Beyond the Western
Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was enjoying his last cup of coffee for the day.
It was also his first.
But then again, it was 10 a.m.
He had learned, sadly, over the years, he and coffee were not the best of friends.
Of normal weeks.
On Naugahyde Nights, however, the two were the best of friends. He only drank coffee after 10 a.m. when he was forced to suffer a Naugahyde Night, a night when he was sitting at a desk waiting for a lab test to conclude, a call from a far-off police station, fingerprints to match or a DNA smudge to find a parent. If there was no Naugahyde Night in his immediate future, he poured his last cup of Java at around 10 in the morning so he could be asleep by 10 in the evening.
He was enjoying the smell of the Ethiopian blend when his reverie of the aromatic exotic was interrupted by Harriet, the office administrative assistant and common-sense monitor. Noonan knew she was on a mission of importance because she was shuffling directly toward him, sliding her feet rather than walking. This was either good news or bad. He did not know which so he was – philosophically speaking – preparing for both Scylla and Charybdis. Without an introductory comment Harriet did a half-turn, looked slyly over her right shoulder and said, “This dog went into the telegraph station.”
Noonan was confused. “A dog in a telegraph station?”
“Yes,” Harriet said with faux surprise he did not know
what a dog was. “You know,
Rover, Lassie, Toto, Rin Tin Tin.”
“A telegraph station?”
“Ah, you youngsters,” Harriet was, again, showing faux surprise Noonan did not know what a telegraph station was.
“I get it. OK, a dog goes into a telegraph station. And then . . .”
“The dog goes up to the telegraph operator and puts his paw . . .”
“How do you know it was a he? It could have been a she.”
“It’s my story. Just listen to it.”
“OK. Go on.”
“The dog puts its paw on the desk of the telegraph operator and pats it. The telegraph operator says, ‘I guess you want to send a telegram.’ The dog gives a woof. The telegraph operator thinks this is odd but takes out a note pad anyway. The dog goes ‘woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof.’”
“It’s my story.”
“After the dog finishes the operator looks at the pad and says, “‘For the same price you can add one more woof.’ The dog looks at the telegraph operator and says, ‘But then it wouldn’t make any sense.’”
Noonan chuckled. “You must have spent all morning looking for that? Is there a reason you have come slinking in here with a dog joke?”
“Who knows? Maybe it’s not a joke.” She pointed at the phone on his desk, “There’s a woman on Line 3 who’s got a better one.”
In fact, she did have a better one.
“Someone’s been shaving cats and dogs around town,” she said. “It’s probably not a crime but it shooorreee is sussspiccious so I thought I’d better call the pooooollleeessse.”
* * *
“ . . pooooollleeessse,” Noonan mouthed as he hung up the phone.
“Interesting, eh?” Harriet snickered as she leaned against Noonan’s desk. “And it gets better.”
“Really? Have you been a bad girl and started shaving cats and dogs around town?”
“Oooooh, better than that. I’ve got a cat and I’ve got a vet. According to the vet, someone trimmed a dog in Pamlico City.”
“That’s not surprising. Dogs get trimmed every day.”
“Not for free. The person was supposed to have the dog all poofed up by a mobile groomer. But when the groomer got to the fenced in yard, the dog was already groomed. The dog was a regular, which surprised the groomer. She didn’t charge the family, of course, but asked the family to have the courtesy not to make an appointment with one groomer and then call another.”
“Let me guess, the family had not called another groomer.”
“You got it,” Harriet said. Then she pointed at the phone, “Now there are two.”
“I wonder,” Noonan said to himself, “how many others there are?”
Two hours later he got his answer.
After a dozen phone calls to groomers and vets along the Outer Banks he had six mysterious cases of animals – dogs and cats – being cleaned or, at the very least, missing fur. A handful of calls later, he discovered the matter went well beyond the Outer Banks. There were a dozen cases along the mainland coast. Just in case it went further inland, he placed a call to the North Carolina Department of Animal Control. He got a dance-around bureaucratic answer which amounted to “unless the animal in question is a danger to the community, we don’t get involved. If we do get involved, we cannot report anything to you.”
Noonan’s next call was to the North Carolina State Troopers in Charlotte. He had a connection who didn’t believe anyone who wasn’t a State Trooper was a spy for some newspaper.
“Yeah,” she said. “Off the record we’ve had some reports,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it. No crime, no investigation.”
“What exactly has been reported?” Noonan asked.
“Pretty much what you already know. Some pets have been sheared; others washed. And we’ve had a few cases of poop being stolen.”
“Yeah, poop. You know, animal poop. In a couple of cases the cat litter was taken.”
“Yeah. The litter was taken out of the floor containers. Used, so to speak. Again, no one has complained so we’ve done nothing. Odd, though, you know. Why would anyone steal dirty kitty litter?”
