Supermarket, Somewhere

Dad told me this story many years ago. Like most tales he told me, I have no idea if this is true. My own cursory research hasn’t uncovered anything to corroborate his tale. But said research hasn’t definitively proven it to be an urban legend either. The important thing is, it’s a story that I very much want to be real.

The story goes like this.

There was this supermarket somewhere (like most tall tales, this one had a convenient lack of specificity) that found itself experiencing way too much loss. Every store expects to lose some merchandise here and there to five-finger discounts, but this store had a huge amount of its stuff simply go missing.

The thefts were happening so regularly and to such a degree that the store’s owner supposed it had to be an inside job. This wasn’t just random shoplifting. Someone who worked at the store was stealing the thing from under him. But nobody was driving their truck to the loading dock in the middle of the night and driving away with things. Something more elaborate and clandestine was happening here. However, despite his suspicions, the owner couldn’t figure out who was stealing from him, or how.

At his wits’ end, the owner hired a private detective to get to the bottom of things. The first thing the detective did was interview every employee, hoping the guilty might crack under the light of the third degree. None of them did.

Next, the detective hired someone to work undercover at the store for a few weeks. This man toiled during every shift, hoping he might overhear the culprit divulging his diabolical plan or spot a few clues while stocking shelves. But no one said a word, and there was no clues revealed themselves.

The next logical step was to install security cameras (a relatively new and expensive amenity at the time). Perhaps the cameras could catch something a human eye couldn’t. But they didn’t. To the untrained eye, no sight the cameras captured looked the least bit unusual.

After months of dead ends, the detective was just as frustrated as the store’s owner. The detective surmised that he needed to start from scratch, get down to as basic a level as he could. The only viable theory he had left was that some employee was stowing merchandise somewhere in the store so they could carry it out in dribs and drabs. Logistically, this would be so laborious as to render the theft pointless. But then again, nothing else about the case made sense.

So the detective met with the owner to go over the store’s layout in brutally basic detail, hoping that in so doing, they could identify a potential hiding spot they’d missed before. With a map of the store in hand, they patrolled the store, making sure what was actually in the store jived with the floor plan. They began with the entrances and exits. They moved on to the aisles, examining what each of them held and how much space sat between them. They pored over the storeroom in the back searching for hiding places. They scoured the loading docks, the break room, the little corrals for the shopping carts. They saw nothing they hadn’t seen before.

And then the detective stopped on the cash registers. “So there are 13 cash registers, with…”

The owner interrupted him. “No, there’s 12 cash registers.”

“You’re wrong, there’s 13 cash registers.”

Annoyed, the owner pointed to his map and the one dozen little rectangles marking off the check out lanes. “Look, there’s 12 cash registers in my store.”

“You look,” the detective said, pointing to the actual check out lanes in front of them. “There’s 13! Count them.”

The owner counted them and discovered, to his horror, that there were in fact 13 cash registers in his store.

What had happened, Dad insisted, was that the night manager had sunk some cash into purchasing an additional cash register. He then stuffed it in a crowded corner at the front of the store, where the supermarket used to have one of those cages full of bouncy balls. The register was only opened during the store’s busiest hours, but anything “sold” at this cash register went straight in his pocket, because as far as the store was concerned, it didn’t exist.

IMG_0702It’s the kind of crime that couldn’t happen nowadays, what with all the computers and internet and fax machines. I’m not sure it could even happen 30-40 years ago. (Try not to think to hard about how a person could install a brand new cash register and go unnoticed.)

And yet, I want to believe this happened. I want to believe some enterprising criminal was hit by a brilliant idea, executed it, and ran it as far as it could go. The industry and ingenuity exhibited by this man, there’s just something very American about it. And so I salute you, possibly fictional thief, wherever you are, be it the big house or some tropical island with no extradition treaties.