The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound
Golden Gate Disappearing Greyhound Bus Caper
Master of the Impossible Crime
The High Lord of English Petroleum Robert Harrah stood at his window, looking down on San Francisco when his secretary buzzed him. At English Petroleum, secretaries were still called secretaries. The only sign the company had moved into the 90s was they were called Ms. Smith and Ms. Jones rather than Harriet and Charlene. But the pay was still the same.
“I have Billingsley on the ground floor, Mr. Harrah. He is alone. Shall I send the elevator for him?”
Harrah didn’t bother to turn around. “Absolutely, Ms. Chesney. Hold my calls until we’re through.”
Harrah turned toward his desk and strode to the far side of the teak island. He pulled a cigar out of a sandalwood humidor on the shelf behind his desk. It was a Churchillian in size but Cuban in content. He nipped the end of the tube with a cigar knife and dropped the plug into a small waste basket on the floor immediately beneath the humidor. Striking a wood match on the underside of his desk he let the sulfur burn away before running the flame back and forth beneath the cigar. Then he lit the cigar with deep, slow breaths. When the tag end of the leaves glowed with embers, he shook the match out.
The silence of the room was broken only by the hum of the upcoming elevator. By the time Billingsley was in the office, Harrah was already on his black leather throne, a potentate of paper, and on his desk spread in suits like tarot cards, were the fates and fortunes of his empire. His cigar lay at an angle in the Kobuk jade ashtray sending a single column of smoke straight to the ceiling.
The elevator disgorged Billingsley with a pop. He nodded at Harrah for a moment then hunched his cadaverous frame across the dark carpet to one of the leather chairs opposite Harrah. There were no pleasantries because none were needed.
“Hopkins has been busy.”
“I kind of expected that.” Harrah sucked on his cigar and leaned back in his chair as far as it would go. “Americans are so predictable.” He shook his head arrogantly. “Police force for the world but they can’t pull off a simple bank heist.”
Billingsley chuckled. “Maybe they’re all from Wigan. What do you expect for a nation spending more time with Reader’s Digest and the National Enquirer than an evening newspaper?” He looked over his shoulder, across the room and out the window at fog-shrouded San Francisco. “At least it’s clear up here.”
Harrah smiled and indicated with a wave of his hand full of cigar that Billingsley was to begin his report.
“Hopkins left here, bee-lined to a police storage lot in Hunter’s Point. Actually it is more like a salvage yard. In America they call it a junkyard.”
“Yes, sir. There were about thirty vehicles in the enclosure, most of them police vehicles, which had clearly been there for a while. Many of them had flat tires. Others were jammed into open carports and were covered with dust. There were three large warehouses, each 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, which were enclosed.”
“Large enough to hold hostages?”
“Yes. In fact they probably did.”
“This is beginning to fit like a ball of wax. Go on.”
“Hopkins pulled up to the front gate, rang a bell and talked a man who came out of one of the large warehouses. The man went back inside and came out with two other men, one of them in a police uniform. There was a very brief conversation at the gate and then all four men went to a coffee shop on Market Street. Then . . .”
“Market Street? That’s halfway across town. Why didn’t they find a local pub?”
“Hunter’s Point is thick with wogs.”
“Hardly a place for white faces, eh?”
“Or flatties. The discussion in the coffee shop was short, less than time for a cup of coffee. Almost in and out – like a bad marriage. Then all four came out of the coffee shop and carried the conversation out to the sidewalk. It was loud enough for me to catch snatches of it across the street. They were hot. It got so bad the man in the police uniform looked up and down the sidewalk and then dashed away. Then there were three men left on the sidewalk. At this point they were almost yelling. Hopkins and the two other men were so animated people were walking around them on the sidewalk.”
“Certainly hit a nerve with the sharper, didn’t we?”
“Did indeed. Whatever they were talking about came to a bloody halt when one of the two men with Hopkins got a call on his cell phone. Whatever it was, it was more important than what I presume to be the ten million dollars because Hopkins and one of the men with whom he was talking just broke away and sprinted to the car where the man in the police uniform was sitting. They talked for a second and then Hopkins left and walked casually back to his car. The other man jumped into the car with the man in the police uniform, a green Chevy, and they drove away. The last guy just stood there on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop.”
“There were two cars? I thought Hopkins took the men in his car.”
“Nope. Separate cars. I ran the plates on both. Hopkins car is registered to Hopkins.” Billingsley pulled a small, leather notebook out of his jacket pocket and flicked it open professionally. “The green Chevy has plates registered to the Salamander Pet Salon in the Sunset District. But the plates are for a minivan.”
“A pet shop? Minivan?”
“Hardesty ran a check on it. The pet shop was burned out of business about six months ago. Suspicious circumstances. I’m assuming the plates came from an impounded vehicle.”
“How did you run the check on the plates so fast?”
“Hardesty hooked his laptop to his cellular phone. Did it while he was watching the green Chevrolet. Technology has come up quite a notch since the days of the ten-cent phone call. It’s all a matter of being able to log into the right networks. Our security clearance here gets us onto the Police Department’s crime computer.”
“Clever boy. Did you decide to follow Hopkins or the two men in the green Chevrolet?”
“Both. Hardesty took the car and followed Hopkins. I took my chances with a yellow cab.”
“Wasn’t it a bit risky?”
“Following a policeman in a car with false plates? I didn’t think so. Hopkins was our quarry so someone had to follow him. The others were icing on the cake. Anything we learned from them would be valuable. Besides, when I get a chance to take a peek at the other man’s cards, I do it.”