That was such a good question, Noonan did not have an answer.
But he did know where to find it.
In the case of North Carolina – and particularly coastal North Carolina and the Outer Banks – he was quite familiar with the history of the area so that closed off one of his tried-and-true channels of crime solving. So he went to the other: local papers.
But first he needed to know more about pets. Specifically dogs and cats. He had a pet, a goldfish, and a family dog was only friendly twice a day; just before he fed it. Cats? Maybe the three in his neighborhood he saw slinking across the front lawn of his home upon occasion.
There was quite a bit on pet dogs and cats on the internet, everything from diseases to training and ‘whispering’ to breeding. Pets were a massive industry, even in small towns. There were companies that walked dogs, recycled kitty litter, poofed for kennel clubs, cured the sick and picked up the poop for “environmentally-friendly” disposal. There were vets who specialized in expensive animals, doctors who specialized in pet allergies, trainers who handled disobedient, excitable, unruly or hyperactive animals and even pet psychics.
Then there were the secondary industries: doggie door installers, cat dietary specialists, animal toy manufacturers, DNA consultants and skin specialists for humans who were allergic to animals. Then there were pet industry consultants, pet sitting agencies, pet photographers, pet restaurants (Really! thought Noonan), mobile clinics, tag engravers, lost pet rescue squads, pet radio shows, animal clothing distributors, pet television programs and even pet psychologists.
With his head so full of pet trivia it was leaking from his ears, he turned to his second, tried-and true, crime solving channels: local papers. In this case he was fortunate inthat there were more than a few dog, cat, gerbil, hamster, pot-bellied pig and rescue animal tabloids, magazines and weeklies for Eastern North Carolina. Depending on the breed, month and specialty, there was something for every pet owner – and at every price level. There was nothing specific he could put his finger on so he revised his approach and told himself to ‘follow the money.’ Where was the big money here for cat and dog hair?
That approach narrowed down the field considerably. There were only a handful of options. Four companies offered to take your dog or cat hair and spin the fur into yarn for a scarf or, for a large dog, sweater. To make a scarf, the weaver needed about seven sandwich size bags of fur – along with $200. There were four pet allergy specialists who “consulted’ based on “basic dermatological procedures” – which included cytology and skin scrapings – for $400. And there was pet psychic who offered 15-minute consultations for $100 for pets, “living or deceased.” For the deceased pet, a photograph was required. There were also psychic group sessions – “limited to no more than 10” – and she also offered skype and phone connectivity.
Noonan, a skeptic, went with the pet psychic first. For this call he used his beast of Satan so the Sandersonville Police Department would not show up on the psychic’s phone display. Based out of Turtle, the woman who answered was pleasant and inquisitive. Noonan said he was calling “because my wife wants to know” about the psychic’s cost and services. This woman was a born salesperson. She asked if the pet in question was living or “deceased,” and then ran down a litany of her credits as a pet psychic. In addition to her “weekly newsletter, and what is your email so I can reach out to you in your time of need?,” she said she appeared regularly on local and national television as the “go to” person for pet distress – for both pet and owner. Noonan asked if she had experience with sickly animals – in his case, living – as the family cat was losing its hair and no medicine seemed to work. “My wife was just wondering if there was a Plan B here,” Noonan asked the psychic.
“That is not an unusual situation,” the psychic replied. “Sometimes the pet requires special attention which I can provide.” (At $100 every 15 minutes, Noonan snickered to himself.) “But it’s important to keep in mind hair loss is a medical condition. You might want to try a vet first. I don’t want to take your money and then have the hair loss continue. I read animals’ spirits, not their physical beings. You might want to consult with an allergy specialist.”
If the psychic didn’t want his money, that put her in the clear. The pet allergy specialists were polite and surprised Noonan with their answers. It had not occurred to Noonan that pet allergy specialists also had human patients.
“Everyone has allergies,” Dr. Montgomery Jordan told Noonan. “Most people just do not suffer from them. We here at the Jordan Clinic specialize in cases where the animal or owner have allergies that impede their daily activities.”
“You mean like sneezing, watery eyes and a rash?”
Jordan chuckled. “Yes, but those are the common symptoms. We handle pets and humans whose symptoms are more severe. In the worst cases we are talking about ongoing vomiting, difficult breathing, and anaphylaxis shock. Those are the severe cases. How significant are your symptoms?”
“Not that severe,” Noonan said. Then, remembering he was undercover he asked, “How common are allergies. For pets, I mean.”
“Pets are like people,” Jordan told him. “They and we all have allergies. We see those people and animals whose cases are severe. Before you come here we recommend you see a reputable veterinarian, check to make sure your home ventilation isn’t the problem, remove any recent additions to the home like plants or other animals, and then see if the condition continues.”
