarf that came from the workshop door was now tightly closed—and empty.
But I was surprised when one of the dwarfs swerved haltingly from the beaten trail, took up a position under the tree, and wheeled around to face the window. For the moment I had failed to distinguish the real from the unreal.
Three women, muffled in furs, had paused to gaze at the display. A patrol car rolled slowly by without pausing or changing course. No one paid particular heed to the elfin figure that had become a part of the background, its head moving jerkily from side to side, an eye closing and opening ocassionally in a mechanical wink.
Yes, Miwata, The Living Doll, was indeed giving the performance of her career!
When the women left, Miwata went into action again, moving about as if directed by an inner system of gears. Within minutes, the baubles from the lower branches of the tree—necklaces, brooches, rings, diamond studded watches—had disappeared into the hidden pockets of her tiny costume.
Then, slowly and haltingly, freezing into place when anyone passed by or paused at the window, she began ascending, step by step, the pyramid of gift-wrapped boxes near the tree. As she neared the top, I forgot to breathe. This was the final scene of the drama, the climax of the production. Here, before the very eyes of all, the boldest jewel theft of all time was in progress, a theft that would go down through the pages of history as a classic, a brilliant masterpiece of mystery.
A doll-like hand reached up toward the star and paused. The elfin face was turned directly toward me, and I am certain I saw an eye close in an impish wink. Then the hand plucked the prize from its spindle, and the swirling snow storm of variegated lights came to an abrupt end.
I glanced quickly around me gain, and my heart suddenly stopped beating. The man with the book had chosen this particular moment to look up from his reading. I couldn’t see his face, but from the tilt of his head it seemed impossible that he should not be aware of the change in the scene across the street.
I waited. Then my pent-up breath flowed out again in a long quivering sigh as he methodically turned a page and lowered his head slowly toward it.
Two minutes later the elk was back in its box, and the lid had flipped shut.
I got stiffly up from the table, my legs nearly paralyzed from the tension I had been under. There was now nothing more to do until I reported for work in the morning at the usual time. By then the theft would be known, there would be an investigation, a certain amount of confusion, I had but to mingle with the hubbub and, at a propitious moment, have my “niece” appear unobtrusively at my side, her filled handbag slung from its shoulder strap. I would then take her lovingly by her little hand and lead her gently away—and that would be that.
But it didn’t turn out quite that way. When I passed the display window the next morning, I saw that the curtains had been drawn shut which meant, of course, that the theft had been discovered. But when I entered the store, there was no hubbub in progress, no confusion. The steel doors of the window stood partly open, and a uniformed policeman was standing quietly beside them. There were a few clerks here and there, their faces pale and drawn, their heads held at half-mast. It was as if a funeral were in progress. Miss Myers, from Hosiery, spotted me and came scurrying up, wringing her hands. “Oh, Mr. Thompson!” she sobbed. “Something terrible has happened! The window! The jewels! Gone! Vanished into thin air!”
I let my face show what I hoped was the proper amount of amazement and concern.
“The police patrol saw that something was wrong with the window early this morning—and they called Mr. Kadiesky—and he called some of us—and the people from the insurance company came—and there was a thorough police investigation and . . . “
“The thief!” I said, cutting in on her babbling. “Did—did they catch the thief?”
“Thief? Why, Mr. Thompson, you know that no one could get in or out of that window! The jewels just vanished! Just like—like magic!”
Well, so far so good. At least Miwata hadn’t been discovered yet. Now all I had to do was get rid of Miss Myers and wait for the right moment.
I started for the steel doors, Miss Myers trailing me. The policeman stepped aside, and one glance through the doors showed quite plainly why he hadn’t bothered to stop me. What had once been a scene of beauty was now a shambles. The tree was on its side, two dwarfs lay at grotesque angles, the false front of the “workshop” had been torn completely away, Santa had vanished, and nearby all the gifts from under the tree—including a certain large gift box—were gone. It was as if a tornado had struck the place. I felt a chill of fear course through me.
