The Matter of the Phoneless Cord

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The Matter of the Phoneless Cord

Captain Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was lusting after his Administrative Assistant. It wasn’t a ‘lust in his heart,’ as Candidate for the Presidency of the United States Jimmy Carter, Baptist, had told Playboy Magazine when asked about how he felt when a very good-looking woman who was not his wife appeared. Rather, in the case of Noonan, he lusted after her sandwich. It had those things for which he lived but could not eat: carbohydrates. He was moving down the scale, so to speak, with the Atkins Diet — for the third time that year — and he was well aware of what a single piece of bread would do his soon-to-be-lean-and-mean-crime-detecting-machine body.

“I know you’re staring at my breasts,” Harriet snapped as she looked up with a line of mayonnaise on her upper lip. “They’re smoked chicken with just a dash of mustard and dill. Of course, you can’t even have a bite because they’re surrounded with BREAD” — saying the word “bread” as if it were a curse — “and even if I gave you a taste your wife would beat me with a short-handled hoe for at least an hour.”

“You are a cruel woman!” Noonan continued to pine after the carbohydrates in all their seductive forms and only broke off his lustful stare when he had to answer the phone.


“Had lunch?” It was a strange voice.

“Yes and no. What are you buying?”

“No carbs, I can tell you that right now. I’m at your house and I have been informed by the warden that you can have lunch but you’re on Atkins. That takes all the fun out of it.”

“Stymied again! Who is this?”

“You don’t know me. I’m Detective Henderson from Davis, California. I was on my way home from vacation when my office asked to stop in Sandersonville and talk to you about a strange case.”

“I get ’em all.”

“This one sounds very strange. In fact, it’s so strange if I didn’t know the chief personally I’d think he was pulling my leg.”

“Tell me what you can now.”

“About a week ago we, that is, the Davis Police Department, received a tip about a robbery in the University’s lock-down laboratory.”

“There’s a university in Davis? I thought that was a little town outside Sacramento.”

“Right. It is. It also has a UC campus. It’s the agricultural school for the University of California. It also has a veterinary school, med school and a law school.”

“What kind of a lab does it have?”

“Full service, if that’s the right term. Probably one of the best ones on the West Coast. It handles everything from experimental psychotropic drugs to horse feed.”

“What was the caller suggesting would be stolen?”

“She didn’t suggest. She announced it.”

“Who’d she announce it to?”

“The Davis Police Department. Called right in the main number. Asked for the chief. She told him she had stolen eight pounds of an experimental hallucinogenic drug whose name I can’t pronounce and you don’t have enough paper to spell its name.”

“The drug was stolen?”

“Yup. Right out of the lock-down lab. The lock-down lab is the part of the laboratory where the super-dangerous, experimental drugs are kept. There are four types of chemicals in the lab: garden variety, prescription only, dangerous and controlled and then the real bad ones. The dangerous ones are kept in lock-down and it takes code words, fingerprints and voice prints to get in.”

“But the drugs were gone?”

“All eight pounds worth.”

“All of the security systems were checked?”

“With a fine-tooth comb. Security tapes, cameras, wiring, logs, everything. The drugs have been in the lock-down for about six months so the department went back through all six months of records.”

“That’s must have been quite a chore.”

“Not really. Only a few people have regular access to the lock-down and they only go in about once every week or so. Federal and State regulators appear at odd moments to inventory items but not that often. They were able to track every one who went into the lock-down and no one came out with anything other than what they had gone in for. No one took anything out but that which was logged out. And I mean nothing. Even empty boxes get checked. All the trash from the laboratory is cremated on site, even the scratch paper and experimental animals so nothing from the inside the laboratory makes it into the real world — except in the form of ash.”

“Why were those experimental drugs sitting in the vault in the first place?”

“They are part of a Ph. D. experiment. The candidate knew he was going to need them for his dissertation so he ordered them ahead of time. It takes so long to get those kinds of drugs that he ordered early expecting them to be delivered late.”

“Do the drugs have a value?”

“Only if you’re a paramecium or some other single-celled whatever. The drugs don’t have a street value. But if they get into the water system we could have a lot of people tripping. Like the whole city of Sacramento for a week.”

“Do you know the drugs were delivered in the first place?”

“Yup. Followed the paper trail all the way back to the manufacturer. Eight pounds came in and the box is empty now.”

“So the perp was telling the truth.”

“Yeah. There’s more. The threat came in an odd way. You see, all calls coming into the Davis Police Department are monitored. The call came over the University phone system so we were able to trace the call back to its origin. When the detectives went to investigate they found it was a live phone wire on a telephone pole.”

“Live wire as in the phone number was still good and there just wasn’t a phone there?”

“I’m not sure of the vocabulary. It was a phone line with a jack that could carry a message but there was no phone on it. The line had a number that was active but had never been billed because there had been no long-distance calls had been made on the line. It had originally been one of 100 assigned to the college lab. The bill to the lab is monthly for all the phone numbers assigned to the lab and as long as no long-distance calls are made, no one eyebrows were raised.”

