Captain Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was not having a good day.
It had all started the previous fortnight when he was subjected to his annual physical as required by Sandersonville City Policy. Every full time employee was required to submit to a physical every 12 months. All had been well on his annual physical for years. But this year his LDL — “low-density lipoprotein” also known as the “BAD cholesterol” — had popped out of the normal range. This had sent his wife into a conniption fit to ‘lower the bad and raise the good” which, in real world terms, meant a change in his diet and translated as “lose weight and eat more fruits and vegetables.” He had no problem with the “fruits and vegetables” but losing weight at his age and he went through the agony of withdrawal at every meal. Worse, his snack diet was reduced to nuts, water, grapes, water, broccoli, water, celery, water and water.
So, here he was, dinning on a handful of walnuts when Harriet, full of false enthusiasm for his change in diet, sauntered into the room. The office administrative assistant and common sense Mussolini, always had a passel of advice which, unfortunately, was always good.
But she was also a card. You could never tell whether she was serious.
Today was no different.
“I see you are dining well,” she said as she fingered the walnuts on his desk blotter. Taste good?”
“What do you think?” snapped Noonan
“I think if you’d lost 20 pounds a year ago you’d be dinning on the bagels and cream cheese in the break room. (pause) Like me.” She drew a Jalapeno bagel dripping with cream cheese from behind her back and seductively took a bite from the frothing food item in front of the face-yellowing and then -reddening Noonan.
“You are a cruel woman,” snapped the detective.
“I know.” She smiled. “Do you know how to make a walnut laugh?”
Noonan was not in a mood for joking. “No. But I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“You crack it up.” She chortled, took another bite of her bagel and pointed it toward the phone on his desk. “Guy on the coast of California is missing 15 tons of walnuts.”
* * *
“Captain Noonan?” The voice was professional, clipped and plaintive.
“That’s correct, sir. To whom am I talking?”
“Captain Horatio Nevada. No relation to the state or Emma.”
“I’m familiar with the State of Nevada but not Emma.”
“Opera singer in California in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A soprano.”
“A soprano,” Noonan said flatly. “That’s doesn’t surprise me. What can I do for you?”
“I’m the Chief of Police in Tunnels, California. That’s tunnels in the plural. We’re a small town on the coast of California between Ventura and San Francisco. I doubt you have ever heard of us.”
“Crime finds everyone. What can I do for you?”
“Well, if it’s a crime it’s getting stranger by the hour. Your name was given as someone who told me you were the guru of odd cases.”
“Fortunately, I haven’t run out of luck yet. What’s going on.”
“Within the last 72 hours we’ve had the theft of 15 tons of walnuts. At the same time a circus has come to town and it’s the last week of a traveling diamond exhibition. I think they are all related.”
* * *
Noonan dug around in his desk for a notebook as he said, “When it comes to crime, everything is related. Walnut theft is big business, particularly in California. The theft of 15 tons is a bit much but what is it about the theft that bothers you?”
“Well, you are right. Walnuts are big business. So walnut stealing is big business. Walnuts are like gold. They cannot be fingerprinted or traced. Easy to steal and easier to sell. Why is this theft different? Because the perps took the tonnage in a dump truck. If you are going to steal walnuts for sale, why are you using a dump truck?”
“Good point. Where were the nuts when they were stolen?”
“In the crushing warehouse. Where the nuts are extracted from the husks. At night. Clearly an inside job. There was only one working security camera. On the outside of the building. Captured the dump truck on its way in and half an hour later, on its way out. No license plate. Generic dump. Hundreds of them on the roads in this part of the country.”
“Is it that easy to steal walnuts?”
“Apparently. Used a dump truck loader inside to transfer the walnuts. In and out, just like the burgers.”
“OK. And no sighting of the dump truck since then?”
“Not yet. It’s been three days and we’ve been on the alert. So has the CHP, California Highway Patrol. A dump truck hauling walnuts would be easy to spot but so far, zip.”
“So you think the dump truck is still in the vicinity.”
“Yup. I think it will have some part in the robbery of the diamond exposition. If not, so what? I’m being careful.”
“Good for you. Tell me about the exposition.”
“When you look at a map you will see Tunnels, our city, is on the rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This makes it easy for the exposition to go from town to town and not have to worry about security. The security comes with you and no one is going to rob a train. That hasn’t been done since Jesse James.”
