The Matter of Ten Thousand Hard Rubber Combs

The Matter of Ten Thousand Hard Rubber Combs

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, always wondered if the real Sherlock Holmes — as in the detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle — had a beard. A. Conan Doyle had a luxurious mustache which, in the mid-1800s, was called a “cat smeller.” It was half a beard, so to speak, and the legendary Sherlock Holmes was, as per the 1904 portrait by Sidney Paget, beardless with a receding hair line. Padget’s Watson had a mustache. Basil Rathbone, who portrayed Sherlock Holmes in 14 films, two by Twentieth Century Fox and a dozen by Universal Pictures, was beardless and wore a deerstalker hat. Noonan noted there was no reference to a deerstalker hat in any of the Holmes stories by Doyle. Doyle died in 1930 and the first Sherlock Holmes feature came out nine years later so there is no accounting for what Doyle would have thought of Rathbone.

Or the deerstalker hat.

Dr. Watson, played by Nigel Bruce in all of the Sherlock Holmes movies, sported a thick mustache — but no beard.

It was not as though Noonan had an affinity for hair. Or, as per his sobriquet, a beard. He was just pleased he had both, top and bottom. Many of his contemporaries had neither. Some had none. Others were indulging in pleasant conversation in that great barbershop in the sky. Hair on the lip, chin, chops and pate was only of concern to Noonan once every three weeks when he had to make the l-o-n-g, three block trek, to Santo Garibaldi’s Barber Shop ‘one block off Main Street and the Best Barber in Sandersonville’ which was a laugh because there was only one barber in Sandersonville. Everyone else in the hair business called themselves hair stylists, coiffeurs, beauticians, hairdressers and there was even one “tonsorial artist.” Noonan preferred a “barber” and specifically “the Best Barber in Sandersonville” because he, Santo Garibaldi, was both a superb conversationalist and a font of interesting trivia.

Noonan was up to his chin beneath an apron when Santo Garibaldi had a question of trivia for him.

“You know, I’ve got this cousin in Bicycle City, down in Florida …”

“That’s the name of the city?”

“Nay. Dalles. Like Dalles, Oregon. A bunch of Oregonians wanted to be somewhere South during the winter so they bought up a landfill or something like that and made a city of bicycles. Whole city of bicycle paths. You go to work by bicycle, go home. You know. Nothing but bicycles. Miles of bike trails in a city. Can you believe that?”

“Can’t shop on a bicycle.”

Garibaldi laughed. “Yeah, homes got driveways and people’s got cars. But the city was one of those eco-friendly types. Homes on the fringes and everything on the inside walk and bike paths. Has a golf course in the center of the city. Odd city, I guess. But then I’m from Philly. We got parks and golf courses but they’re scattered. You know, around in the suburbs.”

Noonan kind of shrugged. “Is there a reason you’re telling me this?”

“Yeah,” Garibaldi said humorously. “You being the ‘Bearded Holmes’ and all. My cousin, Herman, is a comb collector. He’s a barber and likes history. Runs a barber museum in Tampa. Likes what he calls the Hercules comb. An antique.”

“Go on,” Noonan said. “I’m waiting with breathless anticipation for the ‘you know something strange is happening.’”

“Psychic! Heinz, you are absolutely psychic! Yeah, as a matter of fact something strange is going on.”

“OK.”

“Someone in Dalles ordered 10,000 combs. Not a barber, mind you. Just, well, someone off the street. Or in this case, the bike path. Ordered them and paid cash. I’m from Philly and when someone pays in cash, well, it means something bad is about to happen.”

“10,000 combs?” Noonan was perplexed. “I mean, combs like that one?” Noonan pointed at the comb in Garibaldi’s hand.

“Yeah. Just like. This is a Medline Plastic Comb. I can get a box of them for eight bucks. 144 combs for eight bucks. I don’t use 144 in a year. So what’s someone doing buying 10,000 of them?”

“That, Santo,” Noonan muttered, “is a very good question.”

* * *

In all his years as a crimefighter, Noonan had never heard of a crime which involved a comb. Least of all 10,000 of them. But then again, a lot of his loo-loo calls involved objects which had never before been included in a criminal’s plan of operation.

Rather than appear a fool by calling the Dalles Police Department with a wild story, he decided to do some background research. As per his modus operandi, he started with his two best sources of information: history and the local papers. When it came to combs, there was not a lot of information he did not know or could have figured out. Combs had been around for about 5,000 years and were used to untangle hair and removed vermin. The earliest combs were made from ivory, wood, tortoise shell or animal horn. Steel combs came into common use when they were used in cotton gins and then plastic replaced steel after 1843 when Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process which revolutionized the use of rubber. Half a century later the Goodyear process would be used for tires and Goodyear’s name would adorn the letterhead of the company which sold the product. Goodyear himself did not live to savor the honor; he died in 1860 when the fastest means of travel was the Pony Express. His comb legacy, so to speak, was carried on by two companies who purchased his patent — the American Hard Rubber Company and the India Rubber Comb Company — until the comb patent became extinct. Thereafter a myriad of companies produced combs. The term “unbreakable” became part of the industry jargon when it was included in the advertisements for the Hercules Comb which was sold by the Butler Hard Rubber Company.

A quick search on the internet informed Noonan “unbreakable” combs weighed about an ounce each, depending on the comb’s intended use. This made 10,000 combs about 625 pounds of rubber plus the weight of the cartons and crates which held them.

Which did not give him a single clue as to the use of 10,000 combs by nefarious characters.

There wasn’t much on the internet on Dalles, Florida.

As a matter of fact, there was nothing.

So much for calling the Dalles Police Department.

So Noonan punched up “bicycles” and “Florida” and received eight zillion references. Then he tried “bicycle city” and “Florida” and got a manageable four dozen. Of these only one appeared to be relevant. It wasn’t “bicycle city” but a “haven for bike lovers” and “two-wheelers in Paradise.”

But it wasn’t for a city.

It was for an island community.

And a strange collection of islands at that.

It was a cooperative venture, so to speak.

The word “Dalles” was not used but the company involved was the Dallies Cooperative. It was registered out of McMinnville, Oregon, and was a medicinal marijuana cooperative.

Then things began to click for Noonan.

Marijuana sales were legal in many states, Oregon being one of them. But there was a catch. You could legally buy marijuana in Oregon — and many other states — but the federal government still listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with, supposedly, no medicinal benefits and with a high probably of creating addicts. Since marijuana was a Schedule 1 drug, any money derived from marijuana or any of its sources, was drug money and federally illegal. Which meant no person or business could use a federally-regulated financial tool in the sale of the Schedule 1 drug. Tools like credit cards or checks. And marijuana money could not be deposited in banks because they were federally regulated. It was a cash-and-carry business on both sides of the counter.

But it was a very lucrative business none the less.

So those in the marijuana industry had been forced to become clever in the use of their legal, illegal money. Reading between the lines, Noonan figured the cooperative had purchased land with cash and was using legal, illegal money to create a community to launder the money — legally.

Noonan put a call into the Tampa office of the Florida State Troopers and got a Ms Bunchee on the phone. Bunchee did not give a rank, which was fine with Noonan. His was not an official call. When he asked about the Dallies Cooperative, Bunchee gave a laugh.

“You really are a cop?” She asked as she choked on something.

“Really am. Out of North Carolina. Just following up on a lead. So you know of the Dallies Cooperative?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Odd group but nothing illegal. They purchased some islands made of trash.”

“Trash?”

“Long story. In the old days, before global warming became vogue, the cheapest way to get rid of garbage was to dump it at sea. When that became illegal, garbage companies began piling it on shoals and low islands. Over the years the islands grew. Then came the recycling requirements and the garbage islands were left alone. Large, stinking piles of deteriorating, sea gull and rat attracting eye sores.”

“So this Dallies Cooperative built a city on one of the islands?”

“Three, actually. Paid cash. Then they flattened the debris and built kind of a community. I would not call it a city. It’s more like a collection of techies. They work out of their homes. There is a small mall on the furthest island out with a bank, some eateries. Nothing big in terms of sales. The next island in, the big one, is called the ‘Maui of the Gulf,’ if you can believe it. It has a golf course — full 18 holes — and that’s where the grocery stores, liquor stores, barbers, hair stylists and boutiques are located. Small stuff. Bigger items are bought onshore.”

“What’s the connection to bicycles?” Noonan asked.

“It’s a bicycle-friendly community. No cars at all allowed on the last island out. The other two islands have very few roads. Just enough to get groceries and liquor around. Individuals buy everything else on the mainland. Use private boats to do their shopping and shipping. The three islands have, say, 30 miles of what you’d call bike paths. Or foot paths. Everyone’s on a bike. A maze of paths. You can’t have a motorized vehicle on the far island at all.”

“Is there a police force on the islands?”

“Sure. What community in America doesn’t have one? It’s serviced out of Tampa. The islands link to the mainland so law enforcement can get onto the islands. There are bicycle cops on all the islands.”

“What about emergency vehicles?”

“All on the water. It’s a very rich community but small, All the homes have their own private docks.”

“How many homes with docks are we talking about?”

“Maybe 60.”

“So the police patrol on bicycles and then call emergencies in on cell phones?”

“Well, not cell phones but our own system, but, yeah.”

“Any crime out there?”

“Probably loads of cybercrime we don’t know about. Some DV calls but that’s about it.”

