The hand gently set the bejeweled replica into place. The other hand slowly, inconspicuously slipped the original into a bag deep inside a pocket. The head glanced quickly around. No alarms were sounded. With a decisive turn of the key, the display case was secured once again. The switch had been successful. No turning back now.
Mystery At The Museum
Morning light shone bright on the New Orleans Museum of Art. Jaqueline had to squint her eyes as she walked down the steps of the grand building. She dug a pair of sunglasses out of her purse and walked over to the Sculpture Garden adjacent to the museum. She stopped by a Renoir sculpture and waited for her friend Zoe to arrive.
“Hey Miss ‘Curator of Decorative Arts’! Congrats on your new position!” Zoe exclaimed as she walked up to Jaqueline.
“Well, I don’t know if congratulations are in order. I’m afraid my first two weeks on the job have been eventful — and not in a good way,” Jaqueline replied, wrinkling her forehead.
“What happened?” Zoe asked.
Jaqueline looked around to ensure they were alone, then quietly answered, “One of the Faberge eggs we have in our collection is missing. It had been on loan to a museum in San Francisco. It was returned to us last week. Or, at least we thought it had been returned. The object we received is not the egg we loaned to them. It’s a replica, a very good replica — but I’m still quite embarrassed that it took me
a few days to realize it wasn’t the real thing. I’ve been around those eggs my entire life. I’ve just been so focused on learning all of my new responsibilities. It’s been a little overwhelming.”
“Was this one of your Great Aunt’s Faberge eggs ?” asked Zoe.
“Yes. It was one of the three Imperial Eggs Great Aunt Muriel bequeathed to the museum. Please don’t mention this to anyone yet. The police are the only ones who know about this. We haven’t released any public statements. We’re hoping to keep this under wraps until we find out what happened.”
“Okay. I won’t say anything. Who had access to the egg?”
” Well, right now the police are focusing on the transportation service that handled the egg and they’ve got the San Francisco police on board investigating the museum staff there.” Jaqueline responded. “If none of those pan out, I’m afraid they are going to start looking at me and my staff. I know you hate me to mention this — but those detective skills of yours may come in handy. I might have to clear my name.”
Zoe cringed a bit. Memories of her disastrous private eye days mingled with thoughts of concern for her friend. “Oh Jackie, I’m so sorry. I will do whatever you need me to. I hope it doesn’t get to that point.”
The two friends hugged and then parted ways.
Two days later, another Imperial Egg that the museum had loaned out was returned via a courier hired by the museum’s new transportation service. A police escort accompanied the courier. Jaqueline, her supervisor Celine, and Jaqueline’s assistant Ella were waiting for the courier in Jaqueline’s office.
“Thank you,” Jaqueline said to the courier. “As per our procedure, we all have to personally inspect the egg before you leave. I appreciate your patience.”
After looking over the egg thoroughly, the trio determined it to be the original. Jaqueline signed the required forms and released the courier. Celine escorted the courier and the policeman to the side door of the museum and then walked outside with them. She said goodbye and then announced that she had to run to her car to get the lunch she had packed and then forgotten to bring in earlier that morning.
Jaqueline and Ella remained in the office to complete the paperwork detailing the egg’s return. After the paperwork was completed, Jaqueline stood up and walked over to the other side of the room to grab an empty manila envelope from her file cabinet. After opening up several drawers in her search for the envelopes, she finally opened the correct one.
“I guess it’s going to take me a little while to get used to where everything is,” she remarked, still facing the cabinet.
As she took an envelope out of the drawer, she heard Ella cough really loudly. She turned around to see if Ella was okay.
“I’m alright. I guess I just need some water. I’m going to go to the water fountain for a second. I’ll be right back,” Ella croaked. As she walked out of the office, she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. Jaqueline had walked back over to where the egg was and had one hand on top of its container. Thoughts of the security cameras located in each office and throughout the museum filled Ella’s mind. She knew Jaqueline was aware of this too. She wasn’t going to open the case without someone else in the room. This, Ella trusted to be true.
Jaqueline was thinking about the egg in the case when Ella came back into the office. Ella noticed that the case was closed and locked, just as it had been a few moments before she left for the water fountain.
“This was one of my Great Aunt’s eggs. She had purchased three Imperial Eggs back in the 1930’s. She left them all to the museum when she died a few years ago,” she told Ella.
