Captain Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was contemplating the inequities of life with one hand full of a wine glass and the other a wine bottle at his favorite restaurant, Lorenzo’s, when a strange man sat down at his table. Noonan was sure that this was not a friend of his for, as he knew all of his friends, he did not recognize this gentleman. Gentleman was exactly the term Noonan would have used to describe the man. Dressed impeccably in the latest fashion with both a handkerchief in his jacket pocket and a flower on his lapel, he appeared more as a refugee from a Hollywood set than a diner at a dinner. He was of perfect build for his clothes, his skin was without a blemish, his hair perfectly cut, his fingernails perfectly manicured and his shoes shined. The last was visually apparent as the man sat sideways with his legs crossed and thus his shoes, so expensive that Noonan could not guess at either the manufacturer or cost, were visible.
Noonan, accustomed to being accosted unexpectedly as he had a wife, twins, a secretary and a commissioner who was addicted to throwing curve balls, was unperturbed by the sudden appearance of the gentleman. The gentleman, it should be added, came with his own bottle of wine and glass. This, if nothing else, endeared him to the detective, particularly when Noonan noticed that the wine label held by the gentleman was six tiers higher than the most expensive wine Noonan’s wife ever allowed him to buy.
“I am sure you are wondering why I am here,” the gentleman said with a soft voice that had no accent.
“Not with that bottle of wine,” Noonan said as he fumbled for an unused glass on his table set for four. He extended the glass and continued, “I have all evening.”
“Sorry to break into your solitude but I was told you might be able to help me. I was also told you appreciated good wine so I have not come alone.”
“With that wine, my time is yours. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I have a bit of a problem that a smart man like you could probably solve over dinner.”
“What makes you think I’m that good?”
“Your secretary. Who happens to be my brother’s sister-in-law. She thinks you could find the Holy Grail if you were given two clues.”
“Harriet would say something like that knowing that I’m the one that fills out her Annual Assessment which, as a matter of fact, is due in about a month.”
“That’s Harriet, one step ahead of the game.”
Noonan poured himself a glass of the wine. “But, as long as you are here . . .” He let the sentence hang.
“My name is Gary Kremen,” the man said as he handed Noonan a business card. “I’m a used car salesman – don’t laugh now – and over the past month all of the cars on my lot have been moved.”
“That’s right. I’m not that large of a business but over the past month there have been nights when all of the cars have changed places.”
“You mean that the car in Space One was in Space Two and that car that was in Space Two was in Space Three?”
“Sort of. What I mean is that when I arrive in the morning, the car that was in Space One, if you want to use that expression, is in Space 29. I don’t know what car was in Space 29 but obviously it had to be somewhere else.”
“How many cars do you have in your parking lot?
“Right now, 64. I own some and other are on consignment. When a car is on . . .”
“I’m familiar with the term. How many cars have moved?”
“I can’t tell. At least a dozen. 14 that I can account for. But some cars were actually moved so other cars could take their place.”
“So you don’t actually know how many cars were moved, just that 14 were in different parking spaces.”
“Right. Out of 64 cars, depending on the night we are talking about, 14 cars were in different spots in the morning.”
“How do you know they are moving?”
“Because of the car keys. When a car comes in, we put the key on the nail that corresponds to the parking space. The keys are locked up tight every night. When I figured out that the cars were changing spaces, I started doing inventories every morning.”
“How do you know the cars aren’t moving but the keys are?”
“I don’t. But either way it’s a problem. If cars are moving I’m liable if someone gets in an accident.”
“How many people have access to the keys?”
“Everyone. I’ve got sales people and car wash people and repair people. Even the secretaries could move the keys. All day. A salesperson might show the same car five or six times a day. Including part timers, I’ve got close to 50 people. But if someone was moving the keys they’d have to be doing it at the end of the day otherwise the switches would be detected earlier.
“Did the cars – or the keys – move every night?”
“No. Not every night. But on odd days. Like on a Monday one week and a Thursday the next. Then nothing for two weeks and then three days in a row.”
“Do you have security cameras?”
“For the office where the keys are, yes. For the lot, not really. Security costs a lot. All of the cars are fenced in and the gate is surveyed. Not the interior.”
