Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Pilfering Cephalopod
Steve Levi


Beyond the Western

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was in rapture. It was a Monday – not the reason for the rapture – and there had been no crimes of consequence committed over the weekend. Better, his wife was in Nags Head on a mission of charity – which required her to leave her electronic beast of Satan at home – and, best of all, the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security was in an “Invitation Only” meeting with other Commissioners of Homeland Security plotting to halt the nefarious assault of Muslim terrorists on the Outer Banks of North Carolina – in spite of the fact the Muslim population on the Outer Banks was less than a dozen and all were Republican capitalists. Into Noonan’s reverie of cold cases came Harriet, the office administrative assistant and common-sense anchor, with a smile on her face. She crept up on Noonan and, from behind his cold case file, in a low voice, she asked, “Do you know when most octopus are born?”

Noonan, reluctantly, lowered the cold case file and gave Harriet a frigid look. “You’ve been pulling up jokes from the internet. I wonder why?”

“Everyone should have an octopus joke or two up their sleeve,” she said slyly with an edge of humor. Then she repeated her question. “Do you known when most octopuses are born?”

“I would have thought the plural of octopus was octopi.”

“Nope. I looked it up. It’s octopuses. One octopus, two octopuses, 3.14 octopi.”

“OK, you win. I don’t know. When are most octopuses born?”

“October, of course.”

Noonan shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Of course, is there a reason your octopus jokes ruined a perfectly good morning?” Noonan waggled the cold case file.

“Don’t be such a pessimist. Be an octomist,” she chortled. “Answer the call on Line 3. There’s a pilfering cephalopod loose in Verona Nagel Alexandro Beach Casino in California. It stole a ring worth $45,000.”

As soon as Noonan picked up the phone and gave his name, a woman’s voice said quickly, “I assure this is not a crank call. We are missing a $45,000 ring and no one – and I mean no one – is happy.”

“I can understand that,” Noonan said professionally. “First of all, who are you and where are you calling from?”

“I’m Orlandia Pescadero and I’m calling from Verona Nagel Alexandro Beach in California. We’re a new Native geographical designation, not a reservation but an autonomous area so we have a casino.”

“What’s the octopus angle?”

“You won’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“An octopus from our aquarium stole a $45,000 diamond ring.”

“I take it back. I find that hard to believe.”

* * *

“I know it sounds incredible but it’s true.”

“OK,” Noonan said as he dug through his desk drawer for a notebook. “Start from the beginning.”

Pescadero gave a sigh. “About ten years ago a collection of local Natives were able to get land title to a shade less than a thousand acres. It wasn’t much but it had two marketable features: it had the Pacific Ocean on the west side and a highway exit on the east side. Because we – I am one of those Natives – we, are Natives and the land is ours, we are not bound by certain state and federal laws.”

“Let me guess,” Noonan said as he scribbled without looking up. “Gambling.”

“You are correct. We established ourselves as the City and Casino of Verona Nagel Alexandro Beach where gambling is legal.”

“ And the octopus fits in how?”

“The octopus is our biggest drawing card, so to speak. The world of Native casinos is quite competitive, as you can imagine. We cannot compete with the large casinos because they can offer celebrities and floorshows. We don’t have that kind of money. So we went with different.”

“How so?”

“We are right on the ocean. I mean you can walk from the casino back door across a dozen yards of sand and be standing in the Pacific Ocean. Part of the casino is actually over the water. Since we are on the water, ocean actually, we linked the ocean to the casino. Instead of floorshows, we have a large room filled with aquariums. We have fish from all over the world. Alive, that is. Fresh water and salt, some tidal washing tanks and a shallow, hands-on for children to feel seaweed, starfish, limpets and the like.”

“Including octopus.” Noonan kept writing.

“Oh, yes! But we went one better than just an octopus in a glass tank. What do you know about octopuses?”

“They have eight legs, spew ink and live in the ocean.”

“One out of three. They actually have two legs and six arms. Two of the tentacles are used for walking on bottom. They do spew ink but they live in both fresh and saltwater. They are also incredibly intelligent. Which is why we use them as a gambling promotion.”

“How’s that?”

“I need to give you a bit of background. As I said before, octopuses are quite intelligent. And they are very clever. Incredibly clever. So clever, as a matter of fact, we use the octopusean cleverness as part of our casino offering.”

“You’ll have to explain that.”

