Ali Baba expected to find only a dark and obscure cave; and was much astonished at seeing a large, spacious, well-lighted and vaulted
room … He observed in it a large quantity of provisions, numerous bales
of rich merchandise, piled up, silk stuffs and brocades, rich and valuable
carpets, and besides all this, great quantities of money, both silver and
gold, some in heaps and some in large leather bags … He took up at
several times as much as he could carry, and when he had got together
what he thought sufficient for loading his three asses, he went.
—The Arabian Nights
The white-tiled floor of the vault was littered with diamonds, pearls, emeralds, rubies, gold, and silver. Empty velvet-lined jewelry cases, cardboard cigar boxes, and tin-clasped metal containers lay amid sparkling gemstones of every imaginable cut, color, clarity, and carat. There were ancient heirlooms, gilded bond notes, a Rolex watch, and a brick of solid gold heavy enough to stub toes. Loose stones rolled and bounced like marbles as the detectives picked through the debris, their low gasps and whistles of amazement echoing softly in the bright underground chamber. Detective Patrick Peys thought that if he were to shovel it all up, pour it into any one of the empty and discarded containers scattered about, he would have enough wealth to finance a decadent retirement not only for himself but also for the five other detectives in his unit of specialized diamond-crime investigators.
Like everyone else who descended to the bottom floor of the Antwerp Diamond Center that day — Monday, February 17, 2003 — Peys needed some time to process the enormity of what he saw. He was no stranger to audacious crimes committed — or at least attempted — in Antwerp’s high-security Diamond District, but he’d never seen anything like this.
By almost any measure, the safe room two floors underground was as impenetrable a fortress as any to be found in the tightly protected Diamond District. Its walls of brushed-metal safe deposit boxes, which stood pillaged of an amount of treasure yet to be calculated, were inside a room equipped with a light sensor, a motion detector, and an infrared heat detector. Each of the safe deposit boxes had been locked with a key and a three-letter combination known only to its owner, yet more than half of them now stood open and empty. The room itself was secured with a foot-thick, double-locked, bombproof steel door armed with a magnetic alarm, as well as a locked, gated inner door that could only be opened with a buzzer from the control booth on the main floor. Both of those doors stood wide open that morning, undamaged.
These physical barriers were only the capstone of the vault’s security. Over the weekend, when the crime occurred, the building had been sealed with heavy, rolling metal barriers that covered locked plate glass doors at the main entrance and heavy mechanical vehicle arms at the garage entrance. Closed-circuit television cameras monitored the building’s entrances, corridors, and elevators as well as the antechamber to the vault, the small foyer that the elevators opened into. The building itself was situated in the heart of one of the most secure square miles on Earth, within what insurance investigators called the Secure Antwerp Diamond Area, a three-block canyon of gray glass-and-concrete buildings as well defended against thieves as Fort Knox. The district was protected with retractable vehicle barriers at either end to prevent cars from entering — or leaving — and was blanketed from every possible angle by a multitude of video cameras. Those cameras were monitored around the clock by a dedicated, heavily armed police force whose sole job was to prevent theft. In fact, there was a police security booth only forty yards from the Diamond Center’s front entrance and, in the other direction, a full-service police station just around the corner.
In the Diamond Center’s main corridor two stories above the vault, panic gripped tenants who enumerated the contents of their safe deposit boxes to police officers and insurance investigators. One dealer lost a million dollars in cash alone. A woman who had inherited her husband’s box and its contents upon his death found herself suddenly destitute; the large gemstones and irreplaceable heirlooms left to her by her husband were meant to finance her remaining years, and now they were gone.
Peys looked down at the piles of wealth and debris scattered across the floor. What was rolling under his feet — those gems and jewels, those scattered and discarded riches, the individual treasures of the building’s tenants who had stored them in the vault under the reasonable assumption that they would be safer here than in any bank — were the items the thieves had left behind. They had robbed and ransacked more than they could carry.
The detective was momentarily overwhelmed by the scale of the heist. Someone had overcome all of these security measures and made off with an untold fortune of diamonds, jewelry, precious metals, and cash without tripping a single alarm or injuring anyone. Peys didn’t say it out loud — not at the moment, anyway — but he couldn’t help but be awed by the skill required for such a heist.
That thought was quickly followed by another, darker realization: whoever had pulled off this seemingly perfect crime would be impossible to find.
© 2010 by Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell.