Beyond the Western
"Right, I'm sure it did."
The last thing United States Deputy Marshal Heinz Noonan needed this bright Sunday morning was a wild call from some yahoo up the line with an I-swear-it's-true-officer call. It was tough enough handling the drunks that drove through Victorville on their way south to Los Angeles – or north to Las Vegas. Now it was a missing boxcar. Or worse yet, a ghostly boxcar.
"Let's go over this again." Noonan snapped as he searched for an itch under his cap at the back of his head. "You're the Southern Railroad rail agent in Berdo and you say you lost a box car between Blythe and Berdo?"
As the rail agent mumbled over the telephone line, Noonan's only field agent for Sunday, John Smith, walked into the station and headed for the coffee pot. Smith's cowboy boots squealed on the freshly bleached linoleum of the coffee room. It was just starting to get hot so they would have to close the windows within the hour and that bleach smell was going to be horrific with the windows closed.
"Just a second," Noonan said into the mouthpiece. "I'm going to put you on speaker phone." He hit a button on the phone and then turned toward the coffee room. "This is too rich for me not to share," he yelled to his field man.
Smith sauntered out of the coffee room, a cup of mud in one hand and the jar of sugar in the other.
"While you're putting some coffee in your sugar, get a load of this dude." Noonan punched the speaker button on the red box next to his phone again. "Mr. Stephenson, I have you on a speaker phone with my field agent, Detective Smith. Is that all right?"
"Certainly." The voice had a grainy sound but it was clear that Stephenson was an older man and, judging by his accent, from some place in the Midwest. "Do you want me to repeat what I told you?"
Noonan let a broad, mischievous grin run from ear to ear. He raised his hands as though symbolically saying ". . . and there you have it, ladies and gentlemen" to an invisible crowd in the patrol room.
"Absolutely, Mr. Stephenson."
"Mr. Smith, I am Frank Stephenson, the cargo agent for the Southern Railroad here in the Inland Empire. I'm based in Pomona but I've been called to San Bernardino to look into this matter. You see, one of our boxcars is missing."
"Missing? You mean stolen?" Smith stopped dumping sugar into his coffee cup long enough to put the jar down and feel for a pencil in his shirt pocket.
"Well, I don't know if the word stolen is appropriate. Let me explain," the speaker voice crackled as he took a breath long distance. "You see, boxcars are owned by one company and leased by others. For example, one of our boxcars might be filled with stereos that were loaded in Los Angeles and then sent down the track for New York. We'd carry the boxcars as far as we could on our lines and then the boxcar would be transferred to another railway system – and then another – until the stereo parts reach New York. Then the boxcar would be loaded with other goods that may or may not come back on our rail lines."
"So your boxcars are scattered all over the country, is that what you're saying?" Smith was scribbling hurriedly while Noonan was chuckling into his cup of hot water.
"Precisely. We have hundreds of boxcars that don't belong to us on our rail lines at any one time. Other rail lines haul our boxcars and we haul theirs. At the end of the month, everyone reconciles their count and money is exchanged."
"OK, that makes sense." Smith watched as Noonan suppressed a grin and then asked the obvious question. "Why are you calling us?"
"Because we lost a box car between Blythe and San Bernardino."
"Lost," Smith said in the flat professional voice for which police officers are famous, "as in it was on the train in Blythe and was not on the train when it arrived in San Bernardino."
"That's right. Our computers show an 87-car train leaving Blythe and an 86 car train arriving in San Bernardino. The only boxcar unaccounted for is BXR987 owned by the Copper Mountain and Northwestern Railway, Ltd."
"What," Noonan jumped into the conversation and, at the same time, out of his desk chair. He did a quick flourish with his feet and froze in a mime's pose as he finished the sentence, "was in the boxcar?"
"Nothing?" Smith froze, his pencil mid-scratch. "You lost an empty box car?"
"You lost an empty . . . " Smith let a foolish smile cross his face. "How do you know you even lost it?"
"We don't have a visual spotting, if that's what you mean. No one in Blythe actually walked down the tracks and counted each of the cars on the train. That's all done by computer."
"Maybe," Noonan did a quick soft shoe and again froze in a mime's pose with his left hand proffered as though he were offering Smith something, "it's a glitch in the computer?"
"We thought of that and back-checked for the whole month. According to the computer, BXR987 was on the rail line going into Blythe but didn't arrive in San Bernardino. In fact, it didn't arrive anywhere. It just disappeared."
