Debra was sitting in the weekly staff meeting when she realized the bank had been robbed.
Burgled is a better word for it, Debra thought. I should be precise.
Debra knew the difference between a robbery, which was a crime against a person, and burglary, which is a crime against property, from reading police procedurals. She loved crime novels of all kinds. After years of steeping herself in fictional crime, she possessed a hefty legal vocabulary. You can’t suddenly realize that someone has robbed you unless you wake up to someone going through your pockets, because you are there when a robbery is happening. You can, however, discover after the fact that someone has committed a burglary.
There was no doubt in Debra’s mind, sitting here now, that someone had been systematically robbing (burglarizing! her mind corrected) the bank for weeks now. Possibly months or years. Debra was also sure that she was the only one who had noticed. She wondered what she should do about it. Who should she contact? Would they believe her? What if someone at the bank was responsible? If she didn’t know who was involved, she might confide in the wrong person.
Debra Winsocki worked for a very old and established bank in Boston. She worked in the corporate headquarters building downtown. The bank was family-owned, and the headquarters were in the original bank building. There was no direct customer service branch there anymore.
Although customers didn’t visit the building, it looked like the very epitome of an old-time customer service bank. When you walked in the front door, you were walking into the past, when banks had tall columns, marble counters and wrought iron scrollwork, behind which sat a bank teller on a high stool. The ceiling in the lobby was two stories tall in the middle, with a gallery around the perimeter of the second story with doors leading to private offices.
When the owners converted the building to be the headquarters, the teller cages were removed and that part of the ground floor was walled off to house meeting rooms of various sizes. Other than that, the lobby remained a tribute to its original glory. Footsteps echoed in the vast chamber as the employees arrived every morning and left every evening.
In keeping with the style of the building and its era, antiques furnished the conference rooms and halls. Tallboys and spindle-legged tables sat at the sides of the meeting rooms; portraits of long-forgotten Boston VIPs lined the walls in the hallway; the conference tables and chairs themselves were the former, formal dining tables of the 18th and 19th century upper class. Who else would have a table that comfortably sat sixteen?
The number and variety of antiques in the building was impressive. These pieces required special care. The janitorial service employees hired to clean the offices in the upper stories of the building were forbidden to touch the antiques on the ground floor. They could only clean the restrooms and vacuum the floors.
The bank paid a special cleaning service, provided by the supplier of the antiques, to care for the precious items. This service came at night to dust and polish the delicate furnishings. The service charged a great deal, but they were worth it. There was never a speck of dust, an overlooked scratch or a dull sheen on any piece of wood furniture, and the frames of all the portraits were in perfect condition. The cleaning service also provided repair and renovation when needed, and they took away the portraits to be cleaned on a rotating basis.
Working in the bank’s headquarters gave the employees a sense of the history and importance of the institution they worked for. Debra wasn’t sure if anyone else felt this way about the place, but she liked the old-fashioned pieces and enjoyed looking at their intricacies.
She didn’t much like her job. It was boring, and she did it by rote. She often wished her life were more like the crime novels she read. She daydreamed during meetings, which is how she first realized what was going on.
The first time Debra had noticed anything amiss was six weeks ago. She was sitting in the weekly staff meeting, trying not to nod off. The sound of the department manager’s voice made that a challenge. Mr. Cobb’s tone had entirely too much nasal quality, and he spoke in a monotone.
“Why didn’t his parents have his adenoids removed when he was a kid?” Debra wondered for the hundredth time.
A Victorian sideboard stood at the side of the conference room, holding leather cups of pencils and a small pile of notepads. In the middle of the sideboard sat an ornate box. Debra stared at the wood inlays along the top edges of the box lid. The base of the box was rosewood with cameos on the front and had two painted landscape scenes on either side of the box. Debra wasn’t sure what the original purpose of the box had been, but it looked about the size of a cigar humidor.
Her eye was drawn to a cloud in the bucolic scene. From her regular seat at the meeting room’s table, the shadows of the cloud had always reminded her of Uncle Henry. For Debra’s entire childhood, her Uncle Henry had sported a handlebar mustache, white as snow, its ends waxed into precise little points. The cloud in the painted scene curved around in a replica of the left side of Uncle Henry’s mustache.
Debra’s eyes ran over the painted scene and failed to find Uncle Henry’s mustache. She tilted her head a bit. She closed one eye. Debra shifted in her seat, first one way and then another. She rubbed her eyes and looked again.
“Debra, are you okay?” Mr. Cobb asked.
“What? Oh! No, no. Yes, I mean. I’m so sorry. I’m fine.”
Mr. Cobb harrumphed and went back to boring everyone in the room.
Debra did her best to settle herself in her seat and look attentive. Her boss droned on.
Debra kept glancing at the box, wondering why Uncle Henry’s mustache had vanished. There was a definite curve in the cloud, but it wasn’t the same as before. She looked at the sideboard the box was sitting on. Had something changed there? Was the rug under the sideboard the same as before? Maybe the light was different?
The meeting ended, and the employees gathered their things. Debra dawdled over her folders and meeting notes until everyone had left. She walked over to the box to look at it more closely.
