Beyond the Western
The Matter of the In-Seine Harbor Caper
Steve Levi  


Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was an avid bowler. Not devoted in the sense he was in a weekly league but, rather, an enthusiast for the tumbling ten pins for the simple reason one did not have to retrieve a bowling ball thrown or set up pins for the next frame. It was the perfect gentlemen’s sport and, even more important, it was a sport in which competitors were left in silence during the critical seconds of the shot. No kibitzing allowed which, to the “Bearded Holmes,” meant he would not be answering the electronic tool of Satan for an evening thus leaving his wife and the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security to ‘sort out their own problems.’

Alas, the greatest disturber of a crime fighter’s life is not difficulties coming in the front door; it is suspicious circumstances oozing over a transom or slithering in through a crawl space vent. Noonan had been bowling a perfect 189, an average game even on his best night, when one of his bowling mates, an investigator from Manteo, laughingly told Noonan of an odd theft of bowling balls. “A thousand pounds of them,” he said with a snort. “Got 300 pounds back and they were all 12 pounders. Guess there’s a women’s league out there who’ll never have to rent another ball.”

A distant bell pealed softly in a deep chasm of his mind.

This was his kind of case!

Someone stealing bowling balls?!

Please!

“What was that, Charly?” Noonan tried to act casual. “Someone stole 700 pounds of bowling balls? Why’d they do that?”

“Who knows,” came the reply. “It’s your kind of a case, Heinz. You know, the ‘odd, unusual, impossible.’ Give Rufus Samaniego with the State Troopers in Lumberton. I’m sure he’d love to talk to you.”

As it turned out, Captain Samaniego was more than happy to talk to Noonan. “Frankly, Captain, . . .”

“Heinz. Until there’s a crime, I’m Heinz.”

“Well, there is a crime.”

“Your crime, not mine. I’m still just an interested party.”

“Whatever. I wanted to call you but saying someone stole 70 bowling balls sounds like a gag call.”

“But someone did steal 70 bowling balls.”
“Pretty sure. They’re gone and the insurance company is hopping made. They don’t have the balls and the distributor doesn’t have the balls and we haven’t found ‘em so I guess you could say they were stolen.”

“Any idea why?”

“That’s what I was going to ask you but I thought you’d think I was giving you a crank call.”

“All the calls I get are crank calls, Captain. Give me what you’ve got.”

“Not much, Heinz. A truck container of bowling balls disappeared out of a transfer yard in Greenville. The container was supposed to be there in the transfer yard but it wasn’t. After a search of the yard turned up nothing, the trucking company followed the paperwork back to the incoming rail line. All the paperwork was in order so we have to assume there’s a forgery someplace. We’ll find it sooner or later. But right now we’re missing about 70 ten-pound bowling balls.”

“I was told some of the balls showed up.”

“Yeah. Odd thing about it. The balls come in crates. The balls we found were 12 pounders and up. None of the lighter ones.”

“How light can bowling balls be?”

“They vary from six to 16 pounds. All we got were the ones over 10 pounds.”

“Where’d you find them?”

“We didn’t. Some kids did. Dug them out of crates that had been abandoned along in a field off 264 east of Pactolus. Took some of them home. Parents figured something was fishy and called us. We found the crates and what was left of the larger balls in a vacant lot. Too many tire tracks and footprints to do us much good. Lotta rain.”

“But you figure you’re missing about 70 small bowling balls.”

“Give or take. Now let me ask you: what’s going on?”

“I really don’t know,” Noonan said. “Let me think about and get back with you.”

* * *

Whenever Noonan hit a mental roadblock, he went to his favorite means of coming at the problem from a new angle: history and the newspaper. History, as he knew, was not the story of the past. It was the study of the future. As it turned out, Pactolus, the nearest city to the theft of the bowling balls, was small but it had an ironic history.

The name Pactolus sounded historically familiar and when Noonan pulled it up on Wikipedia, he remembered why. The Pactolus River in Lydia was the source of that empire’s wealth. It was the river which ran through the heart of Sardis was packed with an alloy of silver and gold allowing Lydia to be the first empire to coin money. King Midas freed himself of the golden curse by washing in the Pactolus River and Croesus derived his fortune from the same watershed.

The North Carolina Pactolus was not so wealthy. It was a town of a few more than 8,000 with just two foreign-born residents that year. It had a ghost which walks the railroad with a lantern, a go-cart park and two directions to get out of town, east and west, on Highway 264.

The town was established before the American Revolution, in 1770, by a teacher named Lincoln – who clearly knew his ancient history. It took 60 years for the United States Post Office to ‘get around’ to establishing a post office in the community. But to its credit, a school beat the USPO to Pactolus – Jordan Plains Academy – and was seven decades ahead of the United States when it came to the equality of women. In 1849, the Midway Male and Female Academy was established in town. Prohibition split the town, just like it did America and a century later, and to this day, Pactolus was still an eye-scratching town. (If you scratched your eye as you passed through the city, you would miss it.)

But there was economic promise in the neighborhood. Located equidistance between Greenville and Washington, it was also close to Tar River. A sizeable investment by a hedge fund billionaire had turned a mile of the river into a boating paradise. In addition to a number of fueling stations and a half dozen docks, there was a modest nightclub/restaurant/museum/Four Star hotel/ grocery store. It was the ideal getaway location for the well-heeled – or in this case, well-yachted – because it could be reached by powerboat from east or west from both Greenville and Washington. Predictably, as the amenities went in, the number of second homes along the riverbank – both sides – erupted onto the landscape. The dock drew so many boats the United States Coast Guard had a contingent in the so-named Pamlico Marina – even though the Pamlico River was a dozen miles to the east.