"That's right. It's not on the computer anywhere."
"Well, this is the second of the month. You said you reconciled all of the boxcars at the end of each month. Where was it two days ago?" Smith allowed his pencil to hover over his pad waiting to write down a city.
"It wasn't anywhere in particular. That is to say, it was on rail lines somewhere between Chicago and Blythe. We don't reconcile the boxcars in the sense that we know where they are at any set moment in time. Rather, we reconcile on the basis of miles traveled. BXR987 hadn't traveled all month. Or the month before that, as a matter of fact. It was just sitting in the rail yard in Chicago so we ordered it sent home. At midnight on the first it was on its way to Blythe. It arrived there at 2:10 am and when the train left at 4:27, BXR987 was clearly not on train."
"What was the train doing in Blythe between 2:10 and 4:27?" Smith was a master of discovering the obvious.
"There was a switching of cars with a northbound train to Reno. Anticipating your question, no the boxcar wasn't on that train. We checked on the computer and had someone walk the train in Reno. BXR987 wasn't on either train, isn't in Blythe, can't be found on computer, and couldn't be sitting on a spur track because neither train stopped after leaving Blythe."
"Well, let me make sure I've got this straight." Smith sat down heavily on the edge military-style metal desk and propped one black boot on the edge of the open file drawer. "We've got an empty boxcar, or rather we don't have an empty boxcar, that made it into Blythe at 2:10 am two nights ago and didn't leave and wasn't switched and can't be found on computer and isn't on a spur line. Is that about right?"
"That's about the size of it." Stephenson coughed again.
"Pardon me for asking," Noonan chimed in, "but why would anyone want to steal an empty boxcar? Are they worth anything?"
"Obviously they're worth more full than empty," Stephenson laughed at his own joke, "but they're only worth about $40,000 to a railroad. That might sound like a lot to you but in this business, that's not even peanuts. Not that many people would buy them because there isn't anything you can do with one. If you convert one to a cabin you'd have to run it to the end of a track and then take it off with a crane. That's pretty expensive."
There was silence for a moment. Noonan walked over to the open window and glanced out at the badlands of the high desert. Victorville was 3,000 feet above Los Angeles and the last community on the road and rail between Las Vegas and San Bernardino. Twenty miles away, the freeway and rail lines went down Cajon Pass almost side-by-side. In fact, the rails ran alongside the road for close to 40 miles. Not much chance of a boxcar just sitting on a rail line without being spotted.
Just as he turned back toward the patrol room, he spotted a scorpion skittering across the sand about six feet away from the police station. Those things always gave him the willies. He had nightmares of finding his boots full of the critters in the morning and he gave an involuntary shudder.
"Did you send someone to drive the road to make sure the boxcar isn't just sitting there on the rails?"
"We did better than that," Stephenson replied. "We sent two manned rail cars from Reno and San Bernardino to Blythe. They didn't find anything."
"Did they check the spur tracks?" Smith was scribbling furiously now.
"Not all of them. Once the rails make it into Reno and San Bernardino there are cross cutting tracks all over the place. But there are only a few cut outs between Blythe and the two cities and the computer controls those."
"Well, Mr. Stephenson," Noonan stepped back from the window and blew some sand off the sill. Then he closed the window. "It doesn't sound like there's much more you can tell us. We'll do what we can but frankly, we don't have a lot to go on."
"Oh, I understand that," the voice faded a bit on the other end, as if the speaker was stepping back from the phone. "Our insurance company told us to report the missing boxcar and then see what happened. Actually, I feel a bit foolish even reporting it. But if you find anything, your partner has my name and phone number."
"Not a problem." Smith reached for the disconnect button on the speaker phone. "We'll be in touch." He snapped the switch and the phone went dead.
"Only one thing to do right now," Noonan said as he settled back into his chair. Knocking Smith's boot off the desk drawer, he dug through the files for a Los Angeles phone book. He dialed Southern Railroad's number and then asked for security.
"Security? This is Deputy Heinz Noonan in Victorville. We're investigating a case involving the theft of a boxcar and recently talked with a cargo agent by the name of Frank Stephenson. Do you have such a man working for you? (Pause) You don't know. (Pause) Well, could you check and then give me a number for him? I'm afraid I lost the number. Thanks."
Noonan looked at his partner and smiled. Covering the mouthpiece he said, "Let's just make sure no one's jerking our chain."
