By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, Janaury 11, 1947
“Well, of all the nerve!” murmured Jimmie Frise in my ear.
“Mmmm?” I inquired.
“Did you see that?” hissed Jim more sharply. “Did you see that guy calmly pick up my parcel?”
“Uh?” I said, removing my attention from the counter where Jim and I were inspecting fleece-lined gloves.
“My green parcel!” whispered Jim. “See? That big guy at the end of the counter….”
At the end of the counter, a big fellow was pausing casually to look at some merchandise. Along with another smaller parcel, he was carrying Jim’s green package containing a beautiful llama wool sport cap of the kind the Swiss hunters wear, a sort of round wool cap that can be pulled down around the neck and ears. Grand for rabbit hunting at this time of year.
“He was standing here beside us,” whispered Jim hurriedly. “I’d laid my parcel down. Just as he walked away, I noticed my parcel gone….”
“Go and ask him for it!” I commanded promptly. “Before he gets away.”
“Nix,” said Jim, “let’s follow the guy. Let’s watch him operate. It’ll be an education.”
“It’ll be a story,” I corrected. “Okay. Now don’t let him see we’re on to him.”
We went ahead examining gloves. Out of the corners of our eyes we watched the big guy stalling around. Obviously he was stalling. He was waiting to see if we would miss the green package and raise an outcry. In which case he could easily plead he had picked the parcel up with his other, by mistake.
“He’s waiting,” murmured Jim guardedly, “for a bunch of people to come by in the aisle and then he’ll just melt into the crowd.”
“Okay,” I agreed. “Don’t let’s lose him.”
“We can’t lose him,” said Jim. “Imagine a guy the size of that engaging in shoplifting! Why, he’s as conspicuous as a moose.”
“And intimidating,” I submitted. “Lots of people, even if they suspected him, would be a little leery of tackling a man that size.”
At which moment, just as we expected, a little crowd of people came down the wide aisle of the store. And as smooth as silk, the big fellow quietly swung in with them and started away.
“Heh, heh, heh,” I chuckled, as Jim and I, without hurry, calmly fell in pursuit.
“The nerve of him!” admired Jim. “Look, he doesn’t ever try to conceal the parcel. Look, he’s carrying it more conspicuously than the other.”
“Aplomb,” I said. “A shoplifter, or any other kind of crook for that matter, has to have aplomb.”
“What the heck is aplomb?’ inquired Jim.
We Study the Master
“It’s self-possession, sort of,” I explained, as we casually strolled along in the shopping crowd, our victim fair in view. “The word aplomb comes from the same root as plummet. It means perpendicular. Straight up and down. A hotel doorman has aplomb. A bishop has aplomb. This guy has aplomb. Look at the proud, self-possessed way he carries himself! A successful crook always has that air. An unsuccessful crook cringes, is bent over, looks anxious. You can see he is a crook. But this kind of smooth operator is always ready to carry off any accident with the greatest assurance. I bet he wiggles out of 100 per cent of the cases in which he is caught in the act.”
He had paused at the notions counter. He was slowly moving, a step at a time, along the counter, studying with rapt attention the cards of buttons, the cards of hooks and eyes, dome fasteners.
“See!” hissed Jimmie, as we too slowed along the opposite side of the aisle. “See that woman ahead of him? And that expensive-looking package she’s carrying? Well, wait till she lays it down!”
We watched covertly with bated breath.
“What art!” I breathed. “What technique! The guy is a master. He knows that in the notions counter women are always picking things up, and in order to pick things up, they’ve got to lay things down. How much do you bet he gets that expensive-looking package?”
“By the look of that package,” assessed Jim. “I figure she’s got a $15 bed-jacket. Or maybe one of those $20 cashmere cardigans …”
Slowly, the unsuspecting lady, with the parcel tucked under her arm, moved along the notions counter, peering at everything, the spools, the safety pins, the knitting needles. And slowly behind her, moving with the greatest indifference, lost in contemplation of the trivial things on the counter, drifted the big man.
She halted. The man halted. She picked up a large spool of colored elastic. She studied it intently. She made as if to take the package from under her arm. We stiffened.