“Nothing. Nothing happens. The camera shows no activity all.”
“In other words, no cars left the lot and no one got into the keys during the night.”
“Right as rain.”
“Did you check the security tapes to make sure you were looking at current tapes rather than old ones?”
“Yup. I go down to the security office every morning and look at the tapes. Zip.”
“Who controls the security tapes?”
“We subcontract to a security company. They’re not top of the line but they are competent.”
“Are you their only client?”
“No. I don’t know how many clients they have but I’d say about 30.”
“Are all of their customers car dealers?”
“I don’t know. Do you want me to find out?”
“Yes. I’ll have some other questions for you when I finish thinking about your problem.” Noonan drained his wine glass. “And while I’m thinking . . .” He tipped his glass toward the bottle.
“Of course,” said Kremen and he poured Noonan another two fingers.
Noonan took a drink and thought for a l-o-n-g moment. “OK, do you have a pencil and paper?”
Kremen dug through is pockets. “Will a pen do?”
“Sure, but a napkin won’t.”
Kremen didn’t have a piece of paper so Noonan flipped one of Lorenzo’s menus over. “Use this.”
“OK. Assuming the cars are moving, what kinds of cars are moving? I need the make, model and mileage and when the cars actually came onto the lot to be sold. Check the mileage of every car that was moved to see how many extra miles have been added – if any have been added at all. If the keys are moving, what is the latest moment that the keys could be moved and not be detected? What is the schedule for cars to be cleaned? If you can make duplicate keys on the lot, who has access to that machine? “
“You’ll have to slow down. Some of these questions I can answer now.”
“No. I’m going to want to come to the lot. Caught up?
“OK. Do any of the cars that were moved have an oil leak? Is there any link between when the first car – or set of keys – changed location and the hiring of a new employees, full or part time? Do any of your employees have police records? Have any of the cars that have been moved been sold? How soon after they have been moved were they sold? Who bought those cars? Were any returned? Did any of the people who bought any of the cars that moved buy any other cars? Are there any spaces on the lot that are always empty?” Noonan paused.
“Is that it?” asked Kremen breathless. “This is quite a list.”
“It could be quite a crime. No, for the moment that’s all I need.”
“It’s going to take a while for me to get these items pulled together. You sure you can solve this problem?”
“Who knows? All I can do is try. How long will it take you to get this information together?”
“OK. I’ll be at your office at noon next Friday. Not this Friday, the next one. Ten days from now.”
“What should I do between now and then?”
“Keep doing what you’re doing. But upgrade any information you have.” Kremen rose to leave. “But you can leave the bottle.”
Kremen smiled and left.
Without the bottle.
* * *
The next Sunday morning Noonan took a drive across Sandersonville to Kremen’s Motors. He parked a block away and spent the next hour examining the buildings on all sides of the lot. It was a pretty typical mid-town location. The automotive dealer filled two city blocks but there was no roadway that divided the blocks.
On the north was a parking lot for a large discount store. On the south were a string of small businesses in a single, long building including a Vietnamese restaurant, a stained-glass window shop, a T-shirt outlet, used CD and DVD shop and, on the corner, a diner. There was a discount rug merchant who took up the entire frontage of the block on the west, with advertising signs proudly announcing, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS IN SAME LOCATION SINCE AUGUST OF 1997!”
Noonan smiled and looked east. A two-story office building ran the length of the block. When he went inside he saw that it was honey-combed with one-room offices including lawyers, accountants, advertising firms, one investment firm, an event coordinator, a technical writer, two counseling services and a handful of other companies whose names gave no indication what they did; Johnson and Associates, Smitherson and Sons. Half of the office tags were blank. None of the offices were open and none of the rooms were available for occupancy. Noonan wrote down the name and number of the management company that handled the building and tried to get onto the roof.
It was locked.
“Can I help you?”
An old man with a cane was leaning against the wall that went to the roof entrance.
Noonan introduced himself and showed his badge. As it happened, the old man was the building manager.
“What are you doing here on a Sunday?”
“I just live around the corner. Got a call that a suspicious person was in the building.”
“Do I look suspicious?”