Smith nodded as he swallowed what was left of his coffee-flavored sugar.
"Fine. Thanks. Can you patch me through? Thanks so much." Noonan smiled for a moment. "Frank Stephenson? Deputy Noonan here in Victorville. No, sir. Just checking to make sure we were talking with the real Frank Stephenson. That's right, sir. Just being careful." He hung up the phone.
"Well, we were talking with the real McCoy, what do you think?"
"I think this case stinks and I think I'm going to hear you tell me to drive up to Blythe to look around."
"You're right. And now you're going to hear me say drive up to Blythe to look around." Then he broke into verse:
Then be it yours, while you pursue
The golden moments, quick to haste
some noble work of love to do,
Nor suffer one bright hour to waste.
"Oh, you are such a sweetheart. You and Shakespeare." Smith padded over to his desk and dug his sunglasses out of his letter box.
"Not Shakespeare. Daniel Clement Colesworthy, actually. A lesser known light of the 19th Century."
"Yeah." Smith was unimpressed. He snapped the K/Mart blue light special sunglasses onto his face and stuck some pencils in his pocket. "And what do I do if I find this missing, empty, computer-lost, phantom box car?"
"Put it in your back pocket and come home," said Noonan as he reached for a pile of folders on his desk. "Then you can do some real police work," he said as he dropped the folders one by one as he listed off the cases, "like finding a lost cat, chasing a peeping tom, or, and this one is just up your driveway, John, -- talking with a woman who swears that her mailman is stealing her junk mail."
"Oh, thank you, thank you," Smith replied in mock sincerity as he walked out the door, "I just love working in Victorville so much."
"Look at it this way," Noonan smiled. "You could have gone to college and gotten a degree in world literature like me. Then you could be an unemployed teacher rather than a Deputy U. S. Marshal."
"Goody, goody," Smith replied on his way out the door.
Smith was probably half-way to Blythe before Noonan finally got the computer woman from the Central Railway Switching Center on the line. She didn't know where Victorville was because trains passed through the city; they didn't stop there.
"Well, we're about sixty miles southwest of Blythe – you know where that is, right? –and fifty miles northeast of San Bernardino. It's hot, got lots of scorpions, and Roy Rogers lives here."
The woman, a Ms James with a Louisiana accent but who was living in Detroit, proved amiable enough.
"Well, I'll tell yuh, Deputy," she drawled. "You got to understand them boxcars got two ways of being i-den-tified." The last word rolled out of her mouth so slowly that Noonan wasn't sure she wasn't ever going to finish the word. "We identify a boxcar on the computer by number, in your case BXR987, and then there's the physical markings on the actual wagon. We call them "wagons," Deputy. If you was to go out and look at BXR987 you wouldn't find that number on it. You'd find a serial number, course, more than likely there's a number painted somewheres on the wagon. We don't keep track of the painted number, only the computer number."
"So you could make a mistake – not that you ever do, of course – and someone could have mistakenly put a boxcar on a train by computer yet the boxcar, er, wagon, might not ever be hooked up?"
"Could happen. Sometimes does. But not often. You get fired for doin' that too many times."
"How many times is too many?"
"Twice, maybe. Those wagons are worth a lot of money when they're rollin'. They're called rollin' stock, just like beef, you know. Everyone keeps pretty close watch over their property. Don't want someone using your wagon for free now, do you? But to answer what you're a diggin' for, yeah, it might be possible for a computer glitch to put a wagon on a train while it's still sitting in a rail yard. But it's not likely. See, we update this computer hourly. It usually doesn't take us but a couple of hours to catch a mistake like that and you say this wagon's been missin' for two days. Now that is unusual. Our records show it in San Bernardino."
"Well, it's not there. At least the Southern Railroad says it's not there . . ."
"They're the ones what ought to know."
"True. But it's not there. That's why they called us. Do you have any more missing wagons?"
"We had a wagon go missin' about a month ago, same story, it just disappeared on the computer. That was in Maine though. Strange place to miss a wagon, Maine."
"Did it ever turn up?"
"Don't know for sure. I'll check for you."
"Thanks. And while you're at it, will you see if there have been any other disappearances of boxcars, er, wagons in the last, say, 18 months?"
"You sure want a lot of lil ol' me."
"You come to Victorville and I'll buy you the best meal in town."
"Would that be at a bowling alley? How big is Victorville?"
"Big enough to find a good steak."
"You've got a deal."
