The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound – Chapter 6

The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound

Golden Gate Disappearing Greyhound Bus Caper

Steven Levi

Master of the Impossible Crime

Chapter 6

It had been a short night for Captain Heinz Noonan. He had been on the Golden Gate with the lab team until well after the sun went down. Then he was up until midnight pouring over the paperwork he had requested. He was down for a short night, but it gave him no rest and he awoke unrested and restless.


He didn’t need the wake-up call for 7 a.m. Already up and moving by 6:30 a.m., he placed a person-to-person call to his assistant in Sandersonville and discovered a suitcase full of his working clothes and equipment had been left in the early afternoon the day before. He traced the suitcase to the hotel lobby where it was waiting for him downstairs. By the time he did receive the automated call telling him it was 7 a.m., he was dressed in his traditional working clothing: black field boots, khaki pants, and teal shirt with an open collar. His trademark black leather jacket had come to San Francisco on the plane with him.

The moment he looked out his window it was clear today and was not going to be the same as yesterday. It looked like Sandersonville. There was a low-hanging fog bank with what appeared to be blowing mist near the ground. Automobiles were picking their way through the pea soup, pedestrians were trying to decide if they wanted their umbrellas up or down and no one was worrying about a suntan. Noonan popped the window open and took a deep lungful of the cold marine air.

“My kind of weather,” he mumbled to himself. “You don’t get sunburn; you just rust.”

After he placed a call to Chief Thayer he began pawing through the suitcase which had been sent from his office. He pulled out his tape measure, pocket knife, magnifying glass, some mechanical pencils and a small notebook. He took a handful of plastic bags and stuffed them in his hip pocket. Finally, after he dug around in the suitcase for a good three minutes, he pulled a small penlight out of the bag. He unscrewed the cap and dropped the batteries in his hand. Since they were reversed for safety, he placed them into the flashlight body correctly and screwed the light back in place. The light flashed when he hit the switch and he grunted with satisfaction.
Downstairs in the lobby, the Chief was waiting for him. The first thing he handed Noonan was a cup of coffee in a green and yellow paper cup. At the same time, he beckoned Noonan out the door with his arm. On the run, they made it through the rotating door of the hotel and headed across the wet sidewalk to the Chief’s car.

“I hope you don’t mind eating on the run, or at least not right now.”

“To serve and protect, George, my reason for being here.”

“Not unless you’re in Los Angeles. This is San Francisco, remember.”

“Yeah, where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars, what surprises do you have for me today?”

“I’m feeling great after nine hours of sleep. You didn’t get that much. How’re you feeling?”

“Fine. I was up ‘til midnight going over paperwork. Did you have some lab reports for me?”

The Chief opened the passenger door to the car and indicated the envelope on the passenger seat. Noonan got in and pulled the door closed as the Chief scampered around the squad car and slid in behind the wheel. The car was in gear, out of the loading zone, and into traffic before Noonan had the envelope open.

As soon as the car began to gain speed, the Chief dug a cellular phone out of his jacket pocket. He handed it to Noonan back first so he could see the list of cellular numbers taped the back of the phone.

“While I was asleep you were a busy boy,” the Chief said. “You walked our bridge from end to end. Not a lot of San Franciscans have done that. As you can see from those reports, our lab people worked all night.”

“Good,” Noonan replied as he pulled out the staples with his fingernails. “I need all the information I can get as soon as I can get it.”

“But,” the Chief sighed, “they don’t have much to tell you. They went over the three places on the top of the fence you marked off but all they found were scrapes and scratches on two of them. The third had two different kinds of paint, a light gray and black. The one place on the support strut you wanted examined showed some nylon fibers but nothing else.”

“I kind of thought it would.”

“What’s the secret, Heinz? Do you really think the paint and the nylon fibers have something to do with the robbery? The spot is a half-mile past the three bungee cords!”

“George, what I can’t do is duplicate what your people are doing. If they could have found the hostages and money by now, you wouldn’t need me. The advantage I bring you is I don’t think like a normal policeman, if there is such a thing as a normal policeman. All of the perps I deal with, the tough cases anyway, operate effectively because they know how the police think. They count on the police operating by the book. The police are very obliging when it comes to operating by the book. So the perps benefit. It’s like betting on clockwork.”

“Isn’t that a little simplified?”

“No. Not really. If you have 25 police officers in a room and every one of them has a college degree in psychology or police science, when you present them with a problem, they are all going to approach the problem with the same point of view. It’s what they learned in school; it’s how they’ve been trained to think and all the way through their career, they’re expected to think like a cop. In reality, all cops think alike. But if you really want to see a police department flower, get yourself recruits who have degrees in music, biology, mathematics, physics, or art. You get crossfertilization of thinking when you have cops who have different backgrounds, different degrees and different life experiences.”

