Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Vol. 63, No. 2. Whole No. 363, February 1974
The Theft of Nick Velvet
“It’s for you, Nicky,” Gloria yelled from the telephone, and Nick Velvet put down the beer he’d been savoring. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in late winter, when the snow had retreated to little lumps beneath the shady bushes and a certain freshness was already apparent in the air. It was a time of year that Nick especially liked, and he was sorry to have his reverie broken.
“Yes?” he spoke into the phone, after taking it from Gloria’s hand.
“Nick Velvet?” The voice was deep and a bit harsh, but that didn’t surprise him. He’d been hearing that sort of voice on telephones for years.
“You do jobs. You steal things.” A statement, not a question.
“I never discuss my business on the telephone. I could meet you somewhere tomorrow.”
“It has to be tonight.”
“Very well, tonight.”
“I’ll be in the parking lot at the Cross-County Mall. Eight o’clock.”
“How will I know your car?”
“The place is empty on a Sunday night. We’ll find each other.”
“Could I have your name?”
The voice hesitated, then replied. “Solar. Max Solar. Didn’t you receive my letter?”
“No,” Nick answered. “Your letter about what?”
“I’ll see you at eight.”
The line went dead and Nick hung up the phone. He’d heard the name Max Solar before, or seen it in the newspapers, but he couldn’t remember in what context.
“Who was that, Nicky?” Gloria appeared in the doorway, holding a beer.
“A land developer. He wants to see me tonight.”
Nick nodded. “He needs my opinion on some land he’s buying near here. I shouldn’t be gone more than an hour.” The excuses and evasions came easily to Nick’s lips, and sometimes he half suspected that Gloria knew them for what they were. Certainly she rarely questioned his sudden absences, even for days at a time.
He left the house a little after 7:30 and drove the five miles to the Cross-County Mall in less than fifteen minutes. There was little traffic and when he reached the Mall ahead of schedule he was surprised to see a single car already parked there, near the drive-in bank. He drove up beside it and parked. A man in the front seat nodded and motioned to him.
Nick left his car and opened the door of the other vehicle. “You’re early,” the man said.
“Better than late. Are you Max Solar?”
“Yes. Get in.”
Nick slid into the front seat and closed the door. The man next to him was bulky in a tweed topcoat, and he seemed nervous.
“What do you want stolen?” Nick asked. “I don’t touch money or jewelry or anything of value, and my fee is—”
He never finished. There was a movement behind him, in the back seat, and something hit him across the side of the head. That was the last Nick knew for some time.
When he opened his eyes he realized he was lying on a bed somewhere. The ceiling was crisscrossed with cracks and there was a cobweb visible in one corner. He thought about that, knowing Gloria’s trim housekeeping would never allow such a thing, and realized he was not at home. His head ached and his body was uncomfortably stretched. He tried to turn over and discovered that his left wrist was handcuffed to a brass bedstead.
Not the police.
But who, then? And why?
He tried to focus his mind. It seemed to be morning, with light seeping through the blind over the window. But morning of which day? Monday?
A door opened somewhere and he heard footsteps crossing the floor. A face appeared over him, a familiar face. The man in the car.
“Where am I?” Nick mumbled through a furry mouth. “What am I doing here?”
The man leaned closer to the bed. “You are here because I have stolen you.” The idea seemed to amuse him and he chuckled.
“Why?” The room was beginning to swim before Nick’s eyes.
“Don’t try to talk. We have no intention of harming you. Just lie still and relax.”
“What’s the matter with me?”
“A mild sedative. Just something to keep you under control.”
Nick tried to speak again, but the words would not come. He closed his eyes and slept...
When he awakened it was night again, or nearly so. A shaded lamp glowed dimly in one corner of the room. “Are you awake?” a girl’s voice asked, in response to his movement.
Nick lifted his head and saw a young brunette dressed in a dark turtleneck sweater and jeans. He ran his tongue over dry lips and finally found his voice. “I guess so. Who are you?”