Half an hour later, Smith called in from Blythe. He had nothing to report except that there was lots and lots of empty track running in four directions and no one knew anything about a boxcar that did come in but didn't go out. He was not thrilled when he was told to drive down to San Bernardino and check out the switching yard.
"But I've got a dinner date!"
"Then you'll have to hurry, won't you."
As soon as he hung up, Noonan got his return call from Ms James. The Louisiana drawl melted into his ear when he picked up the phone.
"Dep-u-ty Noonan, this is Colleen James."
"Ms. James, that was quick."
"Well, us com-pu-ter gals can be fast when we're working for a steak-and-lobster dinner, hear? I've got some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"Well, since you're a cop, I'll give you the good news first. In the past 18 months we've had ten wagons and a locomotive disappear. Now that's quite a few but our idear of disappear is a bit different than yours."
"What do you mean?"
The room was stifling hot now, even with the air conditioning blasting full force. It was a typical Victorville summer day; hot enough to cook on egg on the sidewalk and the hottest part of the day was still four hours away. He tugged at his collar a bit and then dug for a pen that worked as he listened to the Louisiana drawl over the phone.
"Well, it's going to take some explainin'. The Central Railway Switching Center only puts in the information given by the railways. If they don't tell us, we don't know. For instance, if there's a Southern Pacific wagon on a Southern Pacific line between two Southern Pacific cities, they don't tell us. There's no need to. We're only an accounting mechanism. We only track wagons where a financial adjustment has to be made."
"So you only keep track of a boxcar, er, wagon, if it's owned by one rail line but being hauled on another."
"Right. And if a wagon is destroyed, unless we're told, we keep the wagon on the computer."
"Let me guess," Noonan said as he leaned back in his chair. "The list you're going to give me are just wagons that have gone unreported for a certain period of time in the last 18 months."
"Well, sort of. We have gaps in the data all the time, legitimate gaps. If we don't track a wagon for 30 days, we don't worry about it. After 60 days we make a casual inquiry. After that we don't care. That's the end of our obligation. But because I like you so much -- and I am lookin' forward to that steak and lobster dinner with a bottle of fine wine --"
"Fine wine too, eh?"
"That's right. For you I went back 18 months and logged every wagon that was on the rails and has disappeared from the computer. We don't call them missin'. We call them out of service. Do you have a FAX number?"
Noonan gave her the station's FAX number and looked over his shoulder to make sure the machine was on. Just because his was a law enforcement office didn't mean that he had fancy equipment like the LA office. In fact, he got the leftovers and the FAX machine was so old it had dinosaur footprints on it.
"I'm also sending you a list of the people we contact at the various railway lines. You can call them. I don't know what you'll find but you stay in touch, hear?"
"You got it. And you've got a steak and lobster dinner with fine wine in Victorville anytime you stop in."
"Victorville? Naw, that's in Los Angeles when I take my annual leave in November. Around Thanksgiving. You keep your calendar open."
Noonan laughed. "Works for me."
It didn't take him long to match the missing boxcars with their railways. On an off chance that someone would be in on Sunday, he dialed one of the numbers. He started with the oldest disappearance first. To his surprise, he got someone on the first ring. Only then did it occur to him that railway people worked around the clock, just like cops.
"Yes, what can I do for you?"
"This is Deputy Heinz Noonan in Victorville. We're trying to track a missing wagon. You had a missing wagon about a year ago, MTR867."
"Oh, did you find it?"
"No. I was just wondering if you had."
"Well, not really. I wouldn't say that it disappeared. We know it's on our tracks somewhere, we just haven't located it yet."
"But you haven't been able to track it in, what, 18 months."
"That's right. It disappeared in the sense it's not on our screen. Which means it’s being used somewhere on our tracks. We've had a visual spotting, no, two, so we know it's still on our tracks. We just don't know where."
"Why didn't you report that back to the Central Railway Switching Center?"
"Why should we? We only report other companies' wagons on our tracks. They're not a missing person's bureau."
"What happens if you can't find it? How long will you wait until you declare it missing and claim insurance money?"
"We've never really had this kind of a problem. The insurance company only pays for wagons that it can verify are destroyed. A missing wagon is just that, missing. We don't report missing wagons to the insurance company."
"So that wagon could be missing for years and you might not ever find it?"
