Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Ownerless, Unclaimed, Undriveable Conveyances
Steve Levi

Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was in a melancholy funk as he looked out the window of his office at his rusted, rattletrap, 1967 Chevelle. They had been partners for years. How long and many miles Noonan did not know because the odometer had been restarted twice and was now frozen at 75,864 miles. It – the vehicle not the odometer – had, again, long since given up the ghost, (if automobiles have ghosts), and had just enough breath – assuming, again, vehicles have breath – to make it to the junk yard. Noonan was loathe to let his longtime purveyor of horsepower go as they had been close associates since his college days where it, again the vehicle, had a mere 77,845 miles on the odometer. After his stint in the United States Army, he had moved back to Sandersonville where the car had been housed (‘Housed?’ Noonan mused.) in his parents’ garage. Then they – Heinz and his car – had been reunited and never parted.

Until today.

When they were going their separate ways.

One of the twins was going to skipper the faithful beast of metal, gas and oil, to its final resting place, or, at least, it’s dismantling place, in Nags Head.

If the auto could make it that far.

Just in case it could not, the other of Noonan twins would be on hand in another car with a cable to ‘assist’ in the funerary procession. No last rites were scheduled to be performed.

Noonan, in this case the captain, was watching his beast of burden depart on its final leg – or, in the case of car, it’s final tire – when Harriet, his administrative assistant and the office common sense guru, rudely broke into his silent lamentations with a riddle: “How do you get 10 cubic yards of metal in a Kevlar bubble to float?”

It took Noonan more than a moment of reflection before he replied, “Do they even make Kevlar bubbles?”

“Don’ know,” snapped Harriet. “Why don’t you ask the woman on Line Two?”
* * *

“Noonan,” the captain said with lament leaving his psyche. “What can I do for you?”

“This is Captain Heinz Noonan, correct? The ‘Bearded Holmes?’”

“Better be. I’m wearing his uniform.”

“Sorry. I don’t want to be appear rude. I have a problem that isn’t a crime but still needs an explanation. I was hoping . . .”

Noonan sighed. “It has long been my experience that acts which need explanation usually turn out to be associated with crimes.” He dug around in his desk drawer for a notebook. “I’m ready when you are.”

“This is Kanesha Washington. I’m the Chief of Police in Duncan, California. We’re a little town in the Napa-Sonoma counties area in California.”

“OK. What can I do for you?”

“Well, it’s not what you can do for me. It’s just an explanation of what’s happening. We have an unusual situation which may or may not be illegal but cannot be resolved, legally or otherwise, is jurisdictionally freakish so we do not want to just sit and wait for whatever is going to happen to happen.”

“Humm. That’s going to take some explaining.”

“Do you have time for the explaining?”
Noonan opened his notebook to a blank page. “Go for it.”

A satisfied sigh leached down the phone line, “I’m relieved you’ve taking an interest in our case.”

“With a intro like yours, how could I resist?”

Washington chuckled. “OK. Here’s what we know for a fact. A rich, eccentric hoarder died two months ago and the city has been cleaning out his home. He left no will and what money he did have in the bank was taken by the State of California to be held for any heirs who come forward.”

“How much did he leave?”

“A million, seven. So there will be heirs.”

“You got that right.”

“I don’t want to use the term mansion to describe his home because it would imply a living space where people actually enjoyed their wealth. And I would not call it a warehouse because that would imply order. The closest I can come to describe the structure is an indoor junkyard. This guy hoarded everything that had no value.”

“Such as?”

“Beanie Babies, Pokémon trading cards, Pogs, marbles, broken furniture, dirty towels, used drink coasters, small quartz stones, unused chop sticks to name a few. We are not talking about any valuable items here.”

“Lots of them?”

“Chockablock. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, hallway to garage and attic to crawl space. The only space not piled high was the couch where he slept and a pathway to the bathroom.”

“Quite the collector.”

“He was born in Duncan so he’s been doing it his entire life.”

“Did he ever work?”

“Nope. Born to money and died with it.”

“Lucky man. No wife and kids?”

“Not that we know of.”

“Go on.”

“We really didn’t know if there was a health hazard because there was so much stuff in the home. So we contracted with a removal service. Everything that was clearly garbage went to dump. Anything of value was warehoused here in Duncan.”