“Millions. That’s what the promotions say. We did a walk-through when the rail car came to town ten days ago. Top of the line. So was the jewelry. But it was odd — speaking as a cop — because all of the gems were big. I mean, too big to be worn at a small town opening or the theater. The jewelry was museum size. But I guess it’s all about what draws the crowd.”
“Did you look over their security arrangements?”
“As best we could. They wouldn’t show us everything, just the doors, windows, belly and roof of the rail cars. Three of them. They showed us the vaults but just from the outside. I was impressed.”
Noonan was scribbling quickly. “So if someone was going to rob the rail car, it had to be a smash and dash.”
“That’s the way I see it. So I put some extra eyes in the area and dedicated an additional patrol car to the area. Just being safe.” Nevada paused for a moment and then said, “You probably never heard of us, right?”
“The city? No.”
“Well, let me tell why we don’t have robbery problems here. The city was built in the 1940s as a secure port during the Second World War. There is a large tunnel from what used to be the loading dock. Today it’s a pier and harbor for pleasure craft. About a mile from the shoreline is the main tunnel, 650 feet long. It used to have a railroad but now it’s just a road. The city itself is in what you’d call a small valley. To get to the rest of California, so to speak, there are three tunnels, each 450 yards long. The tunnels used to have rail lines but today they are paved with asphalt. Once out of those tunnels you can link to the highways and interstate within a mile or two. When it comes to crime in the city, we routinely cut those tunnels off in a matter of seconds. Not even minutes. So when I say I am going to put an extra car on the exposition, I mean I’ve already got the three exit tunnels covered. The second any alarm sounds — from anywhere in town — we’ve got three patrol cars racing down the three tunnels and blocking them.”
“Is there any other way out of town?”
“Railroad. It’s a straight north/south run. Other than that, you’ve got to hoof it.”
Noonan wrote “hoof it” in his notebook. “Now, tell me anything unusual about the circus.”
“Another traveling show. It’s summer in California and that’s when the circus makes its money. Kids out of school, you know. It was scheduled a year in advance.”
“What does the circus have?”
“No lions or tigers. Not anymore, thanks to PETA. Animal wise it’s got elephants, a giraffe, lots of horses and Bichons, the little white dogs who do flips and such.”
“Yup, and I know where you are going. Yes, there will be people dressed as clowns on the streets of Tunnels. We asked all the clowns to have their faces on their cell phones so we can keep track of them. With the diamond exposition we monitor the clowns closely.”
“Can I assume the animals in the circus could eat walnuts?”
“Probably. But 15 tons is a lot of feed.”
Noonan chuckled. “OK, here’s what I want you to do. I am going to give you a list of questions. With the answers I may be able to help you. When you call me back tomorrow — and I, like you, assume we are running out of time — give me all the answers at once. Have a pen?”
“Here goes. How many clowns are in the circus, any new ones in the past few months, where do they put on their makeup, how far is it from the diamond exposition, does the circus have any vehicles that could be used as getaway vehicles, if so, where are they kept and who has access to them and does the circus have any new employees?”
Noonan took a breath and continued. “With regard the exposition, any new employees, how often are the passwords on the vaults changed, who changes them, are the train windows shatterproof, are the display cases shatterproof, who can open the display cases, how many people can open the display cases and, and, and, who in Tunnels would buy walnuts in any quantity?”
“Got it. I’ll call you back tomorrow.”
* * *
To Noonan’s surprise, there was very little on Tunnels on the internet. What was there he had already been told — or could figure out from his knowledge of American history. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor the United States military was instantly and understandably concerned about the safety of the ports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. None of them had any weaponry capable of driving off another Japanese air attack. Six months later, when the Japanese staged another surprise aerial attack on Dutch Harbor, May 3 and 4, 1942, it was clear the entire coast of the United States could be in danger. To offset the possibility of the major ports being put out of commission, the United States military began an ambitious campaign of building naval ports which could not be taken out by Japanese aircraft. One was in Alaska, Whittier, and the other was Tunnels. Quite literally overnight, a massive dock was under construction and tunnels — four of them — began to be drilled into the breast of the Coast Range Mountains.
Tunnels was the ideal spot for a protected supply depot. Once through 600 feet of mountain, there was a small valley. A rail line already ran through the valley which made transportation of supplies by rail instantly available. The three tunnels on the eastern side of the valley allowed for massive movement of supplies onto the highways of California.
Tunnels had no local newspaper so Noonan had to pick up what he could from newspapers in nearby communities. Of which there were none. Tunnels was as isolated after the war as it had been during the war. What he could find, again, he could have guessed. The Japanese never attacked the coast of the continental United States so, after the war, Tunnels was abandoned by the military. As it was an port with all of the transportation and warehouses needed for an operational port city in place, it was sold.