“Your great aunt was Muriel Nieves?” asked Ella excitedly. “I’m impressed. What are you doing working here? Aren’t you all millionaires?”
“Muriel’s husband William Nieves was the millionaire. Muriel was my grandmother’s sister. Our side of the family was of modest means. Just middle-class, ordinary people!”
Jaqueline and Ella continued chatting as they walked down to the Faberge Egg exhibit. The museum would be opening in a half hour, so they quickly located the display case that was to house the multi-million dollar egg. Jaqueline unlocked the glass door to the case. Ella opened the container that held the egg, gently took it into her hand and placed it onto its velvet perch in the display case. Jaqueline locked the display case. They both walked down to the main security office to return the key.
Once they had signed the key back in, Jaqueline and Ella watched as it was placed into a safe. There was no way that anyone could get it out, not without Celine’s approval.
After an exhaustive investigation of both the transportation service and the San Francisco museum staff, the police had still not been able to figure out what had happened to the missing Faberge Egg. They were in the beginning stages of investigating the New Orleans Museum of Art staff, when they received a phone call. A second Faberge Egg was missing.
Jaqueline panicked when she saw police officers walking into Celine’s office. The last officer closed the door behind him. Jaqueline walked up to the door and strained to hear what was being said.
“I discovered it myself. When I was walking the museum the other day, I stopped by the Faberge Egg exhibit. A minute, shiny piece of metal jutting out on the side of the egg caught my eye. I took it out of the case. It was not the same egg that we received from the courier the other day. Someone replaced the real egg with a replica, just like the other egg that is missing. It looks like this is an inside job, ” Celine was telling the officers.
Jaqueline almost let out a shout of surprise when Celine’s boss, the museum director, tapped her on her shoulder. He motioned her to go on to her office and whispered that he would explain what was going on later. He then joined everyone in Celine’s office.
Jaqueline went to her office. Ella joined her. They both speculated about what was going on. No one had told them about the second missing egg. Several nervous minutes passed before they heard the door to Celine’s office open. They both jumped up and peeked their heads around the corner.
Celine was in handcuffs. The police officers escorted her out of the museum.
The museum director walked toward the shocked faces of Jaqueline and Ella.
“Long story short, a second egg has been stolen. We think Celine stole both,” he said. “Celine is not who we thought she was. We will be doing some more investigating.”
After talking with the director for a few more minutes, Jaqueline and Ella went back to their respective offices. Neither one was able to concentrate on their work. Jaqueline called Zoe and filled her in on what had happened.
“Is there any way you could use some of your connections at the police department to find out the dirt on Celine? I just can’t believe she would risk her job trying to steal the eggs. It just doesn’t make sense. Celine was the one who gave me my first job at the museum. It’s really out of character for her. I know that she had access to the eggs, but I can’t think of any motive she might have to steal them. Do you think you could try to find out what evidence the police have that points to her?” Jaqueline pleaded.
“Well, money is a big motive. You never know about people. I will try to find out some information for you. I can’t promise anything though,” Zoe answered, not wanting to disappoint her friend. Zoe’s contacts at the police department were few and those few were not always eager to share information. She had learned that the hard way back when she ran her private investigation agency. However, one of the contacts was a guy who had had a crush on her back in high school. She might be able to squeeze a little information out of him.
Sgt. Jason Leatherby practically ran around his desk to greet Zoe as she entered the police station.
“Hi!” he said a little too loudly, betraying the shy nervousness he still felt when he was around Zoe. “Do you want to go grab a Po’ Boy? I know a great place around the corner.”
Zoe nodded and they walked to the restaurant. After they had ordered some shrimp Po’ Boys and Zoe had endured several minutes of his small talk, Jason finally got around to sharing what he knew about the museum’s thefts.
