“GROUND FLOOR HOSTS the expensive stuff, upstairs the obscenely expensive stuff. Down here you may call it safe, but up there it is safest,” Ron explained the setup, pointing to a broad set of stairs that ended with an enormous high tech steel door. “Down here, we have the standard setup for a high price gallery or antique store—reinforced doors, unbreakable glass in extra sturdy frames, standard alarm. The second floor is a different beast altogether—two doors leading to the display room are secured with in-frame bolts, electronic locks and drill-proof casing, computer controlled electronic lock, no tampering possible. The ceiling and floor have both been fitted with welded steel plates. The air-conditioning shafts are blocked. The windows are made of high grade security glass; it is easier to break the walls than it is to break the glass that you see from down the street.”
“The whole floor is like one big safe,” I stated innocently. “Usually a jeweler or a gallery has to lock away the pieces overnight and rearrange them each morning. That’s what I am doing for 30 minutes each day in my store.”
“Right. The insurance company approved the security level of the display room. Mr. Wynn’s colleague faxed us the checklist and the detailed setup.”
We stood at the steel plated, motor-driven door leading from the staircase into the second floor showroom. On the left of the door was a simple but effective looking electronic control, resembling a small ATM machine.
“Any additional alarms?”
“Out here, it is by electronic control. The door has motion sensors implemented in case anyone starts to drill or blast it.”
We made our way inside the safe, more like the safe room. It was almost as large as the lower showroom. Rebuilt as display units, the windows displayed the same pieces for the outside world and the gallery visitors. Classy affair. The walls, ceiling and floor were all painted a neutral white, giving it a Soho-Lofty look, which had clearly been the intent of the architect.
“Due to fire regulations, whether a safe or not, the room had to have another exit. This one lead to the back-office and the fire door.” Across the room was the other safe door, which I had used to peek into the safe room to discover the dead night watchman.
“One wonders how you should open that door in case of a fire,” I said.
“Good point. The fire marshal thought of that, too. That’s why the doors are always opened simultaneously,” Ron explained.
“Really? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of a safe room?”
“In a way. Supposedly, the floor qualifies as a showroom and not as regular safe, hence the regulation. But the trick is to open the safe at all.”
“The door on the other side is the same type. Impregnable. Same security mechanisms. The control center of the security company never got alerted, so whoever managed to open it was very careful, indeed.”
I gave a small cry when I saw the taped silhouette of a body on the floor, behind one of the display boxes. The contrast between the bloody remains and the innocent white of the floorboards was frightening. Having seen the real deal, it was even more so. But I still reflexively gave that small cry.
“Yes, this is where we found the night watchman and here is the display that the jewels were taken from.” Ron stepped up to one of the regular displays, which was actually empty. “Protected by a simple security lock.”
After we solemnly looked at the flimsy lock, I nudged him. “You want to tell me the heist step-by-step?” I encouraged him.
Ron nodded. “Good idea, let me give you my theory, feel free to correct me anytime you think I missed something.”
He led me through the other door into the back-office. The same type electronic control as the one on the first door, or whatever was left of some high tech tool, was outside the second safe door.
“Is this how the burglar got in?” I pointed at the hanging wires, electronics and plastic insulation.
Ron wagged his head. “We are still undecided about that. Joe Public sees the typical electronic lock break-in in action movies—nothing a good blast with a shotgun can’t open. But in reality, of course, things are different.”
Yes, they were. When I left, the electronic panel was in pristine condition.
“A specialist is coming in tomorrow from Chicago. They are going to take this baby apart with tweezers to see whether it was possible to override anything from here. But it will take time. Monday, maybe,” Ron looked pessimistic.
Another policeman stood guard beside the door; there were still some valuables to be guarded. Ron walked into a filing cabinet room branching off from the back-office. It held a musty smell of old paper and paint. He pointed at the window.
“So how was it been done?” I asked.
Ron leaned against the windowsill and started his tale. “Step-by-step. The way it works is Mr. Altward, Mr. Faulkner, or their assistant, whoever leaves last for the night, seals the display room. You close the doors with the help of the motors; lock them with a regular key. The electronic control arms the doors, bolting it for good, a few minutes later, the sensors are activated. The computer log shows that this took place around nine-thirty last night, closed by Andrew Altward himself. Around midnight, the night watchman, Wally Eastman, began his shift.”
Ron walked to the office where he pointed to a thermos and a paper sandwich bag on a small side table. “He took over from his colleague, put his journal and coffee mug on the table and made his first round of the night. Checked the door, checked that the window in the filing cabinet room was closed and locked and went out the backdoor.”
“How do you know?”
“Fingerprints. Plus I asked the people who had seen him work about the routine,” Ron answered.