"It couldn't stay missing that long. Sooner or later it'll turn up. Someone is going to see it. Keep in mind that we've got a lot of wagons out there on the tracks. If you want to count everything on wheels, we have over 4,000 pieces of rolling stock. We don't know for sure where every boxcar, flatcar, tank car and locomotive is every minute of every day."
"But so far the missing wagon has only been spotted twice."
"Right. What's your interest in it?"
"We've got a missing wagon here in Victorville. We're just trying to trace it."
"Well, it's a good bet no one stole it," he laughed. "It'll turn up. Don't put a lot of valuable time into your search."
"By the way, what was in the wagon when it disappeared?"
"Nothing. It was empty."
Noonan thanked Wigston and hung up. Then he went onto the next oldest disappearance and worked his way forward. Over the next two hours, much to his surprise, he reached every one of the 11 numbers. But the answers he received were not encouraging. Of the remaining 10 missing railway vehicles, seven of them had turned up. The missing locomotive had been sold to a Chicago salvage firm, three of the wagons had been burned in a roundhouse fire and one wagon had been converted to a homeless shelter in Denver. The other two were sitting on two railway sidings on opposite sides of the country deteriorating in the rain and snow.
But that still left three wagons unaccounted for. Not that it made much difference, all three wagons had been empty when missing. All had been either outbound from Chicago or on their way to the windy city. Counting BXR987, the wagons were owned by different railway lines. Noonan was still mulling over the ramifications of these bits of fact when Smith, in a foul mood, came in from his sojourn to San Bernardino.
"And how was Berdo?"
"A real thriller. Do you want the bad news or the bad news?"
"Let me guess. You found plenty of empty track with nothing on it."
"Well, I found plenty of track with lots of stuff on it. Lots and lots of boxcars on lots and lots of track."
"Those are wagons."
"Wagons? OK, I found lots and lots of wagons on lots and lots of track and not a one of them was BXR987."
"How about the train that came in from Blythe?"
"Walked it twice and counted 86 wagons twice."
"And . . ."
"Yeah, I looked over their records and computer data bank. BXR987 was listed as coming out of Chicago on Copper Mountain and Northwestern track. The computer didn't pick it up until it went off their tracks, if that's any help."
"Not really. Let me tell you what I've got. Maybe you can make some sense out of it."
"Well, let's make it quick. I've still got time to make my dinner date."
"It's not going to be steak and lobster, is it?"
"With my wife? Not a chance. You know how much I make here."
"Well, I've got one more task for you but it can wait until tomorrow."
"Here are four railway companies. I've already punched them up with the crime computer and got goose egg. See what you can find out about them from the library and any stockbrokers. I don't think we'll find anything but let's give it a try."
"Where did you get these names?"
Noonan proceeded to tell Smith what he had done while Smith was out counting wagons in San Bernardino. Smith remained unimpressed.
Then he went home.
Noonan spent the rest of the afternoon chasing paper. That was one of the joys of this job, watching paper come in and then seeing it go out. Each piece of paper had to be read and then filed. But that was law enforcement, the grind of paperwork. When he finally got out of the office at half past five, the ground shimmered with heat waves, the heat blast almost knocked him off his feet as he briskly walked the twenty yards to his car. Using his shirt cuff as a hot pad he snapped the car door open and waited while the searing heat erupted from the Chevy's interior. It was going to be a sweltering five minutes before his air conditioner kicked into life.
In spite of the fact that the missing boxcar was the least of his worries, it still intrigued him. Being a cop, he didn't believe anyone. And he didn't believe in coincidence. There were still four empty missing wagons all lost, so to speak, coming into or leaving from Chicago over the past 18 months. BXR987 was the fifth missing wagon and it was also coming out of Chicago. That wasn't very many when considering the train coming into Blythe had been 86 cars long. But were five wagons enough to make a train? Suppose someone was stealing wagons? Stealing wagons?! Why? What for?
Noonan laughed to himself as he drove by Victor Valley College and headed down into the Cajon River watershed. Almost all of the water in this river was underground. The only way you could tell it was a river was because there was a ribbon of greenery in a canyon. During the winter there was some water in the river but now, in the middle of the summer, there were just a few wet spots here and there, deep enough to attract mosquitoes and frogs and that was just about it. By the time he made it to the bridge over the sand that marked the dried up river, his mind had changed gears and he was thinking of dinner and a cold bottle of beer.