“Not now. Got a lot of busybodies in the neighborhood.”
“Is the person who called in the building?”
“Why?” the old man was suspicious.
“I’m looking for people who are busybodies in this neighborhood.”
“Actually, no one called. I do periodic checks of the building. There have been kids messing around with the dumpsters.”
“Really? What have they been doing?”
“Don’t know. Just jumping into the dumpsters and tossing stuff around. Makes no sense. But that’s how kids are. Do you have any?”
“Then you know what I mean. Do things for no reason – for dumb ones.”
“Have you ever seen the kids?”
“Naw. But why would an adult get into a dumpster and root around for who knows what?”
“That’s one on me,” said the detective. “Can I get on the roof?”
“Let me see that badge again,”
After the old man, Archibald “Archie” Newman, looked at it carefully he painfully walked up the stairs to the roof doorway.
“You don’t have to come up.”
“I’m responsible for the building, day and night, root and basement, alley and sidewalk.”
“It’s good to see you take your responsibilities seriously. How long have you been manager?”
“I’m actually not the manger. I’m the owner. I built this building with my wife 35 years ago. That was when this whole area was homes. Today, well, you can see what it is.”
Noonan looked over the area. There were some homes in the distance but as far as he could see it was rooftops. He walked over the back of the building, Newman limping along behind him.
“Been quite a few changes, eh?”
“Too many if you ask me,” said Newman. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a curmudgeon. I’m not against progress. It’s made me a wealthy man. We built this building for pennies and now it’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Possibly millions. But my wife and I are not into money the way we used to be.”
“What are you into now?”
“Retirement. As in walk along a beach with the grandkids and playing golf instead of trying to figure out why kids are jumping into dumpsters.”
“Why don’t you sell out and go?”
“In this economy?”
“Never got an offer?”
“Had lots of offers. Get them all the time. But they’re all bad. Like I said, in this economy you get lots of offers. All low.”
“Anyone particularly enthusiastic?”
“Biggest one was an out-of-state company that wanted to buy up the whole shebang.” He favored one leg and pointed his cane across the roof of the building toward the auto lot. “Wanted to buy everyone out. Put in an amusement park.”
“No one wanted to sell?”
“Not at what they wanted to pay.”
“I would have guessed that the auto dealer would have jumped at the offer.”
“Kremen? Naw. He’s sharp. Figured right away what was going on. So did his Sales Manager. A nephew or something. They were being low-balled and knew it.”
“Anyone take the offer seriously?”
“How low was the offer?”
“You mean in terms of dollars?”
“No. Was it a real bad offer or just a regular run-of-the-mill bad one?”
“I’d say it was 30% too low even with the economy being as bad as it is. And they never came back with a higher offer after we turned them down.”
“How long as the auto yard been here?”
“Strange question but I’d say about ten years. Built that business from scratch, and I mean it. Started with a lot of consignments on a vacant lot and look at what it is today.”
“Good crew too?”
“Good enough to stay in business for ten years. That’s saying something.”
“Never had any trouble?”
“Not until recently. When the cars started moving around at night. You guys looking into that?”
“Cars moving around at night?”
“Yeah. I guess that was why you were here. All those cars.”
“Moving around at night?”
“Yeah. Everyone around here knows about it. Cars move around in his lot but none of ‘em leave the lot. Strange.”
“You ever seen any cars driving around after the lot closes?”
“Nope. But it’s not like I’m here every night either.”
“Hear anything else about the cars?”
“Just what we all know. That the cars are in different parking places in the morning then they were the night before. Kind of spooky.”
“Could his salespeople be doing it as a prank?”
“I surely don’t know,” said Noonan. “Maybe someone’s trying to get him to sell out and move.”
“You mean Consolidated Ltd. trying to put pressure on us-all to get us to take a price that was 30% below value?”
“World is a strange place.”
“Well, if they are they are going about it in a strange way. Moving cars doesn’t decrease the value of the property.”
“Got a point there. Any link between the dumpster diving and the cars getting moved around?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do both events happen on the same night?”
“Don’t know. I’m not keeping a record of when the cars get moved or, for that matter, when the dumpsters are being rummaged.”