But she suddenly changed her mind and tossed the elastic back and walked briskly on. The man followed. When the lady turned right at the end of the notions counter, the big fellow paused, and then turned left.
“He takes his time,” admired Jim, as we followed, at leisure. “No ordinary packages for him. He only chooses the best.”
“What a queer hobby!” I mused. “It’s sort of like gambling. He never knows what he’s getting until he gets home.”
We followed him up the main aisle, and then began a most fascinating chase. He went to the escalator and took it up. At a discreet distance, we followed.
“Do you think he’d recognize us following him?” I inquired.
“Not him,” said Jim. “He’s like a hound on the scent. He’s like a setter at point. Each job, once done, is forgotten in favor of a new victim…”
The Vulnerable Point
“But look here, Jim, how about your llama cap?” I demanded. “At what stage are you going to get that green parcel back? If by any chance he did see us, and recognize us as the two guys he stuck down there at the glove counter, he might make a sudden dive into an elevator or something … Or he might even chuck your green parcel out a window.”
“Hmmmm,” said Jim uneasily. “I don’t want to lose that $3 cap. Let’s keep a closer watch …”
So instead of following 30 feet behind, we moved up to about 15 feet.
He was marvellous. He got off the escalator at the third floor and wandered straight over to the ladies’ lingerie department. If there is any place the ladies lay their parcels down, it is in the lingerie department. No lady is ever satisfied merely to look at lingerie. She’s got to feel it, finger it, twiddle the silk between her fingers. And to do that, she’s got to put her parcels down on a counter.
“I wonder if he takes purses?” I suggested.
“I wouldn’t think so,” said Jim. “Purses are too easily identified, too immediately noticed if gone. Ladies don’t often lay down their purses, even when they set down all their packages. And besides, there is never very much in a woman’s purse. Maybe $3 or $4. No, it’s parcels this guy is after. They’re easily explained a mistake, madam, a mistake! I’m very sorry! With that aplomb …”
We followed the big fellow around the lingerie department. He was a superb actor. He paused here and there to examine various garments with that shy and slightly self-conscious air a man uses in the lingerie.
When the masterful salesladies of the lingerie department came and spoke to him, he just smiled, shook his head and wandered on.
Two or three times, we thought we were about to witness a snatch. Ladies did lay parcels down and wander a few feet away. The big guy DID pause, long enough to cast his practised eye over the packages. But apparently none of them were good enough to merit his attention.
“I guess an expert,” said Jim, “can tell at a glance what’s in a parcel.”
We followed him up to the fourth floor, then to the fifth. He went with unerring instinct to the departments where people set parcels down. The wool department. No lady can buy wool with other packages in her arms. She must feel the wool, fondle it.
The china department. Several people laid themselves open, became vulnerable here. To examine a tea cup or a cheese dish, you’ve got to lay your parcels down. The big fellow moved calmly about the china department, pausing here, pausing there; and we could see, in each instance, just which victim he was appraising.
In the china department, he startled us by actually buying something. He bought a green glass beer mug with a wooden handle.
“Hmmm,” said Jim, puzzled. “Do you suppose by any chance he has spotted us following him around? Do you think this little purchase is intended to throw us off the scent?”
“Jim,” I urged, as we retreated a little way in confusion, “let’s get it over with now. Either walk right up to him and demand the parcel back, or else get a floor-walker to act for us. The floor-walker can do it very nicely, no scene …”
“Are you afraid of that big lug?” Jim demanded meanly.
“Well, there’s no use getting punched on the nose,” I submitted.
One on Him!
“Listen, all we’ll do,” said Jim, covertly watching the rascal as he calmly awaited his parcel and change, “is walk up to him quietly and ask him what is in the green parcel. Tell him we saw him pick up our parcel and have followed him all over the store. That’ll frighten him. He’ll know we’re on to him. When we ask him what’s in the green parcel, of course he won’t know. Whatever he says, we’ll say it’s a llama wool cap. We’ll demand he open it, or we’ll call the store detectives…”
“Look!” I exclaimed. “I’ve got a better idea, Jim. Why not serve him his own trick? Why not US pinch your green parcel off HIM?”.