The three other allergy specialist told him the same thing. One of them gave him the name of a reputable veterinarian in Greenville, two gave him names of a statewide home cleaning service “to make sure your allergy is not caused by dust or other airborne particulates” and one recommended more frequent baths “to see if the allergies continue.” She did not make it clear who should be taking the baths, Noonan or his alleged pet.
Noonan thanked them all and then proceeded to the cat hair weaver. As expected, she turned out to be a font of information.
And items of clothing.
Pretending he wanted to “do something with the cat hair all over the house,” he asked what his options were. What he wanted, she said, depended upon the amount of cat hair he had. It was going to take about dozen sandwich bags for a sweater, less for a scarf.
“Actually,” Noonan asked slyly. “We’d like a scarf for my mother-in-law. She’s in a nursing home. Will there be any problems with allergies? We don’t want to cause any problems to other residents.”
The cat hair weaver chuckled. “It doesn’t work that way. Animal allergies are caused by reaction to proteins in the animals skin cells, urine or feces. It’s the flakes of skin the animal sheds that causes the problem, not the hair or fur. We only deal with the fur or hair. We clean the fur or hair thoroughly so, no, there will be no allergic reaction to anyone associated with the scarf.”
And a gong went off in the deepest recesses of Noonan’s brain.
* * *
“What’s this,” snapped Harriet as she advanced on Noonan holding a folded letter at arm’s length between the right finger and thumb of her right hand as if she were handling a stinking specimen.
“I don’t know,” Noonan said without looking up. “What is it?”
Harriet shook the sheet of paper before Noonan’s eyes. “Don’t give me that ‘I don’t know. What is it?’ You know very well what it is. It’s a GOOD CITIZEN’S AWARD from the North Carolina Department of Animal Control. You had to know it was coming.”
Noonan gave a faux look of surprise. “Really?”
“And what did you do to get a GOOD CITIZEN’S AWARD?” Harriet snapped.
“Oh, that!” Noonan said as he pointed at the folded certificate. “For a GOOD CITIZEN’S CERTIFICATE you’d expect them to mail it in a reinforced envelope.”
“Give!” snapped Harriet kept waving the sheet of paper before Noonan’s eyes.
“Well, remember the shaved dog call we got the other day?”
“Hard to forget.”
“I called around and found there had been quite a few other cases on the coast. Cats and dog. And there had been thefts of kitty litter too.”
“Kitty litter. Can you sell it?”
“Used kitty litter.”
“WWhhhaatt? What can you do with used kitty litter?”
“Exactly what I said to myself. So I called around and uncovered the scam. No one was selling the dirty kitty litter or cat and dog hair. They were using it to make a buck.”
“How can you use dirty kitty litter and dog hair to make a buck?”
“It was being done by a start-up ventilation company. Whenever they had a call for an estimate they’d open the forced air system for a look/see and leave some hair or used kitty litter inside the ventilation system. If the people were allergic to cats or dogs, they would have a negative reaction and hired the ventilation company to clean up their vents.”
“How about the people who weren’t allergic?”
“Nothing. The inspectors crushed the used kitty litter to a powder when they examined the ventilation system. If the family didn’t react to the powder, it eventually blew away. Even if it didn’t, the next time the furnace was cleaned, the litter would appear as odd granules in the system. Nothing suspicious.”
“How’d they get caught?”
“I suggested to the North Carolina Department of Animal Control there were animals who were a danger to the community. Parts of them anyway. I suggested they call around to the pet allergy specialists and get the names of recent clients and see which one had new ventilation systems installed.”
“Good for you. Is there some law being broken here?”
“Not really.” Noonan tapped his forehead above his right eye with the forefinger and index finger of his right hand. “But I am a creative thinker.”
“R-e-a-l-l-y. And what did you do?”
“Did I ever tell you my bicycle chain analogy.”
“I doubt it.”
“Well, if you get the cuff of your pants caught between the bicycle chain and the pedal wheel, you have to let your pants cuff go all around the wheel to get free.”
“Is that supposed to mean something about this?” Again, Harriet shook the GOOD CITIZEN’S AWARD.
“Absolutely. If I had called the North Carolina State Troopers, the most they could have done was issue a warning which the company would probably ignore. But once a company has to deal with the North Carolina bureaucracy, well, it’s like having your cuff caught in a chain. There are hearings and inspections and more hearings and more inspections. That takes time. And money. It gets expensive.”
“Expensive enough to stop stealing used kitty litter.”
“I’d like to think so. Oh, speaking of cats, do you know what the cat said when it was scared?”
“I can feel a pun coming.”
“You are freaking meow-t.”