Something rumbled in Noonan’s craw. “So if there was a crime, a big one, the cops be on it pretty quickly?”

“As fast a bicycle can go. Then there’d be a roadblock on the bridge to the mainland and we’d have patrol craft onsite in a matter of minutes.”

Noonan was silent for a moment. Then he asked, “On the last island out, the one where no vehicles are allowed. You said there was a bank there. What kind of bank?”

“Odd you should ask. Not really a bank. More of a vault with safety deposit boxes. The community was founded with marijuana money, I don’t know if you know that. Banks cannot handle marijuana money because it’s drug money. So all business on the islands is cash. People get money out of the vault and spend it. Money as in cash. Once the cash has been spent, it’s no longer drug money. It’s just regular money. So the businesses on the islands can deposit the money in regular banks onshore.”

“Kind of legally washing drug money?”

“We don’t make the rules, we just follow them.”

A gong softly chimed in Noonan’s brain. “Those cops on bicycles, they can move pretty quickly on the bike paths.”

“They’re just like the police on shore. They turn on their sirens, electrically on their bikes, and everyone gets out of their way.”

Now the soft clang was a gong.

* * *

On Monday morning, Noonan was scratching his chin and lamenting the growing number of gray hairs in his beard. He was always pondering the difference between ‘gray’ and ‘grey.’ Basically they were the same word for the same color. He preferred the word ‘silver’ but his wife just called his hair ‘aging’ or ‘salt and pepper.’ She usually followed with the comment, “… at least you still have it.” “It,” Noonan contemplated but did not say, should have it been “them” as her comment was of hair follicles which were plural, not singular since she did not mean at least he had one follicle left.

As he was contemplating this luck — and thinking in terms of “silver” not “gray” (or “grey” or “salt and pepper”) — Harriet, the office administrative assistant and common sense preceptor, came into his office with a handful of black rubber combs which she held before her face in as she were a Southern Belle in the Civil War era.

“I do believe it is going to be frightfully hot this afternoon,” she channeled a Vivien Leigh accent. “But this fan was most certainly help.”

Noonan looked up from his beard at Harriet and said, “You know what the bald man said about the comb?”

“No,” snapped Harriet. “This better be a joke.”

Noonan chuckled. “He said he would never part with it.”

“Ha!” said Harriet, not laughing. “Now, tell momma why you got a dozen, identical black rubber combs from a company called . .” She looked at a sheet of paper in her hand, “… the Dallies Cooperative Islands.”

Noonan tapped his mat of hair over his right temple with his right index finger.

Harriet didn’t buy it. “Don’t give me that,” snapped Harriet. “Those are follicles, not brains.” She shook the comb fan. “Give.”

Noonan sighed. “Just a hunch. It appears to have paid off.”

“To the tune of a dozen combs. You know, that could be a song in a musical.”

“Barbershop musicals have been around for a long time.”

“So have the quartets. Now, …” again waving the fans.

“It all started with someone in the Dallies Cooperative buying 10,000 of those,” he said pointing at the combs.

“That’s a lot of combs,” Harried muttered.

“Yup,” Noonan replied. “So I did some investigating. The Dallies Cooperative is actually on three island. They are kind of a bicycle paradise. You can’t get around the three islands without being on a bike.”

Harriet leaned forward, “… and the combs?”
“I thought the combs might to be tied to some crime. So I followed the old police routine. I said to myself, ‘Where is the money?’ See, the Dallies Cooperative is a legal way to wash marijuana money.”

“You mean, make it legal.”

“Right. The key to understanding the scam is to remember marijuana money is not legal in banks. So it has to be all in cash. Cash in and cash out. Apparently quite a few marijuana entrepreneurs in Oregon figured a way to move the big dollars. They put their cash in a pile and bought three islands off the coast of Tampa. Then they spent their money — cash, mind you, not checks or credit cards — and built up the islands. Paid cash for everything.”

“Washed it.”

“Not really,” Noonan said. “They were clever. Money made on marijuana is considered by the feds to be drug money and cannot be deposited in a bank. But it is legally earned in those states where marijuana in legal. Therefore, if someone takes legally earned marijuana money and buys something with cash, like a shirt or a pair of shoes, the money is no longer illegal federal money and can be put in a bank.”

Harriet jumped ahead of the game. “So the marijuana people paid for the land with cash and the construction of homes with cash and the paving of the roads with cash.”

“Yup, and it was all legal. They just could not use a bank to get checks to pay for the island or the homes or the roads.”

“OK. So after they bought the islands and homes and roads they still needed money to buy things like groceries, beer, shoes and shirts.”