Without touching the box, she looked at it from all angles. Uncle Henry’s mustache was definitely gone. The curve of the cloud was not the same. It was close, but no cigar. She chuckled at her humidor humor.
It occurred to her that perhaps the box had been replaced the wrong way around and that she was looking at the other side.
No. The other side had a completely different painted scene. Maybe the box was one of a set and they had somehow gotten switched. She didn’t know why she was obsessing about this. What did it matter, anyway? What could she do about it? Who would she tell? And what would she say?
“Hello! And by the way, what happened to Uncle Henry’s mustache?”
Her brain no longer saw the resemblance, that was all. Brains were weird that way. It had been an optical illusion that she had simply stopped seeing, her rational mind told her.
But she didn’t really believe her rational mind.
Over the next week, Debra took her breaks and her lunch hours in the meeting rooms, staring at the furnishings, portraits and other pieces and jotting down notes. She was searching for imperfections and unique features. She noted that the back, right, carved leg of a Hepplewhite secretary had a splinter of wood missing. Also, the burled wood in a table inlay had three tiny knots near one corner that formed an equilateral triangle. The carved frame of a portrait of an imposing man with thick, steel-gray mutton chops didn’t quite match in the upper left corner. The intricate, curved pattern in the frame was hand chiseled and there was a slight discrepancy where the curves met at the beveled corner.
Debra checked on what she now called “her pieces” every time she was in the conference room area. She couldn’t really explain why she was doing this.
One day, as she hurried down the hall on her way to the monotony of her manager’s weekly meeting, she glanced at the mutton-chops man’s frame and stopped dead in her tracks. It was gone. In its place was another portrait, this one of a tightly corseted woman. This was not unusual. The portraits often got taken away for special cleaning. The problem came two weeks later, when Mr. Mutton Chops returned to his rightful place in the hall.
The frame was not the same frame. Just like the humidor was not the same humidor. She knew this instinctively, like she knew just where the bathroom light in her apartment was in the dark.
It was disconcerting. It gave her the same sense of being off balance that would have resulted if someone had moved her bathroom light switch an inch to the left.
Someone was making copies and replacing the antiques. Why? Was there really a market for them? How would one go about selling them? How much money would these things be worth? Making copies that were good enough to pass as the real thing had to be expensive, too, right? Who buys stolen antiques?
During her lunch break, Debra did several Internet searches trying to find out the answers to her questions, but didn’t get very far.
“Time for direct action,” she thought.
She went to the controller’s office of the bank and told several lies about a fictional maiden aunt in Leominster with a house full of old furniture in desperate need of restoration, in order to get the name of the antiques cleaning service that the bank used.
“There aren’t very many companies like this, are there?” Debra asked the secretary in the controller’s office, “I tried Google, but I couldn’t find anything.”
“There’s only one company like this that I know of,” said the secretary. “In fact, it’s a full-service company. They act as an agent to buy the antiques and they also maintain them and repair them when necessary.”
“Oh, I see,” said Debra. “I wondered how that worked.”
“It’s all in the family,” said the secretary. “I wonder if the bank gets a discount?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh! You don’t know. No wonder you came to me instead of asking him directly. Your boss’s wife owns the antiques company.”
Debra went back to her office, but couldn’t concentrate on her work. Her nasally manager asked her if she was feeling okay, and she told him she wasn’t. She went home early, where she made herself a sandwich and a cup of coffee. She brought them into the living room and put them on the coffee table, where she ignored them. Debra sat on the couch and thought about all she had learned until she noticed that the room was dark. The coffee and sandwich sat untouched at her side. She took them into the kitchen, put them on the counter and got out her laptop. She looked up some things on the Internet, made a few phone calls and appointments. Now that she had a plan, did she have the guts to pull it off?
“Well,” Debra said aloud to the cat, who had been curled up on the arm of the chair for most of the afternoon and evening, “I guess we’ll find out. What do you think, Minnie?”
Minnie yowled, stretched, and headed off toward the kitchen.
“Yes, yes,” said Debra, “I’ll feed you. I’m coming.”
Debra went to meet a recipient of one of her phone calls to talk about putting her plant into action. They met at a Mexican restaurant where Debra ordered two appetizers and an entrée, plus dessert.
“I don’t know why I’m so hungry,” she told her companion. “I made myself a sandwich for lunch.”
Her companion said, “It’s nerves. It makes some people ravenous. The excitement of it. Don’t worry. I’ve got your back on this.”
“Do you think it will work?”
“Yes,” said the man.
They made plans to meet early at a diner before going together to the appointment with her manager’s wife at Colonial Restoration, the company responsible for the buying, maintenance, and theft of the bank’s antiques. As Debra got ready for bed that night, she admitted to herself that she was more than a little impressed with the scam.
The nerve of the entire operation! This woman had bought antiques with the bank’s money and had likely taken a hefty commission for each piece she bought. She charged the bank a monthly fee to clean and maintain the items. She then replaced them with reproductions, probably sold the authentic pieces to someone else for pure profit, since the bank had paid for them in the first place, and continued to charge the bank for taking care of the fake items. The audacity of it was astonishing.