What particularly intrigued Noonan was the write-up on the Burney Museum, modestly named by and after Wilfred Jonathan Burney, the hedge fund billionaire who had founded and funded the museum. The Burney Museum had a spread of antiquities but of particular interest to Noonan was the exotic diamond collection Burney had collected over the years around the world.

The bell in Noonan’s brain clanged faintly.

But was there a connection between 70 bowling balls and the diamond collection? There had to be. Noonan put little stock in coincidence. The bowling balls had been stolen in the vicinity. There was a diamond collection in the vicinity. Now all he had to do was make the connection between the two.

* * *

To say Captain Rufus Samaniego was surprised when he got the call from Noonan would be an understatement.

“You’ve solved the theft of the bowling ball?!”

“Maybe. I can’t solve the crime; all I can do is come up with an educated guess. Ever been commercial fishing?”

“I do all my fishing at the grocery store. No, I’ve never been commercial fishing.”

“Try it sometime. It’s quite educational. I did it in Alaska. Once. Three days on a seiner. Something I would not do again but it was educational.”

“And you are telling me this because . . . “

“Do you know what a seiner is?”

“A big net. Like on the back of a boat.”

“Close enough. A seiner is a boat with, you’re correct, a big net. For a purse seiner, a net is dropped on one side of a school of fish. Then the boat circles the school of fish slowly letting out the net. After the boat has gone completely around the school of fish, the two ends of the net are attached. Then a cable along the bottom of the net is pulled taut. The bottom of the net closes and the fish are caught in what is called the purse. That’s why it is called a purse seiner.”

“OK. What does this have to do with the bowling balls?”

“It’s my guess the bowling balls are part of a robbery scheme. The bandits are going to steal the diamond collection from the Burney Museum on the Tar River just outside of Pactolus.”

“What’s the part of the bowling balls? I’m having a hard time following this.”

“I’m guessing, and it’s just a guess, the thieves expect to steal the diamond collection. The moment they have the diamonds they will have less than five minutes to make their getaway. Pactolus only has about six police officers and the nearest State Trooper is going to be in either Greenville or Washington, both about ten miles away. At top speed, that’s ten minutes. The closest law enforcement agency is the United States Coast Guard. It has a collection of boats there in the Pamlico Marina. The minute the alarm is raised, the Coast Guard will be on the thieves in a matter of moments, not minutes.”

“Again, what does this have to do with the bowling balls?”

Noonan was nonplussed. “The way I see it, the thieves have to stop the Coast Guard from following them. The thieves are going to have to escape with the loot by boat. They cannot go into the Pamlico Marina. They are going to have to speed away up or down the Tar River. Either way the Coast Guard will follow. So the thieves will drag the 70 bowling balls in a seine net to the entrance to the Pamlico Marina. The moment the robbery is in progress, the thieves will open the seine net. This bowling balls will clog the entrance to the Marina. The Coast Guard will not be able to get out and the thieves will make their getaway.”

“What? How are bowling balls on the bottom of the Pamlico Marina going to stop the Coast Guard?”

“Because bowling balls weighing less than 12 pounds will float. That’s why the thieves only took the ten-pound bowling balls. They knew for a fact 10-pounders would float so they dumped all the bowling balls over 10 pounds. Now they have 70 floating balls to keep the Coast Guard in the Pamlico Marina. Again, they will only need about five minutes to get away.”

“But where will they go in five minutes? We’ll be on them after that.”

“My guess, they have a home or hideout of some kind on the shoreline. They only have to get a few minutes head start on the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard will be in the Pamlico Marina. Depending on where the Burney Museum is, the Coast Guard might not even know if the thieves are traveling up or down the river. Again, all the thieves need is about four minutes.”

“If you are right, and I am having a hard time believing bowling balls float, . . .”

“If they are less than 12 pounds,” Noonan cut in.

“If they are less than 12 pounds,” Samaniego repeated. “How do we stop this crime?”

“Easy,” Noonan said. “Have the Coast Guard station one of their boats outside the Pamlico Marina. I don’t know if the Coast Guard has undercover boats, or whatever they are called, but a boat that doesn’t have the Coast Guard symbol on it. When the robbery occurs, have that boat follow the thieves wherever they go.”

“How will the Coast Guard know which boat to follow? I mean, there are probably a lot of boats out there on the Tar River.”

“True. Have the Burney Museum hide a tracking device in the diamond collection. When it goes, the bug goes with the gems. They might have one in the collection already.”

There was a long moment of silence then Samaniego said, “I still don’t believe bowling balls will float but I’ll contact the Burney Museum.”

* * *

Three days later Noonan was sitting in his office when his Administrative Assistant, Harriett, dropped a newspaper on his desk.

“You wouldn’t know anything about this bowling ball caper, would you?”

With a look of absolute innocence, he said “Me? Why should I?”

“Two reasons,” she snarled with fake humor. “First, it’s typical of your odd crimes and second, his majesty on the third floor,” she said as she let her eyes drift up to the ceiling indicating the office of the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security on the third floor, “is taking all the credit.”

“No surprise there.”

“I didn’t know bowling balls would float.”

“Common knowledge, Harriett. If it is on Wikipedia, it’s common knowledge.”

“His lordship,” again her eyes to the third floor – but not beyond – “has no idea what Wikipedia is or, as a matter of fact, ‘common knowledge.’”

“Someone had to take the credit and he did.”

“In a heartbeat. I guess bowling is one of those sports where you don’t have to listen too hard to hear a pin drop.”

“Harriett, it’s right up you alley.”

“Spare me,” she snapped as she walked out of Noonan’s office.