“Correct. And they were still making money in Oregon. On some kind of a schedule, cash from their operations in Oregon was coming into the Dallies Cooperative. Cash now, not checks. The cash would arrive, be put in a vault on one of the islands, and then parceled out to the partners in the cooperative. It was all cash. Then they would spend the money on groceries, beer, shirts, whatever.”

“And cash draws crooks,” Harriet said with authority.

“True,” Noonan sighed. “But this case was different. The crooks had to do three things at the same time. First, they had to get their hands on the cash when it was still in bulk, before it was distributed. Second, they had to get the actual money, about 300 pounds, out of the bank. Third, they had to make it off the islands with the cash.”

“There’s a bank on the island? I thought you said everything had to be cash.”

“I did. That was both the strength and weakness of the heist.” Noonan pointed at the combs. “Their plan was to take the cash by force, probably with guns, and disappear down the intricate maze of bike trails.”

“Aren’t there cops on the island?”
“Yup. The crooks planned on that.” Noonan pointed to the combs. “That’s where the combs come in. The perps needed to stall the cops long enough to disappear into the bike trail maze. If they could stall the cops long enough, they could disappear into the webbing of the bike trails. So, after taking the money, they planned on scattering the 10,000 combs on the bike trail close to the bank. That would have made the bike trail slippery. The combs would have stalled the cops just long enough for the perps to disappear down the bike trails.”

“Couldn’t the cops simply close of the island and search for the money? I mean, you’ve got to be pretty good to hide 300 pounds of cash.”

“That was the plan. And a clever one it was. Yes, following SOP, the cops would close off the island and search for the perps. But there would be one place the cops would not search.”

“Where was that?”

“Anywhere behind where the combs were scattered on the bike trail. The operational assumption would be the perps had the money and scattered the combs to stall the pursuit.”

“So the money was behind the combs, not in front of them,” Harriet kind of nodded her head. “Clever. But what was behind the combs?”

“The bank.”

“The bank?! The bank robbed its own money. How’d it get away with that? Every dime in a bank is going to be accounted for.”

Noonan smiled slyly. “That would be true if the money had been transferred electronically. But the money in this case was cash. See, the way the system operated, the members of the cooperative got cash, say, every month. The cash was then physically divided in the bank — which was actually more of a vault. The money was divvied up with cooperative members getting money — and in this case, actual money — from their operations in Oregon. Individually they would put the cash in their own safety deposit boxes. Remember, they had to spend cash, not checks.”

“So every month or so a shipment of cash came in from Oregon and it was physically divided up in the vault.”

“Correct.”

“And if the vault was supposedly robbed of cash and the crooks scattered combs to stall the police, the assumption would be the cash had been stolen.”

Noonan nodded. “Correct again. But the plan was for the money to never leave the bank. Someone in the bank simply put the incoming cash into a safety deposit box.”

“… or two.”

“or three or four. Then that person called the cops to report a robbery. This set off the police chasing the bad boys and girls.”

Harriet smiled as she nodded her head. “I get it. The inside person or persons could prove money was gone but needed to point the finger at someone else.”

“You got it. That’s where the combs came in. The combs would have been in some kind of a golf course turf utility vehicle. Those vehicles are narrow enough run down bicycle trails. 10,000 combs like those,” Noonan pointed to the fan of combs, “would only weigh a few hundred pounds.”

“There’s a golf course on the islands?”

“18 holes of it. So a turf utility vehicle would not have attracted attention. As long as there was a tarp over the combs, no one would be the wiser.”

“I get it,” Harriet kind of nodded her head. “Once the robbery was supposed to have taken place, the combs would be scattered along the bike path away from the bank. So when the cops arrived, there would be no way to follow the perps.”

“And the person who scattered the combs would be long gone as well.” Noonan pointed to the combs again. “The combs on the bike trail were simple red herrings. They were visual proof the crooks had speed away.”

“And the cops would spend days looking for money that was never taken away from the bank.”

“Worse! Even if they could find it — as in figure who the inside perp was — they could not prove it. Cash is untraceable.”

“So it would have been the perfect crime.” Harriet shook her head and then the comb fan. “And the combs?”

Noonan tapped his temple again. “I told the Tampa office of the Florida State Troopers what I thought.” He pointed at the combs. “Apparently the robbery never occurred.” He smiled slyly. “I also suggested they trace the purchase of those 10,000 combs. That will reveal who the inside perp is. Fire him — or her — and they could avoid a clever repeat of a robbery that never took place.”

Harriet shook the combs. “At least you got something out of it.”

“Right,” said Noonan and a clever smile crossed his lips. Then, with a straight face he said, “What do you call an antique comb used by the Romans to untangle their hair?”

“Oh, no,” muttered Harriet. “another joke. I don’t know.”

“A hair loom.”

[Heinz Noonan’s impossible crime novels can be found at www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi.]

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