“I can’t give you all the information, but your friend’s supervisor Celine has some issues in her past. That was the reason why they picked her up the other day. They really don’t have any concrete proof as to who stole the eggs yet. They suspect that it’s Celine since she’s the only one who would have had the access needed to switch out the eggs without anyone else noticing. After reviewing the security tapes, they’ve found a couple spots that have apparently been erased. One is tape of Jaqueline’s office on the day that the second missing egg was received back into the museum. The beginning of the tape shows the courier and policeman coming into the office and Jaqueline, Ella, and Celine standing up to meet them. Then the tape goes blank. We know that Celine had access to the egg and that she is seen on camera leaving the museum that morning without being scanned to go out to her car. It’s museum protocol for the staff to undergo a body scan and x-ray any items they have on their person before they leave the building. The door she chose to exit through that day was manned by a security guard. It turns out, he was in the restroom at the time she left and had neglected to get someone to cover him. It may just be a coincidence or it may be something that Celine planned. We don’t know yet. The other missing piece of tape is of an earlier time, maybe two or three weeks ago. It shows the Faberge Egg exhibit. It starts off with Ella walking in. The tape cuts out just as another person walks into the room. We think it’s either Celine or Jaqueline. Since Celine was allowed access to the tapes, we think she somehow erased the tapes to hide evidence of what happened to the eggs. Those eggs had to have disappeared during the times that the tape was erased. The cameras covered the Faberge exhibit 24 hours a day. Every other moment recorded is normal.”
After lunch, Zoe walked Jason back to the station. She pulled her cell out of her purse and called Jaqueline. They arranged to meet at the museum and then go out to dinner that evening. Just as Zoe was about to tell her about the security tapes being erased, their phone call was interrupted. One of the museum employees knocked on Jaqueline’s office door. The director wanted Jaqueline to come to his office. They cut the call short and Zoe promised to tell Jaqueline the rest of what Jason had told her when they met for dinner later.
Two police detectives greeted Jaqueline when she entered the museum director’s office. They questioned her about the day that the second egg arrived. Jaqueline recounted the events of that morning, emphatically insisting that Celine could not have done the crime. Jaqueline herself had been with the egg all morning. It did not leave the case until they put it in its place in the exhibit.
While Jaqueline was being questioned, Ella was down the hall with two other detectives. They were asking her the same questions. Ella’s answers were identical to those of Jaqueline, except she added something that Jaqueline had neglected to mention. She told the detectives that Jaqueline had been in her office alone with the egg for at least a few minutes. She recalled having the coughing fit and leaving the office to get a drink of water from the water fountain in the hall. She had seen Jaqueline’s hand on the container the egg was in, as she walked out of the room. Jaqueline had had enough time to hide the egg and switch it out with the replica.
Around 5pm that evening, Zoe was walking through the Sculpture Garden on her way to meet Jaqueline at the front of the museum. She passed by a really bizarre mid-century modern piece and stopped to admire it. She was about to continue walking when she heard a man’s voice quietly say “eggs”. She looked over and noticed that a guy was talking on a cell phone on the other side of the sculpture. On a hunch, she decided to listen to the rest of the conversation. She could only make out parts of the conversation because his voice was just barely above a whisper.
“We just have to do this one more time. I’ve got it all set up — you’ll know when — you CAN do this — it’s gotta be tomorrow. Those mafia guys are serious. If I don’t get this egg for them — I’m dead. I need you. After it’s done, we’ll go off together, I promise. I’ll meet you at — .”
His voice trailed off and Zoe realized he was walking in the opposite direction of the museum. She tried to discreetly keep up with him, straining to hear what he was saying. She heard him say “Jaqueline”, but couldn’t hear the rest. Her heart dropped. Surely he wasn’t talking TO Jaqueline. She didn’t dare to think her friend had anything to do with the thefts.
The guy stopped for a second and turned around toward the museum. Zoe was too far away to hear what he was saying but could see he was still on the phone. She didn’t want to take any chances of being seen, so she dodged quickly behind a big sculpture and dug her cell out. She snapped a picture of him right before he turned away from the museum and continued walking.
Just then, Zoe spotted Jaqueline coming out of the museum with her cell phone to her ear. Jaqueline saw Zoe and waved. She ended her call and walked toward Zoe.
Zoe looked around. The guy was gone. She quickly sent the picture she took of the guy to Jason. Then she texted him what she had heard the guy say and that she would call him tonight. Jaqueline walked up just as Zoe was typing in her last word.
During dinner with Jaqueline, Zoe did not share all of the information Jason had given her. She was ashamed to admit it, but she was starting to suspect that her
friend was involved in the thefts. She made an excuse about being tired and ended dinner early.
Zoe had not received any texts or calls from Jason all night. When she got home, she double-checked to make sure that she had texted the information to the right number. She had. She looked at the picture she had taken in the Sculpture Garden. Something caught her eye that she hadn’t noticed earlier. The guy was wearing a white shirt with the security staff emblem on it. He was part of museum security!