“Was there anything of value?”

“Not really. An appraiser oversaw the removal of, well, the junk. She didn’t see anything worth saving. No antiques, ancient silverware. The only thing of value were a dozen Thomas Kinkade Paintings.”

“Kinkade? The ‘painter of light’ guy?”

“Right. He was on TV for a while and his paintings sold for thousands. But that was in the 1960s and 1970s. Along came the Internet and anyone could buy his work. He printed and printed and printed his artwork and you know the law of economics. As the volume goes up, the price comes down. The appraiser said the paintings were worth about $30 apiece. The City of Duncan bought all of them for $200 and placed them in public buildings. That solved the problem of storing them for the heirs.”

“So there was nothing of value?”

“We stored nothing.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Here it comes. When the excavators, and that’s how we referred to them, got into the garage they found a mound of hot wheels.”

“You mean the little cars?”

“Right. Matchbook type cars. Small.”

“In boxes? Like collector’s items?”

“Nope. Just tossed into a mound. A modern archeological Tell. He must have been obsessed with the miniatures. We bet he snagged every hot wheels he could find at every flea markets, yard sales, whatever. Bought what he could and tossed them into the pile in his garage.”

“How many are we talking about?”

“Half a dumpster. Say, five or six cubic yards.”

“No collector items?”

“Doubtful. Even if there were one or two valuable ones, we’d never find them. I mean, we are talking thousands and thousands of hot wheels.”

“This is going somewhere?”

“Yes, sir, Captain.”

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

“OK, Heinz. You wanted to know how many hot wheels there were. Three steam shovel bucket loads. They were stacked against a garage door that had not been opened since the Battle of New Orleans. We got the garage door up and scooped the hot wheels directly into a dumpster.”

“And you are telling me this because ……”

“Because someone stole all of the hot wheels from the dumpster.”

* * *

Noonan wrote ‘Hot Wheels’ in his notebook with a large question mark after it. “Stole? As in taken without your permission?”

“That’s the best verb I can use. We didn’t give anyone permission to take the hot wheels and the solid waste company told us the dumpster was empty when they arrived to remove the trash. There’s not a crime here. Stealing garbage is not a crime. We don’t know who took the hot wheels but we do know where they ended up.”

“I’m waiting with baited breath.”

“Stay away from worms. The next part of the story requires a bit of explanation. Duncan, our city, was built adjacent to the foothills of the California Coast Range Mountains.”

“The mountains which run along the coast of California.”

“Right. The western edge of Duncan is in the foothills. We were originally founded as a California Gold Rush community because of the creeks and streams which flooded out of the Coast Ranges. That water was used to wash gold pans and run down long toms and sluices. The original city was at the bottom of a valley.”

“Original city?”

“Right. The original city of Duncan is now at the bottom of a lake, A massive dam was built at the eastern end of the valley. For water and power for San Francisco. In the 1950s. The original town is still there, just under 250 feet of water.”

“This story is going somewhere?”

“Absolutely. Even before the dam was built there was a water problem in the Duncan area. Too much of it. I know this is hard to believe. Particularly in California. As it is, Duncan Lake is one of the largest manmade lakes in California. The water in the lake comes from rain and snow runoff from the eastern slope of the Coast Range mountains.”

“Too much water. In California. That’s a first.” Noonan mumbled as wrote the fact in his notebook.

“To solve the problem of too much water, the dam has a glory hole.”

“What’s a glory hole?”

“It’s a standalone chimney, so to speak. It’s 250 feet tall and 70 feet across on the surface of the water. It slims down 20 feet at the bottom. When the water gets too high in the lake behind the dam, the water flows into the glory hole and is flushed out into a river basin below the dam.”

“How often does that happen?”
“Every year. If the glory hole wasn’t there the lake water would rise another 15 feet. Flood over the dam. Possibly even take the dam out. That’s why the glory hole is there.”

“OK. What does this have to do with the missing hot wheels.”

“I’m glad you asked. Right after the hot wheels went missing, four large, black balloon-like structures appeared on Duncan Lake. We sent a boat out to examine the bubbles. Turns out they are made of Kevlar. We couldn’t get one open but we could feel what was inside.”