We walked out of the back-office into the fresh night and stood on a balcony. It overlooked the backyard parking lot and the dumpsters, some steel stairs leading down.
Ron continued, “The burglar hides out somewhere in the backyard. Behind a car or dumpster. Wally went around the block through the passageway on the right. When he was out of sight, the burglar came out of hiding, walked up the stairs and picked the lock of the door to the back-office.”
I gave the door a feigned look of interest. Actually, the window had been the better choice because it was less secure. The alarm had been manipulated the evening before, the window lock opened and the window frame wedged shut. Simply remove the wedge, slip in and fasten it again with the wedge.
“Meanwhile, Wally Eastman entered the store from the front door, made his round downstairs, checked the other safe door, found nothing suspicious and made his way back. Takes about 10 minutes if you really take it slow and smoke a cigarette on the way. Which he did.”
Well, it was two cigarettes and a little under 20 minutes for old Wally, but who was counting?
I asked. “How did the thief get into the safe room? From your description, it seems impossible.”
“Yes, it does.” Ron sighed. “Things get sketchy here. The thief managed to get into the safe room and close the safe door behind him. The watchman returns from his round, makes an entry in the log, settles behind his desk and has a drink and a sandwich.”
He had. But I hadn’t been interested in that safe room, how could I have been? The room was impregnable, that’s what my contacts, my specialist friend and I had thought anyway, so I hadn’t even tried. I had been hiding in the filing cabinet room, waiting for the next time window when old Wally would do his next round. Therefore, the burglar, the other burglar, had to get through the front door of the shop and crack the safe room from the other side. Nothing made sense because the electronic panel on the shop side safe door did not look to me like it had been tampered with.
I pointed out the ancient stand-alone safe in the corner. “What about the smaller safe over there? Why didn’t the thief hit that one?”
Ron patted the five-foot high block of steel with its key lock and combination number wheel. “According to Altward, the safe didn’t contain anything valuable. Some papers, taxations and certifications, some minor jewels that were not part of the collection and the exhibition.”
All true. But Mr. Altward had omitted telling the police that he stored twenty-five high quality six-carat diamonds of doubtful origin in that safe. Not anymore, though.
I cocked my head suspiciously. “Why not put this classic safe into the safe room? Why leave it here?”
Ron gave a paternal smile. “Because the back-office often needed material from that safe after hours. To send out a certificate of origin to some potential art collector after hours. Or to store a late night acquisition overnight when the safe showroom is sealed. Otherwise, the showroom doors would have been open longer than necessary and been much more vulnerable.”
“What is missing?”
“Another mystery. Only one set—a three hundred year old collection from some French guy, Montenegro?”
I nodded. “Montenhaute. A classic. Classy, if you like that stuff.”
Ron looked at me expectantly. “Any expert opinion, any insight?”
“I am not sure what you want to hear. First thing that comes into my mind is the particular selection. Why steal only a Montenhaute when there is so much more in the gallery? If I had my free pick in here, I would have taken something else. That contemporary stuff over here, for example. Or that Aztec collection over there.” I pointed at a gracefully crafted set of arm rings, small tiaras and plated necklaces made of pure gold. Simple, beautiful, invaluable. Probably what I would have taken, if I had managed to open the safe room myself.
Ron went over for a closer look. “We will get photos of the stolen stuff later. Maybe it will change your opinion.”
“Maybe,” I was doubtful. “Second thing though, how did the thief get in here? With all the security features. Must have been a real pro. You are sure that the owner didn’t open the door himself?”
“You are thinking like a detective. Wife is dead, suspect the husband. Believe me, we are in the process of checking that out,” Ron chuckled. “But why should he do this? Feign a break-in, steal only one item and kill the night watchman in the process.”
“How did the watchman end up in here anyway?”
“Let us continue the tale.” Ron stepped over to the broken display near the sketched body silhouette. “The thief inside the safe room opens the display and takes the Montenhaute pieces. In the meantime, Wally Eastman kills time reading and checking the security displays of the storefront on his subsequent rounds.”
“Any video recording?” I asked.
“None, the back-office door camera got short-circuited and the data tape that records the front, the first and second floor and the back-office door was stolen.” Ron pointed with his thumb in the direction of the back-office.
The short circuit was my deed, but I didn’t lift the cassette. Hadn’t been necessary. Most likely, the guy who opened the safe didn’t notice the damage and had simply taken the tape to erase his own trail. I wondered if the other burglar had noticed the short circuit override.
Ron continued, “What I assume is that the night watchman makes his next round, about an hour later. Again, he checks the backyard and plans to make his round to the front. The thief uses the opportunity to let himself out of the back-office. He opens the safe doors from the inside.”
“The watchman notices something or maybe has forgotten his cigarettes, and returns to the back-office and discovers the leaving thief,” I continued.