“You can call me Terry. I’m supposed to be watching you, but it’s more fun if you’re awake. I didn’t give you the last injection of sedative because I want someone to talk to.”
“Thanks a lot,” Nick said, trying to work the cobwebs from his throat. “What day is it?”
“Only Monday. You haven’t even been here twenty-four hours yet.” She came over and sat by the bed. “Hungry?”
He realized suddenly that he was. “Starving. I guess you haven’t fed me.”
“I’ll get you some juice and a doughnut.”
“Where’s the other one — the man?”
“Away somewhere,” she answered vaguely. She left the room and reappeared soon carrying a glass of orange juice and a bag of doughnuts. “Afraid that’s the best I can do.”
“How about unlocking me?”
“No. I don’t have the key. You can eat with your other hand.”
The juice tasted good going down, and even the soggy doughnuts were welcome. “Why did you kidnap me?” he asked Terry. “What are you going to do with me?”
“Don’t know.” She retreated from the room, perhaps deciding she’d talked too much already.
Nick finished three doughnuts and then lay back on the bed. He’d been lured to that parking lot and kidnaped for some reason, and he couldn’t believe the motive was anything as simple as ransom. The man on the telephone had identified himself as Max Solar, and asked if Nick had received his letter. Since kidnapers rarely gave their right names to victims, it was likely the man was not Max Solar.
“Terry,” he shouted. “Terry, come here!”
She appeared in the doorway, hands on hips. “What is it?”
“Come talk. I feel like talking.”
“Max Solar. The man who brought me here.”
She giggled a bit, and her face glowed with youth. “He’s riot Max Solar. He was just kidding you. Do you really think someone as wealthy as Max Solar would go around kidnaping people?”
“Then what is his name?”
“I can’t tell you. He wouldn’t like it.”
“How’d you get involved with him?”
“I can’t talk any more about it.”
Nick sighed. “I thought you wanted someone to talk to.”
“Sure, but I wanted to talk about you.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “What about me?”
“You’re Nick Velvet. You’re famous.”
“Only in certain circles.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the opening of a door. Terry scurried from the room and Nick lay back and closed his eyes. After a moment he heard Terry return with the man.
“What in hell is this bag of doughnuts doing on the bed?” a male voice demanded. “He’s conscious, isn’t he? And you’ve been feeding him!”
“He was hungry, Sam.”
There was the splat of palm hitting cheek, and Terry let out a cry. Nick opened his eyes. “Suppose you try that on me, Sam.”
The man from the car, still looking bulky even without his tweed topcoat, turned toward the bed. “You’re in no position to make like a knight in shining armor, Velvet.”
Nick sat up as best he could with his handcuffed wrist. “Look, I’ve been slugged on the head, kidnaped, drugged, and handcuffed to this bed. Don’t you think I deserve an explanation?”
“Shut him up,” Sam ordered Terry, but she made no move to obey.
“You kidnaped me to keep me from seeing the real Max Solar, right?” Nick was guessing, but it had to be a reasonably good guess. The man named Sam turned on the girl once more.
“Did you tell him that?”
“No, Sam, honest! I didn’t tell him a thing!”
The bulky man grunted. “All right, Velvet, it’s true. I don’t mind telling you, since you’ve guessed it already. Max Solar wrote you on Friday to arrange an appointment for this week. He wanted to hire you to steal something.”
“And you kidnaped me to prevent it?”
The man named Sam nodded. He pulled up a straight-backed wooden chair and sat down by the bed. “Do you know who Max Solar is?”
“I’ve heard the name.” Nick tried to sit up straighter, but the handcuff prevented him. “How about unlocking this thing?”
“Not a chance.”
“All right,” Nick sighed. “Tell me about Max Solar.”
“He’s a conglomerate. He owns a number of companies manufacturing everything from office machines to toothpaste. Last year while I was in his employ I invented a computer program that saved thousands of man-hours each year in bookkeeping and inventory control on his export and overseas operations. The courts ...