Beyond the Western
Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was enjoying a day on the beach at Buxton. He was purposefully in Buxton because it was close enough to Sandersonville to be responsive to an emergency but far enough ‘afield’ not to be bothered by the usual bureaucratic paperwork offal which was required to be filled out before the end of each fiscal year. As the end of this fiscal year was approaching and his lordship, the high and mighty Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, had declared he was going to do the ‘yearend’ because it had been so badly done the previous year, it was wise for everyone in the office to be ‘on duty’ out of the office. (The Commissioner, to set the record straight, was in error when he claimed the previous year’s ‘yearend’ had been “badly done.” In fact, it had not been done at all. And the previous year’s ‘yearend’ had been a copy of the previous years’ ‘yearend’ with the dates changed. Staff was the same, duty was the same, and only the budget changed in the sense the Commissioner was asking for more money next year, the reason he was doing the ‘yearend.’)
All was going well until a woman in her 30s dressed like a cross between a janitor and a storm trooper accosted him even though he was chaise lounged.
“Captain Noonan,” she said without a scintilla of shyness. “We’ve got to talk.”
“Never heard of him,” Noonan said vacantly. “You’re in my sunshine.”
“No, no, no. Hey, don’t butter my butt and call me a biscuit. It is you. I’ve got a photo to prove it.” She hoisted the annual photograph of the Sandersonville Police Department taken five years previously and, subsequently, annually, placed in the yearends. “Besides, Harriet knows where you hang out. Don’t make her angry. You know how she gets.” The woman did not have to let the sentence hang.
“Ah,” Noonan said sadly. “And my day off.”
“Well, bless your pea-pickin’ heart. First, it is not your day off. Second, you are still on duty, just out of town. Three, I’m giving you an excuse to stay off duty and out of town because I have the Commissioner’s cell phone number in my IPhone memory.” It was a soft threat punctuated with her holding up her electronic Beelzebub.
Noonan knew when he was beaten. “OK, maybe I am Captain Noonan. Who are you?”
“Maria Vasquez Leander from Sandersonville Middle School.”
“Maria Leander, quite a mix of ethnicities.”
She didn’t bat an eye. “My maiden name was Polansky. My first husband was Vasquez. It was too hard to change all my credit cards and records so I kept Vasquez when he died. The Sandersonville Middle School has another Vasquez so, since I was remarried to Harold Leander, I became Mrs. Leander.”
“OK. Now, why are you here?”
“160 feet of Christmas lighting from the school has disappeared.”
Noonan kind of chuckled. “I hate to tell you, Mrs. Leander, . . .”
“Works for me. Maria, it’s the middle of June. What are Christmas lights doing up on a school in June?”
“The lights were taken from the school’s storage room.”
“Any idea why?”
“That’s your job. Mine is to track you down. I’ve done my job.”
“Does your principal know about the theft.”
“Yup, I do.”
* * * *
Sandersonville Middle School was exactly like every other middle school in America: ancient, in need of repair and incredibly loud every 51 minutes. Contrary to what ‘Maria’ had told Noonan, the school did not have a “storage room.” It had a “storage closet” in each room. As a consequences, it did not have a “storage person” but multiple persons who were responsible for the storage closets in their individual rooms. None had the time to speak with Noonan for longer than four minutes each because, on cue, thereafter their classrooms were jam packed to the architectural safe limit of persons per room. Worse yet, it was June. Early June. Everyone from secretary to kindergarten student was looking forward to three months of school’s out for the summer!!!!!
The only person who was wiling and available to talk was a substitute teacher who was spending her teacher’s “planning period” in the teacher’s lounge.
“What’s a ‘planning period?’” Noonan asked.
“It’s when the regular teacher has one class period off to plan for the day. It’s pretty standard.”
“Just in teaching,” Noonan said snidely.
“Get a better union,” the substitute replied snidely. “Do you know what it’s like teaching 36 kids an hour for six hours during the day?”
“I had two for 24 hours a day and that was enough.”
“No, you had two for six hours a day. The rest of time they were sleeping or here,” she said and indicated Sandersonville Middle School with a twirl of her index finger.
“Point well taken,” Noonan said. Again, he knew he had lost the argument. “Do you have a moment for a few questions?”
“Christmas lights, I’ll bet.”
Noonan was shocked. “How do you know that?”
The substitute smiled, a cross between sickly and knowledgeable. “Captain, it is captain isn’t it?”
