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It’s the familiar things you never notice that sometimes matter most.
Although perhaps not young enough or tall enough to become a top model, and decidedly not svelte enough to squeeze her ample charms into the impossibly-small confines of size zero haute couture gowns, the smartly-dressed woman nonetheless moved with the feline grace and confidence of a runway model. She appeared to treat the sidewalk as though it were an unending extension of a Parisian catwalk lined on both sides by shutter-happy fashion photographers.
Her accessories, at least, were the real thing. Her designer purse in particular was a real eye-catcher.
The woman’s approach did not go unnoticed by the uniformed doorman who was standing at attention near the entrance to a posh apartment building.
She was watching him as well, although not in an obvious way. She detected the subtle shift in his posture indicating he was preparing to open the door without challenging her right to enter.
Molly Sullivan glided into the lobby of the building without missing a step and went directly to the bank of elevators.
Fifteen minutes later, Molly was back on the sidewalk in front of the building. She dabbed at her eyes with a fine linen handkerchief as she stood shoulder to shoulder beside the doorman.
Without turning her head she started talking.
“What a fiasco. Every morning at this time Mrs. Henderson lets Prince play in the corridor for an hour. I thought I could safely visit her while her wee canine companion was outside of the apartment, but I was mistaken.”
“Attacked you, did he?” the doorman asked.
“No, absolutely not. Some little dogs are vicious, but not Prince. He’s a sweetheart; he wouldn’t hurt a flea. Not that he has fleas, of course, though I must say he might be at risk since that diamond studded collar of his certainly wouldn’t keep them away. I could buy three or four of these purses for what Mrs. Henderson paid for that one little doggie necklace.”
Molly shifted her weight from one foot to the other. The doorman turned his head slightly in her direction. She tapped the index finger of her right hand on the clasp of the handbag. The man’s eyes were attracted to the movement.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Prince walked right up to me in the hallway as I knew he would. He never sees a stranger. I held my breath as I walked by him and Mrs. Henderson let me in immediately. Once inside, I inhaled deeply and my allergies kicked in almost at once. Prince had deposited enough dog dander in the apartment to pollute a domed stadium.”
Molly blew her nose.
“Would you like me to call you a cab?”
“No, thank you. It’s a nice day; I’ll walk. The fresh air will help clear my sinuses.”
When the prospect of a tip vanished, the doorman appeared to lose interest.
Molly pulled an empty water bottle out of her purse.
“Is there somewhere nearby I can get rid of this? It’s ruining the contour of my purse.”
The doorman held out a gloved hand. He accepted the bottle without comment, spun on his heel, and then quickly entered the building.
Molly stepped to one side and then turned around before leaning slightly and tilting her head so she could watch the man’s movements through the glass door.
The doorman didn’t look back. Taking big steps and bypassing a trash receptacle on the way, he strode across the lobby. At the same time he removed the bottle cap and slipped it into his pocket. He deposited the empty plastic container in a recycling bin located beside a soft drink machine.
Her stratagem had succeeded in diverting the doorman’s attention, but Molly was unsure whether or not it was a significant breach of protocol. Although he’d temporarily abandoned his post, the guardian of the portal had moved so quickly there would not have been time for an outsider to slip through the entrance unnoticed.
Molly took off before the doorman could return to his accustomed spot in front of the building. She was clear-eyed and her respiratory system was free of congestion.
The doorman habitually spent part of his day off in a nearby park. The following Sunday he showed up as usual. Molly Sullivan had arrived there ahead of him.
With her everyday handbag the size of a picnic hamper snug at her side, Molly took up two spaces on a park bench. Her face was scrubbed clean of makeup and she was wearing a plain dress and sensible shoes. In that restrained guise she bore little or no resemblance to the fashion plate who’d stormed the high-rise apartment building a couple of days earlier. She had no fear about being recognized.
She likewise had no fear of contact with the animal companions that were roaming around freely. Molly petted a couple of friendly dogs when they approached her on the bench and she suffered no ill effects whatsoever. That was the extent of her physical activity while she waited, but her mind was fully engaged as she reviewed the specifics of a baffling series of seemingly unconnected felonious activities.
The high-rise building she’d visited earlier in the week was home to an unusually high number of crime victims.
There had been several muggings that targeted residents who were either going to or coming home from fancy parties. Apparently, the thief knew exactly where they’d be and when. In each instance only seldom-worn expensive trinkets were taken—the sort of fashion accessories that were only removed from a secure bank vault on very special occasions. Guests wearing costume jewelry at those same events were ignored.
Valuable items sometimes disappeared from apartments with no evidence of a break-in.
At least two occupants were victims of attempted blackmail for youthful indiscretions.
The unoccupied vacation home of another was burglarized during a very brief window of vulnerability when the owner was switching from one private security firm to another.
And the list went on.
Taking into consideration the fact that many crooks and con men are creatures of habit with their preferred modus operandi, the highly concentrated area of the crime wave plus the diversity of the offenses—when considered from a statistical viewpoint—simply did not add up.
Then there was a significant variation in the pattern when a prominent businessman living in the penthouse was accused of committing a serious crime, namely illegal insider trading. In his defense he, too, claimed to be a victim.