She called Jason’s office and home numbers. No answer. She finally got a hold of him on his cell. He thanked her for the picture and the information, but stated that he couldn’t share anything else he knows with her at this time.
“I understand, ” Zoe said. She knew that he was just being careful.
Zoe was friends with Jaqueline, but she wasn’t going to let her friend get away with something that was against the law. With mixed feelings, she said, “You all are going to do something about tomorrow, right? That guy did say it was happening tomorrow.”
“We have everything covered, Zoe. I’ve got to get off of the phone now,” Jason stated abruptly and hung up.
Zoe slipped into the museum with a tour group first thing the next morning. She didn’t want Jaqueline to see her. All day, she tried her best to be inconspicuous and blend in with all of the museum visitors. By late afternoon, she started to wonder if the deed had been done and she had just missed it. Where were the police?
Plainclothes police officers were doing a good job blending in with the crowds. For several hours, they discreetly kept watch over Jaqueline, the security person Zoe had photographed in the Sculpture Garden, and the Faberge Egg exhibit. They waited patiently for something to happen.
Ella looked at the clock in her office. It was 4pm. Time for Jaqueline to leave for a last minute public relations function Ella had conveniently arranged for her to attend in a restaurant down in the French Quarter. Ella watched as Jaqueline walked down the hall toward one of the side exit doors. A guard scanned Jaqueline with a handheld wand and then slipped her purse and jacket through the mini x-ray machine. Everything cleared. Jaqueline left. As soon as she exited the building, all except two of the plainclothes officers followed her down to the French Quarter. She had no clue that she was being followed.
Zoe didn’t realize Jaqueline had left the building. She was standing by a Monet painting, when she heard alarms going off in another area of the museum. It’s happening, she thought. She dreaded the thought of seeing her friend caught in the act. She sadly started walking in the direction of the alarm.
Ella heard the alarm. She put her hands around the fake egg in her pocket. The security guy Zoe photographed the day before showed up at her door and escorted her to the main security office. He explained to the lady at the desk that there was an alarm malfunction and that they needed the key to the Faberge Egg display case. The lady retrieved the key from the safe and handed it to Ella.
The museum director cordoned off the exhibit and instructed all the museum visitors to stay in an adjacent hall while an alarm issue was investigated. Ella and the security guy went separate ways after they left the security office. The security guy rushed to the electric box that controlled the lights in the egg exhibit. Ella rushed to the display case. She waited for the lights to go out, and then started to switch the eggs. Suddenly, the lights came back on. The two remaining plainclothes officers were pointing their guns at her. The security guy came up behind the police officers. He pointed a gun and demanded that the police drop theirs. They didn’t. They turned around and pointed their guns at him. He made a run for the display case. They shouted for him to stop as he deftly grabbed the real egg from Ella’s hand and then pulled her body to his.
“I’ll shoot her if you don’t put your guns down,” he yelled at the police officers.
The officers put their guns down. The security guy ran to the closest emergency exit, threw Ella to the ground and then raced out of the building.
He didn’t get far. Some of the cops who had been tailing Jaqueline had double backed to the museum when they were notified that the alarm had been triggered. They surrounded the guy and he threw down his gun. The egg was safely taken away from him and returned to the museum.
After being examined by the cops to make sure she wasn’t injured, Ella was also taken into police custody. Jaqueline was questioned and then released. The police no longer believed she had anything to do with the thefts.
Zoe, Jaqueline, and Jason met up at Zoe’s house the next morning. Jason filled them in on what had transpired at the station the night before.
“Ella decided to admit all after we promised that her sentence would be lighter if she told us the truth and would testify against her accomplice in court. It turns out that she met him at the museum and they had been dating for several months. The guy had told Ella to keep their relationship a secret because he didn’t think the museum would approve of them seeing each other because it just wasn’t professional. This, of course, was a bunch of bull, but Ella fell for it. A few weeks before Jaqueline began her new position, the guy started telling Ella some story about being in trouble with the mafia and that if he didn’t come up with the money they wanted soon, they were going to kill him. He then told her that he had offered to give the thugs three of the valuable Faberge Eggs instead since he didn’t have any money. The eggs were worth more than the amount of money he owed them, so they agreed. At least that was his story. Ella fell for that too. She did everything he told her to do. She had one of her artist friends make replicas of the Faberge Eggs they planned to steal. She also purchased some x-ray proof bags off of the internet. When the first egg was returned from the San Francisco museum, Ella hid the replica in the front inside pocket of the bulky blazer she was wearing that day. She then offered to put the egg back in the display case.”