“There was no phone there, just a cord.”

“Right. They’re calling it ‘The Case of the Phoneless Cord’ in the office.”

“Why do you need me?”

“Because the caller said the next drugs she was going to steal would have a cyanide base. That’s a lot more dangerous than hallucinogenic drugs.”

“And she wants money.”

“How did you know that?”

“Because, my dear detective, they always do. If I can’t have carbs on the sly there’s no reason to go to lunch. While you’re there place a call back to Davis — collect, detective, collect — and ask a few questions. Let me see. How long has the phoneless cord been live and is there any impending change with regard to the phone systems at Davis? What kind of container was the hallucinogenic drug in when it was inside the box? How was the drug shipped and who signed for it at the lab? How big is the lock-down vault and when was it constructed? Where were the security cameras put in and who monitors them? How dangerous is the cyanide base drug and when was it delivered to the laboratory? What is the most valuable drug in the lock-down and what is its street value? How many people actually work at the laboratory and how is the laboratory cleaned? Oh, one more thing. You said that eight pounds of the drug were taken. I am assuming that the drug was in a solid form, like a powder or pills. In what form was that eight pounds?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The voice trailed off for a moment and then came back on the line. “The warden says no carbs and she looks like she means it.”

“Unfortunately she does,” said Noonan as he hung up the phone.

“Not a chance,” snapped Harriet as Noonan looked her sandwich again hungrily. “Go get a steak.”

One hour and a cheeseburger later — and, for the latter, it was just the cheese and meat burger — Noonan was back on the line with Henderson.

“I don’t know if any of this will help but here’s what I found out. The missing drug was in a grey colloidal form, like mayonnaise. It wasn’t quite eight pounds. That was a gross eight pounds with the plastic container. The actual amount was about seven and a half pounds. There was only one container.”

“Good, and did you call . . .”

“Collect, yes. The warden made sure of that. And she wants to make sure you didn’t have any carbs for lunch.”

“I didn’t but I don’t think she’ll believe you when you can tell her.”

“She’s already said she wouldn’t believe you if you said that.”

“Ain’t married life wonderful?”

“All three times. As for your other questions. The actual number that made the call doesn’t really exist. It’s an extension of the main number in the lab. That is, the lab has reserved all the 3500 numbers. When you dial 3500 on the University system you get the main office. 3501 might have been the Dean. 3502 the Assistant Dean. Like that. There were originally 37 phone numbers ten years ago and over the last decade the extensions have grown to 65. The phoneless cord was number 17, part of the first installation. There was a phone jack on the telephone pole as a field phone. But with cellular phones, no one has used it in years. It just sat there. All anyone would have to do to use that open line was plug in an old-style phone and dial.”

“Did the Davis Police dust the jack for prints?”

“Yup. All the usual police stuff including footprints, tire marks and searching the ground for clues.”

“Find any?”

“Footprints, yeah. It’s in the middle of an experimental field. Lots of tire prints too, all fresh. Lots of garbage on the ground but nothing that looks promising.”

“Go on.”

“The vault is not a locked room. It’s actually a locked area in the back of a vault. The vault was portioned off in the 1960s for security reasons and then, with the advent of the experimental drugs, the locked room was created. It’s on the same water, electrical, drain, heating, natural gas and electronic cable system as the rest of the laboratory. The electronic cable system was put in about ten years ago. The other utilities came with the original laboratory. There has been no construction in three years and none planned for at least two.”

The security cameras are in two places. The first place is in front of the vault. The security equipment there is pretty sophisticated and state-of-the-art. The camera that looks into the locked room is old, the original from the 1960s. All the lock-down camera is designed to do is monitor who goes in and comes out and what they come out with. Anyone who wants to get into the locked room gets the extensive check before they go into the vault. Security then checks them as they come out and make certain that the paperwork matches the chemicals coming out. All chemicals coming into the vault — and particularly the locked room — are checked twice. There are six lab techs who log in all the chemicals. They check to make sure that every container is full and that the transport paperwork is correct. Those six people, by the way, work in teams of two that are chosen at random whenever a shipment comes in.”

“How about the second time?”

“The second time the incoming chemicals are checked in the lab to make certain that what came in meets experimental sanitary standards and, of course, is the chemical ordered. The lab staff has to be very careful because some of the chemicals in the lock down are very dangerous.”

Noonan wrinkled his brow. “So you are pretty sure that the hallucinogenic material was delivered and stored in the locked vault.”

“Yeah. I am. So is the University.”

“OK. How about the cleaning crew? How often do they go inside that locked room?”

“Once every three or four months. It’s also at random. Janitors are chosen by lot and they don’t know until the day they are to do the work who’s going in. They won’t even know until the actual day that they are going in. Lab security provides them with all of the equipment they need. The janitors have a standard list of equipment — you know, like two mops, two buckets of water, bottle of bleach, broom, dust pan, etc. — and the guards provide it inside the locked room. The janitors go through a security check at the entrance to the vault on the way in, clean the room, and leave all the cleaning equipment when they go. They are searched before they leave the vault. The cleaning equipment is then checked by the security and incinerated on site. The security guards, by the way, are rotated at random so no one knows for sure who will be checking the janitors.”

