From time to time, in my profession, someone will mention what is considered the "ultimate" case -- the so-called locked door mystery. It's a story meant to impress people. I certainly don't have anything else to impress with, even if it moved me to impress anyone.
Let's up the ante. In my case, the door happened to be about a foot thick and with more security than any sane individual would believe was necessary. I'm talking about a vault, in a Las Vegas casino, that had a huge ruby stolen from it. So my story begins with the ultimate door, and the highest stakes, of any locked door story other investigators will tell you.
Why did they call me instead of the police? Casinos that get robbed can rarely afford to have it broadcast on national television. Why did they call my sorry butt in? An old friend remembered we were colleagues once, knew I had to pay rent on my office sooner or later, and threw me a bone. Finding it wasn't the problem -- figuring out how it was done was all the casino owners cared about.
Of course, they would only be told about it once everything was confirmed. After all, no one was looking to get fired over this sort of thing. It looks terrible on a resumé, let me tell you. It's why I had to go solo. No one would hire me after I got fired from my security position, so I became my own boss.
So off I go to one of the latest additions to the Las Vegas skyline, the Continental Tower. Over two thousand suites and twice as many slots. Payouts were extremely rare, from what I'd been told. In short, they were cheap, trying to make the money they owed from building the place as quickly as possible.
It's not unheard of, for casinos to configure slots to keep massive payouts from occurring. The tables, where most of the money flowed, were already set up with sucker bets and alcoholics a-plenty. That money was nearly guaranteed. In the five minutes I watched a game of roulette, I saw enough money lost to pay my rent for a decade. Samson, my friend and the head of security at the Continental, met me at the table before I could watch even more money get tossed away.
"Thought you didn't like gambling," Samson said. Big, burly Samson looked like he could do everything the Biblical Samson could do, dwarfing me in every respect.
"I don't play," I replied sharply. "I was born to lose."
He chuckled, knowing I wasn't kidding in the least. "Well, this time you've hit the jackpot. We don't want you doing anything stupid or dangerous. We just want to know how it was done."
"Sure. That I can do." We began walking to the doors leading downstairs to the secret guts of the hotel.
"I'm telling you, this is some Houdini stuff. They got past four cameras, two guards and a foot-thick vault door. They've done the impossible."
"There are over one hundred fifty cameras on the casino floor alone," I huffed. "People still get pickpocketed in here."
"The cameras are on the tables and slots. We can't have them following everyone that comes in here. I'm telling you, from my experience, the vault is too well-guarded for anyone to get in without raising the alarm."
"But someone did. And you think this criminal mastermind, or team, is any better than a petty thief? It's the same routine, the same job with more to do and more to lose." I stopped abruptly for dramatic effect, and said: " If you can break into a piggy bank, you can break into a vault."
"Alright. Show me."
We had to pass the guard post and walk a thin corridor filled with cameras before reaching the monster. It was a solid steel brick about ten feet square. I winced. The sheer impenetrability of it was intimidating.
"Tell me what happened," I said, looking at the solid white walls of the corridor. I felt like they were closing in on us.
"Got an anonymous call at the security desk telling us that a ruby, on loan for a display, was stolen the night before. We checked out the vault, it was really gone. No equipment was tampered with -- cameras checked out fine, and the vault door hadn't been opened. We've got sensors that detect that. Those are in perfect working order, too."
"Who had access to the phone number to the security desk?"
"The camera feed?"
"Who else besides yourself went into the vault to check it?"
"Four of my guards. We had to check everything to make sure only the jewel was stolen."
"The ruby. I'll need details on that in order to track it down on the street."
"No. You're only here to tell us how it was done, remember?"
"Oh, that part's easy. Can you open the vault for me?"
After a laborious three minutes of codes and spinning and evaluations, Samson opened the vault door. You could play football in that vault. I looked at Samson and smiled. "See how easy? I just got access to your vault, and all I had to do was ask."
"What do you mean?"
"I keep telling folks there's no such thing as the perfect locked-door mystery. At some point, someone opens something. In this case, it's the door."
"Well, that's apparent. But how?"
"Samson, you're the one who opened it."
"Are you accusing me?" I suddenly realized that my attempt at showing off was about to make me intimately familiar with a linebacker's best tackle.
"Hold on. Let me back up and walk you through it."
"Please." His tone was dark and foreboding. I got the hint, playtime was over.
"The call, most likely from one of the two thousand rooms, was a ruse to get you to check the vault. You opened it, as the thief knew you had to, and that was when the ruby was actually stolen."
"You're accusing one of my men, then?"
"In particular, the one who discovered it missing. I'm assuming he took the day off? He could have just as easily worked all week, until the jewel got sold. Something like that isn't easy to sell, and I doubt he had a buyer lined up. But, this is Vegas, after all. Debt is a currency here."
"Wait, slow down--!"
I strutted into the vault as we spoke, with Samson following close behind. "A new casino on the Strip, struggling to pay off its debts. A security team starving on what they get paid. A guard who sees an opportunity to steal the ruby, with no idea what to do with it. His advantages? A badge, a phone and a head of security following procedure."
"We'll get the video and see. I only mentioned the cameras outside the vault. There are four inside here as well."
I paced around for a bit, impressed with the vault and its vast size. It was immaculate, too; I've seen filthier hospitals. Metal lockboxes lined the walls from top to bottom, with only the smallest space between them. I noticed the cameras he spoke of, easily covering the entire vault floor.
"I'm assuming the jewel was small? So, he palmed it. He shielded the lockbox with his body while he removed the ruby." I mimed the process for Samson to demonstrate the idea. "Then, he put it in his pocket once he was out of sight. We're in a city filled with magicians, after all. It's possible I could learn palming in ten minutes from a street performer."
"But, I think, there's still time to catch him. He and his accomplice might have planned all of this too quickly --"
"He passed off the ruby to get it out of the building. He had someone waiting to leave with it. I'm thinking a girlfriend or wife, someone he could trust completely. If anything happened to the thief, at least the ruby would be in their possession. So, yes -- accomplice. Pretty good for my first locked door mystery, huh?"
"Brilliant. Now, if I can tell you a story...?"
What was this about? I wondered, wincing from surprise. "Sure."
"Debt is a currency here in Vegas. Take for example, a private dick with a whole lot of it. He comes up with an idea when he sees a ruby nearly the size of a fist in a display case on the promenade. He can't perform the task himself, but he knows how it can be done. He has experience in hotel security, so he knows all of our procedures. He calls on an old friend who's a security guard at the hotel. These two old colleagues discuss a scheme to steal that ruby. The security guard swipes it, and his girlfriend carries it out of the building. Your part of the plan was to sell it."
I winced again, this time really hard.
"And, to top it all off, the head of security calls that dick in to explain everything. He can't resist the chance to interfere with the investigation. What he doesn't realize is that the only reason he got called in was because he was the primary suspect.
"But, like all criminals, you got too clever. The guard and his girlfriend are already in custody, so I never needed you to go after them. You tried to use me to get them out of your way. Didn't you think they would give you up in a heartbeat for less time in prison? I called you in so that the police would have time to search your house and office. Metro will find evidence leading to the ruby. So, I suppose the next locked door mystery you have to solve is upstate -- in prison."
Damn. As I said, I was born to lose.