On the day I took Anna Kayser to the insane asylum, I was first obliged to catch a thief.
I say “obliged” as if it were a hardship, but in fact I enjoy a good chase. A man fleeing a crime scene presents any sworn officer with the rare gift of an easy win. Nothing is more heartening than a solid arrest, made after a little gratifying physical exertion, particularly when the thief is caught in the act and there are no bothersome questions later about a lack of evidence or an unreliable witness.
My duties are hardly ever so straightforward, and my victories rarely so decisive, as Anna Kayser’s case would demonstrate. Perhaps this is why the business with the thief lingers so clearly in my memory.
The scene of this particular crime was the Italian butcher where I liked to stop for my lunch. The proprietor, Mr. Giordano, put out a kind of Italian sausage called salsicciotto on Tuesdays that he seasoned with salt and peppercorns, then smothered in olive oil for two months, to extraordinary effect. He could sell every last one in an afternoon if he wanted to, but by doling them out on Tuesdays, he found that he could lure people into his shop once a week and make sure they left with all manner of goods imported from Italy: soap, perfume, hard cheese, enameled plates, lemon candy. The profits from those trinkets helped compensate for the cost of shipping over the extravagantly priced olive oil in which he aged the salsicciotto. I was but one of many willing participants in his scheme. Along with the sausage I took a bag of lemon candy weekly, finding it useful to dispense during interrogations.
The man ran out of the shop just as I rounded the corner onto Passaic Avenue. Mr. Giordano gave chase, but the thief had the advantage: he was young and trim, while the butcher was a rotund gentleman of advanced age who could do little more than stump along, huffing and shaking his fist.
He would’ve been out of luck, but there I happened to be, in my uniform, equipped with a gun, handcuffs, and a badge. I did what any officer of the law would do: I tucked my handbag under my arm, gathered my skirts in my hands, and ran him down.
Mr. Giordano heard my boots pounding along behind him on the wooden sidewalk and jumped out of the way. I must’ve given him a start, because he launched into a coughing fit when he saw who had come to his rescue.
In giving chase, I flew past a livery driver watering his horses, a druggist sweeping out his shop, and a boy of about twelve staring idly into a bookstore window. The boy was too engrossed or slow-witted to step out of the way. I’m sorry to say I shoved him down to the ground, rather roughly. I hated to do it, but children are sturdy and quick to heal. I raced on.
The thief himself hadn’t looked back and had no idea who was in pursuit, which was a shame, as men often stumble and lose their resolve when confronted by a lady deputy. I was always happy to use the element of surprise to my advantage. But this one ducked down a side street, deft as you please, no doubt be- lieving that if he stayed on bustling Passaic Avenue, more passersby would join the chase and he’d soon be caught.
The detour didn’t bother me, though. I preferred to go after him on a quiet tree-lined lane, with no more danger of loiterers stumbling into my path. I rounded the corner effortlessly and picked up speed.
He chose for his escape a neighborhood of large and graceful homes that offered very few places to hide. I closed the distance between us and was already looking for a soft patch of grass ahead on which to toss him down, but he saw an opportunity ahead. He’d done this before — I had to credit him that. He hurled himself over a low fence and into a backyard.
Here is where an agile man of slight build has the advantage. I was forced to abandon my handbag and to heft myself over the fence in the most undignified manner. Hems caught on nails, seams split, and stockings were shredded into ribbons. I landed on one knee and knew right away I’d be limping for a week. It occurred to me, at last, to wonder what, exactly, the man had stolen, and if he was really worth catching. If I’d abandoned the chase at that moment, no one — not even Mr. Giordano — would’ve blamed me.
But no matter, I had to have him. The man stumbled into a backyard populated by placid hens under the supervision of an overworked bantam rooster. He (the man, not the rooster) turned his head just long enough to cast a wistful glance at the chicken coop, which might’ve offered him a hiding place, a chicken dinner, or both, had I not been thumping along behind him.
The next hurdle was only a low stone wall. He cleared it with a nimble leap, as if he did that sort of thing every day, and he probably did. I tossed one leg over and knocked a few stones loose with the other, but by then I was only five feet behind and saw victory ahead.
It was my great good fortune that the next garden held no chickens or any other sort of hindrance, only a generous expanse of lawn fringed by an inviting bed of chrysanthemums that gave me the soft landing spot I required.
“Oooof” was all he could say when I took him by the collar and tossed him down. I landed on top of him, which was just as well, because his shirt tore when I grabbed him and he might’ve slipped right out of it and vanished, had I not thrown myself on him.
I didn’t say a thing at first, because I’d given that last sprint all I had and wouldn’t have lasted a minute more. It took us both a short while to recover ourselves. No one was at home in the house whose garden we’d just trampled: otherwise, the sight of a rather substantially sized woman sprawled atop a slender shop-thief certainly would’ve brought the entire family out.
