Today was the third day of my first bank robbery investigation. Sure, the feds were doing their fine-tuned routine, and it usually works for them. However, sometimes an outside approach is fruitful too. The bank manager is a neighbor of mine and was angry that one of his tellers was pistol-whipped. He wanted to make sure that nothing was missed, so he asked me, the only private eye he knew, for help. He said the robber had on a red ski mask and used the Powell St. BART station as his getaway route. It made sense; bank’s side exit led straight into the subway station stairs. My theory was that the robber rode the subway every day and knew the train arrival and departure times down to the second. And if he were a cautious fellow, he’d keep to his routine even after making the big score.
So for three days I’ve been riding the rails during morning and evening rush hours. I bring a Kindle with me so it appears I’m reading a Ludlum novel like half the other commuters. In reality, I’ve been profiling my fellow riders like someone in a Ludlum novel. So far, I haven’t spotted anyone wearing a red ski mask. But there are other signs to look for. Normally this case wouldn’t meet my thrilling threshold, but hey, there was a chance I could go up against an armed felon. Preferably in a dark alley.
This morning I caught a middle-aged man with a crew cut giving me the evil eye. His face looked familiar. I’d bumped into him on the subway before. He wears the gray uniform of an elevator service company. A good occupation if you want an all-access peek into every building of the financial district… including the banks. I looked back at my Kindle. In my peripheral vision, I saw the elevator serviceman rise from his seat and move deeper into the car.
A minute later, voices of panic arose from down the aisle in three languages. Two I recognized. The third didn’t matter. Panic is a universal language. I spied smoke rising from the back of the car. A seat was on fire. As passengers rushed forward, I reached for the fire alarm. The train continued to the next stop while the conductor tried to calm everyone over the intercom. He sounded like he was reading from cue cards. I’d lay money this was his first crisis on the job.
I couldn’t see the elevator man, but that was no longer my primary concern. The doors opened and the other passengers stampeded past me like spooked cattle. I went the opposite direction, climbing over the seats and charging into the veil of smoke. I flung off my raincoat and smothered the flames. As the smoke cleared, the bundle of charred cloth began to move. I sprang to my feet, astonished to find a homeless man beneath the smoldering blankets.
“You were on fire, my friend.”
“Wow, man. Fire?”
Befuddled, the homeless man pawed around the subway floor until his fingers found a burning cigar butt. He planted it back in his toothless maw.
“You realize that cigar started the blaze?” I asked.
“Must’a dozed off.”
“You could’ve died.”
“You endangered the lives of all the passengers.”
“What passengers?” he inquired. Indeed, we were the last ones in the subway car.
I mopped my hands with my face. Then I did the reverse. I shook out my singed raincoat and slipped my arms back into it. What a loss.
“Lord, this has been quite the week,” the homeless man declared, “got a hunnerd dollar tip on Monday and lit myself on fire today.”
That gave me a flash of insight.
“Someone gave you a hundred dollar bill?”
He nodded with a reminiscent smile.
“Were you on the subway at the time?”
“I’m always on the subway,” he said proudly. “I saw this dude sittin’ there with a bag full of money. He spotted me lookin’ as he zipped it up.”
“And he paid you to stay quiet?”
“I suppose.” He looked ashamed, as if realizing he’d just broken that covenant.
I asked the homeless man if he could describe the “dude” with the bag of money. He could. And he did.
It wasn’t as wasted a day as I’d originally thought.