The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound
Golden Gate Disappearing Greyhound Bus Caper
Master of the Impossible Crime
It took Chief Thayer until noon to catch up with Captain Noonan. The raid on the Hunter’s Point Storage Yard had eaten up most of the morning and then dealing with the press and the FBI took what was left. As far as the hospital was concerned, there was nothing he could do about Noonan or Smith’s condition. He didn’t even know what conditions those were; he just knew they had reported into the hospital. Noonan had told him as much on the police band. For the moment he didn’t have time to find out. If they were at the hospital they were being treated and that was the most he could expect.
The raid on the storage yard had raised as many questions as it had settled. A quick check of the buildings revealed one converted into living quarters for at least ten people. Ten cots were found, which led to this obvious conclusion the hostages had been sequestered there. But the room was clean of any indication it had been used recently. There was no garbage. All the chairs were stacked in a corner and the card tables were folded and slipped behind the chairs. Each of the cots had a blanket neatly folded on its futon. The mirrors and toilets were clean. The only suspicious aspect of the room was a clean floor. Dust indeed would have settled if the room had been left vacant for any extended period of time.
Then one of the patrolmen found a Butterfield-Fargo First deposit slip. This sent the lab team into the room. The murky picture was muddied further when an APB located the damaged green Chevrolet in the crowded parking lot of the San Francisco General Hospital. The plates were traced to a defunct pet store in the Sunset District. But the plates were for a minivan so the alert patrolman had fed the vehicle registration number into the crime computer. There was a match. The Chevrolet was traced to a wrecking yard in Oakland where records indicated it had been destroyed the previous year.
Still missing were the perps, $10 million in cash, the contents of the safety deposit boxes and the hostages.
But the clues were mounting.
The Chief hitched a ride with Hopkins and they made it to San Francisco General Hospital without incident although it appeared Hopkins was working very hard on taking as much advantage as he could out of having the police Chief on board. To Hopkins’ evident dismay, they were not flagged to the curb once because they didn’t see a cop all the way from the Hunter’s Point Salvage Yard to San Francisco General.
“Can’t find one when you need one.”
“What’s that?” the Chief asked as Hopkins whipped through town, sliding over the trolley tracks.
“Cops, Chief. I always wanted a Code 3 escort and I figured today would be as close as I’ll ever get.”
“If you keep driving this way we’ll be getting a police escort to the morgue. What’s the hurry?”
“I’ve still got $10 million reasons to worry about what’s going to happen next.”
“It’s only a business loss, Douglas. No sense in getting riled up over money.”
“It’s not just money,” Hopkins said in a normal tone. “It’s Money!! A $10 million loss plus the safety deposit losses are not going to look good on my resume.”
“Well, the good news is Captain Heinz Noonan is on the job. In the past 24 hours he’s done all right.”
“Yeah, but where’s the money?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll bet he does. You can ask him at the hospital.”
But Noonan wasn’t at the hospital.
Neither was Detective Smith. Smith’s unmarked police car was in the parking lot, badly smashed, but neither Smith nor Noonan were in the hospital. Neither had been checked in nor been examined. Chief Thayer pulled his cellular out of his pocket and punched in Noonan’s number.
“I was wondering when you were going to call,” Noonan’s voice answered the phone without a salutation. “Where are you?”
“Undercover. Actually I’m having lunch with Detective Smith on Fisherman’s Wharf.”
“You’re supposed to be in the hospital!”
“The hospital is for sick people. I’m doing just fine. “Noonan chortled a bit.
“Any news of the hostages? “The Chief was hopeful.
“Not yet,” Noonan replied. “But we do need to meet.”
“Tell me where you are and I’ll join you.”
“Are you alone?”
“I can be.” The Chief looked over his shoulder at Hopkins who was trying to charm the admitting nurse who was going over the logbooks name-by-name for the past six hours.
“Be sure you come alone.” Noonan then gave him the name of the restaurant.
“That restaurant is not on Fisherman’s Wharf.”
“Neither am I. Smith and I are on the move. Keep the name of the restaurant to yourself. There are too many leaks in this case as it is.”
“OK. Good lead on the Hunter’s Point Salvage . . .” But his compliment came too late. Noonan had snapped off his cellular.
Losing Hopkins was easy. The Chief said he was going and Hopkins waved good-bye, barely looking up from the admissions book.
