The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound
Golden Gate Disappearing Greyhound Bus Caper
Master of the Impossible Crime
Noonan would have opted to rent a car and drive himself, but when it was pointed out he didn’t know his way around San Francisco, he settled for an unmarked car with a detective in plain clothes. The Chief pulled a detective out of the morning’s lineup and Noonan had his escort. Hopkins offered to drive him around but Noonan turned him down. It was a polite turn down and if Hopkins took offense it wasn’t obvious. Noonan waited until Hopkins pulled out of the parking lot at the police station and disappeared into traffic before he turned to the detective.
“Where to first, sir?”
Detective Smith was perfect for undercover work. She was one of those people who could fade into a crowd because she was nondescript. She was no taller than 5 feet 6 inches and was about 130 pounds. She was probably shorter because she was wearing padded black shoes, made for running after perps in comfort. There wasn’t any flab on her frame and her uniform fit well but not so well as if it had been tailored. She had jet black straight hair, clearly part of her Native American heritage, and she was still at the age where she could advance her looks by a decade – or reduce it – with the right make-up. She had sharp black eyes and a clear complexion.
“Smith?” said Noonan with a question in his voice. “I hate to put it this way but you don’t look like a Smith.”
She laughed. “It’s my ex-husband’s name. A long time ago and far away. It was easier to keep his name than change all the credit cards. He wasn’t a bad guy so I just kept the name. Do you want to know what my maiden name was, sir?”
“Nope,” Noonan replied with a smile. “Just don’t call me sir. Heinz will do just fine.”
“OK, Heinz. Where do we go from here?”
“Let’s go to the Greyhound bus depot. I need some breakfast.” Smith gave him a quizzical look.
Noonan smiled. “I want to talk with personnel there. As you drive I’ll tell you what’s been going on. By the way, what do you want me call you?”
“Smith is fine, si. . .,” she almost got the sir out before she switched to “Heinz.”
“That’s right. Heinz. Just like the ketchup.”
Breakfast was the usual fare for a Greyhound bus station: over-cooked, over-greased and over-priced. Smith settled for toast and coffee while Noonan had a mushroom omelet and home fries while the yard manager repeated how the Greyhound had been chosen and used in the hostage transport.”
“We just pulled one out of the yard. It was the luck of the draw. The police said they wanted a bus pronto so we provided.”
“Was there anything unusual about that bus?” Noonan looked over the photos of the bus he had from the lab team.
“The only thing unusual about that bus was it was used in a getaway. Like I told the police, we didn’t even know it was back until it was washed and sanitized. Hey, if we hadn’t moved those three buses in the back lot and spotted the plates, the police would still be searching San Francisco for number 854.”
“Is there any reason for a bus to smoke?”
“Not the way the police were talking about. We went over 854 very carefully when we finally located it. Nope. Nothing wrong with the bus. Exhaust system was working AOK.”
“AOK? No sign of tampering?”
“Not a one.”
“Thanks.” Noonan rose and Smith followed. Noonan picked up his tab, which was immediately grabbed by Smith and then snatched by the yard manager. “You just find the boys who used our bus for a heist. Besides, with the newspapers talking about the Vanishing Greyhound, it is the best publicity we’ve had for years.”
The next stop was the Police Department.
“Why didn’t we make this stop first?” Smith asked puzzled. “There’s a heck of a better snack bar downstairs.”
“Ever go fishing?”
“Do you catch any fish while everybody’s standing on the bank talking?”
“I never thought about it that way.”
“Well, the best time to go fishing is when it’s real quiet.”
“I get your point, Heinz. Where do you want to go?”
“To the office handling homing devices.”
“You mean Property. Upstairs.” Smith pointed up the stairs.
There was only a secretary in Property and her name tag identified her as an administrative assistant. There wasn’t a name on her tag, just the indication she was the administrative assistant. She was a shade under 25 years of age and this was probably her first job. Or she was just nervous about all the attention because of the Vanishing Greyhound. So she was reluctant to open any files for a bearded man in his sixties from a police department she had never heard of even though he was accompanied by a plainclothes detective from San Francisco. Rules were rules.
“I’ll have to have authorization to show you any files,” she said and let a long pause go by before she said, “sir.”
“Not a problem,” Noonan replied, even before she finished her long pause. Then he pulled out his cellular phone and tapped in the Chief’s number for speed dial. Ten seconds later, he and Smith were pouring over the paperwork for the night of the robbery.
“You know these forms better than I do,” Noonan said to Smith. “The way I read it a homing device was checked out at, what, 11 p.m.?”
“You’re reading the paperwork correctly.”
“It was never returned, destroyed, lost. Is there any paperwork to indicate when a homing device was never returned?”
“Captain, we have forms for everything including how to fill out forms. There’s a Form 12-98-054 for destroyed or lost property but it has to be over a certain dollar amount. Like $200. I don’t know how much those homing devices cost but there wouldn’t be a form for a missing device, this one for instance, because it isn’t officially missing yet.”
“When would it be officially missing?”
“When the case closes, I imagine.”
“Fine. Now, the homing device that was used, when was it purchased?”
“It’s a standard model for police departments. It could have been purchased three days before the robbery or three years ago. There’s no secret about what kind of homing device we use. Anyone who knows where to buy security equipment could order a homing device. They can even buy them here in San Francisco. There are three or four equipment retailers not counting the private security companies who probably have them on their shelves.”
“Is there any way the perps could have known what kind of a homing device was being used by the San Francisco Police?”
