The Emerald Necklace


By W. Nat Baker
For a long time Conrad said nothing but just stood there and stared at the cable. He read the first line again, “Auditors arriving Shanghai next week STOP.” His throat felt thick and dry and his hands moist and clammy. He leaned against his desk to steady himself. He read the words again. He needed more time, he thought. He had to think this out. He needed more time. He had one week, no more.
“Handle this for me,” he heard his boss say, “It’s been three years since we’ve been audited so plan on spending most of next week with them. Just show them what they want to see and take them through the books.”
“Yes, of course,” Conrad stammered, “it’s just that I had no idea that they were coming. Why didn’t London notify us so we could prepare?”
“Consider it lucky they gave us this much notice. Last time I got one day’s notice. They’ll just go over the books, make sure that everything’s in order, verify export orders, find some minor deficiencies to justify their job, write up a report, and leave. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just routine.”
“Right,” Conrad replied.
For the rest of the afternoon the words “Auditors arriving Shanghai next week” struck his senses over and over again like a wailing siren that wouldn’t stop. “Nothing to worry about,” his boss had said. If only it were that simple he thought to himself. If only it were that simple.

After dark, Conrad pulled his Austin out of the garage and drove out of the International Settlement into the French Concession. Shanghai is hot in July, he thought, even at this hour of night. He wiped the sweat off his forehead. He turned off of Avenue Joffre and after several turns drove slowly down Rue de la Tour. He could feel his heart racing. The sweltering heat just made things worse. It was hard to think. On the sidewalk a couple was out walking their dog hoping to catch a slight breeze on a sweltering summer night. A few houses before the intersection he slowly pulled the car over to the curb, turned off the headlights and observed the house across the street. The leafy trees in the French concession blocked most of the street light casting darkness beneath. Good, he thought. After several moments he pulled away from the curb, drove around the corner, and pulled to the side of the road. For a few seconds he observed another house. The trees had the same effect here. It was dark and darkness was good. Still, some light filtered through near the house so he would wear a dark jacket Saturday night. He wiped the sweat off his forehead again and drove on. This week-end he would be back. He had no choice.
“Mr. Conrad Thomas,” the doorman announced as he entered the hallway of the house.
“So good to see you again Madame Thibau. Thank you for inviting me. I hope I’m not too early.”
“Not at all. One or two others have already arrived. But, Monsieur Thomas, it’s summer, and you’re not wearing a white jacket, I’m surprised. You always seem to define the fashion of the season.”
“I do apologize but when I went to put it on tonight I noticed a wine stain on the sleeve. I’ll send it to the cleaners first thing tomorrow”.
Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’m delighted you could come, Monsieur Thomas. You always add to these affairs. After all there are only two events to celebrate in Shanghai during the summer, the American’s on July 4th and ours on July 14th and truth be told I think the Americans should give France a little more credit for helping them achieve their independence, don’t you?”
Madame Thibau did a quick double take and blurted out,“Oh, excuse me Mr. Thomas, I hope I didn’t offend you talking about American independence. I forgot you’re English. Please excuse me.”
“Chère MadameThibau, I’m not the least bit offended. After all, I wasn’t even involved otherwise things might have turned out differently. Besides that was a war of Englishmen against Englishmen. But we didn’t come here tonight to discuss politics, now did we, otherwise you’ll have me apologizing for Wellington at Waterloo?”
“Quite right you are, Monsieur Thomas. It’s that quick wit of yours that I enjoy so much. It keeps the conversation going at a party like this particularly when I have to invite so many boring business types. You’re right. It was Englishmen against Englishmen, just with an ocean between them. Please go have some Champagne. I’ll join you as soon as all the guests have arrived.”
A Chinese waiter in starched whites arrived with a tray of Champagne glasses one of which Conrad retrieved holding it by its long stem.
“Go take a look at the garden, Monsieur Thomas”, Madame Thibau said, “later tonight after everyone arrives we’ll have a small fireworks show to celebrate Bastille day, nothing noisy, however, not like the Chinese New Year, no, something more sedate, more refined.”
“I’ll just take a little stroll and come right back in.”