Noonan and Smith were sitting in the back of the Wharf-and-Compass when the Chief came in. This particular restaurant was not one the Chief would have chosen for any kind of a meeting, clandestine or otherwise. Half of the restaurant was dedicated to college-age beer drinkers and the rest was designed for the just-above-college-age white wine cooler drinkers. All of it was dark enough to be mistaken for a coal mine.
Chief Thayer made it into Wharf-and-Compass and stood for a long moment near the front door waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then he skirted the main part of the room looking at the tables pressed up against the walls. He found Noonan and Smith in one of the corner booths. As soon as Chief Thayer showed up, Smith got up and went to the counter.
“Smith isn’t joining us for lunch?”
“Not just yet,” replied Noonan. “We’ve got some critical matters to discuss.”
“Really?” The Chief voiced surprise.
“Now, George. Time is short so let’s have a little bit of honesty here. Why am I really on this case?”
“I needed your help. You’re the best person . . .”
Noonan shook his head sadly. “No. George. Let me tell you why I’m here. I’m here because I work alone and you know someone highly placed in your Department” – and Noonan stressed the words highly placed – “is involved. Most of what I am doing any of your men – or women – could do. Yeah, the vanishing bus was a bit out of your line, but basically, it’s not unsolvable given enough time. But the robbery is not why I’m here, is it?”
“It has crossed my mind I might have an inside leak.”
“No, George. It didn’t just cross your mind. You don’t have an inside leak. You have an inside tidal wave. That’s why you like the idea of cell phones. I call you and that’s as far as the conversation goes. If you’re as good as your reputation, you’ve been watching some people carefully.”
“OK. You’re right. I am watching one particular person carefully. But right now I don’t have . . .”
“Yeah, I know. Right now, George, you’ve got to solve a crime the newspapers are calling the ‘Crime of the Century.”
Noonan picked up a newspaper and plopped it down on the table between them. “So far you’ve come up empty-handed. The perps are still missing in spite of the fact there’s been a two-day dragnet. The hostages are still the entire Most Wanted List, $10 million in cash is still missing, the contents of the safety deposit boxes are still running around San Francisco – maybe – and no one has come up with an explanation as to how a Greyhound bus can drive onto the Golden Gate Bridge with police cars in hot pursuit and then disappear into thin air. This, George, is not one of your finest moments.”
“You’re right. The main reason I asked you to come to San Francisco.”
“A good idea. But having me here is not going to do you any good unless you clean up your Department. Bad cops have got to go. One bad apple will spoil the entire barrel.”
“I can’t clean anything out without proof.” Chief Thayer shook his head. “I can’t just shut someone down because of what I know, particularly at the level we’re talking about here. I’ve got to have proof.”
“Carefully done, you’ll get the proof you need. But we are still a long way from making an arrest. If this were a normal crime, a simple one, we’d have no problem at all. We could walk right in, make arrests and allow the natural course of events to occur. But if we did, we’d only get one or two of the perps and without the English Petroleum $10 million, the hostages, or the contents of the safety deposit boxes.”
“Do you know who the perps are?”
“If you mean by name, no. But the fog is clearing. I’d say there are at least eight. There were the four who took down the bank and at least one someone in the Police Department, probably working in Property, associated with Property or has worked in Property. The someone in the police department had to have access to the homing devices and the tracking apparatus. I can’t prove anything because the homing device put on the Greyhound is gone. There might have even been two tracking devices, one given to the perps and the other put on the bus. But the one put on the bus was disabled. Then there’s the inside man at the bank. Then there is someone highly placed who is calling the shots. But you already know you’ve got a bad apple.”
“I figured the same. What about the inside man at the bank?”
“There isn’t one. Most likely it’s Hopkins. He had access to all the information concerning the bank and its security arrangements. The critical information was included in the paperwork I read last night – hidden but there. English Petroleum confirmed it as well. Hopkins had access to the security tapes and it would not have been hard for him to switch them on Saturday – or even Monday. He could go where he wanted with no one the wiser. After all, he’s the insurance man. If we ever find the tape I’m betting it’s not going to show anything at all.”
“See, George, what bothered me from the first wasn’t that I didn’t have enough clues. I had too many. Finally I figured it out. What we have here is a triple robbery. First, whatever English Petroleum is pulling is illegal. Sure the IRS knows they have lots of money in cash sitting around, but I’ll bet the IRS doesn’t know why. Right now I’d say ol’ pompous ass Harrah is sweating square nails. He’s got paperwork on $10 million in cash which shows incorrect serial numbers.”
“What makes you think so? “The Chief thought about it. “Even if it’s true, so what?”