Interestingly, Noonan learned, Tunnels’ civilian birth was unusual. The only people who had faith in Tunnels were the workers and families living there. In 1946, it was too far from the large California cities to be considered a reasonable port of entry for millions of tons of commercial cargo. So none of the large transportation companies of the day bid on the port. With no bidders, the workers and their families established a company, Tunnels, which bought the port and surrounding accoutrements for $1. Then they established the city of Tunnels.
As it turned out, Tunnels was able to cash in on an unexpected revenue stream. Throughout the war, Americans at home could not buy anything. This was because they had been spending government ration stamps on everything they needed to buy. And there wasn’t much to buy because the war effort had drained the commercial market of a vast array of goods. So Americans — men in uniform and women in factories — banked their paychecks. When the GIs came home, they got married, bought homes and cars.
But after the war, there were no homes and cars to buy.
In 1946 and 1947.
But by 1948, the American economy was on steroids. Everyone had money and was buying everything. Starting with houses. Those young couples wanted homes and had the money to buy one — courtesy of the GI bill which let them buy those homes with no money down. But the homes, millions of them, had to be built.
And everything needed to build a home had to be moved to the construction site. But before it could arrive at the construction site, it had to come by truck. And before it could come by truck — specifically in California — a lot of it had to come in by sea. So incoming boards, nails, windows, cement, flowers, seeds, shingles, stucco, wire, plaster, drywall, toilets, pipes, trusses, carpets, flooring and everything else needed for those homes flooded through Tunnels. It gave Tunnels the economic startup it needed.
Over the next half century, Tunnels no longer needed cargo to sustain the community. Tourism supplanted transportation in the 1960s and 1970s. The cargo port was converted to a harbor. The World War II structures on the beach were demolished returning the beachfront to beachfront. The rail lines in the tunnels came up, asphalt laid down and the valley become people-friendly. Warehousing, industrial repair facilities, garages and the like were moved onto the far side of the three eastern tunnels and boutiques moved into the empty spaces. The hippies came and went. The surfers came and went. The yippies and dinks moved in, first into weekend condos and flats and then, as the California economy skyrocketed, homes.
And the tourists kept coming. The condos and flats became, first, motels, then hotels, then Traveler’s Inns and Marriott’s.
And the tourists kept coming.
Next Noonan looked for information on walnuts. As expected, he already knew just about everything he needed to know. They are grown in walnut trees — no surprise there — and the edible nuts are encased in fleshy husks. The nuts are 63% fat — which made Noonan cringe — and 15% protein. Once hulled, the nuts could be stored for up to a year. The rise in demand for walnuts was so great organized crime had moved in and was taking half-million dollars per load bites out of the market.
There wasn’t much on the circus. The Randolphville Circus had been traveling since the 1990s. It offered a “small top,” stayed in town about ten days and had seven shows a week, each two hours long. The acts included clowns, motorcycles, horse riding tricks, some low aerial acts, stilt walkers, a giraffe and acrobatic dogs. It usually paired up with the local school district and offered ‘tricks of the trade’ to students, the most popular (understandable) being the magician. Noonan could find no reference to any crime associated with the appearance of the circus.
The Harrison Diamond Exposition had also started in the 1990s. It only operated on railroad tracks and spent the bulk of its time on the West Coast. It had three cars, two of them for staff and meals. There had been no robberies associated with the exposition. Noonan only found one item of interest. Harrison, the deceased founder of the exposition, had started as an iterant jewelry salesman in California after the Second World War.
A distant chime ran in Noonan’s brain.
* * *
When Nevada called back, as expected, his answers did little to snap any crime into focus.
“Not much to tell, I’m sorry to say,” Nevada told Noonan. “Here’s what I’ve got. There will be eight clowns in town, none them new. They all do their makeup in the back of the “small top,” as they call it. The “small top” is across the town square from the diamond exposition and the square is usually packed for every performance. The circus has four motorcycles which are also kept in the back of the “small top” but it would hard to use them as getaway vehicles, again, because of the crowd in front of the circus. The circus has no new employees and the exposition has no new employees. The exposition people would tell me nothing about the security of the vaults. All glass is shatterproof. And I have no clue as to who would buy 15 tons of walnuts.”
Noonan thought for a moment and then asked, “Where were the walnuts when they were stolen?”