“Both Celine and I were in the room when she did that. We watched her walk over to the case. How did we miss her making the switch?” Jaqueline interrupted.
Jason continued, ” She was pretty sly. She waited until you and Celine were discussing the new alarms that had recently been put on egg displays and how you all could disable certain ones at certain times, like how the display that held the egg you all had just received was now disabled. Your backs were slightly turned toward her for a few moments. She quickly took out the replica, set it in the display, and slipped the real egg into an x-ray proof bag in the inside pocket of her blazer. So that it wouldn’t appear too bulky, she pretended to be hot and took off her blazer, folded it over her arm and walked out of the exhibit. When she left the building that day, she folded her blazer over again to fit into the mini x-ray machine. The machine that you all use is not really powerful, so the special bag that she had placed the egg in prevented it from being detected. “
“But what about the second egg? I was with her the entire time we had the egg in the office. When we took the egg out to the exhibit, I held the container and watched her put the egg into the display case. When did she manage to switch that egg out?” Jaqueline asked.
“She did it while you all were in your office. It was after Celine had left. Do you remember getting up to get the manila envelope?” Jason asked.
“Oh, you can’t be serious! I feel so stupid. It did take me a while to find the envelope,” exclaimed Jaqueline. ” I remember her coughing and getting up to get some water.”
“Yes. She coughed loudly to disguise the noise the egg container made when she was closing it back up after she quickly took out the real egg and replaced it with the duplicate. She hid the real egg in her sweater and instead of getting water when she left your office she went down to her office and hid the egg. She used the same x-ray proof bag she had used for the first one to get the second egg out of the building.”
“What about the guy who got her to do all of this? Who is he?” Zoe asked.
“You’ll find this pretty interesting,” Jason said, looking directly at Jaqueline.
“Why?” she asked.
“Well, he might be related to you. His name is Nicholas Evans. He says William Nieves is his grandfather. Nicholas’ mother is possibly William’s illegitimate daughter. We’re going to be checking out his story. It seems to be true, though.”
While Jaqueline was trying to digest that bombshell, Jason went on. “Like I was saying before, Nicholas was telling Ella that he needed the eggs to pay off the mafia. We had a hard time getting him to admit the truth to us. He stuck by his mafia story thinking we might go easy on him. We didn’t. After some persistent questioning, he finally admitted the truth. He had planned to steal all the eggs that Muriel had donated to the museum and sell them on the black market. He felt that Muriel had given away his mom’s inheritance and that he was going to get it back. He did have some serious debt, though. Chances are he was not going to be sharing any of the money with his mother.”
“I had heard rumors about William but no one in my family knew if they were true or not. I don’t know. I think I’ll have to see some proof before I believe someone like that is related to me!” Jaqueline said incredulously.
“So, have they found the other two eggs?” Zoe asked Jason, concerned that Nicholas may have already sold them.
“Yes. They found the eggs stashed in his apartment. Luckily Nicholas wasn’t really acquainted with the black market. He couldn’t find any buyers. He’s actually a straight and narrow kind of guy. He’s never been charged or convicted with any other crimes. That’s how he was able to land the security job at the museum. As part of the security team, he had access to the security tapes. He was the one who erased those missing parts on the tapes, not Celine.”
“Speaking of Celine, since the thefts have been solved, can you tell us the big secret about her? Has she been released or is she still in custody? What did she do in her past that was so bad that you all had to arrest her?” Jaqueline asked.
“Well, the investigation into her past crimes is open, so I still can’t tell you everything. But, I can tell you her name is not Celine and that she probably won’t be outside of a jail cell anytime in the near future. We’re actually pretty lucky Ella and Nicholas stole the eggs. Celine has been around a lot longer and is more of a con artist than either of those two. If we had not caught her, she may have pulled a heist involving items much bigger and possibly more valuable than the Faberge Eggs.” Jason answered.
“Well, congrats to Zoe! Without her overhearing Nicholas on the phone, he and Ella may not have been caught! I might be sitting in jail with Celine right about now. See — your detective skills DID come in handy!” Jaqueline said as she leaned over to hug her friend.
Zoe just smiled.