Noonan thought for a moment. “Any other businesses having strange things happen on an infrequent basis?”
“Strange? Don’t know. There have been some power outages in the area but that’s nothing new. No drive-by shootings, robberies or car accidents.”
“Spotty. Inconsistent. First one store then the other, over there.” Newman pointed to the string of boutiques on the south side of the auto lot. “Nothing stolen.”
“No power problems with the discount store?”
“Not as far as I know. Ask ‘em. You’re a cop.”
“Do you mind if I take a stroll around the roof?”
“Help yourself. I just have to stay here to lock you out when you want to go. Take your time.”
Noonan did. And nothing seemed out of place. After he left the roof he talked with the manager of the discount store. Nothing suspicious had happened recently and if there had been a power outage, his store had not experienced it. No dumpsters were riffled and no security cameras showed any unusual activities. As far as the offer from Consolidated, Ltd., that had been handled by the home office.
Of the seven businesses along the south side of the street only three were open. The Sunday manager at the diner said that he had experienced no outages in memory. The Vietnamese Restaurant, which was midway down the block, had experienced several. All were at night and were because of faulty wiring. After the frayed wires had been repaired, there had been no other outages. The T-shirt outlet store manager had hair to the center of his back, enough rings in his ears and nose to jingle when he walked and a very bad attitude about “$%^& cops.” He refused to answer any questions.
Only the owner of the Vietnamese Restaurant was available and she remembered the offer from Consolidated Inc. When Noonan asked her of the offer she screwed up her face as if she just smelled rotting food. But she was gracious and said that the offer was “low. Very low. No good. You want takeout?”
The rug merchant did not speak English very well but laughed when Noonan asked about the Consolidated, Ltd. offer. “Idiots,” was all the man said. There had been no electrical outages at his store and the only suspicious activity was a cop asking about the cars moving around in the auto lot across the street.
“When was that?” Noonan asked.
“Right now,” said the rug merchant. “You. Get a call from Newman. He say help you. I do. You only suspicious character come by.”
A call to Consolidated, Ltd., was the waste of a long-distance call. Based out of Virginia Beach, it was company catered to amusement centers. With the economy in the dump more than one of the large amusement corporation were looking to see if they could buy cheap rather than wait until the economy turned around. The company confirmed it had made any offer that was low.
“What did you expect us to do?” snapped the Vice President on the line with Noonan. “Pay top dollar? Were in business to make money.”
“Is the offer still on the table?”
“Are you kidding?” snapped the Vice President again. “It was a take-it-or-leave-it offer. They said no. We moved on. No, the offer is not on the table. Those yokels had seven days to make a decision. They did. They said no. Even if they wanted to reconsider we’re not interested. We’re already in negotiations with another city. If that falls through, which I doubt, we might to back but the offer would be the same.”
Noonan was about to ask another question but the phone went dead.
* * *
It was not a pleasant Monday. After he had returned from his sojourn to midtown the previous morning, his wife had then dragged him into the back yard using the most insidious of all words in the marital lexicon: “we.” It was “we” who went into the back yard but it was Noonan who spent the next two hours digging up dandelions and batting mosquitoes. In the end, both won. Noonan lost. It was terrible afternoon. Then, in the evening, “we” watered plants in the house and “we” moved furniture – back and forth and then again – until the sun, mercifully, set. When the good detective asked why their sons Otto and Fritz were not assisting in the horticultural endeavors and domestic furniture moving, he was told they were “busy with friends.” Noonan said he had friends he could be busy with as well but his wife would have none of that.
Back at the office on Monday he saw that all of the paperwork that had been breeding on his desk all weekend had given issue. There was now more than before and no one would admit to being the father. Or the mother. Paperwork, Noonan believed, was asexual. It was amoebic. It didn’t require father or mother for reproduction. It didn’t need food or water or even a sunny Southern exposure. All it needed was a Commissioner and that was fertilizer enough to have the pile grow.
He was picking through the pile of paper with a pencil being careful not to touch any of the paperwork. Who knew, the human touch might make it grow faster. Higher and deeper as well. Harriet came in with a cup of coffee – for herself, not Noonan – and commented on how fast the paperwork seemed to pile up.