This could not have worked out better he thought. He had wanted a chance to enter the garden alone without attracting attention and she invited him to go there. If only everything would go so smoothly tonight. He stepped outside and took a few steps away from the door. There were strings of lights overhead but mostly darkness prevailed. He looked around and when certain he was alone sauntered over to the side of the house where he followed a path leading to a gate with access to the back alley. The gate locked from inside so with a small piece of sturdy wire he rendered the lock useless. He then tied the gate shut with a thin piece of strong rope with a quick release knot. If anyone tried the gate it would appear secure but this was not the main path and rarely used. Casually he strolled back into the house.
By now more guests were arriving and the energy of the party was picking up. After all he had nothing to do now except socialize, be charming, and wait for the arrival of Mrs. Spencer.
“Mr. Thomas”, a woman with an American accent said, “do you really think he would abdicate to marry her. My friends from Baltimore say she has rather of a reputation if you know what I mean. You’re English, you must have some insight as to what he might do.”
“Mrs. Patterson, if I could tell you I assure that I would but although I am English, I have no more insight into the dealings of the royal family than you do. It is truly anybody’s guess. All I can say is that the Prime Minister will not yield on his principles. I’m not saying that is good or bad but just the way it is. Fleet Street, however, loves it. Every headline is about the King and Mrs. Simpson. Newspaper sales could not be better.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. Nothing sells newspapers better than a scandal particularly one that involves romance and royalty. She used to live here in Shanghai, you know, but that was before we arrived.”
The doorman continued announcing the arrival of guests and the level of conversation was reaching an indistinguishable hum that now drowned out the sound of the electric fans, the only recourse against the heat. Some people were spilling out into the garden.
Mrs. Spencer’s arrival had been announced a few minutes ago. Over the rim of his glass he looked at her carefully as he sipped Champagne. Around her neck she wore a simple pearl necklace not the emerald necklace she wore at the consulate party earlier this year. Interesting, he thought, probably didn’t match the color of her dress.
“Isn’t the heat in Shanghai dreadful this summer, Mr. Thomas? I don’t think it was this bad last year, do you?”
“Actually, I spent much of last summer at our company’s office in Singapore but it was ghastly hot there. Say, I don’t see Mr. Spencer, has he been detained elsewhere?”
“Oh, he sailed for England Monday to attend a business meeting. He’ll be back in a few weeks.”
“Oh, I see”, well I hope he has a good voyage”, Conrad replied not revealing that he knew of Mr. Spencer’s travel plans more than a week ago. “But he left you all alone in that big house. That’s not good. Why didn’t you go to London with him?”
“Oh, the voyage is so long. I’ll be alright. Tomorrow my nephew arrives from London to stay with me for the summer so there will be a man in the house. I’m not the least bit worried. This neighborhood is very safe. Even the triads don’t come here.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. Excuse me for a moment. My Champagne glass is empty. I’ll be back shortly.”
A week earlier Mr. Spencer had visited the company office where Conrad worked. He had seen his boss withdraw £1000 in bills from the safe and hand it to him. As a board member of the company it was not unusual for Spencer to get advances whenever he needed some ready cash. As he was leaving he was overheard to say,
“I’ll be back in few weeks. This should be more than enough for Mrs. Spencer till I return but if she needs more, and I can’t imagine why, I will cable you from London.”
“That’ll be fine, Mr. Spencer. We’ll be happy to do whatever is needed”, he heard his boss say.
By now the party was in full swing and snatches of conversations could be heard discussing multiple topics: the Japanese Army in Manchuria, The king and Mrs. Simpson, the horse races in Shanghai, National Socialism in Germany. The topics were endless. One could be absent for a few minutes and never be missed, Conrad thought.
He exited the back door and slipped into the garden, casually sauntered over to the side of the garden staying in the dark shadows of the trees. The sound of insects and frogs could be heard in the evening stillness. The few guests outside were staying near the house where waiters keep filling their glasses with Champagne. Certain he was alone and unobserved he proceeded to the gate. With a slight tug the quick release knot gave way, he passed through the gate and secured it again with the rope. In the shadows of the trees he slipped unnoticed along the dark pathways and back alley till he came to the rear of the Spencer’s house. “This is madness”, he thought to himself, “but there is no other way.” Time was running out. It was either this or disgrace and ruin.