“How’d you know that,” asked Noonan still shocked.
“Captain, if you really want to know what goes on in a school, don’t talk to the principal or the teachers. Talk to the substitutes. We don’t have a dog in the fight. We’re here until we go someplace else. We know the politics but don’t have to get involved in the politics, if you know what I mean.”
“I can guess. OK, I’ll bite. What do you know?”
“You’re looking for Mrs. Leander’s 160 feet of Christmas lights.”
‘You are amazingly well informed.”
“No, I’m a good listener. Everyone is. She wants to know what happened to those lights.”
“Why should she care?”
“Budget time. Every dollar counts. If she has to rebuy 160 feet of Christmas lights, the purchase has to come out of some other line item in the budget.”
“We are not talking about much. 160 feet of Christmas lights are under $100.”
“Aaah, Captain! You have to learn to think like a principal. It’s not the money that counts; it’s the principle, excuse the pun.”
“So, what’s the ‘don’t look behind the curtain’ secret you are hinting at?”
“Krakens? What are they?”
“Captain, American education is in a sinkhole. In a swamp. We are not educating students; we are boring them. Education is not run by schoolboards or PTAs or principals. It’s managed by the big-name education publishers. The ones who print the textbooks and the workbooks and the true/false tests. That’s where the money is. I would have guessed you would have figured that out. Just like in the cops and robbers show on television, you follow the money. It’s the same here.”
Noonan shook his head like a cartoon character trying to understand an un-understandable line or action onscreen. “What does any of these have to do with krakens, whatever they are.”
At that moment the bell/buzzer/alarm/chime – depending on which floor of the Sandersonville Middle School one happened to be on – ran/buzzed/rang/chimed.
“I’ve got to go.” The substitute gathered her books and assignment sheet and headed for the door.
“About the krakens?” Noonan asked to her back.
The substitute did not bother to turn around. With her back still to him, she raised her left arm, waggled a finger and said, “Seek and ye shall find.”
Then she was gone.
Seeking was what Noonan was doing. It was the finding that was proving difficult. But he did have a clue: kraken. So, when you have no other clues, you go with what you have. But what he had made no sense. Kraken, depending on how it was spelled, was a giant squid from Scandinavian folklore, a method to extract natural gas from the ground, a fissure in a rock formation or the breaking of a code. There were no squids in Sandersonville -- possibly some retired Navy personnel – and there was no natural gas deposits on the Outer Banks. There were some rock outcroppings near Sandersonville but they were small. That left the breaking, cracking, of a code. His next stop was the computer teacher at the middle school.
He got zip.
From three scientist teachers he also go zip. So much for natural gas, rocks and computer codes.
That left the squid; the sea creature, not the derogatory reference to Navy personnel.
There were two science teachers. One was so young Noonan doubted she could buy cigarettes. She could but didn’t. Noonan knew because she had a small WWJD on her desk. She was polite but knew nothing about cephalopods. Her expertise was in the fields of physics, chemistry and mathematics. The other teacher, a biologist, was old enough have known Charles Darwin personally. He, Secondo Sacerdote, had no problem talking with Noonan.
“Secondo,” Noonan said to break the ice. “Is that a second or to be second in Italian or Spanish?”
“Yes for Italian; no for Spanish. In Spanish, second is segundo. My first name is neither. My father was a pianist and secondo is part of a piano duet. The secondo plays on the lower half of the keyboard. The person who plays on the upper half of the keyboard is called the primo. In the case of my sister, the feminine of primo is prima.”
“Interesting,” Noonan said. Then he added, “What can you tell me about krakens?”
The biologist did not bat an eye. “Large, mythical, elusive and Scandinavian.”
“Live in deep water and can be as big as a school bus.”
“Any reason you know so much about krakens?”
“Aaaah,” said the biologist. “The missing Christmas lights! They have come back to haunt me.”
“That was quick,” Noonan said slowly. “I have even mentioned them.”
“Not all teachers are stumblebums, Captain.”
“And you know I am with the police, does it show?”
“No. It’s just part of the overall, so to speak. The plan not jeans. You need to talk with the KCC.”
“Kraken Camera Cadre. A group of middle school students intent on capturing the giant squid on film. iPhone actually.”
“Really?” Noonan didn’t know what else to say. “And what does this have to do with Christmas lights?”