“It is evil incarnate,” snapped Noonan. “It grows in the dark.”
“And on weekends,” his secretary added. “Did you solve the problem with the missing cars yet?”
“No. I’ve got police work to do.”
“That is police work,” said Harriet. An evil smile crossed her face. “But I guess you’d rather go through the paperwork on your desk than get out on the streets and solve an actual crime.”
That stalled Noonan in his poking of the pile of memos. But he did not stall long. In the next instant he was up and halfway to door. “There is crime afoot,” he mumbled. “I’ll be back.”
“Yeah,” said Harriet to the retreating detective. “And I’ll throw out the oldest memos.”
“All of them,” said the old man. But he could not have heard what Harriet replied because the door had closed behind him.
* * *
Back in midtown he parked his car along the sidewalk next to the auto dealership. There was no reason to park two blocks away and sweat it out on the streets. He was getting enough exercise leaping to conclusions. He concentrated on the south side of the auto lot where he had had such little luck before. The Vietnamese restaurant was still closed but several of the other shops were open. He tried the T-shirt shop in hopes that the aged hippy was not there. Luck was with him.
“Poncho said you’d been by.” This time the sales counter was being manned – or at least boyed – by an individual who might have been all of 20. He only had two piercings, one in the left nostril and the other on his ear lob. Noonan wondered if that put him off balance. He was wearing a T-shirt with the word VOLCOM across the front which Noonan thought might have been an animal.
“Poncho. He’s the artist. Watches the counter when I’m out.”
“This is your shop?”
“Yeah. With a little help from my dad. He says that if I don’t want to go to school I have to do something productive.”
Noonan looked around the shop. “Well, are you productive?”
“I’ve been running in the black since I opened. So, yeah, I think I’m productive. What did I do that the cops want to talk to me?”
Noonan said he had not done anything wrong and asked about the moving cars in the auto lot.
“I know it’s happening. Everybody does. We’re kind of a small community here. I just know it’s happening. That’s it.”
When Noonan asked about the power outage, he got a strange answer.
“That’s odd. Yeah, we did have a power outage. A few of them. Inconsistent so we didn’t know what it was. We finally replaced some wire and everything was fine.”
“So you don’t know if the wires caused the power outage”
“Nope. Just that changing them seemed to solve the problem. Why?”
“Do you remember when the outages happened?”
“If you mean time of day, No. All I do know is that when I came in the video machine was flashing ’12:00’ which means the power went out during the night.”
“How about your security cameras?” Noonan pointed to the system the T-Shirt shop had on its wall.
“Simply for show. We don’t have a security system.”
“Who knows that?”
“I do. Poncho does. My dad does.”
“No one else?”
“So other than the outage, nothing out of the ordinary happened?”
“Nothing but the Vaseline.”
“Yeah, A few times last month someone spread Vaseline on the front window.”
“How do you know it was Vaseline?”
“Smelled like it and came right off when we wiped it.”
“Why would someone spread Vaseline on your window?”
“Don’t know. They did it the shop next door too.“
“The stained-glass window shop?”
“Yup. I think the DVD store got hit too. Why, I don’t know.”
The owner of the stained-glass window shop didn’t know either. He was not an amiable sort, the kind who felt “good morning” was a long conversation. He stated there had been some outages but he had replaced no wires. His shop did have a security camera but it was unaffected since it was on a backup system and consisted of one camera that only focused on the interior of the shop. The owner of the used CD and DVD shop was a lot more forthcoming.
“Poncho said you were sniffing around.”
“You know Poncho.”
“He works with my brother.”
“Who owns the T-shirt shop?”
“Actually our dad owns the building and we rent from him.”
“You’re not going to school either?”
“I got my GED and I’m going to college part-time. Business administration. This,” he indicated with a sweep of his hands, “is the start of my empire.”
“I wish you the best of luck. Now, I have . . .”
“I know,” the young man said. He had no piercings, wore a light blue, short sleeved shirt, clean blue trousers and – unlike Otto and Fritz – wore light blue socks in his shoes, in this case – and also unlike Otto and Fritz – polished black loafers. His hair was well kempt and a lot shorter than Poncho’s.