He had quite forgot about the missing boxcar until Smith brought him the printouts on the companies that owned the four missing boxcars. It didn't amount to much more than filing fodder. After reading the stock market printouts he consolidated what he thought were the vital facts:
Baltimore and Orlando Railways Consolidated, Inc. wholly owned subsidiary of Westcoating, Inc. 30,000 miles of track. Property and investments includes repair facility, roundhouse and storage yard, condominiums, theme park near Baltimore and raw land in Ohio, Maryland and Florida.
Comstock Railroad, Ltd. partially-owned subsidiary of Ajax and Anderson, Ltd., British Corporation. 55,000 miles of track. Property and investments includes repair facility, storage yards, condominiums, print shop chain, zoo near Denver and raw land in various states.
Copper Mountain and Northwestern Railway. Ltd. wholly owned subsidiary of Gogol, Inc. with 34,000 miles of track. Property and investments includes railroad salvage yard, repair facility, and raw land in Illinois.
Hellenthal and Horowitz, Inc. wholly owned property of a Denver law firm. 44,000 miles of track. No property other than track, roundhouse, repair shop and rail line.
The financial information was even less revealing. All four companies were financially stable. None of them were over their head in debt, though the percentage of debt was higher than Noonan expected. But the debt was not out of line when compared with other railway lines, Smith assured him.
That was it. There was nothing else, nowhere else for him to go. He had come to the end of the line. The wagon was missing, and there was no way to trace it any further. All he could do was call Frank Stephenson and report, what?, that he had found nothing. In truth, that was all he had.
"Mr. Stephenson, this is Deputy Noonan up in Victorville."
"I'll bet you're not calling to tell me you've found my missing boxcar."
"Well, that's right, sir. As a matter of fact I have nothing to report at all."
"Don't feel too bad. It'll turn up. They always do."
"They? Have you missed some before?"
"Well, not like this but we have had several slip through out fingers for a few days."
"How frequently was this?"
"Last month. Well, it would be two months ago now. Two of them disappeared, as you like to use the word."
"Did they show up again?"
"Yes, both of them did. After about a week."
"Where were they?"
"I see." Noonan's mind zipped over the possibilities. "And they were both empty, right?"
"As a matter of fact they were. That's why we didn't look for them very hard. Who would want to steal an empty wagon anyway?"
"Was there anything special about either of those wagons that you found in Chicago?"
"Not as far as we're concerned. One was a refrigerator wagon and the other a security wagon, just like BXR987."
"BXR987 was a security wagon? What is a security wagon?"
"It’s a reinforced wagon used for hauling valuables, kind of like an armored car on rails. It has a safe inside and a double vault-like antechamber."
"You didn't tell me that before."
"There wasn't any reason to. There was nothing in the wagon when it disappeared."
"But what if there had been?"
"If there had been there would have been a tight watch on the car. But if you're thinking it could carry money, forget it. Those kinds of cars carry things that are valuable but not cash. Cash is moved by armored car, not on the railway. A security wagon would carry valuable cargo for a private company."
"Suppose someone could steal that wagon when it was loaded with valuables. How hard would it be to get into the secure section of the wagon?"
"Real tough. It would be like getting into a bank vault. We're talking six inches of steel just to get into the antechamber. Then they'd have to get into the safe itself. Unless they had all the time in the world and a pretty sophisticated welding apparatus, they'd never make it inside. Even if they could they'd have to fence whatever was in the safe."
"Is there anything else about your missing wagons that all three had in common?"
"Not that I can think of."
A quick call to the four other companies revealed nothing. The missing wagons were conventional rolling stock. All were at the end of their useful life so there wasn't much concern about finding them. Suddenly it occurred to Noonan he hadn't asked how old the Southern security wagon was. When he called Stephenson back, he got a shock.
"It's brand new. We were shipping it here to use on our run between Los Angeles, San Francisco and Reno. That's why we missed it so quickly. We and the feds keep a sharp eye on those security wagons."
"Why the feds? I thought you said only companies used those wagons."
"What I thought I said was that money, as in cash, was not transported on the rail lines. The feds transfer other valuables that are hard to convert."
"Oh, things that are too bulky to be flown or moved by armored car. More than that I can't tell you. Security, you know."