“I figured as much. Do not think of an octopus as a gelatinous blob hiding in rock piles. They primarily eat crustaceans, crabs, for instance, but they will also consume fish, shrimp, lobster as well as snails, clams and other octopuses. They are always hungry. Particularly important for you to understand, they are escape artists par excellence. Because they do not have bones, they can squeeze through any hole or seam wide enough to permit their beak through. An octopus beak is only about the diameter of quarter.”

Noonan drew a small circle in his notebook. “By escape do you mean get out of its aquarium?”

“Oh, yeah! And much more than that! An octopus can not only get out its aquarium, it can maraud through the room, enter other aquariums, eat the fish in those aquariums and then make it make it back its own aquarium before the sun comes up. That’s why we have special lids on the octopus aquarium. We make it octopus-proof but for a small hole near the top. That’s our way of luring the octopus out of its lair.”

“You have an airtight lid on the aquarium where the octopus lives but leave a small hole for the animal to escape? Am I missing something?”

“No. You are correct. See, we take bets on the octopus: when it will escape, where it will go, if it will return, where it will hide if it does not return to its aquarium. Every day people place bets for the coming night. Then we have security cameras keeping the octopus under surveillance. If and when the octopus makes its move, we have a tape to prove what time it left the aquarium, where it went and if it came back.”

“Where else can it go?”

“We have a hole in a corner of the floor directly over the ocean. If the octopus finds it, plop, it drops into the Pacific.”

“Are octopus that smart? I mean, smart enough to figure out how to escape into the ocean.”

“Absolutely! You have no idea how smart they are.”

“Smart enough to steal a $45,000 ring?”

“That’s why I’m calling you. See, to spice things up, we have a lot of expensive jewelry in the aquarium. Kind of a pirate theme, if you know what I mean.”

“Actually, I don’t.”

“By that, I mean we have a skull and some bones mixed with chockablock gold coins, silver bracelets with diamonds, ingots and other jewelry. We wanted the aquarium to look like the bottom of the ocean where a pirate ship sank.”

“Real skull and bones?”

“No, but those are the only fakes in the aquarium. Everything else is authentic.”

“Where was the ring when it disappeared?”

“On the bottom of the aquarium mixed in with the rest of the valuables. We don’t know when it went missing. We were keeping track of the escaping octopus – octopuses, actually – and didn’t do an inventory of the goodies on the aquarium floor. When we did, we looked back at the security tapes and got a time when the ring disappeared.”

“You said, ‘octopuses.’ So there was more than one?”

“Four to date. See, when one octopus actually makes it into the ocean, we get another one. We’ve been through four. Number five is in the aquarium now. We’ve narrowed the missing ring to the escape of Octopus Three.

“So the ring disappeared at the same time the octopus, Number Three, made it out of the aquarium and into the ocean?”

“Yes. The octopus escaped and the ring is gone. We have to assume there is a link.”

Noonan chuckled. “The octopus wasn’t wearing the ring when it slithered into the sea?”

Pescadoro laughed, “No. We know because the security camera caught the beast on its way out. No ring on any tentacle.”

“OK,” Noonan scribbled in his notebook. “Let me tell you what you told me to make sure I have this right. You had a number of octopuses which are part of your betting scenario. Octopus Number Three escaped into the ocean and, during the same time frame, the ring went missing.”

“Yes.”

Noonan continued. “The aquarium was loaded with real valuable goodies including a $45,000 ring. The octopus is on a 24/7 camera because people are betting when the animal is going to escape and where it is going to go. The ring was in the aquarium with Octopus Three but not in the aquarium after that particular octopus made its break. You know the octopus did not have the ring when it escaped because you have the animal on tape. And you know the octopus did not take it into the ocean.”

“Correct.”

“And the octopus didn’t eat it.”

“Couldn’t.”

“And you checked to make sure there were no time gaps in the security tapes.”

“Double checked. Not a second missing.”

Noonan was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Do you have a pen and paper there?”

“Just a second,” (pause) “OK, what am I writing?”

“Just off the top of my head, here are some questions I need answered.”

“Go for it.”

“How big is the aquarium room, how many aquariums are in the room, are they all on the floor, if not, how many are raised, how high, how large is the aquarium housing the octopus, how do you know no one opened the top of the octopus aquarium and replaced the real ring with one that was water soluble, how often is the octopus aquarium cleaned, who cleans it, is the cleaning on security tapes, how often do you feed the octopus, who feeds the animal, do the octopus gambling security cameras focus on more than just the escape holes, where is the office of the security team located, how many security personnel are on duty all night, do any other tanks have expensive jewelry, was the ring insured and was a police report filed?”

