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“Oh, it’s not much of a place, as I told you, Audrey. Just a small cabin built on the side of a slight-rising hill here in Prudence, Indiana, the next town over, and the cabin’s been here longer than I have. Two older men, derelicts supposedly at one time, live there and have been there since 1965, from what I hear about them. The story says they built the place way back when, from the first stone up.”

The young lady speaking, a smothering dark-haired beauty of 21, and a burgeoning writer of essays and newsletters galore, Tricia Colbert, was showing a cousin and college classmate, Audrey Bardry, around the local area, highlighting places that had sparked her interest in younger years and still worked their way on her.

Audrey responded, after studying the cabin, hefty logs atop a stone foundation, a permanence evident in the rugged structure, “Who are they, Tricia? What are their names? What do you call them? Where did they come from?  Why land here, practically buried in the forest?” Her head shook in wonder as her gaze continued in study.

“I call them Peter and Paul, or Pick and Pat, or Mick and Mac, makes no difference. Other folks have other names, but none of us have been in there … ever,” the last word stretched her articulation. “It’s like taboo, if you want to know. You’re new here, so don’t go near there or them.”  A pause introduced another thought: “We didn’t even go near there on Halloween nights, even though we went right past the place.”

She oops and pointed at two old men, bent over, scraggly, somewhat disturbed, who came out the door in tandem, saw the two gawking girls, and went back inside, movements curiously quick and nimble in their haste.

Tricia, more curious than her cousin, and eagerly looking for a new tale on which to twist her mind around, began to organize a list of questions in her mind, knowing she had found a new target for her energies, and her intrusive curiosity.

In a quick search of records, with help from an assistant at the Prudence Town Hall, she found a record of land sale in 1963, from an individual named George Nettering to Adam (Lucky Dog) Norbert and Jessie (Playboy) Plober, and then a building permit issued in 1964 to Norbert and Plober, followed by a tax record on the property dated May of 1965, and continuing. The short parade of years showed a systematic, paced plan of events, all leading to the establishment of a U.S. Postal Delivery Route in 1966. The slow but insistent progression the pair of men attained was quite noticeable to Tricia, but set off no inventive or fictitious ideas, at least story-wise in her mind.

But a continuing intrigue of some unknown source or nature, continued to swing into her mind, captivating her. She knew she had been alerted to an unknown mystery or story of the oddest sort, and would prove worthy of her time and survey.

She could feel it pulling at her, asking questions, making demands.,

But less than a month later, with significant highlights accumulated, the cabin burned to ground level, leaving much debris, Adam Norbert probably escaping through a window, but Jessie Plober was caught by flames and died in the midst of the fire. Norbert disappeared from town the night of the fire and was never seen again. The supposed ashes of Jessie Plober, gathered in an urn, eventually disappeared, possibly in the hands of a collector of odds and ends, of any kind.

Tricia convinced her energetic and adventurous father, Harvey Colbert, a successful business man, to buy the property from the town, at a cheap price and its guaranteed clean-up. He readily agreed, spending time getting rid of debris, finding in the stone wall cellar another but smaller L-shaped room in one corner with a puzzling 3 foot by 3-foot wooden door a foot off the floor. He assumed it to be a crawl-through passage. The door was heavily charred but fell apart with one swing of a sledge hammer.

He was surprised again, by flashlight, to see the floor of the enclosure littered with all kinds of tools (chisels, hammers, ratchets, wrenches, iron pry bars, bludgeons of all sorts, etc.), and sitting there stolid as a monk on its 4 wheels was a mobile bank vault or safe, yet massive to him. His daughter’s investigation of a clearly exposed serial number revealed it to have been stolen from a bank in Peoria, Illinois in 1935, all of 30 years earlier and not a word of it heard since then.

The portable vault, easily identified by maker’s name and serial number, was made by the Diebold Safe Company in 1898, a company founded in 1859 by Charles Diebold, and originally known as the Diebold Bahmann Company, once located in Cincinnati, Ohio, manufacturer of safes and vaults. Twelve years later, that company received a splurge of advertisement and popularity when it was reported all 878 Diebold safes caught in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 had kept secure and intact all their contents. It was a blessing in disguise, as it might be said, from scratch, one would guess, of a single match.