Once we were sitting upright, and I had a firm grip on the thief ’s arm, we sized each other up for the first time. I found myself in possession of a tired-looking factory man, with the bloodshot eyes and glazed aspect of a drunkard.
The thief, for his part, didn’t seem particularly surprised to have been caught by a tall lady in a battered gray hat. The business of thievery leads to all sorts of surprises: one must be prepared for novelties. He tried half-heartedly to shrug me off and muttered something in what I took to be Polish. When I refused to let go, he allowed himself to be dragged to his feet. The papery orange petals of the chrysanthemums adhered to us, making us look as though we’d been showered in confetti. I didn’t bothe to brush them off. The man hadn’t yet been handcuffed and was likely to be slippery.
“Let’s see what you stole,” I proposed. When he only looked at me dejectedly, I yanked open his jacket and found within it a long and slender salami (not the salsicciotto, mind you — those were kept behind the counter under Mr. Giordano’s watchful eye — but the cheap type that hung in the window and were easy to snatch). He’d also lifted a loaf of bread, now flattened, and a bottle of the yellow Italian spirits that Mr. Giordano sold as a curative.
It wasn’t much of a haul, considering the trouble he put me through. I hated to throw a man in jail for stealing his lunch and bore some faint hope that I might return him to the shopkeeper and negotiate a truce.
“What’s your name?” I asked (sternly, one had to be stern).
He spat on the ground, which was every habitual criminal’s idea of how to ignore a question put to him by the law.
“Well, you made an awful lot of trouble.” I slipped the handcuffs from my belt and bound his wrists behind his back. “Try to work up a convincing apology before we get there.”
The man seemed to take my meaning and perhaps had some idea that I might be trying to help him, as much as any officer could. He had a resignation about him that suggested he’d done all this before. He walked limply alongside me, with his head down. For a man who gave such a spirited chase, he was as soft as a bundle of rags under my grip.
I retrieved my handbag at the edge of the fence and in a few minutes we were back at the shop. Mr. Giordano was sitting outside on an overturned barrel with the anticipation of a man waiting along a parade route. When we rounded the corner, he jumped up, beaming, and clapped his hands together. He was very pleasant-looking: old Italian men always are. His eyes gleamed, his cheeks were ruddy, and he grinned with unabashed delight at the prospect of a good story to tell over the dinner table that night.
Then came the words I’d been hoping not to hear.
“He took from me before! He steal anything I have. Egg, butter, shoe, soap, tin plate, button.” Mr. Giordano ticked the items off with his stubby fingers.
It made for quite a list, but I didn’t doubt it. The shop was overfull of small merchandise, easy to pocket.
“He stole needful things, then,” I offered, hoping to play to his sympathies.
“Needful! I only sell needful things! Look down his pants. Black shoes for little girl.”
It hardly need be said that I had no wish to look down his pants and was grateful to the thief for sparing us both the indignity. He appeared well-versed in the universal language of accusative shopkeepers, and shook his trousers as vigorously as he could considering that both his wrists were cuffed together. It was enough to make the shoes — tiny darling shoes of a sort rarely seen in Hackensack — fall from his trousers.
The shopkeeper snatched them up triumphantly, and rummaged through the man’s pockets for the rest of his stolen goods. He looked disgusted over the condition of the loaf of bread, but set the salami carefully aside for resale and tucked the bottle of liquor into his apron.
Then he poked at my badge, which happens more often than one might think. People seem to feel they have a right to put their fingers all over a deputy’s star, as if they own it.
“Sheriff?” he asked. “Sheriff Heath? Go tell him. He knows this one.” Then he pushed his finger into the thief ’s chest. I had to step between them before all this poking escalated to fisticuffs.
With the likelihood of a peaceful settlement ever more remote, I said, “Mr. Giordano, are you quite sure this is the man who stole from you before? Couldn’t it have been someone else? These thieves move awfully fast and it’s hard to get a good look at them.”
Mr. Giordano stuck his chin out defiantly. “No. It is him. Go to his house. Look for tin plates with painted roses. Look for sewing box with Giordano label. My wife!”
The effrontery of the theft of Mrs. Giordano’s sewing kit was too much for even the man who did it, for he, too, turned shamefacedly away.
“He take money, too, but you won’t find that,” the shopkeeper said. “All gone.”
That changed things. Money made it a more serious crime.
“Have you reported him to the police?” I asked.
Mr. Giordano nodded vigorously. “I report, I report, I report. Ask the sheriff.”
What could I do, then, but to take him to jail? I turned out the man’s shirt pockets for good measure and found a package of handkerchiefs with the Giordano ribbon still attached. If he had anything else tucked away, it would fall to the male guards to find it.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Giordano, and this man is sorry too,” I offered. The thief didn’t respond to a firm shake of the arm, so I tapped him under the chin and made him raise his eyes.
“Zorry,” the thief said.
Mr. Giordano spat on the sidewalk. “Poles.”