“How about the snap inspections from University, State of California and United States government personnel.”

“All closely monitored by security personnel. No one gets into the vault without a check with their main office and, these days, a computer check to match fingerprints and face. To get into the locked room, there is also another level of security which no one would tell me about. I think its voice print or retina scan. I don’t know but I was assured it was fail-safe. The University and the State of California take security very seriously, particularly after 911.”

“How about the lab personnel? Are there a lot of old timers?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. Most of the original staff is still there. It’s a plumb job on campus and the health care benefits were so good when the lab opened that no one could afford to leave. Of the original 50 people, 45 were still there in some capacity.”

“If there were only 37 phones, did some of the 50 people share?”

“No. Some of the people still there are the janitors, security personnel, night watchman. People like that. Not everyone needs a phone. Everyone has access to a phone but not everyone needs one.”

“Anybody look like they need money bad?”

“Everybody needs money bad. Otherwise none of us would be working. We did a quick check on the personnel. Nothing stood out. A lot of people are in debt but nothing major. About a dozen have criminal records but nothing serious. There were some drug convictions 30 years ago, domestic disturbance, speeding, DWI and one clam poaching.”

“Clam poaching?”

“Right. Taking clams out of season. It’s a U.S. Fish and Wildlife citation.”

“Isn’t that kind of dangerous? Clams can be poisonous out of season.”

“They can be deadly. That’s why Fish and Wildlife watches out for idiots. That ticket was given in Alaska, by the way, not California.”

“Thank God for NCIC, eh?”

“Yeah. Does any of this help?”

“Yes and no. Do you know how many of the people at the lab are female?”

“I’d say 90 percent of them. The lab opened up before Affirmative Action so quite a few professional women were able to get hired because lab work was considered woman’s work then. By the time the law changed, the lab techs were making too much money to leave.”

“Any of the women married to security guards, janitors, inspectors, University personnel that have access to the vault and locked room?”

“We checked on that right away. One woman is married to a janitor, four are married to security guards and three are related to security guards. There are some remote connections to the University inspectors but nothing close like a brother or sister-in-law.”

“Everyone knew about the phone jack on the telephone pole?”

“Right. It was a big joke because in the old days they had to keep an old dial phone in a suite case-size box if they had to use the jack in the field. That all ended with cell phones. Anticipating your question, yes, we checked the phone and suit case for fingerprints. Both are in the lab museum and all the fingerprints match to the people who work at the lab. No strange ones.”

“Did you ever get a call back from the perp?”

“Not yet. But we know it’s coming.”

“Don’t bother staking out the phoneless cord. The next call will come from a pay phone. I presume you checked any cyanide-based drugs in the locked room.”

“All of them. None are missing. But then again, if the hallucinogenic chemical could walk out of the locked room, so can the cyanide-based drug.”

“Actually, that’s not correct. The hallucinogenic chemical didn’t walk out. It’s still there. You just didn’t look in the right place.”

“We looked everywhere!”

“Probably not. Here’s what I think happened. Your perp could very well be the woman married to the janitor. There’s even the possibility that all the janitors are in on it. You see, the perp didn’t need to get the experimental drug out of the locked room to convince the authorities it was gone. All she had to convince them it had been stolen. From what you said, while the janitors are in the locked room the camera is not directly on them and security guards are not watching them. The security guards just check the janitors coming in and going out. Inside the locked room they are left alone.”

“So far you’re correct.”

“I’ll bet one of the janitors opened the box for the hallucinogenic drug and poured it down the drain. Then he followed it with a bucket of water. If he was working alone, it would not have been a problem. With a co-worker, he could have done it while his partner’s back was turned.”

“We checked the drain!”

“You checked the drain but not the pipes under the cement. If the chemical is a colloid, it’s probably just sitting there in the pipe. The janitors probably only use a bucket or two of water so it hasn’t had the chance to migrate that far along.”

“What good does that do the perp?”

“The perp wanted you to find the chemical missing. That would imply she could get into the locked room and steal chemicals. She’s extorting you based on your belief that she can get into the locked room and will steal really dangerous chemicals. Nothing has been stolen. She just wants to make you think something was stolen. She had months to plan this. Now she’s going to try to extort money from the University based on the belief that the locked room security system can be breached.”

“What can we do?”

“I’d put a tail on the woman married to the janitor. Sooner or later she’ll make the call and then you’ve got her.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“The criminal mind is strange beast. And, speaking of beast, now that I’ve solved your problem for you, how about helping me with a personal problem.”

“If it involves carbohydrates I’d never make it out of your home alive.”

“I was afraid that might be the case,” Noonan said as he stared over his phone at Harriet’s half-finished chicken breast sandwich. “But when you get back, will you see if the experimental agricultural people have developed a sourdough bread that has no carbos?”

[Steven Levi’s impossible crime novels can be found at]

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