“And you found the missing hot wheels.” Noonan said flatly.

“Yup. We figure a ton and half of them.”

“What’s keeping the Kevlar afloat?”

“We don’t know. Now, here’s the problem.”

“I still have baited breath.”

“Legally we cannot do anything about the bubbles. They are private property. We don’t know who owns them but we know we don’t. They are not on city property. And the State of California which owns the northern shore of the lake can do nothing about the bubbles because the bubbles are not on State of California property. The Indian reservation which has the land on the southern shore of Duncan Lake can do nothing because the bubbles have not floated ashore. The United States government can do nothing because the bubbles are not a hazard to navigation. Duncan Lake is on the border of both Napa and Sonoma County and there is no provision or mechanism to handle items which float across the dividing line.”

“Legally interesting,” Noonan said.

Washington continued. “For public safety we put a floating boom around the bubbles so they are corralled against the cement side of the glory hole. We did not want them to become an attractive nuisance. So, my question to you, is ‘What’s going on here? And what can we do about it?’”

“Good question,” Noonan said as he wrote a number of questions on his notebook page. “Let me see what I can do for you. But first I need some more information. I’ve got some questions for you. Have a pen?
“Computer’s on.”

“How big are the bubbles, how do you know they are made of Kevlar, what is the historical high water mark for Duncan Lake, what is the historical low water mark for Duncan Lake, how many docks are along the lake, are there any businesses along the shoreline, is there a rail line of any kind along the shoreline, have there been any new industrial operations in the area, when was the last time anyone made money on gold mining in the area, have the bubbles affected any recreation on the lake, has anyone said they owned the bubbles, has anyone claimed the bubble as salvage and that’s all I can think of right now. Give me a call back when you have all of the answers.”

“Will do.”

* * *

Whenever Noonan was presented with his so-called loo loo calls, he plumbed two, tried

and true avenues of research: history and local newspapers. In this case, the history of the city was easy. Even Noonan knew who Isadora Duncan was and the detective didn’t know a tutu from a royal flush. But Noonan did not know Isadora Duncan had been born in San Francisco, which made her a bonafide Californian. When she was an infant her father had been “exposed,” using the term in Wikipedia, to illegal bank dealings and went broke. Her parents divorced and she went with her mother to Oakland. Isadora and her siblings added to the family’s support by teaching dance to the local children. When she got older she moved to New York where she became part of a theater company. Disillusioned with American theater, she moved to London in 1898 and toured Europe with resounding success. She returned to the United States in 1914 and opened a studio in New York.

After the First World War, Duncan was offered the opportunity to open a dance school in Russia. She went but did not stay long as the funding promised by the Russian government never came through. From then until her death in 1927, her life was downward, whirling black hole. She had two children out of wedlock, scandalized Americans by proclaiming her bisexuality and her lack of belief in God. She became an alcoholic, ran up bills in hotels – and ran out on them – and seemed intent on self-destruction. Her life came to an end on September 14, 1927, in Nice, France, when her long flowing scarf became caught in the spokes of the automobile in which she was riding. It snapped her neck and she died instantly.

While the background of Duncan was both titillating and fascinating, that of the hot wheels was dull, dull, dull. Designed in 1968 by Mattel, the die-cast toy cars were sold in a myriad of models over the next 40 years. But they fell on hard times and what had once been collectors’ items were, by 2020, worth less than a cent apiece. Each car weighed about 1.2 ounces, were 2.5 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. Simple math told Noonan there were about 340,000 of them to a ton.

The details of Kevlar were about as thrilling. It was a plastic product in which the fabric strands were spun and layered. It had extremely strong tensile strength and was used as bullet-proof armor because the force of the projectile was absorbed by the plastic layers. Low temperatures had no impact on the substance but it could burn if the temperature got up to 850 Fahrenheit. Long exposure to sunlight caused discoloration, it was resistant to acids and when submersed in water, even for a long period of time, it did not disintegrate.

