Deputy Sheriff Bob Steel arrived at the roadside hotel on the interstate thinking he was going to investigate an ordinary theft. Now he found himself receiving an art lesson from a dapper little man named Gilbert Bowles, art expert from Durham's auction house in Chicago.
"There were other antiques in the van, but it was the Audubons they were after. The market on Audubons has skyrocketed in recent years. There were two of them in a locked case inside the rear of the van, which is separated from the front seats by a barrier. Both were prints done by the master print-maker, Havell. I authenticated them myself. At auction they would have brought fifty thousand each, or more. The Shoveler Duck and the Purple Heron. Magnificent."
"What time did you pull in here?"
"Right at midnight. I was following the van in my car all the way. I blinked my lights for the driver to pull in here. We all needed a rest after driving for over twelve hours today."
"How did you discover that the van had been broken into?"
"The hotel security guard saw a car drive in and park next to the van, then speed out of here about ten minutes later. He got suspicious and checked. He found the van doors at the back were open and the lock busted by a crowbar or something. Inside the van, the case holding the prints was also broken open. Both Audubons were stolen."
"Why was the van parked back there behind the hotel instead of the parking lot?"
"Our security guy, Chuck Keene, was riding with the driver. He made the decision."
The hotel security guard confirmed the story and added, "It was a funny thing. They had just gone in to register at the desk, and I looked out at the parking lot just as a car came in and drove around to the back lot.. It couldn't have been more than five minutes after they arrived. They were still registering. I didn't think too much of it, and went on with my rounds. Then about ten minutes later the car took off like a shot. That's when I went back out behind the hotel and investigated."
The van's driver, Mel Sims, said, "I was getting pretty sleepy, so I was glad when Mister Bowles signaled to turn in here. But look, I sure wouldn't be part of stealing something now. I'm just a couple of years short of taking my retirement."
"Do you carry a cell phone?"
"Nope. Keene has one. That's enough for security, I'd think."
Chuck Keene, security officer for Durham, who had been up in the front of the van with Sims, said, "I got out first when we got here. Mister Bowles and I walked into the hotel together, and Mel stayed behind to get his gear out of the van. He came in no more than two minutes after we did. Then we all finished checking in and went to our rooms. I no more than got into my room when Mister Bowles called me on his cell phone from outside and told me he was there with the hotel security guy and that someone had broken into the van. I used the hotel phone to call the Sheriff's office. I'd left my cell phone in the van."
Did you notice a car following the van, by any chance?"
"No. I glanced in the mirror as we started to turn in. All I saw was Mister Bowles car."
Steel returned to the art expert's room. "Mister Bowles, did you at any time notice a car following you?"
"No. There were mostly trucks on the interstate as the night wore on. And we weren't going fast. Cars passed us in the fast lane, but I could see no car following us. Frankly, I think someone just saw the Durham name on the van and knew there would be valuable items aboard. We're almost as well-known as Sothebys or Christies."
"Was there any publicity about the Audubons and their being shipped by van?"
"No. We would never advertise a find like the Audubons. We are very discreet."
Steel returned to the driver, Mel Sims, and asked him where his bags had been kept in the van.
"Well, there's not a lot of room in the cab. We don't do a lot of overnights like this trip. Keene kept his bag in the cab, so I had to use my key to open up the lock on the rear doors of the van. My bag was just inside the doors. I took my bag out and locked the van up again. Then I took my flashlight back to the cab, locked the cab up and came on in."
Steel again questioned the Durham security man, Chuck Keene. "When the van left the highway and pulled into the parking lot, why did you have it parked in the area behind the hotel, rather than one of the areas that are better lit?"
"Oh, that was Mel Sims' idea. He knew how Bowles felt about someone seeing the Durham name on the van and maybe trying to break in. I thought it wasn't the safest place, but I went along with it. Sims has been working with Bowles a lot longer than I have. But as a security guy, I'm interested in how you're going to solve this. It looks like a tough case to me."
"Not as tough as some I've seen. I know exactly how this heist was pulled off."