Noonan hung up slowly. Things were beginning to click but he couldn't quite focus on the picture that was forming. Just suppose, he thought, that someone wanted to do something that required a train. A whole train, now, not just a wagon or two. And that train would have to start its journey in Chicago. Suddenly he realized what had been gnawing on his mind. It was what Stephenson had said. What was it now? He strained to remember the exact words. Stephenson had said, ‘That's why we missed it so quickly. Like I said, we and the feds keep a sharp eye on those security wagons.’ If Southern Railroad was keeping a sharp eye on its security wagons, everyone else was watching their security wagons closely as well. That means that one wouldn't come up missing for months at a time. Someone would know it was missing within an hour or so! But the other missing wagons were old and empty so no one was particularly concerned about them. They weren't valuable enough to look for.
Then came the clincher. If someone was planning on using a train for an underhanded scheme, they would have to do it immediately. The Southern Railroad security wagon had only been missing for under 48 hours. If Stephenson was right, the feds should be crawling over every inch of track between Chicago and Denver looking for just . . . There Noonan's mind stopped. The feds! Of course, the feds!
He snapped up the telephone and put in a call to the FBI in Los Angeles. He got a special agent whose name he couldn't spell but sounded like Ralaxis. He identified himself and said he had reason be believe that there was going to be robbery of a fairly large, valuable piece of moveable property in the Chicago area within a matter of hours. Ralaxis was polite and put him on hold. Then he was transferred to the Los Angeles Bureau Chief of the Secret Service.
"You should have called us 24 hours ago, Deputy." The Bureau Chief was a woman and she was all business. "You know about the new Mint scheduled to open in Chicago in 2002?"
"Yes," and then it hit him, "you don't mean. . .?"
"That's right. We're missing all the printing equipment for the new Mint, including paper, ink and most important, the engraved plates. They were loaded onto a train in Chicago and the train has disappeared. It has, quite literally, been swallowed by the earth.
For Noonan, the next six hours were a whir of activity. Ralaxis had come back on the line and requested that he immediately drive out to George Air Force Base with all of his paperwork on the missing wagons. The moment he arrived at the gate, MPs were waiting for him and he was driven in a military escort out onto the runway and hustled aboard one of the training F-4s. Noonan had seen quite a few of these birds in Vietnam but had never been up in one. But he wasn't in it long. They made LAX in under forty minutes where a limo was waiting on the runway. Then it was a Code Three escort to the joint Secret Service/FBI task force headquarters in the basement of the Los Angeles federal building.
Ralaxis grabbed Noonan's briefcase and sprinted down to the photocopier. By the time Noonan was escorted into and introduced around the briefing room, Ralaxis was back with copies of Noonan's files.
"Since you're well ahead of us, Noonan, how do you figure it?" The Bureau Chief leafed through Noonan's paperwork rather than looking at the Deputy.
"Well, I don't know. I've been pondering this over for a couple of days now. The way I figure it, the person who masterminded this had to have access to the computer. Now there are quite a few people who have that access but that's only part of it. They had to be able to make wagons disappear and stay lost, some for as long as 18 months. And they had to store them someplace where they wouldn't be found for that period. We're talking about a whole train now, not just a few cars. Officially there are only a few wagons missing. But we don't know how many others are temporarily missing. Whoever is doing this has been shuffling the wagons like cards, for months. There's no telling how many cars he – or she – actually has. What the thief has, in essence, is a phantom train. It doesn't exist on computer because the wagons are scattered all over the country.
"But we do have at least one clue, as I read it. Clearly the critical car the thieves needed was the security wagon. That's where the mint paper, ink, and plates were to be locked up. The printing press is just a printing press. It's the plates, paper and ink that are valuable. But the thieves had to move fast. The minute the security wagon showed up missing, they had to make their move in a matter of hours. If I was a betting man, I'd say that the train was loaded with the mint equipment and supplies before 2:10 am on Sunday, California time. That was the last time the wagon was registered on the computer."
"Actually, it was 5:30 on Saturday. Quite literally, in broad daylight. Mint workers loaded the train and watched it pull away."
"Once the train pulled away from the station," Noonan said as he nodded at the Bureau Chief, "it was simply a matter of someone eliminating the train from the computer. That was easy. All they had to do was tell the computer that all of the wagons were on company tracks. It would take days for the error to be noted."
"But the minute that train entered a rail line, the computer would pick it up." Ralaxis was already following this line of logic in his mind.
"Not really," Noonan dug into his breast pocket for a piece of paper. "I thought of that so I called my contact at the Central Railway Switching Center. She said that coming out of a large city like Chicago the computer only tracks the train until it enters a private line. Then the company that owns those tracks reports what train is on its rails. If that company doesn't make a report, the Central Railway Switching Center doesn't know what trains are running on that line."