“Aaaah,” the biologist repeated. “All I know is the Christmas lights are now where they are supposed to be.” He let a wide grin sweep over his face. “Why don’t you talk with the KCC about lighting?”
Noonan took the bait. “All right, and where can I find the KCC?”
The biologist looked at the clock on the wall. “Well, in about two minutes, they’ll be right here.”
As it turned out, the KCC, the Kraken Camera Cadre, was a group of six middle school students, half and half, male and female, who looked pretty much like every other collection of six middle school students. Until they opened their mouths. They were obsessed with the giant squid.
“My father has a deep-sea fishing boat,” one of sextet said with enthusiasm. “We’re going to use his boat. It’s the perfect craft to photograph the kraken.”
“You’re going to photograph a giant squid?” Noonan was clearly confused. “I thought they lived deep in the water. About a 1,000 feet down. And not even here.”
“No one knows where they aren’t,” chirped one of the girls. “We think we can capture one on a cellphone here.” She leaned toward Noonan and said conspiratorially, “We have a secret plan!”
There was immediately an uproar within the group of six for “releasing the secret.” The girl who had just spoken looked at the groups and said, “Hey! He’s a cop. He can’t tell anyone!”
Noonan smelled an answer to his quest for the stolen Christmas lights. “Let me guess. You are going to lure the giant squid with Christmas light and take it’s picture.”
“OOoohhh,” said one of the boys. “He’s already figured it out.”
Noonan was still confused. “Just a minute. You can’t use Christmas lights in water. Even if you could, a 1,000 feet is a long way down. There’s a lot of pressure there. Tons per square inch. The moment the lights get down, say 200 feet, they’re all going to pop.”
“Absolutely,” said another of the girls. “That’s why we have special lights, string lights, encased lights . . . “
“Reinforced,” snapped one of the boys. “Tripled reinforced because of the pressure down there.”
“And all different colored lights,” said one of the girls who had not yet spoken. “That’s sure to attract the kraken. It’d never seen colored lights.”
“Or even lights,” snapped the last boy who had yet to speak.
“Well how about the IPhone,” Noonan asked. “Won’t the pressure affect the IPhone?”
“Why should it,” said the first girl. “It doesn’t have any tubes or bulbs.”
“How are you going to know when the take the picture,” Noonan said and then added, “if the lights say alive that far down?”
The last boy to have spoken gave Noonan the ‘ah shucks’ look and then said. “You adults! You use IPhones but don’t know how to really use them. 1,200 feet is not that deep. 400 yards. Almost one run around a football field. We’ll link the iPhone with a monitor on the boat. When the kraken approaches the flashing colored lights, BINGO!, we get out photo.”
Noonan didn’t know what to say. Finally he asked, where’d you get the string lights to lure the kraken?”
At that point, the biologist entered the conversation. He shoed the KCC off to a corner of the room and then pulled Noonan aside. “What string lights?”
Noonan smelled the rat. “Let me guess, someone ordered special lights for the experiment but those lights could not be ordered because they were not on the list of acceptable items for a school to purchase.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” the biologist said looking at the ceiling tiles.
“So,” Noonan continued, “the lights were ordered and listed as Christmas lights. Assuming – and correctly would be my guess – the string lights to photograph the kraken will be lost, destroyed or unusable, they will be written off as a loss. But, if an auditor were to look at the books too carefully, it might be discovered those Christmas lights were quite expensive and want to see them. And I’ll bet those Christmas lights were not bought in November.”
The biologist raised both hands shoulder high, his palms upraised in the very motion Noonan used when his in laws wanted something ‘unusual.’ It was Noonan’s way of acquiescing and indicating his true feeling: whatever.
“But,” Noonan continued. “Let us suppose the Christmas lights disappeared. The auditor would never get a chance to see the lights. And the loss would be reflected in a jumble of numbers of the yearend report.”
“Aaaah,” the biologist repeated. “Education is expensive.”
“But well worth the expense.”
* * *
“Well, I must say, the forces of law and order do work quickly, “ Principal Leander said when Noonan entered her office.
“It’s been a terrible day,” Noonan said as he sat down. “Why I searched high and low for those Christmas lights. It appears they have up and vanished.”
“A shame,” Leander said. “A shame for that to have happened. You will, of course, give me some paperwork to put in my yearend report?”
“Absolutely,” Noonan said. “And when you see Harriet, tell her she was successful.”
“How’s that?” Leander said with faux innocence.
“I wrote the police report because I had been squidnapped.”