Tricia, of a certainty, was off and running again.

Her father kept the vault’s history, as it grew, within the family folds while his daughter pushed on with her research, though he had knocked the scarred door down, an obvious crawler’s entryway into the mysterious inner room.

Tricia determined the vault had been the property of the Pontiac Savings Bank, in Peoria, and was stolen intact from the bank, through a break-in during a night in 1935. The passage was made through an entry provided in a single night’s work by an attached supposed store construction. a fraudulent effort, no longer worked on, never completed, and no records available of any such construction company.

But it was apparent the vault was wheeled out of the bank and not carried, through that break-in passage just large enough to accommodate the vault, taken through the bogus construction site and toted out of state by truck for placement in the cellar of the rural cabin and roomed into a corner behind a new wall built for, as we might say, safe-keeping. It had a self-service door for entry of the erstwhile safecrackers who never succeeded breaking the code or breaking down the vault door. On one wall of the enclosure was a list of checked-off numerical/alphabetical entry codes attempted over the years to open the vault… failures by the hundreds.

Tricia also discovered that the vault might have contained $335,000 in U. S. bills, intended for distribution by the bank for other on-going construction efforts as the area was trying to rise from Depression ashes. She also imagined, with uncanny certainty, how the vault was wheeled through a good-sized hole in the wall of the bank, through the bogus construction site, directly by planks into a truck for transportation to, obviously, its current location.

The following data came to light, and ended up in her notes (at which her father pored over, endlessly fascinated.)

From the beginning, Diebold safes used either mortar or plaster of Paris as their fireproofing material. Although there were a few safe manufacturing companies that began using asbestos as their fireproofing material in the early 1900s, there is no record of the Diebold Company being one of them.

Diebold made improvements on their products which included fillings of franklinite, the hardest mineral ore known at the time containing zinc and manganese, fillings made from a combination of alum, alkali and clay, and reinforced with soft steel rods running horizontally and vertically. Outer side walls were made of heavy boiler plate wrought iron. Inner side walls were made of hardened steel. Diebold continually worked to keep contents out of the hands of bank robbers. Several of the company's developments included a triple time lock system on safes in the 1870s, the eventual Cannonball Safe design and the introduction of TNT-proof manganese steel doors in 1890. This latter effort brought Diebold ahead of the newer technically-hip robbers growing by leaps and bounds in the landscape of thievery.

Not disturbed in any way by her new knowledge, except the completion of her notes, Tricia Colbert accepted the delay in notifying the bank of the discovery. “There’s no hurry, is there, Dad, after all this time, and whatever’s in there is still theirs. I don’t imagine a few more days will bother them, though the regular dollar is sure worth more money today. Well, that won’t be part of my article. Let the bank or its insurers figure that out, if it hasn’t been done years ago.”

“You go ahead and take your time, Tricia, and I’ll make sure the vault is moved to another safe house,” at which he laughed uproariously, as much to his own pleasure as well as his daughter’s.

When it all came to light in a magazine article under her name and the first payment in her writing career, she also received a reward from the bank of an unrevealed amount, when an armored truck pulled into the second safe house to carry away the vault and its contents intact as yet.

Tricia Colbert’s career as a writer is on-going, which includes her fifth article on a popular series, “The Jackhammer Mysteries,” and the robber who survived the cabin fire, Adam Norbert, has remained among the missing to this day. Tricia never had a single lead on him, else she’d have been the hound dog on his trail.

 

Bio note: Sheehan served in 31st Infantry, Korea 1951-52, graduated Boston College 1956, published 32 books, multiple works in Rosebud, Literally Stories, Linnet’s Wings, Copperfield Review, Eastlit, Frontier Tales, DM du Jour, etc. He’s received 33 Pushcart nominations, 5 Best of Net nominations, sundry other awards. Books include Beside the Broken Trail Epic Cures (an Indie Award); Brief Cases, Short Spans; A Collection of Friends; and From the Quickening.  Four books are in production cycle at Pocol Press (Between Mountain and River; Catch a Wagon to a Star; Alone, with the Good Graces; and Jock Poems and Reflections for Proper Bostonians.)

 

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