Then there were the newspapers. For a California town in the wine country, Duncan did not have much of a social footprint. But then again, it was not a large town. The COVID19 virus pandemic had hit the area hard and the impact was going to be felt for years. Casino construction on Indian Reservation land on the south side of the lake had been put on hold. It been in the perfect location to draw gamblers from San Francisco. It was on a rail line which crossed Native land – which allowed the tribe to demand a whistle stop – and was a scant three miles from a highway on a paved road. It also had dock facilities to handle boats from Duncan along with a float plane tie-down raft. The casino itself was both on and over the water’s edge to allow for gamblers to ‘take a break’ in any one of the three restaurant which were directly over the waters of the lake. There was also a hatchery nearby to make certain the lake – and the fishing enthusiasts – could satisfy their need for fillets or skin diving photographic safaris.

The federal government and the State of California owned the other side of the lake. There was a railroad terminal which had been in existence since the California Gold Rush. Because of its proximity to San Francisco, Duncan had developed a thriving timber trade. San Francisco needed homes and the Duncan area had trees. It was an entrepreneurial dream and city had done well.

And was still doing well.

In addition to the timber harvest there a number of lumber mills on private land in the area which produced every manner of wooden products, from plywood to overhead beams and hulls to oaken casks for the high end wine industry.

There was a Coast Guard facility on the federal land and, nearby, a California Water Police dock and joint Sonoma and Napa Counties Marine Patrol facility as well. The City of Duncan did not have any law enforcement on the water but it did own a small boat harbor with a dozen floating docks.

Duncan did not have a newspaper but the surrounding communities had presses which occasionally offered snatches of Duncan gossip. The biggest news was the mothballing of two-thirds of the casino. COVID19 was the cause. One-third of the casino was open and operational. There were the usual ongoing disputes involving state, federal, counties and city land and usage thereof as well as solid waste disposal, water rights – both subsurface and surface – along with the ongoing debate of how much leeway to give the casino. It was a Native casino on Native land but the only ones profiting from the Native casino on Native land were the upper echelon of Native casino personnel while many of the Natives on Native land were living in poverty.

The biggest news lately had been the death of one Sylvester McCready, dubbed the “Emperor of Hoarders and Collector of Trash.” There had been a “Modern Gold Rush,” to quote the papers, but in this case it was a “Cash Rush” for McCready’s fortune estimated to be in the millions. No one had filed for as much as a fork or spoon from the Emperor’s abode. It was an estate lawyer’s dream assignment and many of them, again, according to the newspapers, “came out of every nook and cranny in the Bay Area to swill from the McCready’s alleged relatives funerary account.”

* * *

When Kanesha Washington, the Chief of Police for Duncan, called back, Noonan had a few more questions.

“I’ll answer what I can from the top of my head,” she said.

“You probably can,” Noonan said. “Just some follow-ups before you give me the answers to the questions I asked. Is the Native casino making money?”

“Sure looks that way. Afterall, it’s summer and everyone’s on vacation. Could be different in the fall when the impact of the unemployment because of the virus catches up to everyone.”

“OK. Have there been any problems with any docks lately?”

“If you mean ‘doctors,’ I don’t know. If you mean docks on the lake, not really. The water level is stable. The City docks are thirty years old so they will have to be replaced at some time in the near future. The casino docks are new.”

“I know you get a lot of water during the spring from the Coastal Mountains. When does runoff start?”

“Depends on the year. Sometimes as early as April. Water levels go up and we peak in June.”

“So the water’s rising now?”

“Slowly but yeah.”

“How high will it get?”

“Ask me in two months.”

Noonan liked that answer. “OK, now to my questions.”

“Here’s what I’ve got,” Washington said as he read from the list of questions Noonan had previously given her. “The Kevlar bubbles are all about the same size, about four feet high. We can feel the hot wheels at the water level and above them the bubbles are empty so there is some kind of flotation device there. I know the bubbles are made of Kevlar because I spent three tours in Vietnam. The historical high water mark for the lake is 15 feet higher than it is now and then, five years ago, there was a five-foot wall of water going over the cement lip of the glory hole. Lowest record level was two or three decades ago, during a drought. Water level dropped 25 feet. But there was still 100 or so feet of water left in the lake.”

“OK. Go on.”