“Here’s what I have,” the young man pulled out a ledger. “I’ve had six power outages in the last month. None before that. The last one was on a Sunday. All were during the night. Four were before midnight and two afterwards. I was hit with the Vaseline twice, on the same nights as the two power outages after midnight.”
“You keep meticulous records,” Noonan said.
“Have to. This is a business. You have to be organized. Is that all you wanted to know?
“What else do you have?”
“All six outages happened on the same nights as the cars moving around.”
“And you know this because?”
“Because I write those kinds of things down. When I heard about the car moving around I contacted our security company to see if there was any link to my outages. There was.”
“Is your security company the same as the auto yard?”
“No. But I think that my window was wiped with Vaseline because of the movement in the auto yard.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t. I’m guessing. See, I’m the only one on the block who has security cameras that face outwards, toward the street. I’m not worried about people in the store stealing. I’m worried about people breaking in. So my cameras face the street and, consequently, across the street to the auto lot.”
“So you think that the Vaseline was put on your window to obscure any pictures of what was going on in the auto yard?”
“That’s what I think but when I looked at the footage for those nights, I got goose egg.”
“That’s right. No movement in the auto yard at all. No head lights, anyway.”
“Nothing out of the ordinary?”
“Not a thing. Do your kids need any video equipment? I can put together a special package for just their needs. Why, I have . . .”
Noonan thanked the lad and left while his wallet was still in his back pocket.
* * *
Two days later Kremen was back with a sheet of answers. “I don’t know what you can do with this information, but here’s what you wanted. That is, I hope I got what you wanted.”
“Well see,” said Noonan. “Go ahead.”
“As near as I can and the sales manager can figure, at least 12 cars have been moved. They are various makes and models and all of them owned by different people. The mileage on all cars is different and there is no way to figure out which miles were on the car when it came into the shop and which miles were put on when the cars were moved. The keys can be moved around but we’ve had a security camera on the keys in the office and none of them have been moved after closing. We matched up the car cleaning with the moved cars and got not pattern. None of the cars have an oil leak because we fix that before we let them on the lot. We have new employees all the time but the keys are under the watchful eye of the sales manager and the cars – during the day at least – all go back to their same parking spaces and the keys back on the correct hooks. We check the keys and the security camera before closing and then when we open in the morning. Some of the cars that were moved were sold and none were returned. No spaces in the yard are permanently empty and if any of our employees have a police record, we don’t know. We don’t check. Does that help?”
“Who knows?” replied Noonan. “When did you notice that the cars were being moved?”
“I didn’t. My sales manager did. It started about a month ago. About the time the electrical systems were shorting out in the neighborhood. Is there a connection?”
“Who knows?” Noonan said again. “When was the offer that was made turned down?”
“Oh, six, eight months ago. A long time before the cars started moving.”
“When the offer was made, what did the owners of the other buildings in the area think of the deal?”
“Garbage. We were unanimous. There were only three of us involved, my auto lot and the two adjacent buildings. We all thought the offer was ridiculous.”
“Have there been other offers?”
“There are always offers. None are approached what we think the property is worth.”
“So no company is chomping at the bit to get the land?”
“The land, yes, the structures, no. The value is in the land; the buildings are too old to be worth much. It will be more expensive to tear them down than refurbish them.”
“I see,” Noonan thought for a moment. “The long building that has the T-shirt shop and the DVD store, do you know the owner?”
“Did. He lives in Palm Springs. He’s in his 80s. His kids own the building now.”
“How old are you, Mr. Kremen?”
“Have any kids?”
“My wife and I have not been so blessed. Our only relative is my nephew, he’s my sales manager. Learning the business from the ground up.”
“Good way to start.”
* * *
Kremen left and Noonan followed him – at a safe distance – until it was clear that the man was not going to his car dealership. Where he was going Noonan did not care, just as long as he was not going to the dealership. 15 minutes later he was in the CD and DVD shop.
“You’re back!” the kid behind the counter said. “Solve the moving car problem?”
“As a matter of fact,” Noonan said, “I did.”
“Really? Pray tell.”