“Look at it logically. Whatever English Petroleum is doing involves lots and lots of cash. So they get the cash from a bank – or the federal government. But it’s inconvenient for a bank to give them $10 million in unmarked bills. The easiest thing for the banks to do is just order $10 million from the U.S. Mint. The feds are happy because they have the serial numbers so they can trace any illegal activity. English Petroleum can’t ask for unmarked bills without raising suspicions. So they take the marked bills and slowly launder them, replacing the known serial numbers with untraceable serial numbers.”
“Why would they do that?”
Noonan was about to respond when a waiter finally made it over to their table. “What took you so long,” Chief Thayer asked. “Did you get lost in the dark?”
“Very funny.” The waiter looked at the two men and then glanced at Smith sitting at the bar. “Aren’t you three a bit old for this kind of an establishment?”
“Nope,” replied Noonan. “But you don’t stay employed asking snippy questions of your customers. And this is a bad day to be annoying the two of us.”
“Oh, I am so frightened,” the waiter said. “Frighten me some more and I’ll call the cops.”
“No need,” said Chief Thayer reaching for his badge. “I am the cops. Now, why don’t you be a good little boy and get us two luncheon specials or I’m going to make the owner of this establishment a very unhappy camper.”
The badge stalled the waiter. He stood for a moment in the darkness unable to think of anything to say. The Chief waited, his badge still dangling in his hand. The long, pregnant pause was only broken when Noonan started laughing. “You can go now. You’ve shown us how polite you are.”
The waiter was still about to say something then changed his mind. He just backed away into the darkness.
“I wonder what he’s going to do to our luncheon special?” Chief Thayer asked hesitantly.
“Don’t worry about it, George. If you don’t like it you can shoot him.”
Chief Thayer laughed. “You have always been a card, Heinz. I’d like to spend more leisure time with you, but, heck, I’m up to my ears in banana peels right now. Let’s go back to English Petroleum. Why should they care about what serial numbers are on the bills?”
“Because they don’t want any of the cash traced back to them, especially from overseas. Take the $100 bill with the serial number 12345, for example. On paper the U.S. Mint has given it to English Petroleum. English Petroleum figures out some way to exchange 12345 for 6789, like laundering it through a bank. 12345 goes into circulation in the United States and disappears into the economy while 6789 goes to pay off a foreign dignitary to ease a contract. The feds will never see 12345 coming in from a foreign country because it’s already been switched with 6789. Thus there will be no way to trace the actual dollars which were given to English Petroleum by the U.S. Mint.”
“It’s a bit far-fetched, Heinz. Why wouldn’t English Petroleum just write a check and let the dignitaries cash the check in some American bank – or an English bank or any other kind of a bank?”
“Because they’re not dealing with honorable people. They’re probably dealing with corrupt officials who have to pass along part of the booty to drug smugglers, murderers, blackmailers and lawyers. These guys have to wash whatever money they get so they can’t be seen walking into a bank with a check for $10 million. The primary reason they need the cash is so it can be quickly and easily broken into smaller, usable amounts.”
Chief Thayer scratched his head. “So with the bank hit and the $10 million gone, English Petroleum runs the risk of having its entire scheme exposed to the worst of all people, the IRS.”
“Right! Once the insurance company pays off, the IRS will be on the lookout for bill number 12345. When it and lots and lots of its buddies show up in the United States, the IRS is going to start wondering how so many bills could be showing up in so many different areas. Worse yet, all they have to do is account for one bill that was in someone’s possession before the date of the robbery. Then English Petroleum will be in a world of hurt.”
The Chief smiled. “I see what you mean. English Petroleum now has a major problem. If the money is found and the serial numbers do not match the invoice, they’re guilty of laundering money. If the money is not found and the insurance company pays off, sooner or later those original bills are going to find their way into circulation. Once again, it’s bad news for English Petroleum.”
“Right. They’re between a rock and a hard place. They can’t get the original bills back because they are long gone. But they have to get the bogus bills back to prove to the IRS everything is hunky dory. Getting a check for the loss isn’t going to do them any good; they need proof the money stolen was returned.”
“But the only way they’re going to get the money back with no questions asked is to cut a deal with the perps.” The Chief scratched his head and nodded.
“That, George, is the rub. If they can find them, yes.” Noonan looked up as the waiter brought their lunch. The waiter clearly wasn’t happy and he didn’t say anything when he dropped two plates covered with the identical fare in front of the men. He didn’t bother to wait to see if either man wanted something to drink.