Carefully entering the garden, he stopped and observed the windows for several seconds. Seeing no one he stepped onto the terrace and tried the French doors. Locked. French doors may be pretty he thought but they also are the easiest doors to unlock. He pulled out a small pocket knife and inserted the blade between the two doors on the terrace. His heart was pounding. This had better work he thought. He needed that emerald necklace, not wanted it, but needed it. From the right sources it would easily bring in 500 pounds. Three months earlier he had borrowed 500 pounds from the company’s cash receipts to bet on a horse at The Shanghai Racetrack that was a sure bet at odds of eight to one. Well sure bets are not always so sure. She placed three lengths behind the winner and he was 500 pounds poorer and the company’s cash account was off by 500 pounds. As long as he adjusted the accounts receivable he could keep hiding the deficit till he had money to cover it. That worked fine until the cable arrived from London announcing the audit. Missing cash would not be considered borrowing by the auditors but embezzlement, a crime that carried a prison sentence. Auditors live to discover fraud he thought to himself. They’d nail him on a cross in an instant. Yes, he needed that emerald necklace in the worst way and now. A charge of embezzlement was an upcoming certainty, one of burglary only a possibility and only if he were caught. It was a risk he had to take. He had no choice.
The latch gave easily and in a quick movement, Conrad was in the house and closed the door. All was quiet outside and in. No point in trying the study he thought. Old man Spencer would have the desk locked up tighter than a drum and no telling where the key was hidden. For sure that’s where the money would be, he thought, but he only had fifteen minutes. Breaking in the desk with a pry bar was out of the question. Still a quick look wouldn’t hurt. Through the darkness he found the study and felt his way to the desk. Taking a flashlight out of his pocket he tried the drawers. Locked!
Well it was the necklace he was after. It could be in a safe but assuming Mrs. Spencer didn’t have a head for numbers and that was his recollection from bridge games at the club it was likely, with Mr. Spencer away, she would keep her jewelry elsewhere. He quietly went to the door of the study and listened carefully for several seconds. Not a sound except some cars passing by in the street. He reached the staircase and slowly climbed the stairs listening for any noise that might be on the second floor. At the top of the landing he turned along the corridor and finding the master bedroom, entered it and closed the door. “Damn it was hot on the second floor”, he thought. He paused and wiped the sweat from his forehead. His could feel his heart pounding.
At this height the windows were high enough above the trees so light from the street light partially flooded the room. He glanced at his watch. Already fifteen minutes had past. Damn he thought. This was taking longer than he had planned. Each additional minute meant additional risk. He looked in the drawers of the vanity, a likely place for a woman to put her jewels. Nothing. In the closet he found dozens of shoe boxes with shoes in them. If that was the hiding place it would take too much time. He glanced at his watch again. Damn. He went to the dresser and opened the top drawer and carefully looked under the clothes, being careful not to disturb anything that would indicate someone had been there. Nothing. He carefully closed the drawer and slowly opened the second drawer. In the dark he put his hands under the silk blouses feeling carefully for any foreign object. Suddenly he felt something. Shining the flashlight into the drawer he saw it. There it was, the emerald necklace along with some other jewelry, probably of much greater value than just the necklace. He could take them all. No, he thought. He’s not a thief. This is just a one-time act to reconcile the accounts. One necklace in his pocket, he reasoned, would not be noticed at the party put a bulging pocket might draw attention and he had to go back to the party as an alibi. Besides, if the other jewelry were still there when the emerald necklace was missed it might just appear at first that she had merely misplaced it. A real jewel thief would not leave other jewels behind. Good reasoning he thought.