Faced with a hefty fine and possible jail time, the alleged insider trader was determined to clear his name no matter what it cost.
Fortunately for him, Angus Steward had the resources and connections to contest the allegations of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He had deep pockets and he also had friends in high places.
Angus Steward was adamant in denying any impropriety in the conduct of his business affairs. Although he routinely was privy to confidential information that could have been exploited by unscrupulous trading in the stock of publicly-owned companies, he had not done so. Whenever he was “in the know,” he restricted his conversations to trusted colleagues. He most certainly had never deliberately “tipped” anyone.
Despite his caution, Angus was found to have had access to privileged information that was presumably used by several traders to make a killing in the market.
Angus denied ever having had direct contact with the profiteers, but how could he prove a negative?
Perhaps he would not be able to do so, but he could try. He hired a private investigator who grilled him about his recent activities.
While mining his client’s memory for buried clues, the PI unearthed a plethora of meaningless minutia and one potential gem of information.
Angus was willing to stake his reputation on his recollection that while standing on the sidewalk within hearing distance of the doorman of his apartment building he had used his cell phone to discuss the troublesome stock with his business partner.
Was it possible the doorman was somehow to blame for the spate of wrongdoings?
The local police cooperated in the investigation.
Preliminary results seemed promising. The doorman had a criminal record which he had not revealed on his job application. Additionally, he sometimes provided valet service for the apartment dwellers which gave him temporary access to their keys. Could he have had duplicates made? In particular, did he have possession of a key to the unmonitored private entrance located on the opposite side of the building?
Was the possible suspect somehow privy to intimate details of the private lives of the residents? An informal survey of the tenants revealed they frequently took the doorman for granted—or ignored him completely—and often spoke freely in his presence.
Further investigation proved frustrating. While the doorman might have had the means to carry out some of the crimes, he lacked the opportunity. In most cases he was either on the job, where he was plainly visible, or at home. In addition, there was no evidence that he had fenced any stolen property and there was no suspicious activity in his bank account. Did he have accomplices? If so, how did he communicate with them? Wire taps and surveillance produced negative results.
With no better suspect available, Angus was unwilling to give up on his attempts to prove a connection. With the help of the PI he organized a sting operation.
That was where Molly Sullivan came in.
The person who recommended Molly for the undercover assignment described her as “a freelance busybody.”
“That’s exactly what we need,” the PI said, “just so long as she also looks the part.”
Molly may not have enjoyed the extravagant fashion makeover financed by Angus Steward, but she endured it.
The undercover dog was already in place when Molly arrived on the scene. Prince casually explored the hallway outside of Mrs. Henderson’s apartment while wearing his diamond-studded collar with its built-in tracking device. Was his canine ego bruised by Molly’s apparent snub in passing him by with her nose in the air—not once, but twice? Prince gave no indication one way or the other.
As a sensible precaution in case the doorman later saw the security footage, Molly faked a couple of sneezes, being careful to blink each time, and then dabbed at her eyes intermittently during her descent in the elevator.
Outside the building she verbally laid the foundation for the sting as previously described.
Only one big question remained. Would the doorman take the bait?
Although he was wearing a jogging outfit, the doorman was walking when he came into Molly’s view.
She had a ringside seat as she surreptitiously observed his every move. There was not much to see. He appeared to wander around aimlessly for the most part. He did not approach any of the other park visitors, either of the bipedal or the four-legged variety.
Molly was disappointed.
Catching someone in the act of stealing Prince’s collar would not be enough.
It was crucial to prove a connection between the doorman and the thief.
After a short while the doorman appeared to lose interest in the great outdoors. He tightened the cap before dropping a water bottle into a trash receptacle and then strolled out of the park.
Molly easily picked out the undercover cop who was tailing the suspect. She hoped the doorman had not done the same. She watched the two of them move out of sight, but remained right where she was afterwards, continuing her vigil.
Fifteen minutes later, still seated on the park bench, Molly called in her report.
“I’ve solved the mystery for you,” she said, before relaying specific details of what she’d observed. “I’ll let you handle the case from here, but I’d like for you to keep me informed about how it goes.”
Shortly thereafter, a man was arrested for stealing Prince’s collar. As part of a plea bargain for a lighter sentence, the thief implicated the doorman. The doorman, who had acted as a lookout, was charged with conspiracy. Other arrests followed.
Molly was invited to a debriefing in the DA’s office.
“What tipped you to the doorman’s system for sharing ill-gotten information?” an assistant district attorney asked her.
“He’s green,” Molly said.
“You’re wrong about that, Mrs. Sullivan. That man’s been in and out of prison numerous times. He’s a highly experienced crook.”
“A message in a bottle was his method of communicating with his co-conspirators,” Molly said, “I saw him go out of his way to recycle a plastic bottle. There was no way he’d have thrown one in the trash without a very good reason. He’s green.”
John H. Dromey was born in northeast Missouri. He’s had short fiction published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Gumshoe Review, The Literary Hatchet, Mysterical-E, Woman’s World (a mini-mystery), and elsewhere.