“Shoot him, George,” Noonan said. “It will kill me to eat Brussels sprouts.”
“If you wanted meat you should have gone to a steak house.”
“Actually I wanted barbecued salmon on the banks of the Kenai River but here I am in the city by the bay.” Noonan smiled as he spoke.
Chief Thayer picked through his lunch with his fork and then put it aside. “You’re right, Heinz. I should shoot him.”
Both men laughed as they pushed their plates aside. Chief Thayer leaned forward. “Heinz, the easiest way to wash money would be through someone who had access to a bank but didn’t actually work there. Someone like Hopkins.”
“You catch on quickly. Now, follow this. Hopkins knows about the laundering scheme because he’s doing it. I mean, he probably got the English Petroleum account because he would do it. He gets a nice fat account and all he has to do is something legal. He exchanges legal $100 bills. So he develops avenues with people who can launder the money. They’re more than happy to do it because he’s paying a percentage and they’re not doing anything illegal.”
Noonan took a breath and then took another look at his lunch. Thayer took a look at his special and both men looked up at each other – and then they laughed. Noonan continued, “Hopkins had money to burn so he used the connections he had to generate other clients. Which in turn generated other clients, some of them unsavory. In the process of handling all this money, he makes the critical connection, to the perps. More likely the perps approached him. All he has to do was play along and he’d walk away with a million bucks. No one gets hurt, except his company of course, but why should Hopkins care? I’ll bet he thought the robbery would happen, no one would suspect him, and he’d end up with the million in cash and still have English Petroleum as a client.”
“Pretty gutsy move for him, Heinz. I can see the rest of this coming. One of the perps gets in touch with my man in Property. Everybody gets greedy and a simple $10 million snatch turns into a full-fledged robbery complete with hostages and a razzle-dazzle escape.”
“Exactly,” Noonan said as he wadded a paper napkin in his hand. “Hopkins doesn’t know the inside man in the Police Department. There’s no reason he had to know. Why the razzle-dazzle escape, as you call it? Because the robbery is a pretty basic grab and dash. What the perps need is confusion in the Police Department and time. They got the confusion with the disappearance of the Greyhound on the Golden Gate Bridge and they got the time because your priority is to find those hostages, not look for the money. Where did they put the hostages? The one place the police would not search.”
“In a police storage yard.”
“Right. I’ll bet the green Chevrolet and the truck used to transport the hostages have been there as well.”
“But how did they know we were about to close in on the hostages? I didn’t order the raid until I got the call from you.”
“One of my little secrets. I’ll tell you about it later.”
“OK.” The Chief thought for a moment. “But all this still doesn’t tell us why there are hostages. The perps have the money. Why do they need the hostages?”
“I’m not sure but there are two possibilities. One, the perps don’t know where the money actually is. Hopkins is no fool. If the perps have the money they could disappear and leave him with nothing but a jail sentence. Hopkins could have the money in a safe location. The perps don’t know where it is. The second possibility – and the more likely scenario I believe – is the perps are going to sell back the stolen money to English Petroleum. It makes more sense. They’re holding the hostages to give themselves time to make the exchange and give Hopkins and the inside people at the Police Department time to get away clean. There’s some kind of timetable in play. We just don’t know what it is.”
“Sounds logical,” the Chief said as he nodded. “Where do we go from here?”
“We follow the money, of course. The three key characters are Hopkins, the suspect in the property office, and whoever at English Petroleum is going to make the connection to the perps.” Noonan broke down and took a taste of his lunch. Chief Thayer just watched. When Noonan put his fork down the Chief smiled.
“You do want me to shoot the waiter, right?”
It was Noonan’s turn to smile. “Yeah, and make it dum dum.”
The Chief scratched his head. “Among a lot of things, Heinz. I can see the three crimes you are talking about but I don’t see the connections.”
“There are none, George. They just occurred. At first I thought I was investigating a robbery but there were just too many loose ends for only one. Then I realized I was looking at more than one. Then things began to make sense.”
“Well, I agree with you there are a lot of loose ends. But how does what English Petroleum is doing overseas have to do with a Greyhound bus vanishing on the Golden Gate Bridge?”
“Nothing. That’s what makes this case so intriguing. Nothing seems to fit unless you consider there are three crimes. For instance, why is English Petroleum so uncooperative? Any other company would be providing all the help we needed to locate and identify their money. The faster their money is identified, the faster they get it back—or the insurance pays off. But English Petroleum is acting like they don’t care if they ever see the $10 million again. Why? One of two reasons. First, they really do not want to see the money again, which I don’t believe or, second, they are expecting to make contact with the perps.”