"In other words," the Bureau Chief chimed in, "the Chicago station would only track the train out of the switching yard. Once the train pulled onto rails owned by a railway company it was that railway company's responsibility to monitor the train. If someone didn't log it into the computer, the train didn't exist."
"Clever," said Ralaxis, "and even if someone had logged in the real codes of the boxcars, the computer operators would have flipped out. That train would have been made up of cars that the computer had listed as missing."
"Right," Noonan continued. "That's why the train is missing. It's on private track and someone on the inside in the computer room is not putting the train on the computer."
"Then how can we trace it," the Bureau Chief snapped. "We've got to do it quickly."
"I've been thinking about that," Noonan replied. "I think we've been spending too much time concentrating on the missing wagons, er, boxcars. They can be moved around at will and no one seems to care. But that train is being pulled by a locomotive and they are not so easy to misplace. Over the last 18 months, only one locomotive has been reported missing. It was sold to a salvage yard. If it wasn't destroyed, then I'll bet that locomotive is the one that's pulling our mysterious train."
"But how do we find it? Even if we do find out who bought the locomotive, that doesn't tell us where it is right now." Ralaxis was on the verge of hysteria. "What we need to know is where that security wagon is RIGHT NOW! The uniqueness of our currency is the soul of our nation. Once those thieves get into the security wagon they are going to scatter to the wind with the plates. Then it's going to be hell getting all of the plates and paper and ink back. These counterfeiters caught us flatfooted."
"I've been thinking about that too and I'm willing to take a shot in the dark."
"Based on what," asked the Bureau Chief.
"Well, based on an educated guess. The first place I'd look would be in the salvage yard of the Copper Mountain and Northwestern Railway. Ltd. I'd say there was a better than even chance we'll find our missing train there. If we move fast, we just might catch the counterfeiters before they get into the security wagon."
There was silence around the room for an entire minute. The collected agents looked back over the paperwork Noonan had brought with him, searching for the clue that he saw that they didn't. The silence was pregnant. The Bureau Chief looked at the Secret Service Agent-in-Charge. He nodded slightly.
"Well, until anyone else has a better idea, I say we go with it. Ralaxis, tell the Chicago station to check the Copper Mountain and Northwestern Railway, Ltd."
For the next two hours the task force poured over railway maps of the Chicago area tracing routes of where the phantom train could be. Some of the guesses placed the train as far west as Denver. Others felt that the train had been segmented with parts heading in all different directions. That would make discovery of the security wagon even more difficult. There were some who even speculated that the train had never really left the station and was lurking on some out-of-the-way spur, waiting for the heat to go down so the printing equipment could be taken back to the Chicago station and off loaded as it had been unloaded, in broad daylight.
Actually, their guesses were moot. Much to the surprise of everyone in the task force, the phantom train was right where Noonan had said it would be: in the Copper Mountain and Northwestern Railway. Ltd. salvage yard. Led by Secret Service agents, a dozen employees of the railway company were caught in the process of welding open the security compartment of wagon BXR987.
"There's just one thing I'd like to know, Noonan," the Bureau Chief was jovial with the news of the capture of the thieves red-handed, primarily because her division was responsible for the critical break in the case. "How did you know it was the Copper Mountain and Northwestern Railway, Ltd.?"
"Just a hunch, an educated guess, so to speak."
"Well, it was a good one. Mind letting me in on the secret?"
"Not at all." Noonan leafed through the photocopies of his papers and found the write-up on the four companies. "Something caught my eye the first time I read the list. I just didn't know it was significant until Agent Ralaxis said that, what was it, 'The uniqueness of our currency is the soul of our nation.' That's when I remembered what I thought was unusual about the Copper Mountain and Northwestern Railway, Ltd."
Noonan showed his sheet of paper with the listing of the four railroads to the Bureau Chief. "Copper Mountain and Northwestern were a wholly owned subsidiary of Gogol, Inc. Gogol, for those of us who have a background in world literature, was a Russian writer who wrote of a man who collected dead souls, peasants who had died but had not been taken off the tax rolls yet. With these dead souls he had a phantom estate of people working for him. This made him an aristocrat – but only for a limited amount of time. Whoever put this scheme together was buying souls of a different kind: railway wagons. If they hadn’t tried to be so clever, they might have actually gotten away with it."
"No," replied the Bureau Chief. "They just didn't expect someone in law enforcement to have a degree in literature."