“Okay,” said Debra’s friend the next morning, “Here’s how it’s going to work. We go in and lay it all out for her. We tell her what we know and get her to admit it. I’ve got a recording device. Just don’t tell her I’m a cop. Perps shut up when they know that. Save that for the end.”
“Really?” asked Debra. “Cops say ‘perp’?”
“No. I just said that for your benefit. I thought you might be nervous, and I wanted to make you laugh. We say suspect or subject.”
“I’m not nervous.”
“You should be,” said her friend, “This is why I don’t like working with amateurs. But, I guess I have to in this case. There’s no way I’d get a search warrant on the evidence of ‘my friend says that there’s some funny business because Uncle Henry’s mustache disappeared.’”
“But, you believe me, don’t you, Seth?” asked Debra.
“Yes. I believe you. You’re very observant. You should have been the detective.”
Colonial Antiques was in a run-down office building filled with one-person operations: accountants, lawyers, bail bondsmen and talent agents. The offices were one- and two-room affairs, just big enough to hold a couple of desks and some file cabinets. Some of the two-room offices had their doors open to the hall, showing a tiny reception area. Colonial Antiques must have a warehouse or a repair shop off-site, thought Debra. This office was clearly just for sales appointments and the running of the operation.
Debra and Seth walked up two flights of stairs to the office of Colonial Antiques as the elevator was out of order. The whole place needed a coat of paint and, judging by the smell, a barrel of disinfectant, and a thousand mouse traps. She rang the bell next to the closed door. They got a buzz in return and entered.
Despite the condition of the building itself, the Colonial Antiques office was well-appointed and clean. Someone had obviously painted the walls within the last year. Well-maintained furniture sat in a comfortable grouping. The original wood flooring was in good repair. There was no reception area. The rear of the large room had a desk and several perfectly restored wooden file cabinets. The front of the room had a settee, a leather winged armchair, and a coffee table to one side.
Debra’s manager’s wife came out from behind the desk and held out her hand.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling at them, “I’m Eleanor Cobb. What can I do for you?”
“I know who you are, Mrs. Cobb. I work for your husband at the bank,” said Debra.
“Oh,” Mrs. Cobb said, the smile leaving her face like it was running for a bus, “Did Frank send you?”
“No,” said Debra, “It’s complicated. Can we sit down and discuss it?”
“Certainly,” said Mrs. Cobb, waving her arm in the settee’s direction. “Sit down and tell me all about it.” She sat perched on the edge of the armchair. Debra wasn’t sure if she looked attentive or if she looked like she was ready to bolt at any second.
Jumpy, Debra thought, as she and Seth got comfortable on the settee. Debra quickly reassessed the plan. She looked at Seth. He cocked one eyebrow.
Debra introduced Seth as her friend. He and Mrs. Cobb nodded at each other politely.
“Mrs. Cobb,” said Debra, “I’ll come right to the point. I’ve noticed that reproductions have replaced some antiques that you provided for the bank. I only have two questions. How long have you been running this scam and does Mr. Cobb know about it?”
The other woman slumped down in her chair, her face lost all color. A low moan escaped her lips.
“Oh, God! I knew we’d get caught. I’m relieved to tell you the truth. It wasn’t my idea, I swear! The plan was all Frank. He found the forgers, and he sold the pieces on the black market. He even hired the movers if it was a bulky piece. A different crew each time, so no one would figure out what was happening. My job was just to be the front man here. I would have been perfectly happy to just be an antiques buyer. In fact, I was perfectly happy doing that until I met Frank at the bank one day. He and I started dating and then we got married and he came up with the scam. I asked if we could stop. I asked a bunch of times, but he said no. I’m afraid of him. You won’t tell the police, will you?”
Mrs. Cobb put her head in her hands and sobbed.
Debra and Seth looked at each other. A silent understanding and agreement passed between them.
Seth cleared his throat
“I am the police,” he said, “Mrs. Cobb, I think the best thing would be to come to the station with me and make a statement. If you testify against your husband, your lawyer could make the case that Frank coerced you and that you are afraid of your husband. You’d probably get a suspended sentence and probation if you cooperated with law enforcement. If you agree, I’ll call a squad car to take you to the station to make your statement.”
Mrs. Cobb nodded and pulled herself together somewhat. She seemed relieved.
“Debra,” said Seth, turning to her, “Go home. I’ll call you later.”
Debra was happy to oblige. She jumped up and left as quickly as she could, taking the stairs two at a time. A few hours later, Seth knocked on her door.
“Do you think she’s telling the truth,” Debra asked, “About how the plan was all Mr. Cobb’s?”
“Definitely,” said Seth, “Look how fast she folded. All you did was tell her your suspicions, and she was confessing all of it.”
“Yes,” said Debra, “Wow! Good thing we didn’t go with our original plan.”
“I know,” said Seth, “Demanding a piece of the action probably would have caused her to jump out the window. You really don’t want to go into an illegal business with people who can’t keep their heads.”
© 2020 Liza Cameron Wasser