“Or the perps are from English Petroleum in the first place.”
“Not likely. For the robberies to make sense, there are only two inside people, Hopkins and the cop from Property. They don’t need any more than the two cops and every extra person means one more split and greater risk. Hopkins is in the key position. He can talk to both the perps and English Petroleum. But he’s not a cop.”
“You’re putting a lot of faith in Hopkins being the inside man.”
“Yes I am. But I don’t have much of a choice. What have you got on your man in the Department? Enough to send him away?”
“In a word: no. There’s a difference between what I know and what I can prove. Until he makes some kind of a stupid move, I’ll have to be content with forcing him out – with a full pension.”
“Then Hopkins is our key. But we have to be careful because he is playing a very dangerous game. He’s going to have to negotiate with two groups of people who have very little appreciation for the other. The perps have a time table. They have to get out of town. No matter how careful they have been, there are enough clues for the cops to find them eventually. It’s just going to take some time. I’m betting English Petroleum has already been contacted about their dollars. I’m sure they’re going to be offered some kind of a quiet deal. English Petroleum gets its money back and the perps get a percentage kickback. Everyone’s happy except Capital Assurance and Fidelity, Inc.”
“A lot of speculation, Heinz, but I don’t have a better idea. But you are right about one thing. The only apparent solid lead we’ve got is Hopkins. We can find him and we can follow him.”
“Sooner or later he’s going to lead us to the money.” Noonan nodded his head slowly.
“But I need those hostages before I need the money.”
“Believe me, George. When we find the money we’ll find the hostages. That’s their bargaining chip. Those hostages won’t be released until the last possible minute – and in a manner designed to confuse us.”
“So you follow Hopkins. Plan A?”
“Uh, huh. We’ve rented a couple of cars for that purpose. You might say we’re going to play their game back at them.”
Noonan stood up and waved at Detective Smith. As Smith came over and sat down Noonan pulled two sets of keys from his jacket pocket. “Two cars, George, both rented in Smith’s name, so there’s no way anyone can trace the plates very quickly.”
“Somehow I don’t feel you two are telling me everything.” The Chief looked at the keys and wrote down the license numbers. “A purple Subaru? Give me a break, Smith. Don’t you think a purple Subaru a bit conspicuous?”
“You could say so.” Noonan gave a mischievous smile.
The Chief looked from Smith to Noonan. “OK. You two do what you have to. But I want to know the minute you have anything solid. Those hostages are still our first concern. I don’t want any screw-ups. And keep using the cellular phones. I don’t trust the police radio yet.”
“Fine, Chief. We’ll let you know the minute anything happens. But, there is just one more thing I need you to do.”
Noonan reached beside him and lifted his leather jacket off the chair next to him. “I seem to have lost a button from my jacket. Could you see it’s replaced and the jacket sent back to my room at the St. Francis?”
The Chief looked at Noonan with an incredulous stare. “You want me to have your jacket button replaced? At a time like this?”
“Correct. And then have the jacket sent back to my room at the St. Francis Hotel.”
“Well, yes, I suppose I could do that.” The Chief looked from the leather jacket to Noonan to Smith and then back to the jacket. “There’s a tailor I know in Chinatown who can do it right away.”
“Excellent. And have it sent back to my room at the St. Francis hotel the moment it’s finished, right? As soon as the button is replaced. Back to the St. Francis Hotel. Right away. Even if it has to go by cab.”
“Sure, Heinz. I am supposed to pick something up from this request?”
“No. I just need the button on before I fly out this evening. You can have it done, can’t you?” Noonan looked as Smith gave a nod of his head toward the door.
The Chief continued to give Noonan an incredulous look as Detective Smith looked at the lunch of the two men sitting on the table. “You guys didn’t finish your lunch.”
Noonan and Chief Thayer looked sideways at each other and then at Smith. “Yes and no,” replied Noonan. “Actually we didn’t even start.”
Noonan rose quickly and made sure Chief Thayer had his jacket. “It’s very important, let me emphasize, I have the button on this jacket repaired before I go this evening. You can take care of it, can’t you George?”
Then Noonan left George Thayer, Chief of the San Francisco Police, one of the largest, most sophisticated police departments in America, seated at a vegetarian bar with a leather jacket missing a button folded over his arm and a look of incredulity on his face.