Noonan paused. Then he went on. “How long has this octopus gambling been going on, is there any other gambling on any other fish or crustacean in the aquarium room, how much money are we talking about when it comes to octopus gambling?”

“When do you want these answers?”

“Tomorrow. I’m going to be doing some octopus research first.”

* * *

When it came to octopuses – and cephalopods – Noonan did not know how much he did not know. What he discovered shocked him. As Pescadoro had stated, the creatures were not only incredibly clever, they were unbelievably smart. There were upwards of 200 species of the organism ranging from a very deadly beast which had enough venom to kill 26 humans within minutes – the blue ringed octopus of Australia – to the Dumbo octopus which has paddle-like tentacles and lived at an incredible depth: 9,800 to 13,000 feet. [What there was to eat that deep Noonan could not fathom.]

Further, the octopus had eight brains, one at the base of each tentacle, three hearts and could ‘shed’ a tentacle if the appendage was gripped by a carnivore. Then, over time, the tentacle would grow back. Its lifespan was short, a couple of years at the longest, were cannibals and the male died after impregnating the female. And was eaten by the female. The animal had blue blood that was copper-based rather than iron-based and the ink the octopus sprays did more than hide the escaping cephalopod; it shocked the predator’s sense of smell and taste. The ink was so deadly it could kill the octopus if it became caught in its own ink cloud. Octopuses could change color and texture, pass through a hole the diameter of a quarter and, as Pescadoro had said, were incredibly clever.

Tales of the octopusean cleverness were so unbelievable, had they not been footnoted by reputable, reliable observers, Noonan would not have believed them. In addition to the ability to walk, so to speak, across the ocean floor with coconut husks or large shells for protection, octopuses were smart enough to open glass jars and extract food from inside. One octopus had expressed its distress over the poor quality of hermit crabs it was being fed by throwing stones at attendants on the other side of the glass wall of its aquarium. Another octopus, this one in Santa Monica, “disassembled” a water valve on the cover of its tank and flooded the aquarium with 200 extra gallons of water. An octopus in German squirted water into an overhead light on the aquarium room ceiling and short-circuited the electricity for the entire building. Shooting water at aquarium staff was not uncommon and an octopus in Pennsylvania who didn’t like the food on the menu expressed its displeasure in unique fashion. As it was being fed, it shoved the food down the aquarium drain. Another octopus, this one in New Zealand escaped from its tank multiple times, one time staying hidden in a drainpipe for five days.

Most amazing of all, as far as Noonan was concerned, in 1875 in Brighton, England, it was discovered that an octopus was sneaking out of its tank at night, crawling across the aquarium floor and dinning on fish and crustacean in other tanks. Then, before staff arrived the next morning, it would slunk back into its own aquarium as if nothing had happened. [It probably had a “Who, me?” look on its face, Noonan mused though he could not figure out how an octopus would make such an expression.]

But not in any one of the human-octopus encounters was anything of human value stolen. This, to Noonan, meant only one thing: the octopus really ‘didn’t do it.’

When Pescadoro called back, she was hopeful Noonan had ‘solved the crime.’ “Well,” Noonan replied, “The octopus did not do it.”

“That,” Pescadoro said sadly, “we figured. Who did?”

“Give me your answers to my questions and I’ll take a guess.”

“Best of luck. We tried but no brass ring. Here you go. The aquarium room is 2,000 feet square. There are 18 aquariums in the room, 17 of them are raised off the floor. The 18th is on the floor so children can reach into the water and feel the starfish, mussels, clams and seaweed. The bottom of the other aquariums are at a children’s eye level, three and a half feet up. The octopus aquarium is 50 gallons, 36 7/8 x 19 x 19 5/8, and its bottom is also at eye level for a child. The top of the octopus aquarium is actually a locked cover. It is only raised to feed the octopus once a day. We know no one opened the cover other than for feeding because it is on camera. The ring was in place each time the cover was raised. I personally double checked the security tapes last night. The aquarium is cleaned once every three months and I checked the security tapes to make sure the ring was there before and after each cleaning. It was.”

She took a deep breath and continued. “There are six security cameras in the room. Four of them are in the corners of the room. We have one camera focused on the quarter-sized hole at the end of a long tube where the octopuses make their escape and another one on the floor where there is a hole where the octopuses exit to reach the ocean.”

Noonan stopped her for a moment. “How far is it from where the octopus will exit the escape tube to the hole in the floor?”

“A dozen feet.”

“Do the security cameras on the wall cover those dozen feet?”

“Yes, but the image is dark because it is at night. No one was on the tape if that’s what you mean.”