“There are a total of about 40 docks along the lake, half of them private. There are lots of businesses along the shore line, all of them tied to the docks. It’s hard to clarify what you want. The casino is on the shore line and the restaurant outdoor dining area is over it. There are all kinds of businesses on the city docks because of the tourists, fishing parties, photographic safaris. But if you mean a building which cannot move, there’s the casino, the Coast Guard operation and the marine patrol buildings. The rail line skirts the shoreline of the lake with a large terminal in Duncan and small one on Native land behind the casino. It is an old rail line and has not been upgraded since the 1930s. There are no large industrial operations in the area, no has made money mining gold since the dam was built as long as you don’t count dentists. The bubbles have been attracting the looky-loos but there has been no altering of recreational enjoyment on the lake. No one has said they own the bubbles and, right now, I don’t know much about the salvage laws so I don’t know who owns the bubbles.”

Noonan was busily writing down the answers. Then he asked about the docks again. “Those 40 docks, how many of them are at the casino?”

“Six. Three of them are not docks in the usual sense of the term. They are actually part of the casino structure and have handicapped access operations. The other three are floating and, I guess, you’d call them traditional docks. Those three handle the fishermen, skin divers and photographers. There is also a free floating, float plane dock but it’s not connected to the land.”

“Humm,” Noonan mused. “And no one, that is, the feds, state, county, city or Natives are claiming the bubbles?”

Washington laughed. “Correct. Why should they? At best they are a novelty. They have no value. Just an expense to get rid of them.”

Noonan chuckled. “Let me see if I can wrap up the situation in a few sentences. You cannot leave the bubbles where they are because they are an attractive nuisance. You cannot sink them because they are private property and you cannot bring them ashore because you either don’t have the machinery to remove them from the water, a place to store them or the money to do either.”

“So far so good,” Washington said.

Noonan continued. “The feds will have nothing to do with them because they are not a hazard to navigation and the state will not deal with them because the bubbles are not on state property. Both Napa and Sonoma county officials probably think the bubbles are a hoot and your problem, not theirs. So, what are we to do about this, this, situation?”

“Correct.”

“How long have they been in the lake?” Noonan asked.

“Four weeks. Now, Heinz, what’s going on?”

And a gong clanged quietly in the deep recess of a convolution in Noonan’s brain.

* * *

On Wednesday, Noonan was still in the throes of emotional recovery over the loss of his most long-term faithful friend who had, so to speak, gone the way of all steel: recycling. But then again, his faithful steel beast of burden would be reborn, again so to speak, as a toaster, jack handle or even a bicycle tire rim. But never again as the ancient four-seater with the spiderwebbing windshield crack and the rusting, screw, gas tank cover hidden behind the spring-loaded license plate frame. He lumbered into his office only to find his desk top covered with a patina of multicolored metals in the form of miniature automobiles each 1.2 ounces in weight, 2.5 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. Behind his desk, with a smirk wide enough to cross the Missouri River, was Harriet.

“Let me guess,” Noonan said as he put his brief case under his desk. “I’m registered in a Hot Wheels 500 foot race in Indianapolis next week?”

“Don’t get snippy with me,” Harriet snipped. “Everyone in the office knows you’ve been hot on the wheels of the stolen miniatures. These,” she indicated with a sweep of her right arm over his desk, “is the proof of the pudding from Napa-Sonoma.”

“Really?” Noonan said with faux boredom in his voice. “All the way from California. How nice.”

“Don’t nice me. Give. What did you do to get a gift of…” she stalled as she opened an envelope and quoted, “… a selection of 99 exquisite, antique, Hot Wheels worth a penny each so no one can say you got a gratuity of more than a dollar.”

“That’s a cop to cop joke,” Noonan smirked in return to Harriet’s double-eyed stare down. “Thanks for a guess, I’d guess.”

Guess, you’d guess? What exactly did you guess? And don’t give me the runaround.” She flicked a Hot Wheel with her right index fingernail as Noonan sat at his desk.

Noonan smirked. “I really didn’t do anything. I just got asked a bunch of questions and I guessed at the answer. Maybe I was right,” he pointed to the automobiles, “or I solved a situation before it became a problem.”

“Yeah,” snarled Harriet as she took a seat on the far side of the miniature parking log. “Give.”

“The problem was …”

“I know what the problem was. I took the call. What was the solution?”

“No solution, just a guess.”

“Give.”