He slipped the necklace into his pocket and turned to go. Walking past the bed in the darkness his foot kicked something. “Damn!” He uttered aloud and then quickly covered his mouth as if in doing so he could retrieve the word. For several seconds he stood still, listening carefully. All remained still. He looked down to see what he had kicked. A book! In the darkness he stooped down and picked it up. She must have left it next to the bed after reading it. He would place it back as close as possible to where she probably left it. From the dim light coming through the window he glanced at his watch again. “Damn! Already, twenty minutes. Too much time”, he thought. “He had to leave.”Near the head of the bed he placed the book on the floor where a ray from the streetlight struck the floor. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed something odd about the bookmark. The book didn’t close but had an open gap. “Strange”, he thought. Near the floor he turned on his flash light and opened the book. Right in front of him were the thousand pounds, one thousand pounds! He only needed five hundred. After all he wasn’t a thief, not a real thief. “Got to think this through”, he thought. He glanced at his watch again. “Damn! Twenty-two minutes. He needed to leave. What to do?” He wiped the sweat from his forehead. He felt his heart pounding. It was hot and he was thirsty. Inside his shirt drops of sweat ran down the center of his back. Time was running out. He hesitated a few seconds and then grabbed all the cash and stuck it in his pocket. “Cash is cash” he thought, “and untraceable. Besides if she doesn’t find the cash in the book she’ll think she put it somewhere else.”
Quickly he went to the dresser and carefully put the emerald necklace back in the second drawer under the silk blouses. He turned and approached the door. For a few seconds he stood still and listened. He heard nothing but instead of opening the door he went back to the book. Wrong thinking he thought. He put back five hundred pounds. No, he’ll take another one hundred pounds. As a child at church he had been taught to tithe. But he’ll double tithe. He’ll find some worthy cause to give the hundred pounds to. Five hundred to settle the financial accounts at the company and one hundred to give to some good cause. That seemed like the right thing to do. After all he wasn’t a real thief and old Spencer had lots of money. He won’t even miss it. If she thinks she had 1000 pounds in the book then she’ll rack her brains trying to remember what she did with the missing 600 pounds. No real thief would leave any cash behind. This will be much less suspicious.
Hearing nothing at the door, he opened it and quietly retraced his steps to the French doors on the terrace. He carefully looked outside. Confident that no one was around he carefully exited the house pulling the door shut till he heard the latch lock. He quickly paced through the garden, reached the dark alley and followed it back to the pathway to the Thibau’s house. As he approached the gate, he heard voices. He moved into the recesses of the shadows and stood perfectly still, listening. Silence for several seconds. In the distance, he could hear the hum of the party conversation in the garden. Still silence. Then just as he was about to start for the gate, he heard the distinct but soft voices of a girl and a boy just behind the gate. “Damn!”, he thought, “lovers finding stolen moments at the gate. This, he hadn’t planned on and this was the only gate he could use. “What to do now? Passionate young lovers could be there for hours. Time is meaningless to them but not to me”, he thought. Even in the darkness, he couldn’t open the gate and risk being recognized later. Just entering the gate would arouse suspicion. He could go back to the street and enter the house from the front but that would seem odd since no one saw him leave by the front. No, he had to wait it out. “Damn”, he thought, “this could undo everything.”
Suddenly some fireworks burst open in the back of the garden, colorful flares and cones spewed out orange and red streams of fire.
“Let’s go see the fireworks”, he heard the girl say and he heard them both scurry along the pathway back to the main garden.
Not hesitating a moment he reached the gate, pulled the quick release knot and entered the gate. He quickly removed the wire blocking the latch and stuck it in his pocket along with the rope and closed the gate till the latch clicked. No one could have entered that gate without a key.
In the distance he could hear the sound of fireworks in the garden and the exclamations of the people. He briskly paced along the path back toward the main garden hoping the lovers hadn’t stopped in some secluded spot for a last moment of intimacy. Just before reaching the opening to the garden he wiped the sweat from his forehead and slowed to a casual stroll. Everyone’s eyes were on the fireworks. Nonchalantly he strolled among the guests till he reached the middle of the crowd. For the first time in thirty minutes he felt his heart rate slow to normal.
“Conrad, ol’ man, where have you been?” a guest called out.
“Oh, hello, Robert. Me? I’ve been around. Got here early, you know.”
“Well, I’ve been looking all over for you. My wife is throwing a little birthday party next Saturday a week for Mrs. Spencer since her husband’s out of town. She gave me express instructions to find you and ask you to come. Can you make it?”
“Absolutely, I’d be delighted to come.”
“Great, Carol will be pleased”. He glanced at his watch, “Oh, it’s getting on. I’d better find her and start heading home. I have an early morning tomorrow. See you next week-end.”