“What did you get your degree in, Heinz?”

“European history and anthropology. Not a very promising start for a police career, eh?”

“Yeah. How did you get into police work?”

“Too long a story to go into now.” Noonan slid the pile of lab reports back into the envelope on his lap. “Right now we’ve got ten hostages to find. How has the press been treating us?”

The Chief grunted and reached over the back seat to pick up a Wednesday paper off the back seat. He tossed it onto Noonan’s lap. “As good as can be expected. The nice thing about the press is they’re polite. There are a couple of cowboys out sniffing around but by and large they’re leaving us to do our job.”

Noonan nodded in agreement as he looked over the stories in the paper. “They’re polite right now because there’s no way they can dig around for clues in places you haven’t been. Give them another 24 hours and they’ll be scouring the city for hostages. The first impulse of the press is to go sensational, interview tearful families and neighbors.”

“Then they are operating true to form.”

“Good, it’ll keep the bad guys busy for a few more hours, long enough for us to wrap this up.” Noonan smiled.

“You think you can wrap this up today?” The Chief was clearly fishing for a positive response.

“Should be able to.”

“The other bit of immediate news is the FBI has arrived. As soon as the clock hit 24 hours, two agents in polyester showed up and said they were in charge.”

Noonan snorted. “Dunkin’ Donuts will be happy. Do you have any more good news?”

Early morning traffic in San Francisco looked just about like afternoon traffic. The only difference was drivers were asleep at the wheel rather than suffering from 9-to-5 burnout. There was a constant rumble of vehicle tires drumming on streets whose surface varied from block to block: cobblestone to black top to pothole-strewn-cement to brick. There was an occasional plaintive bleep of a horn but the most distinctive sound was of buses accelerating away from a curb only to decelerate in the next block for another plug of passengers. If BART was supposed to have reduced the number of passengers on the surface transportation network, there was no indication it was working.

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” the Chief said as he looked over his left shoulder before he pulled into an intersection to slide through a left hand turn. “I do have some good news. While we were both asleep the bus turned up. Unfortunately I’m not sure how much information we can get from it.”

“Where was it found?”

“The best place to hide something is in plain sight and that’s where it was. The bus turned up at the Greyhound bus yard.”

“It was just sitting there?”

“Yup. The perps had changed the license plates on the bus and then left it sitting in the to-be-cleaned area. When a bus trip terminates, the vehicle is washed on the outside and cleaned on the inside. The perps drove the Greyhound into the washing yard early in the morning the day after the bus disappeared. They switched the plates with another bus and our bus went through a cleaning. They only discovered the switch when they spotted the other bus whose plates had been switched. It was parked in a set of nine buses, too deep to be used until last night. Someone spotted the plates and discovered the switch.”

“Any chance of getting what was taken off the bus?”

“My people were on it right away. They dug through a dumpster and found a small bag from our stolen bus. There’s not much there. It appears our perps cleaned out the bus thoroughly. The only thing of interest was this,” the Chief said as he pulled a plastic bag from the inside pocket of his jacket. He handed it to Noonan who recognized it as a bank deposit slip from Butterfield-Fargo First National.

“Good link for us but I don’t think it’s too important.” Noonan handed the slip in the plastic bag back to the Chief. “But it does show someone is thinking.”

“That’s what we thought too.”

Noonan tipped the paper coffee cup back and took his first sip of the black liquid. When he tilted the cup back, steam vented through the small drinking hole and coated his glasses.

“Was anything else of interest found in the bus?”

“Nope. Apparently it was pretty clean when it was put through the washing system. I’m assuming you wanted to see the bus. We’re going there now.”


“How about the material I sent over last night. Did you find anything important in the paperwork?”

“I don’t know. My style of investigation involves looking over lots and lots of documents and then seeing what pops out as time goes along. I call it ‘massing the trivia.’ I won’t know what’s important and what’s garbage until the case is over.”

“I hope this all wraps up quickly, I’ve got heat from above, the paper’s been nipping at my heels and there are ten sets of relatives screaming for action. I’ve got nothing but an empty bus and $10 million in cash missing – not to mention what was in those safety deposit boxes.”

“Be thankful the perps haven’t tried to ransom the hostages.” The Chief laughed sadly.

If Noonan expected the Greyhound to reveal any secrets, he was doomed to disappointment. It sat in a corner of the wash down area with a police guard wandering about in the early morning fog. A bright yellow police tape was tacked to the cyclone fence and stretched to a stone on the ground and then to a patrol car before reaching back to the cyclone fence in front of the bus.

As the Chief had indicated, there wasn’t much to see. Noonan spent a few minutes on his back in the bus looking under the seats with his flashlight but couldn’t find anything of interest. He dug through the small bag of garbage, which had been collected from the bus but again, found nothing of merit. The homing device which had been installed by the police was gone.