“My guess was the casino on the reservation was either not making enough money to be profitable or wanted more. The best way to get more at no expense was to have a manmade disaster. A flood. But it had to be manmade. If it wasn’t . . .”

“I know, I know. Act of God and all that. Acts of God are not covered by insurance.”

“Right. The casino needed a flood which could be linked to a human action. So someone,” and Noonan looked up at the ceiling of his office as he spoke the word someone, “saw an opportunity. That someone stole about a ton and a half of hot wheels from a dumpster.” Noonan pointed at the vehicles on his desk top. “The hot wheels had no value so there was no crime. Then the person put the hot wheels in four Kevlar bubbles with some kind of flotation packaging.”

“So they floated. I got that last week. I’m smarter than I look. So, why?”

“Actually, a clever plan. The individuals involved understood politics. No one was going to take the bubbles out of the lake but they would corral them. There was only one place to corral the bubbles was near the glory hole. Then, when the spring and summer runoff caused the lake waters to rise, the bubbles would be swept into the glory hole.”

“What good would that do?”

“The glory hole is actually chimney-like. It’s wide at the top, 75 feet across, but narrow at the bottom, 20 feet. The bubbles would have jammed the downstream overflow spillway and the waters of the lake would have backed up.”

Harriet smiled. “I get it. Backed up enough to flood out parts of the casino.”

“Bingo. Then there would have been an insurance loss. The higher the water, the more dollars to collect. The other docks on the lake were floating so rising waters would not have affected them.”

Harriet shook her head. “So it all an insurance scam. But wouldn’t the rising waters cause damage to the dam?”

“Maybe. My guess, the waters would rise suddenly but only flood the casino momentarily. The pressure from the column of water on the bubbles would be so great the Kevlar would rip and release the hot wheels. Then the hot wheels and shards of Kevlar would be washed downstream. The scam was to raise the waters high enough to cause damage to collect insurance money, not to wash out the casino.”

“Clever.” Harriet pointed to the Hot Wheels. “But apparently it didn’t work. How did you stop it?”

“I didn’t, actually. I just made a suggestion.”

“Which was?”

“I suggested the bubbles were not the issue, the alleged Hot Wheels were.”

Alleged Hot Wheels?”

“Correct. See, Harriet, no one in law enforcement had actually seen the supposed Hot Wheels in the bubble, They had just felt them.”

“OK.”

“So, to be sure there were Hot Wheels in the bubbles and those Hot Wheels came from the hoarder, you remember his story right?”

“The millionaire who collected garbage, yeah.”

“I suggested they open the Kevlar bubbles and take samples of the alleged Hot Wheels and see if they could match the Hot Wheels in the bubbles to the Hot Wheels which had disappeared from the hoarder.”

“Give me a break! If all the Hot Wheels had been stolen, how were they going to make a match?”

“That was not my problem. I just suggested they apply a heat source, like a welding torch to the outside of the bubbles, open a section of the bubble and extract some Hot Wheels for comparison.” He pointed at the Hot Wheels on his desk.

Harriet’s eyes narrowed. “Let me guess. You suggested that the extraction be at the water surface level.”

Noonan smiled. “Absolutely. For safety sake.”

Harriet grimaced and shook her head. “… and if the bubbles took on water and sank …”

“Could have happened. Legally, as it stands, the Duncan Police have secured proof of private property in case there is a claimant. And the property in question is in a location that is not a hazard to navigation.”

“And since the bubbles and the Hot Wheels are now at the bottom of the lake ….” Harriet squirmed. “… they are on State of California or United States government property. So they are no longer the problem of the Duncan Police.”

“You see through me like glass.”

“Oh,” said Harriet as she picked up a Hot Wheel car. “You are a devious one. What are you going to do with these,” she said as indicated the miniatures.

“Race them, of course,” Noonan said with a smile. “Why don’t you tune them up for me?”

Harriet shook her head humorously. “I assumed you’d say something like that. I’ve got the perfect place for them. I’ll have them join their friends on federal property – just below the Sandersonville dock.”

“Ah! They can all race for shore and see who gets there first.”

“I also figured you’d say something like that too. So I got a car joke for you. what kind of a car does a dinosaur drive?”

“A good question.”

“Tyrannosaurus wrecks.”