“Right. It is starting to get late, isn’t it? I need to leave soon myself. Good night.”
When a waiter approached with a tray of Champagne flutes, he took a glass. Against the summer heat and his parched throat It was refreshing and he privately toasted his successful venture of the night. “Enough excitement for one evening”, he thought to himself. “All I have to do now is put five hundred pounds in the cashbox Monday, close out some accounts receivable and no one will be the wiser.” Conrad entered the house in good spirits, said his farewells to the Thibaus, and left for home.
A few days later at the office Conrad’s boss was showing irritation.
“Is something wrong? You seem upset”, Conrad asked.
“Can you believe that woman?”
“I’m not following you. What are you talking about?”
“Spencer’s wife. I just got a cable from London. He gave his wife 1000 pounds just before leaving town and apparently she can’t find several hundred pounds and now I have to deliver more cash to her. Just incredible how people like that live!
“Well maybe she just misplaced it and it will turn up somewhere else in the house.”
“Either that or she spent it and didn’t want to tell him about it. But that’s none of my business. Incidentally the auditors’ report came in yesterday and they were very pleased with the financial records so that’s one less thing we have to worry about. Good job on reconciling all those accounts and getting the books in order. They were a mess, before.”
“Thank you. I try to do my best.”
Saturday night Conrad strolled up the steps of Robert’s and Carol’s house. He was an hour late and by now the party was in full swing.
“Welcome, Conrad” the hostess greeted him, “I’m so pleased you could come. You do know Mrs. Spencer, don’t you? She is our birthday girl today but which one is a secret and not to be revealed.”
“Yes, we’ve met before. How do you do Mrs. Spencer? I’m delighted to see you again.”
“And I, you, Mr. Thomas. I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk more at the Thibau’s last week. I looked around and suddenly you were gone. You’re a rascal for leaving me alone like that to fend for myself with the French. Where did you disappear to?
“Oh, I was just strolling about the garden getting some fresh air and waiting for the fireworks.”
“Well you’re an absolute scoundrel for doing that but I forgive you this time.”
Suddenly the distinctive clinking of two empty Champagne glasses striking each other could be heard above the hum of conversations. The room quieted and the hostess stepped forward.
“Everyone, please give me your attention. Before we celebrate Mrs. Spencer’s birthday let us all thank Conrad here for the Champagne we’re drinking. This morning a case of Veuve Cliquot arrived with a card from Conrad saying, ‘please put this on ice for the party tonight’.
A light round of applause erupted from the guests. Conrad blushed from the attention.
“You’re very kind, Mr. Thomas, to be so generous for my birthday party. I don’t know you all that well but I do know that a case of Veuve Cliquot costs at least fifty pounds. I take back what I said about your being a scoundrel.”
Before he could reply, the vicar standing behind them interrupted, “Conrad, I just heard Mrs. Spencer mention fifty pounds and that reminds me to personally thank you for the fifty pounds you donated last week for the church orphanage in Shanghai. It will be put to good use.
“Please don’t mention that here, vicar”, Conrad stammered, “that’s our little secret”.
“Oh, don’t be so modest, Mr. Thomas”, Mrs. Spencer said. “Like I said I don’t know you all that well but prior to tonight I didn’t have the impression that you were so good-hearted and generous. I misjudged you and unfairly so.”
“Oh, think nothing of it. It’s just that a few days ago I came into a little extra money as a result of betting at the race track. When one has good fortune, one should share it with others don’t you think?”
“Absolutely. I’m impressed, Mr. Thomas. Such character is all too lacking in our young men of today. You may not know this, Mr. Thomas, but my husband is on the board of the company you work at. When he comes home next month I will definitely tell him what kind of man you are. Perhaps there are higher positions in his companies where he could use a man with high character like yours.
“That would be very kind of you, Mrs. Spencer, but I just try to do the best I can and do the right as I see the right. What more can a man do?”
“Well said, Mr. Thomas, spoken like a true gentleman.”
“You honor me too much, Mrs. Spencer, but I thank you for the compliment. Here, let’s have a glass of Champagne to celebrate your birthday and please don’t mention the money. It was an unexpected windfall. Here’s to your birthday.”
“And here’s to good character, Mr. Thomas. England needs more men like you.”