Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 114, May 1953
It takes a thief
by Arthur Miller
Another story, this time in a lighter vein, by the brilliant author of the internationally acclaimed play, “Death of a Salesman”... a story that presents a problem no citizen of this country, or any country in the world, need worry about — providing, of course, he or she is a good citizen...
Some people are laughing in our neighborhood these nights, but most of us are just waiting, like the Sheltons. It is simply unbelievable, it came out so right.
Here is this man, Mr. Shelton, a middle-aged man with what they call a nice family and a nice home. Ordinary kind of businessman, tired every night, sits around on Sundays, pinochle and so on. The point is, he’s been doing all right the past few years. Automobiles. His used cars were shipped to California, Florida — wherever the war plants were springing up. Did fine. Then the war ended. The new cars started coming through and then the strikes made them scarce. But people wanted them very badly. Very, very badly. He did fine. Very, very fine.
One night not long ago he and his wife decided to take in a night club, and she put on her two diamond rings, the bracelet, and some of her other frozen cash, and they locked up the house — the children are all married and don’t live home any more — and they were off for a trip to the city.
Nobody knows what they did in the city, but they stayed out till 3 in the morning. Late enough for Shelton to get a headful. The drive home was slow and careful because the car was one of his brand-new ones and he couldn’t see too well in his condition. Nevertheless, when he put the key in the front-door lock he was able to notice that the door swung open at a touch, whereas it usually took some jiggling of the latch. They went in and turned on the living-room lights, and then they saw it.
The drawer of the desk was lying on the floor, and the rug was littered with check stubs and stationery. The Sheltons rushed into the dining room and saw at once that the sterling-silver service was gone from the massive serving table. Shelton clutched at his heart as though he were going to suffocate, and Mrs. Shelton thrust her fingers into her hair and screamed. At this stage, of course, there was only the sensation that an alien presence had passed through their home. Perhaps they even imagined that the thief was still there. In wild fright they ran to the stairs and up to their bedroom, and Shelton tripped and fell over a bureau drawer that the thief had left on the threshold. Mrs. Shelton helped him up and made him lie down on the colonial bed and she massaged his heart while they both looked anxiously toward the closet door, which stood open.
When he had caught his breath, he pushed her aside and went into the closet and turned on the light. She crowded in beside him as soon as she saw the terrible expression on his face. The safe. The little steel safe that had always stood in the corner of the closet covered with dress boxes and old clothes, the safe was looking up at them from the corner with its door open. Shelton simply stood there panting. It was Mrs. Shelton who got to her knees and felt inside.
Nothing. Nothing was left. The safe was empty. Mrs. Shelton, on her knees in the closet, screamed again. Perhaps they felt once more the presence, the terrifying presence of the thief, for they rushed one behind the other down the stairs, and Shelton picked up the telephone.
The instrument shook in his hand as he bent over close to the dial and spun it around. Mrs. Shelton moved up and down beside him, clasping and unclasping her hands and weeping. “Oh, my God!”
“Police!” Shelton roared into the telephone as soon as he heard the operator’s calm voice. “My house has been robbed. We just got home and—”
His voice caught Mrs. Shelton just as she was about to dig her fingers into her hair again. For an instant she stood perfectly still, then she turned suddenly and swung her arm out and clapped her hand over Stelton’s mouth. Infuriated, he attempted to knock her hand away. Then his eyes met hers. They stood that way, looking into each other’s eyes; and then Shelton’s hand began to shake violently and he dropped the telephone with a loud bang onto the marble tabletop and collapsed into a high-backed, Italian-type chair. Mrs. Shelton replaced the telephone on its cradle as the operator’s anxious voice flowed out of it.
They were both too frightened to speak for a few minutes. The same thing was rushing through their heads and there was no need to say what it was. Only a solution was needed, and neither of them could find it. At last Mrs. Shelton said, “You didn’t give the operator the name or address. Maybe—”
“We’ll see,” he said, and went into the living room and stretched out on the couch.
Mrs. Shelton went to the front windows and drew the shades. Then she came back to the couch and proceeded to walk up and down beside it, her breasts rising and falling with the heavy rhythm of her breathing.
Nothing happened for nearly an hour. They even made a pass at undressing, just as though he had not shouted frantically into the telephone that his house had been robbed. But they were hardly out of their clothes when the doorbell rang. In dressing gown and slippers Shelton went down the stairs with his wife behind him. In the presence of strangers he always knew how to look calm, so much so that when he opened the door and let the two policemen in, he appeared almost sleepy.
The question of his having hung up without giving his name was cleared away first: He had been too excited to give that detail to the operator. The officers then went about inspecting the premises. That completed, Shelton and his wife sat in the living room with them and gave a detailed description of the seven pieces of jewelry that had been taken from the safe, and the silver service, and the old Persian lamb coat, and the other items, all of which were noted in a black-covered pad that one policeman wrote in. When Shelton had closed the door behind the two officers, he stood thinking for a while, and his wife waited for his word. Finally he said, “We’ll report the jewelry to the insurance company tomorrow.”
“What about the money?”
“How can I mention the money?” She knew there was no answer to that one, but it was hard, nevertheless, to give up $91,000 without a complaint.
In bed they lay without moving. Thinking. “What’ll we do,” she asked, “if they find the crook and he’s still got the money?”
A long time later, Shelton said, “They never catch thieves.”
Eight days passed, in fact, before Shelton’s opinion was proved wrong. The telephone rang at dinnertime. He covered the mouthpiece with his palm and turned to his wife. “They want me to come down and identify the stuff.” There was a quavering note in his voice.
“What about the money?” she whispered.
“They didn’t mention the money,” he said, questioning her with his eyes.
“Maybe tell them you’re too sick to go now.”
“I’ll have to go sometime.”
“Try to find out first if they found the money.”
“I can’t ask them, can I?” he said angrily, and turned again to the telephone and said he would be right over.
He drove slowly. The new, purring engine, the $1900 car for which he could easily get 4,000 cash carried him effortlessly toward the police station. He drove slumped in the scat. As though to rehearse, he kept repeating the same sentence in his mind: I am simply a dealer, I am simply a dealer; I keep that much cash on hand to buy cars with. It sounded all right, businesslike. But was it possible they were that dumb? Maybe. They were just plain cops. Plain cops might not realize that 91,000 was too much to have in a safe for that purpose. And still, it was possible they would not stumble on the truth at all, not know that cash in a home safe was probably not entered on any ledger or income-tax form. Cops did not know much about big money, he felt. And yet — $91,000. Oh! $91,000! His insides grew cool at the thought of it. Not 20,000, or 40,000, not even 75,000, but $91,000. His retirement, his whole future ease, his very sureness of gait lay entirely in that money. It had become a tingling sensation for him, a smell, a feeling, a taste — $91,000 cash money in his safe at home. He had even stopped bothering to read the papers in the past year. Nothing that happened in the world could touch him while he had $91,000 in his closet.