“Just one thing. You said your father owned this building. That was not exactly accurate, was it?”
“Sort of. He still owns it but we – my brother and I – have a power of attorney for the building.”
“But you can sell the building without his permission.”
“Well, yes, but . . .”
“There aren’t any buts when it comes to sales. You either have the power to sell or not.”
“In that case, yes, we can sell but we’d have to deal with the tenants we’ve got now.”
“Not if you don’t have any tenants.”
“How would that happen?”
“Well, let’s see. If there were lots of power outages and spooky things like cars moving around without any drivers, that might get the Vietnamese to change locations.”
“My brother and I are still here.”
“Please! Movie CDs and DVDs are a dying business. Blockbuster is on its way to Never Never Land and Netflix is on its way in. This business will not be here in a year and T-shirts can be printed in someone’s garage. In fact, this whole building is probably one inspection away from being too expensive to upgrade. The only thing you’ve got is the value of the land.”
“W-e-l-l,” the kid started.
“Don’t well me, son. I’ve got two kids your age. Let me tell you what I think. I think you, your brother, Kremen’s sales manager and the old man in the building over there,” Noonan said as he pointed across the car lot. “The four of you can read the writing on the wall. This area is going downhill. Property values are going down and are not ever going to come back up.”
The kid started to speak but Noonan cut him off. “I’m not finished. Right now you’re stuck. You and your brother and the old man across the way have white elephants. You own your building outright but the only cash you see are rentals and I’ll bet they are dropping. He’s got low dollar office rentals and half his building is empty. You’ve got four shops in this building, two you own and two you’d like to get rid of. You can reconstruct a car lot anywhere. I think the four of you want to take a deal.”
“If that’s true, why haven’t we?”
“Because Kremen does not want to sell. Why I don’t know. Maybe he likes to come to work. Maybe he’s hopeful his nephew can turn the business around. I don’t know. But what I do know is that he’s the stick in the mud. So you, your brother, the old man in the building across the street and Kremen’s nephew cooked up this spooky plan to scare the old man. Kremen’s nephew has convinced him that the car lot is haunted. That’s why Kremen came to me.”
“But those cars do move around!”
“No. The keys move around.”
“But the security camera shows the keys not moving all night!”
“Of course it did! That’s because the keys did not move around all night. After the camera was turned off in the morning, Kremen’s nephew moved the keys around before anyone came to work. No cars moved; just the keys.”
The kid was silent for a long moment.
Then Noonan cut it. “Son, the reason criminals get caught is because they think they’re smarter than the cops. There’s no law being broken here but you’d better figure out a different approach to getting Kremen to sell.”
“How did you figure it out?” The kid was slyly smiling.
Now the kid was no longer smiling.
“That was a bit much,” said Noonan. “I could not figure out why anyone would spread Vaseline on the front windows of two businesses. As I standing on the sidewalk I noticed that your shop and the stained-glass shop next door both had security cameras. But they were inside, not outside. The Vaseline on the front windows was to make it impossible to get a clear picture of what was happening on the car lot across the street. I’ll bet Kremen’s sales manager came back a few times and drove cars around the car lot to put some spooky footage on some old security tapes. With Vaseline on the windows it would impossible to see which cars were being moved, just the headlights. I wouldn’t be surprised if you shared those tapes with the Vietnamese restaurants to see if you could spook them into leaving the building.”
“Well, they haven’t.”
“It really doesn’t make any difference. Until Kremen wants to sell, you’re stuck here. If you want to be in business, son, start thinking like a businessman instead of a punk.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t try to scare the man; sweeten the deal.”
“Show him how he will win by taking the deal. Find a better place for the car lot, a couple of city blocks where more customers will visit the car lot. A car lot is just vacant land surrounded by a fence. If he can sell more cars somewhere else, why wouldn’t he sell out? He just wants to sell cars. He wants his nephew to have a thriving business. Find him a better place to sell cars and he’ll move. Show him the path to better business.”
“If we do, will he take it?”
“Who knows? But it’s easier than trying to convince him that ghosts are driving his cars around at night. “
[Heinz Noonan’s impossible crime novels can be found at www.authormasterminds.com.]