The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound
Golden Gate Disappearing Greyhound Bus Caper
Master of the Impossible Crime
By late afternoon it was clear to Captain Noonan he was having an exceptional day. He and Detective Smith had picked up Hopkins in front of his office and followed him as he wound his way through the city to the Palace of Fine Arts, Smith in a purple Subaru and Noonan following in a Rent-a-Clunker van. The moment Hopkins jumped out of his Mercedes and headed for the Palace building, Smith left the Subaru and joined Noonan in the van. Slowly they fed the license number of each car in the parking lot into the laptop computer connected by cell phone to the police computer. Every car except one matched. It was a mid-size Buick but the plates were for a Volkswagen Rabbit.
“Bingo!” Noonan had then handed Smith a homing device.
“What makes you think this car is the one?” she had asked.
“Because I need a break and this could be the only one I’m going to get.” “How long should I follow him?” Smith had asked.
“Until he tries to shake you,” Noonan had replied with a smile. “Don’t make it too easy for him. But don’t lose me. I’m not the one with the homing device.”
Smith had smiled then and now, three hours later, they were sitting in the front seat of the van with binoculars searching the facade of a majestic residence with a sweeping lawn at 1906 Ruef Street.
The Ruef Hill neighborhood had originally been built during the graft trials of the early years of the Twentieth Century. It had originally been an exclusive neighborhood, which, in those days, meant no “J” people, then the code for Japanese and Jew. Mayors, magnates and madams had lived in these homes and it was said their ghosts still walked the hallways and bedchambers of some of the structures. But over the years the homes had decayed to such an extent it was laughingly said the only thing falling faster into the Pacific Ocean than the City of San Francisco were property values on Ruef Hill. This may very well have been true. But Ruef Hill had a certain historical charm, which kept it from going the way of the Mission and Sunset districts. This was primarily because, as its name implied, it was on top of a hill too steep to allow any construction on the ramparts yet, on top, was flat enough and large enough to provide stable footing for two dozen homes.
Finally, when enough yuppies with a sense of history took a fancy to “The Hill,” as it was called, the neighborhood was revitalized – thanks primarily to the low interest, federally-insured, state-provided, city-managed, historical preservation 25%-forgiven-after-five-years, loans. The quality of denizens went up. Historic reclamation of the “majestic monuments to San Francisco’s past,” as the paper described the ramshackle mansions, gave the neighborhood an ongoing face-lift. All manner of contractors, renovation architects and historians were in the neighborhood from dusk to dawn.
The house at 1906 Ruef Street was typical of the neighborhood. It had columns large enough to support the space shuttle all along a frontage, which could only be described as a combination of American Colonial and Victorian. A front lawn limped along 30 yards of frontage with alternating sheets of clover and dandelions.
The building came to an abrupt corner next to a greenhouse sharing the same frontage. From their vantage point, Noonan and Smith could see the house was as deep as it was wide – and two stories tall. There must have been a third floor of some kind because there were two gables on the roof front, one of them open. There appeared to be some kind of renovation underway as there was a section of the front of the house where metal frames were braced against the front walls. Ten feet up there was a narrow board walk the kind carpenters or painters would use.
In spite of the neighborhood, the building was hardly a cheery place. The wood shakes on the roof were splintery and black with patches of green mold hop-scotching as far as the greenhouse. A screen of pepper trees blocked any view of the next home. The front of the house was a dull gray with white windows and black trim, perfect for a funeral home, but
the structure was not color-coordinated for the rest of the neighborhood, which sported an array of reds, greens and blues.
There was a three-car garage set at a right angle to the house. On a covered porch which stretched from the garage to the house, Noonan and Smith could see painting supplies scattered around what appeared to be piles of canvas spread cloths. A sign reading “Floor Season’s Painting” leaned against the side of the garage, wedged between a ladder and a stack of paint cans. This seemed to fit with the framing along the front of the structure.
“What can you tell me about this address?” Noonan lowered his binoculars until they were hanging around his neck by their leather strap.
“Let’s see, 1906 Ruef. It’s legit as far as I can tell.” Smith looked up from her laptop. “It was bought ten years ago by Elsie and Jonathan Hutchings for $250,000. Valuation is now $573,000. No indication of any sale recently. She paused for a moment while she pulled up the police computer, “neither of them have any record of trouble with the police, at least back to 1965, as far as our records go back on computer.”
“Anything in the public domain file?” Noonan pulled a pen from his pocket and scribbled the names down in his notebook.
“Just a second. Yeah, three law suits, plaintiffs all three. Two are for nonpayment of rent and the third was a libel suit.”
“Who was the libel suit against?”
“A magazine, the San Francisco Tattler. One of our local tabloids You know, dirt, dirt, dirt. If it’s printed in the Tattler, it’s not true.”
“Did they win?”
“I can’t tell from here.”
“It’s a docket we may have to check. What year was the case?”
“Good! I like this cyberspace world better and better. Now, unless our little pigeon has found the homing device, this is the end of the road. The roost, so to speak.”
“Do you want me to check the garage? It’s the only place where he could have hidden the car.”
“Not yet. I don’t want to spook the man. Besides, if this really is the roost, there’s got to be someone watching. I’ve got a better idea. See if you can find some neighbors and talk to them. Who are the Hutchings anyway?”
“Are you sure you want me to ask?” Smith pointed to her face as though to say “Hey! I’m black, remember?”
“Is there a problem with being black in San Francisco?”
“Not really but this is not exactly an integrated neighborhood. The only blacks you’re going to find around here are little metal ones on the lawns with horse rings.”