Harrah smiled for a split second and then he frowned. “Hopkins is playing us for fools. Or at least he thinks he is. I don’t like his attitude. It makes me very nervous when I have to deal with a stupid man. He’s not smart enough to know everyone pays for anyone’s mistake.” He took a deep drag on his cigar. “Where did Hopkins go?”
“The San Francisco Police Department. He parked his Mercedes 210 and disappeared inside. He stayed inside for about 20 minutes and then all heck broke loose. Hardesty called me later and said he didn’t hear anything on the radio scanner so he had to assume there had been some kind of a call on a cellular phone. Hopkins came out with the police Chief and a dozen officers. They hit the streets and went Code 3 – sirens and lights – all the way back to same Hunter’s Point salvage yard where we had been earlier in the day.”
“What happened there?”
“I don’t know. The last I heard from Hardesty was half an hour ago. He was still near the salvage yard. He could see a lot of activity but did not know what was happening. Or at least he couldn’t see what was happening.”
“Hardesty says his car is still at the salvage yard.” Billingsley looked at his watch. “At least he was 15 minutes ago. There’s only one exit and he hadn’t seen anyone come out yet so he assumed Hopkins was still inside. The fact I haven’t heard from Hardesty means nothing has happened.”
“I can speculate and it’s too early to be rash.”
“Granted. Anything else?”
“My trip was strange and I don’t know what to make of it. Once again, I can only speculate.”
“Go ahead, I am just dying for a good mystery.” Harrah took another drag on his cigar and blew a giant, whirling smoke ring.
“As soon as the second man, the one without the police uniform got into the green Chevrolet and pulled away, the man in the police uniform got into the back seat. I didn’t see him for about three or four minutes but I could see he was doing something in the back seat. When he crawled back into the front seat, he wasn’t wearing a police uniform anymore.”
“He changed in the back seat?”
“Did your cabbie notice?”
“He was too busy talking about how he’d always wanted to drive someone who said follow that car!”
“Probably thought it was a Hollywood thriller.”
“Actually he did say something similar. Then he said, ‘where’s the camera crew?’”
“But he didn’t see the man change clothes?”
“If he did he didn’t mention it to me. I didn’t either, actually. The only reason I know he changed clothing was because I had seen him in a uniform up close. At 30 or 40 yards, he could have been doing anything in the back seat.”
“Where did they go?”
“Nowhere right away. They knew where they were going because for the first five minutes they went straight, with determination. They were speeding until they got under Highway 101, then they slowed to a crawl. And I mean a crawl. We were going so slow cars were honking at them and us. Cabbie thought it was great, inching along, running up more on the clock than on the rue. Then the two men spotted an unmarked police car and started following it, matching its speed about a block back.”
“How do you know it was an unmarked car?”
“City plates. Could have been sewer and water or telephone but I guessed it was police. If Hardesty had been with me I would have run the plates.”
“We followed the car for about three miles and suddenly the police car picked up speed, took a couple of wild turns like they’d made the tail.”
“Do you think they had?”
“They acted like they did.”
“Who was in the other car?”
“I’ll get to the other car in a little bit. Let me finish this line of thought first.” Billingsley looked at Harrah for permission not to answer the question right away. Harrah nodded his consent. Billingsley continued, “As soon as it looked like the green Chevrolet had been made, the car just drove on by when the pigeon made the last turn.”
“Did you see who was inside the pigeon, as you call him?”
“There were two of them but no, I didn’t see who they were.”
“You saw them later?”
“About 20 minutes later, I’m just getting to that.”
“Tell me about the people in the unmarked car now.”
“Two of them. One, the driver, was a wog like a mud fence. About 35, not tall, not small, hard to tell in a moving car. The other was a white guy, maybe 60, salt-and-pepper beard, tall but not fat, black leather jacket.”
“Captain Noonan of the Sandersonville Police Department. He’s the law and order guru” which Harrah pronounced gar-eu – “called in by Police Chief Thayer. He was in here asking for our assistance.” “Oh, how rich.” Billingsley laughed.
“Nothing happened to him, I hope? He’s our secret weapon. If Hopkins can’t get the money, Noonan will.”
“Well, he’s in very great danger. After the men in the green Chevrolet let the pigeon fly, they drove back toward the salvage yard in Hunter’s Point. But they didn’t drive into the yard. They pulled into a dark alley about two blocks in front of the entrance to the salvage yard. It was dark in the alley so I could barely see the car. Clearly their intention. They waited for about 15 minutes and then suddenly it blasted out. I couldn’t see what happened until the very last second. They were aiming to sideswipe a car. As it turned out, the car was the pigeon with the wog and Noonan. The Chevrolet smacked the unmarked car hard. Probably would have killed one of them if the driver hadn’t been fast.
It was almost like they were expecting the accident.” “How bad was it?” Harrah was suddenly concerned.
“It was certainly smash and dash. It looked bad from where I was. One instant the Chevrolet was hiding out in the alley and the next it was slamming into the unmarked police car. Then, in the next instant the green Chevrolet was off and away, roaring through the streets of Hunter’s Point. The unmarked car tried to follow but lost the Chevrolet pretty quickly. So I hooked onto the unmarked car. As I was following it, I ran into a swarm of police cars, Code 3, moving in the opposite direction toward the salvage yard. Hopkins passed me going toward the salvage yard. The unmarked car went directly to San Francisco General Hospital. The two passengers went inside. Then I came here.”