“There is a small fight, leading into the safe room, the watchman dies.”
It was actually quite different, but who was I to disagree. The night watchman had made his next round, right. I had crawled out from my hiding place and was doing my thing with the back-office safe, a difficult but solvable task within the time frame. The office safe had been classic, fifty-year old, brown steel, mostly heavy and impressive. Good old key and combination lock combined. All you needed to open it was good equipment, a little time and patience. I had been on it for about five minutes, listening for the sounds of the watchman’s steps on the steel staircase in the backyard. My plan, should the safe turn out to be more stubborn than expected, had been to work it for ten minutes and then play it safe and hide again until the night watchman’s next round. But the equipment, my fingers and my luck worked like a charm; eventually, I heard the dull click in my earphones, made three crosses and the door of the back-office safe opened.
To my horror, at exactly that moment, I heard some noises but not from the creaking steel staircase outside; they were from the super secure safe door to the showroom. ‘Impossible’ was my first non-four-letter thought and while the large safe door slowly rotated, I wrapped up my equipment in record time and hid under the next table, where no one could see me from either the back-office door or the door to the safe showroom. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see anyone from there, either.
I asked, “How did he die?”
“Blow on the head with a heavy object. We found some sort of colored metal art piece, a mobile, on the floor with blood on it.”
“Beg your pardon?” Ron gave me a raised eyebrow.
“Alexander Calder. His mobiles are world famous.” And I had seen it lying right beside Mr. Eastman’s lifeless form, bloody art.
“Well, one of his works is now hosted by our downtown crime scene investigation lab.” Ron gave a sly smile and turned serious again. “The murderer wraps things up, closes the door to the safe room and exits through the backdoor.”
We stood near the taped outline of the night watchman; there was an abstract shape in the form of a Calder mobile nearby. This was the position in which I had found the dead night watchman and the Calder. I had hidden for a while under the desk in the back-office, the whole time praying feverishly that no one would decide to take a closer look at the back-office safe. All I could hear had been someone stepping out of the safe room into the back-office, shuffling some things around for a second and then unlocking the backdoor and leaving. Torn between the running sands of time and curiosity as to what the competition had achieved, I finally peeked from under the table, found myself alone in the back-office and tiptoed to the safe door. I glanced into the showroom and my blood froze. The night watchman wore a dark blue uniform; his cap was lying beside him. The Calder was lying where the killer dropped it and pools of blood had formed under and around his head. It took some courage to step up to the body and feel for a pulse. There was none; he was dead. A quick look around the showroom, fully lighted, revealed no obvious burglary or broken displays. Therefore, the sequence of events that Ron assumed could not be true. Nothing made sense right now.
I couldn’t do anything for the poor night watchman, so I went back to the safe in the back-office, checked my clothes and shoes for accidental blood and continued with my part of the heist. I quickly browsed the contents of the back-office safe and selected the items my informant had pointed out to me. A quick look into the three velvet pouches showed the stones I was looking for. Close back-office safe, pack things up, shaken and weak kneed, exit burglar number two into the good night. Not tempted at all by the immense plunder that would have been available to me.
Twenty hours ago. Now, I felt very tired, standing with Ron in the exact same gallery.
What made me wonder was the fact that at the time I found the dead body, the control box near the back-office safe door had not been touched. No dangling wires and no open electronics. Whoever opened the safe did it from the other side. And then later, ransacked the back-office panel for reasons unknown. Of course, I couldn’t share this piece of information with Ron. This was going to be complicated, layered lies and assumptions.
“Who found him?” I asked.
“The security company placed a routine call around three a.m. No one answered, so they sent out a patrol to check on things. They found him.”
“So the doors of the safe were left open,” I stated.
“Yes, the alarm was cleverly rigged so it would appear closed and armed to the security company’s online system. Heavy tampering.”
Ron and I stood in the back-office room and looked into the safe that hadn’t been. He suddenly let out a hearty yawn. I wanted to join him but thought better.
“Sorry, up since four a.m.,” he explained.
“What now?” I asked, unsure of my official role in this charade.
“As an honorary SDPD super detective, I should be rousing up suspects now, but to tell the truth, I am too tired to think.” He rubbed his beard stubbles. “First thing tomorrow is a date with the gallery owner, Andrew Altward. He promised pictures of the stolen goods and descriptions. Plus we can feel out for the possibility that he broke into his own safe.”
We walked back through the showroom and Ron gave some instructions to the policeman standing guard in the back-office. Then we walked downstairs.
“I can pick you up around eight thirty.” It wasn’t a real question so I gave an enthusiastic puppy nod in agreement.
Ron opened the door that led out into Market Street and held it open gallantly to let me out. I made a small curtsey, which drew a smile from his very kissable lips and I ran straight into my next worst nightmare.