“Oh, there’s no question they knew we use homing devices and what kind. But the trick is, how did they know what frequency we were using? There are lots of homing devices out there on the street, but it’s the frequency that makes a difference.”
“How is the frequency set?”
“The factory does it. To get our frequency, they’d have to have gotten ahold of a homing device from right here. We turn it on here and then track it from here.”
Noonan looked around the room. With the exception of the administrative assistant, the office was empty. “From where do you actually track it?”
Smith went over to a computer and flicked it on. When the screen jumped to life with a pop, she tapped in a password and the word PROPERTY AUTHORIZATION REQUIRED appeared on the screen.
“Anyone can get onto the police network but it will take a password to get into the Property hard drive. The password is changed frequently to keep the material secure.”
“So the tracking of the bus had to be done from here?”
“I don’t know if it had to be done from here but it was done from here. I used to work in Property so I know how it was done. It’s quite simple, in fact. The homing device is activated and shows up on a computer template.”
“You mean like on a map of the city?”
“Sort of. It’s not as sophisticated as what you see in a James Bond movie. But it isn’t as primitive as those World War II movies where the Nazis have to triangulate the position of a clandestine radio station.”
“So keeping an eye on the homing device isn’t difficult.”
“What happens if there are three or four bugs out there at the same time? How can you keep from being confused as to who is carrying which bug?”
“Usually that’s not a problem. You can change the frequency of each bug slightly so you can identify which bug is which if they are close together. Or you just make a template for each bug.”
“You mean like a different computer screen for each bug?”
“Sort of. You know how you can have three or four documents up in a computer open at any one time but there is only one of those documents on the screen?”
“Right. You can do that with a homing computer too.”
“So it would be possible to be looking at template 1 and not see the active homing devices on template 2 or 3.”
“Yeah. If there were templates 2 and 3. Usually there aren’t. There’s no reason to have more than one template open at any one time.”
Noonan hit the on/off switch and walked back over to the open files on the homing devices. “Are any homing devices missing?”
“You can see from the records there’s only one missing and it was checked out the night of the robbery.”
“But, were any others ones missing, maybe from weeks ago?”
“I see what you’re digging for.” Smith dug through the paperwork for a few minutes and then raised three fingers. “Three others. But records only go back five years.”
“Is there any chance one of those wasn’t really lost?”
“Of those three, no. Two of them came back destroyed and were dumped. The third was destroyed in a car bomb. I was on the car bomb case and I can assure you even if it wasn’t destroyed in the explosion, it couldn’t possibly have been operational.”
“How long ago?”
“Three, four years ago. A while.”
Noonan waved his hand at the paperwork. “So, according to these records, there is no way two homing devices could have been taken out of this office the night of the robbery.”
“I’ll count the devices myself.” Smith wandered off and Noonan flicked his cellular phone open. Then he changed his mind. When Smith came back, Noonan was standing at the window watching the city trying to emerge from the fog.
“I physically counted the homing devices, Captain, er Heinz. There are four in use right now, one of them being our lost homing device. I called about the other three and they are in place and operational. None of them have anything to do with the bank robbery and all three have been in place for at least a week.”
“I see.” Noonan scratched his beard and then walked over to the map of San Francisco on the wall. “Smith, how many different facilities does the San Francisco Police have?”
“You mean like precincts and substations?”
“I mean like patrol car lots, repair facilities, impound yards, storage facilities.”
“A dozen, maybe.”
“Where are they?”
Smith ran through a laundry list of facilities, starting with patrol car storage and repair facility by the International Airport to the impound park near Lafayette Park. “Were you looking for anything in particular?”
“Tell me more about the storage facility in Hunter’s Point. How large is it?”
“I don’t really know. I’ve never been there. It’s more for long-term storage than anything else. Did you want to go there?”
“Yes, right away.”
Smith put the paperwork away and then joined Noonan as he walked out of the office. Once in the hallway but before they got to the downward stairs, Noonan put his hand on Smith’s arm. “Wait here for a moment, please.”
Smith stopped and then pointed further along down the hallway. “It’s down there.”
Noonan just smiled and went back to Property. He was gone for a moment and then came back to the stairwell.
“Did you forget something?” Smith asked.
Noonan shook his head. Halfway down the stairs Noonan stopped Smith. “Do you carry a gun?”
Smith pulled back her tweed jacket to reveal a .38 Special.
“Do you think I’ll need it? Should I call for backup?”
“No. Not yet. Just keep your eyes open.”
Smith didn’t say anything until they got into the car. As she pulled away from the parking lot and merged with the downtown traffic, she half turned to Noonan. “Captain, I don’t want to add to your burdens but if there’s going to be trouble, I’d like to be prepared. If there’s going to be trouble, I’d suggest we have back-up.”
Noonan was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure we need it.”
“Well, the minute we do,” Smith said. “I’d like you to tell me. No, make it that a minute before we need assistance. I don’t like surprises, Captain, and this is the biggest case in years. We’ve ten lives on the line and up to $10 million missing.”
Noonan was silent for a moment. “Well we can’t go around causing a great commotion if there’s nothing to report, can we? We’re just going to take a look around the storage yard at Hunter’s Point. If we see anything suspicious, we’ll ask for back-up. Good enough?”
“Suits me. I’m just jumpy.”
Smith was clearly not satisfied. Noonan could see a head shaking involuntarily out of the corner of his eye and a hand involuntarily reach for a sidearm and then move back to the wheel.
“But we’ve got to make one stop before we go to Hunter’s Point.”