“Eh!” Jim checked.
“Let’s,” I said with increasing excitement, “beat him at his own game! Let’s tag on to him until he lays HIS parcels down and quietly snatch yours back.”
Jim looked speculatively over to where the big crook was standing with his back to us, awaiting his parcel. He had, for a fact, laid his other parcels down. Jim’s green one was on top.
“That,” chuckled Jim suddenly, “is an idea! Imagine his feelings when he finds the green parcel gone! He’ll be in a panic …”
At which moment, the salesgirl came back and gave him the beer mug which, after a moment, he stuffed into his overcoat pocket. Then he meandered over to the elevator and took it down to the main floor, us packed beside him in the car. It was breathtaking to be this close to the scoundrel. For there, just under my nose, and not a foot from Jim’s, was Jim’s green parcel brazenly exposed. Oh, it was exciting!
We let him off first. He led us to the perfume counter. He laid his two parcels down, green one on top. He spoke jokingly to a salesgirl, and she proceeded to let him sniff a variety of perfume bottles.
It was an odd sight. This big goof going through all the ecstasies, and refinements of selecting an itty-bitty bottle of perfume…
I cased the joint. Jim moved over to protect me from the off side. Just as the big guy flirtatiously closed his eyes in sniffing, I reached out smoothly and, all in one sweet swipe, picked the green package off the counter, moved on and handed the parcel to Jim. Without pause, we went straight out the main door and down Yonge St.
Our hearts were beating wildly. Our breath was coming fast. But it was with laughter we were bursting.
“What a joke!” bellowed Jim as we got out into the winter air. “Boy, I’d like to see that guy’s face right now…”
Who Robbed Who?
We went into a coffee shop for our 11 o’clock pot of tea and relaxed. Ah, it was delightful! There is nothing more enlivening to the humdrum life of modern society than a little excursion like this into the realm of the unusual, the bizarre…
I got my tea and sat back. From my coat pocket I took my own package and opened it to have a look at the muffler I had bought.
Jim, with doting fingers, undid his green parcel to try on the llama cap.
It WASN’T a llama cap!
It was a lady’s bright blue nightgown!
“Oh, my gosh…” gasped Jim, struggling to his feet. “Oh, OH, my gosh!”
We stood transfixed with horror.
“What do we do?” moaned Jim. “What do we DO!”
“The.. uh… who … aw …” I explained.
“Don’t you see!” wailed Jimmie. “We’ve ROBBED a guy, a poor, innocent big guy…”
“You saw him snatch the parcel … the green parcel…” I croaked.
Jim stood staring agonized into space.
“No,” he whispered. “No! Now that I come to think of it, I believe I left my green parcel on the fishing tackle counter, when we were talking to Jack Sutton …”
“You … you …” I accused.
So we left our tea and hastily wrapped the green package and ran back up the street to the big store.
We ran to the perfume counter. We hastily searched the aisles, but in the crowds we knew it was hopeless. We hastened to the tackle counter and, as soon as Jack Sutton saw us coming, he reached down under the counter and picked up a green parcel, which he waved reassuringly to Jim.
“Oh … oh … OH!” moaned Jim.
So this is what we did.
We went up to the lost and found office and turned the other green parcel over to the girl.
We said we had found it on Yonge St, and, on opening it, we had found the bill inside and knew it had come from this store.
“You are very kind,” the girl smiled, “and very HONEST.” (The capitals are mine.)
“Say, just for fun,” I said, “will you keep track of whoever calls for that parcel, if someone does I’d like to know what kind of person buys nightgowns that color?”
“Tee-hee-hee, I will,” assured the girl.
I telephoned the next day.
“It was a great big man,” the girl informed me. “He was a policeman on his day off. And he was so glad to get the parcel, because he was sure somebody had snatched it on him. Some shoplifter. And he said he was SO MAD…!”
Editor’s Note: This was the last Greg-Jim story published in the Toronto Star Weekly before they moved to the Montreal Standard. The microfilmed image is at the end, while the colour image is from an online auction.