“One of the warehouses on the far side of the eastern tunnels,” Nevada said. “We checked the warehouse to make sure there had actually been a theft.”
“Good job,” Noonan said. “How many of the old timers are still around? I mean, how many of the citizens who formed the original company who purchased the old base are still around?”
“Maybe one or two. But we’re talking people in their 90s. Tight group. Now their kids and grandkids manage all the family businesses.”
And the chime became a clang!
* * *
Harriet didn’t make it the office until well after 10 the next Monday. When she finally entered Noonan’s domain she went straight to his desk. She was red-hot. She dropped a one-pound bag of walnuts on Noonan’s desk and gave him the squinty-eye of anger every husband knows too well.
“I was on my here this morning when the Lord of the Third Floor,” she snarled as she looked up at the ceiling tiles, “called me into a press conference. Everyone was there but you!”
“Busy,” Noonan replied looking sideways. “I’ve been terribly busy.”
“Don’t give me that hogwash,” she said and pointed to the walnuts. “His lordship was claiming all kinds of credit for breaking up a diamond robbery in a place in a California.”
“Don’t ‘Tunnels!’ me! I just spent an hour listening to the details of a robbery that never took place and he’s claiming all the credit! No, give!”
“Not much to tell,” Noonan said slyly. “Just a guess. Someone stole 15 tons of walnuts around Tunnels and I was asked to guess why.”
“My guess was one of the owners of a traveling diamond show wanted to steal some of his own diamonds. Maybe for the insurance or to sell the stones. Or maybe he’d already replaced a stolen stone with a fake and needed to have the fake stone stolen. I’m not sure.”
“So he was going to steal his own stone?”
“Probably. But, since it never happened who knows?”
“Well, I want to know!”
“My guess, it was inside job all the way. Tunnels, the city, was formed when the construction workers who built the base bought the base when it was abandoned. The old guard died off and their kids took over. Connections being what they are, they came up with this grand scheme. The inside man in the diamond exposition would say he was robbed and the cops would file a report.”
“But there had to be proof of a robbery, right?”
“Yes. That was the sticking point. And the stone had to be a big one. AND,” Noonan cut Harriet off before she asked another question, “it had to appear the thieves got away. So the police had to be in pursuit. Hot pursuit. Tunnels was the perfect place because, well, of the tunnels. The escape route had to be through one of three tunnels. But the town is so small in terms of area the police would be in the tunnels in a matter of 30 seconds.”
“Too short of time for the phony thieves to actually make their escape, right?”
“Yes. So they had to come up with a way to slow the police down and long enough to convince the police they had gotten away.”
“That was my guess. There were three tunnels so — again, I am guessing because the robbery never took place — the plan was to drive the dump truck full of walnuts down one tunnel spreading five or six tons of walnuts on the floor. That would stop any vehicle without endangering the driver. It would be like hitting a snow bank. Then they would drive down the other tunnel and sprinkle another five or six tons, kind of a walnut waterfall. After that, they would park the stolen dump truck in the third tunnel blocking it. That way they would not have hide the dump truck.”
“And walk away with the keys.”
“And walk away with the keys, right. No police vehicle would be able to use any of the tunnels. By the time the police could get vehicles on the other side of the tunnels, the eastern side, everyone would assume the thieves were long gone.”
“And the stolen stones would never show up on the market. End of story.”
“Did you know they found the dump truck with the walnuts?”
Noonan shook his head sadly, “I am not surprised. I’m sure someone in the warehouse was in the scam. Otherwise there would have been security camera footage. I’ll bet the dump truck was found abandoned?”
“Of course. And full of walnuts.”
Noonan sighed. “End of story. If there was ever a story. My advice was to quite publicly place three patrol cars at the eastern entrances to the three tunnels early. It would scuttle the plans of the thieves.”
“How did you know which day to place the cars?”
“Last day the exposition was in Tunnels. Earlier and the exposition would have to explain why it was missing stones.”
“So there wasn’t a crime.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But now some insurance company is probably looking into the matter. Who knows? Maybe a crime has been committed.”
Harriet looked up to the ceiling again. “Doesn’t make any difference to his lordship. Crime or no crime, it all about publicity.”
“Well, at least he can say he cracked the case.” Noonan chortled.
“P-l-e-a-s-e,” Harriet rolled her eyes and picked up the bag of walnuts. “When you need a nutjob to talk about a nutjob,” she looked up to the ceiling, “we’ve got the right nut.”
[Heinz Noonan’s impossible crime novels can be found at www.authormasterminds.com]