“You might be surprised. This is San Francisco, remember? The most multi-ethnic city on the West Coast.”
Smith gave him an irritating look. “I’m betting every multi-ethnic person up here does gardening or laundry.”
She was wrong.
The first doorbell she rang produced a short Japanese woman in a sweat shirt which looked more like a painter’s drop cloth than a piece of clothing. The sweat shirt read “Nikko’s Gallery,” a good indication it may very well have been used as a palette.
She wore baggy jeans and water buffalo sandals. Armed with a glass of white wine in one hand and a pair of reading glasses and book in the other, the woman looked at Smith’s badge and then said, “Well. It’s about time. What are we paying our taxes for if you people can’t get here on time?”
“You’re with the police aren’t you?” She made the word “police” sound like it was a disease, the same emphasis would be placed on “used car salesman,” “insurance agent” or “candidate for Congress.” When Smith nodded, the woman continued. “I just can’t believe you people take so long to respond to citizens. I made the call this morning and here it is, what, 3:30. Did I pull you away from a doughnut shop?”
“Actually, Ma’am, I not here as the result of a call to headquarters.”
“Well, officer, we pay quite a healthy amount of property taxes to live in this neighborhood and a large chunk of the mill rate goes for police protection. Now if you are not going to provide top flight service to the neighborhoods who chip in the largest chunk of your budget, there really isn’t much use in us paying taxes is there? Every time I go downtown I see cops on every block. But when we report a peeping tom in the neighborhood, I guess we have to wait until someone gets their throat slit while they’re asleep before anyone responds. What’s your name officer?”
“Smith. Detective Smith. Where is this peeping tom you called about?”
“Isn’t it a little late to cover someone’s back end?”
“It’s never too late to stop someone from getting murdered in their sleep, Ma’am. Now where is this intruder?”
“He’s hiding in the bushes up the street, at the top of the hill overlooking the Hutchings house. He was sitting in a new Cherokee down the hill for a while but I guess he’s got to do his peeping with a camera. He’s been there since I woke up. He has a long scraggly beard.”
“The Hutchings house? The one across the street, with the framework for the painting?”
“Yes. Jonathan and Elsie spend every July in Montana. Jonathan loves to fish for trout and Elsie collects burls and mushrooms for her artwork. She’s an excellent artist. We feature some of her pieces in our . . .”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Detective Smith pulled out a notebook and a stubby pencil. “The Hutchings go to Montana every July. So the house has been empty? Is anyone living in the house?”
“Four or five, actually, but I don’t know who they are. There’s at least one couple, a man and a pregnant woman. Probably not married, you know how those things are these days?” The woman gave Smith a leer.
“No, Ma’am. I’m married.”
“Good for you,” the woman replied and then pointed across the street with her wine glass. “The painting only started last week, Friday, I think. Four men put up the frames but I haven’t seen a whole lot of work. There were quite a bit of goings-on over the weekend but it’s quiet now.”
“So there’s no one there now?”
“One person. I saw him drive in about half an hour ago. He locked his car in the garage – a bit strange for this neighborhood. We really don’t have a lot of cars stolen from around here. Now, what are you going to do about the peeping tom?”
“Where is the man in question right now?”
“Like I said before, Officer” – and the word officer was said with a sliding sarcasm just apparent enough to indicate derision but was not offensive enough to be worthy of a comeback – “he’s hiding in the bushes near the top of the hill.” The Japanese woman pointed across her front yard to a figure barely visible at the crest of a small knoll surrounded with brush.
“How did you ever spot him?”
“In this neighborhood we watch out for our neighbors. I’m a member of Neighborhood Watch. I see something suspicious, I report it.”
“Well, he can’t really be a vagrant if he drove here in a $20,000 car. You said the Cherokee was new, didn’t you?” The woman nodded.
“Do you have a pair of binoculars?” Smith shaded her eyes to see if she could spot the Cherokee.
“Sort of. That’s how I spotted him.” She stepped back inside the doorway and reached through a bead curtain, the strings clacking as her shoulder broke the plane of the beads. She pawed her way across a piece of furniture in the dim interior. When she returned she had a bronze telescope with a stand. “I like the spyglass, myself. Can you use one of these?”
“I think so.” Smith gave a half smirk and focused on the Cherokee at the top of the knoll. It was a newer model, silver and gray, with tinted windows. Then she shifted her gaze to the white male hulking in the bushes. She could not distinguish his face because he was glued to a Hasselblad with a telephoto lens. From the angle of the lens he appeared to be watching a back window of the Hutchings House.
The license plate to the Cherokee was obscured by a bush so Smith stepped sideways on the porch and up onto a cinder block. But she still couldn’t see the plate.
“I tried that too,” the woman said behind her. “I finally crawled through the bush and took a look. In the rain, too. The things I do for Neighborhood Watch.”
“Did you write it down?”
Again came the sound of the bead curtain being swept aside.
Smith put down the spyglass and exchanged it with the woman for a piece of paper.
“I recorded this for our next meeting of Neighborhood Watch. You never know what might be important.”
“You are correct.” Smith looked at the plate number and shrugged. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“I certainly hope so.” The woman closed the door so quickly behind her she almost cut the end of her statement off.
Back in the Rent-a-Clunker, Smith punched up the license plate.
“Did you find out anything?” Noonan was relaxing in the van, his eyes riveted to the house with the painting scaffolding.
“Yeah. This neighborhood’s integrated. Uh-oh.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.” Noonan tore his eyes away from the house. “Tell me everything you know for a fact before you said Uh-oh.”
“Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?”
“Let’s try all the news.”