“I’m not sure what I mean. Go on.”

“In terms of security personnel, there are a dozen or so. At any one moment there are two or three in the room where the security tapes are kept. The other ten wander in and out of the aquarium rooms. Our security concerns are with the gambling tables, not the aquarium.”

“Is there a set schedule as to who is in the aquarium room at any moment?”

“Not a schedule, per se. It’s part of the routine. Whoever is on duty spends so many minutes here, then they move to another location for five minutes, then on and on. It’s routine.”

“Do the same people work the same shift every day?”

“Usually. We screen the people closely before we hire them. There are no temporaries, if that’s what you mean.”

“Is the aquarium room open 24/7?”

“No. It closes at 10 pm and is not opened again until 8 am. The casino is open 24/7.”

“Go on.”

“No other tanks have expensive anythings in them, the ring was insured, there were six people on duty all night and a police report was filed. We’ve been doing the octopus gambling routine for four years, about one octopus per year and it is the only creature to be part of our casino routine. Octopus betting sometimes gets into the thousands of dollars a night and, as I told you before, we are on Octopus Four.”

Noonan was silent for a moment. Then he asked. What is above the aquarium room?”

“Nothing of importance. There are a few storage rooms, a locker room for the aquarium personnel, laundry and the security office.”

And a gong sounded in the deepest recess of Noonan’s cerebellum.

* * *

Four days later, Harriet came into Noonan’s office, her nose buried in a children’s book. Noonan had his nose in a cold case file. Harriet rudely shoved the children’s book between Noonan’s nose and the cold case file.

“OCTOPUS IN BOOTS,” Harriet said triumphantly. “The story of an eight-legged sea creature who saves fish from an evil fisherman’s net.”

“Two-legged,” said the ‘Bearded Holmes’ as he pushed the children’s book aside with the forefinger of his right hand. “An octopus has six arms but only two legs. So the octopus in boots can only wear two boots.”

“Facts,” Harriet snorted, “always get in the way of a good story. This,” she said as she tapped the book, “is a gift from the City and Casino of Verona Nagel Alexandro Beach. Seem you solved the matter of the pilfering cephalopod. It says so right here.” She pointed to the headlines of the City and Casino of Verona Nagel Alexandro Beach announcement. “Three arrested and the ring returned.”

“Well, we all do what we can,” Noonan said and tried to get back to his cold case file.

Harriet would have none of that. “I-n-t-e-r-e-s-t-i-n-g story. Of course, you wouldn’t know anything about it, right?”

“Why should I?” He displayed the guilty but innocent look.

“W-e-l-l, to start with,” she tapped the announcement, “there’s not a word about outside help b-u-t you got a ‘Thank You’ card and a dozen copies of OCTOPUS IN BOOTS. I wonder what that was all about?” She gave a wry smile.

“Just a lucky guess,” Noonan said. “A valuable ring went missing from an octopus tank. I had a hunch. Apparently,” now he pointed at the announcement, “it was correct.”

“And, what, pray tell, was the hunch?” Harriet leaned against this desk. “Enquiring minds want to know.”

“The ring in question had to leave with the escaping octopus. There was no other way for it to disappear. I guessed a fishing line had been attached to the ring and run down the escape tube. It was attached to the ring by a member of the cleaning crew when the tank was cleaned months earlier. Since the monofilament was transparent, it would not be detected. Every night or, every night one or two guards in the know were on duty, the end of the line was tied to a fishing line dropped through the ceiling from a room above. The aquarium room was then locked. When the octopus finally made its break for freedom, the ring was pulled along with the escaping octopus. The ring could not be seen by the camera because it was enveloped by the octopus. Then, when the octopus and ring plopped onto the aquarium floor, the fishing line was cut. The next morning, one of those guards simply collected the ring and fishing line when the aquarium opened for the day.”

“But how did the bad boys and girls know when to pull the ring with the escaping octopus?”

“Simple. The octopus escape was part of the casino’s offering. So it was given live coverage. 24/7. Anyone could pull it up on computer or even a cell phone. The ‘bad boys and girls’ simply waited for the right moment and away went the ring.”

“How’d they catch ‘em?”

“As old as the hills. You follow the money. A guard bought a Lamborghini.”

“. . . and the rest is history.”

Noonan agreed with her. “You’re right. The rest is history. Besides, I knew the octopus couldn’t have done it.”

“Really,” Harriet said with a puzzled look. “How’d you know that?”

“They don’t have a bad bone in their bodies.”



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