“Mr. Kadiesky! Poor man!” It was Miss Myers again. She had thrust her head in through the door. “He went into a regular tantrum! He pulled his hair! He screamed! He tore things out! Carried them away–“
I turned quickly, nearly knocking her down. “Where did he take them? Where did he carry them to?” “The stockroom,” she said, struggling to regain her balance. “He carried everything there and– “
I started toward the stockroom. Maybe things would work out all right after all.
“ –and threw them into the incinerator!”
I stopped and wheeled about. “He did what?” I shouted.
“Poor man!” miss Myers raised both hands to the sides of her head. “He was completely bereft of his senses, a regular madman! Throwing everything in the incinerator! They took him away in an ambulance just a few minutes ago—in a complete state of shock . . . “
I didn’t listen anymore. I raced to the back of the store, pushed open the door to the stockroom and rushed in. the floor was littered with pine needles, tinsel, a few scraps of paper and ribbon. Nothing more.
I leaped to the door of the incinerator and flung it open. A gust of living flame lashed out across my face, and I clanged the door shut again.
Suddenly the room spun in one direction, my stomach in another, and I staggered to a wall and held myself up.
I was only dimly conscious of gro[ping my way through the store and into the street.
“Poor man!” someone was saying as I left. It was probably Miss Myers. “I don’t know what is going to become of us all!”
In my apartment I opened a fresh bottle of gin, sat down on the sofa, and stared into space. Finally, I found myself looking at the silken garment lying beside me. I p[picked it up, found the little suitcase, and tossed the piece of clothing into it, along with a few other odds and ends and a few scraps of material she had left lying about. I tucked the suitcase under the sofa and out of sight. Sooner or later, I would have to get rid of it. I wondered how long it would be before someone missed her and set into motion a search. She had said something about having a brother.
I didn’t leave the apartment for two days, except just long enough to get a newspaper and a fresh supple of gin.
The newspaper had played it big, given it nearly half of the front page. A fortune of jewels disappearing while spectators watched and patrol cars patrolled crime! Mr. Kadiesky under sedation at the County Hospital, a possible nervous collapse . . .
I tossed the paper aside, Mr. Kadiesky be damned! A typical egocentric: shatter the ego and there is nothing left! Nothing at all.
It was nearly two weeks before I could drag myself back to work in the stockroom, and even then I could not force myself to glance in the direction of the incinerator.
Fortunately, there was a lot of work to be done. Roger had fallen far behind during my absence, and the bulletin board was cluttered with requests from the various departments. I glance at one of them, then selected a box and set to work.
“Too bad about Mr. Kadiesky,” Roger said, hammering away at a crate behind me.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t care what happened to Mr. Kadiesky, just so long as it was all bad.
“Nervous breakdown. Doctors ordered him to take a complete rest, away from everything, somewhere in the sunshine.”
I couldn’t care less.
“Some of us went down to the airport lst week to see him off to Mexico,” Roger continued. “Him and his little nephew.”
My hammer paused in midair.
“Cute little tyke, that nephew. Purty as a living doll . . . “
I had quit listening. My brain had suddenly become a madhouse filled with tumbling questions.
What would an egocentric do on the opening night of his masterpiece? Would eh go quietly home and crawl into bed? Or would he go across the street and watch surreptitiously the awed reactions of the passerbys? And would the unfolding of a certain drama suddenly fill his egotistical being with greed and avarice?
Had Mr. Kadiesky thrown a real fit next morning in the store? Had he tossed everything into the incinerator?
Or had Mr. Kadiesky purposefully created a lot of confusion during which he had carefully emptied out the contents of one large gift box, threatened the contents with exposure, made a quick deal, and let the contents slip quietly away out the back door of the stockroom?
I sat down weakly on the edge of a packing case and let the hammer slip from my fingers. I shook my head, sighed, and looked at the closed door of the incinerator. It was quite possible that I would never really know . . .