“They’ve been a step ahead of us all the way.” The Chief ran his finger over the spot where the homing device had been hidden in the front wheel well.

“Maybe not,” Noonan replied. “A simple homing device detection would have told them where the bug was on the bus. They could have bought the device at any one of a dozen retail stores in town.”

Noonan washed his hands in the Greyhound terminal restroom and then he was back in the patrol car heading across town.

“The only other place I could think you would want to visit is English Petroleum to talk to them about their money.”

“You know how I think. Yes, thanks. I don’t know how productive a visit would be but let’s give it a shot.”

“We have an appointment with the Regional Vice President for Pacific
Rim Operations, Robert Harrah . .”

“The British pinch penny, right?”

“Same guy. He’s very personable and not anything like his TV persona. He’s said he’ll make time for us whenever we show up. I figured you’d want to talk with him as soon as possible. Afterwards, we can have breakfast. Then the rest of the day is yours.”

“Good.” Noonan smoothed his beard with his hand. “This is going to be a very interesting conversation.”

He was right.

It was also a very short conversation.

If nothing else, Harrah was unexpectedly cultured and polite, which was quite a switch from what Noonan clearly expected him to be. Noonan commented on that and Harrah laughed, “It’s all in the presentation, Captain. The magic of the tele. Won’t you sit down?” He indicated two carved teak chairs in front of his desk, “Please.”

Noonan unbuttoned his leather jacket and sat cross-legged. “I’ll come right to the point, Mr. Harrah, in addition to the ten hostages there’s also $10 million in cash which belongs to English Petroleum. At the risk of being rude because of the time crunch, why is English Petroleum keeping so much money available in cash?”

“I understand your position perfectly, Captain, and being abrupt under the circumstances is not out of line, as you chaps say over here. However, I’m not at liberty to say why the money is being kept in cash,” Harrah giving a Cheshire cat grin. “While I can assure you it is perfectly legal for us to do so, I appreciate you are looking for any lead to find those ten hostages.” As he was speaking he opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a legal-sized envelope. “Anticipating your questions, I have had our legal department provide as much information as they . . .”

Noonan tried to butt in. “But I am still very interested in knowing the purpose for the $10 million in cash. I don’t care what the reason is, it may provide me . . .” Noonan was unsuccessful.

He was cut off as Harrah handed him the envelope.

“Also included in this packet is an indication from the IRS stating they are well aware of our practice of keeping millions of dollars in cash available for exigencies.”

“The bottom line,” Noonan tried again, “as I take it, is this is all the help we can expect from English Petroleum?” Noonan casually jiggled the envelope at eye level.

“Captain! We are every bit as concerned over the fate of those ten hostages as you are! Perhaps even more so. According to the newspaper, the reason the thieves chose that particular bank was because of the $10 million in cash. That makes us very responsible in the public eye. We want those thieves caught as badly as you, perhaps more so because we have our good name at risk. Revenues from EP stations in California alone run well into the hundreds of millions. The faster those thieves are caught, the sooner things can go back to normal.”

“I see.” Noonan rose and the Chief followed suit a split-second later.

Harrah stood only after he pulled a business card out of the corner of his blotter. “This is the card of our Public Affairs Director,” he said as he handed Noonan the card. “I also had him place his home phone and cellular number on the card. He has been given strict instruction to provide you with any information or assistance you want, day or night.”

Noonan took the card and glanced at it, “except as to the purpose of the $10 million.”

“He doesn’t know,” responded Harrah. “Only three of us in the United States do.”
“Are you one of them?” Noonan asked.

Harrah was about to respond but changed his mind. He simply stuck his hand across the desk in Noonan’s direction. “It’s been a pleasure, Captain. Chief. Always a pleasure.”

Two minutes later Noonan and the Chief were on their way down the elevator to Market Street.

“Hardly worth the effort was it?” snapped Noonan as he pulled his seat belt across his chest. “The nicest brush-off I’ve ever received.”

The Chief shook his head. “English Petroleum is one of those old stuffy English corporations which believes United States should still be a colony. Their attitude is they are here to do business, not make friends. If it wasn’t for their ad campaign, they wouldn’t be making a dime on the West Coast.”

“The power of television,” Noonan responded as he put down the envelope. “Basically what he gave us is diddly. In essence, the paperwork says their insurance agent Douglas Hopkins was responsible for everything, talk to him. We at English Petroleum are pure as the driven snow.”

“Did you expect anything different?”

“Frankly, yes.” Noonan smiled sadly. “What I got was nothing more than the contempt of a colonial governor for the natives.”

“Welcome to life in a debtor nation.”

Steven C. Levi is a sixty-something freelance historian and commercial writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, his home for past 40 years. He has a BA in European History and MA in American history from the University of California Davis and San Jose State. He has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle.