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Once Upon a Crime

THE CASE OF THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY

CHAPTER 1

[cover]He raised the short piece of pipe over his head and rushed me.  When he got within range he swung it.  The guy aimed it at my head.  A mistake.  He could have broken my arm.  Instead he missed because I ducked and kicked him in the crotch as hard as I could.  It was one of the few times when I wished I was wearing hard-soled shoes instead of my usual red Keds.  The ones with the soft white soles.  Still, he went down in a heap.  He screamed in agony and clutched his groin.  Tears came and I could see the flash of silver in his back molars.  I hoped his yells didn't disturb the neighbors.  He'd showed up while I was scoping out the back yard of a former lake cottage right across the road from White Bear Lake.  On the north side of that pond.

This area has a history, if you're interested in crime in the nation.  Back in the old days, in a previous century, before urban development filled in all the open spaces, if you were an active bank robber working in Ohio or Illinois, let's say, and the G-men or the local constabulary was getting a little too close to nabbing you, you looked for a hideout.  You wanted someplace where you weren't easily recognized to lay low and let the heat die down.  So you and your gang might decide on a few weeks of R & R in a quiet, anonymous lake place, nestled among the tall fragrant pines of Minnesota or Wisconsin.  The stories are that a number of gangsters did just that.  Nice folks like Ma Barker, Al Karpis and good ol' John Dillinger, not to forget that dashing man about town, Al Capone.

This particular back yard where I was now standing over a moaning thrashing thug was attached to a nice-looking house that had started out as one of those lake cottages.  Back in the nineteen 'twenties.  Back in that time, as long as you didn't cause too much trouble by knocking over speakeasies or gunning down troublesome rivals on the streets of St. Paul, the local cops would leave you pretty much alone while you rested.  It was a tidy arrangement.  At least it was for the cops and robbers.  Ordinary citizens didn't think much of the deal.  They didn't really care to be rubbing shoulders with the odd murderer or bank robber when they went shopping at Scheunemann's Department Store or picking up a midday snack at George's Popcorn and Candy down at the corner of Wabasha and Seventh Street.

Anyway, back then, after a little rest, you'd clean your arsenal, acquire some fresh ammunition, 'cause you wanted to avoid mis-fires in tense times.  Then you'd climb into your Ford flivver or your posh Packard and toddle off back to the grimy streets of Chicago, or Des Moines, or maybe Omaha, or some little town in between where you heard they had a bank ripe for the plucking.  Or maybe you'd check out a train that could be heisted out on the plains with not too much law around to interfere.

That semi-official protection system, instituted by some of the same good folks who brought you the Irish potato famine, didn't last too long, partly because a few shortsighted thugs, who maybe got to feeling they hadn't amassed their fair share of ill-gotten loot from previous escapades, decided to pull a job or two right here in St Paul.  Easy pickins', they might have figured.  Or, maybe they just got bored with the peaceful life.  I mean, if you're a hot-shot gangster in flashy spats and a cool pin-stripe double-breaster, with a couple of Colt .38s weighing down your greasy armpits, sitting on a dock watching the waves roll in might get a little tedious.  Boring, playing poker or Black Jack all day.  So you got your buddy and pulled a couple of jobs.  Then the whole stack of cards fell over faster than John Dillinger and his floozie boogied out of that St. Peter Street walkup the day the G-Men showed up, Tommy guns blazing.

Of course, times have changed and now that slightly seedy-looking ex-lake cottage, former summer residence of the likes of Ma Barker or Baby Face Nelson, had been rehabbed, repainted, expanded and fixed up, probably a couple of times.  It had become a fairly substantial middle-class home.  Like this one.  For all I knew, some of those very same notorious criminals of yore might have stayed in this place back then.

It wasn't history that brought me to this back yard this fine summer day.  The present owner, not the guy lying on his back moaning on the wet grass and clutching his crotch, had decided to do a little fixing up of his own.  What Mr. Kent Kava, present owner, had wanted to do was to repair, or maybe replace, the dilapidated old garage at the back of the property.  It was a project right up his alley, as it were, Kava being something of a handyman.  The garage wasn't in use at the time, except for storage.  Hadn't been a real garage for quite some years, apparently.  So there wasn't any hurry.  Kava was a guy not only handy with tools but he was a trained professional architect.  He could design a whole new garage, if he wanted to go that far.  But what he really wanted was just to clean out the accumulated junk, tear down, haul away, shore-up, paint, repair, et cetera, et cetera.  Or so he'd laid it out for me one day in my office.

He and his family, he said, had already lived in the place for over a year when he got this wild hair about his garage.  Or maybe his wife got on him about it.  I didn't know and really didn't care all that much.  I didn't think it was relevant.  No, he said, in answer to my question.  He hadn't had any problems with the neighbors when he started carting stuff out.  A few strangers occasionally came to the door, of course, like that vacuum-cleaner salesmen, and a wandering evangelist or two.  The usual.  Kava was a free-lance architect and small-time builder, he repeated, and he worked at home, except when he was on a construction site or seeing a client somewhere.  His wife had a job in a downtown bank in St. Paul and son Alex went to school.  Nice middle class family.  No problems; an even-tenored life the Kava family led.  Not even any serious disagreements at home, to hear him tell it.

Until he started on the garage.  At first, when it was just cleaning up and carting junk away, things went fine.  Took him two months, he said, to clean it out.  But then he decided some of the rafters were seriously deteriorating, apparently from a leaky roof.  So he started tearing off the shingles.  Demolishing.  Exposing old beams.  Then people passing by could see what he was doing and his project became more widely known.  Idle chatter commenced.  Traffic of strangers increased.  How much demolishing was he going to do?  Would he tear the entire structure down?  Did he know it was a really old garage and this part of the city was sort of an historic neighborhood?  Was he going to pour a concrete foundation?  Seemed a few folks with too much time on their hands were meeting in the local coffee shops and small stores and one of their subjects for idle speculation was Kava's garage project.

"I was advised that in White Bear I needed a permit to tear down and replace my old garage," he explained in one of our talks.  "So of course, that made my project even more public."

I nodded.  "Sure.  Building permits are part of the public record."

Eventually, Kava went on, a couple of gentlemen showed up who wanted to inspect the property.  Closely inspect the property.  They even intimated they'd like to take a gander inside the house, as well as the garage, since they were in the neighborhood anyway.  As it were.

Mr. Kava politely declined to allow them into the home, once he learned they had no particular legal basis for an inspection.  In fact, he told me, he declined to allow them into the garage.  "I didn't mind that they stood in the driveway and looked in.  By then the garage was empty.  But I didn't think it was a good idea to have them pushing on the walls, or kicking the studs.  Didn't seem to be their business, after all."

"I understand," I said.  "Did these stud-kickers have identification from the city?"

"They didn't show me anything."

"Any identification at all?"

"Sorry," Kava admitted.  "I guess I never asked."

Just a couple of interested amateur historians, they said, and promptly backed off when questioned closely.  Right.  It was odd and strange and Kava began to wonder what was so special about his old garage, especially after he had had to chase someone off the place at about two a.m. one night.  Being of a naturally skeptical bent, I would have been considerably more than just idly curious about all this curiosity.  But I don't want to get ahead of myself here.  That prowler incident had happened a week before he and son Alex showed up in my office.  What brought him to my office was a discovery made beside the garage by the boy's puppy.

A brief introduction is called for.  My name is Sean Sean.  That's right.  I have the same first and last name.  So when strangers approach, on a train, perhaps, they aren't sure how familiar they're being.  If my first name was Carl, say, it would be odd to approach me, a stranger, as Mr. Carl.  So people sometimes hesitate.  That occasionally gives me a slight advantage.  I don't have a middle name.  Sean NMI Sean, private investigator, at your service.  On the other hand, there is a mystery writer whose last name is Carl.  Lillian Carl.  Anyway, as a private operative I have an office in Minneapolis.  I'm not the most expensive, nor the least.  I do work for some very important people in the Twin Cities, as well as for people nobody ever heard of.

Folks in the Twin Cities have the same kinds of problems and difficulties as people anywhere.  We really aren't very different, here in the middle of the country.  Maybe we have more blue-eyed blonds.  We are frequently just as sophisticated and nice, and just as underhanded and mysterious as anybody.  You'll see what I mean.

 

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