Beyond the Western
Captain Heinz Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was lost in the revere of his favorite cartoon series, Roadrunner vs. Coyote. It didn’t really matter which episode he was recalling; he was always entertained by the unique manner in which the former always overcame the latter. Sometimes it was with guile; other times with artistic license. In Noonan’s favorite episode, Wile E. Coyote painted a roadway tunnel on the sheer rock face of an embankment. The intent was to lure the speeding roadrunner into smash itself on the painted stone wall. But the roadrunner simply ran down the roadway tunnel as if it existed. This stunned Wile E. Coyote so he walked over to the paint on the wall to see if it was, indeed, paint.
Then, suddenly, a large truck lurched out of the supposedly painted roadway tunnel and flattened the coyote.
Noonan was an aficionado of the cartoon. He was, in fact, one of the few people in America who knew what the “E.” in Wile E. Coyote’s name was. (Ethelbert). Noonan also knew the name Wile E. Coyote was a pun of a far more literary character: Don Quixote. Additionally, Noonan also knew the generating source for Wile Ethelbert Coyote: Mark Twain. In his book ROUGHING IT, Twain described the coyote as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton" which is "a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry."
The roadrunner and coyote animated series, created by cartoon great, Charles “Chuck” Martin Jones, ran from 1948 until Warner Brothers closed its cartoon studio in 1963. Jones died in 2002 at 89 but, as Noonan knew for a fact, 18 years later the dueling duo was still in reruns.
And why was it, on this day, in 2020, Noonan was reminiscing about the trials and tribulations of one Wile E. Coyote? Because, in his hand, he had a note with a phone number of a citizen in distress who worked for the Acme Company. Was this, perhaps an eponymous reference to the mail order house used by the “long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton” who embodied the never-give-up spirit of coyote-eat-roadrunner from so long ago?
In fact, it was.
A generation earlier.
“My father-in-law,” came the voice of Cheryl Pausanias on the phone line – not courtesy of the electronic Beelzebub Noonan was required by his wife and supervisor to keep on his person at all times. “My father-in-law was a card. Loved the coyote and roadrunner. You ever see those cartoons?”
Noonan smiled inwardly, “A few times. What can I do for you Ms Pausanias?”
“Well, I’m not a ‘miss,’ ‘mrs’ or ‘ms.’ Around here, I’m just ‘Cheryl’ and I’m a bit nervous calling because I’m not a law enforcement person.”
“Crime doesn’t care. If you’re Cheryl, I’m Heinz.”
“This is an odd one, I suppose. Things are just not adding up. We could have a robbery but then again, maybe not.”
“The strangest matters – I call them matters – in America get called in here. Whatcha got?”
“Nor sure. We’ve got a possible robbery of 20 pounds of gold, three tons of missing gravel and an disappearing deck boat. I’m not even sure they’re all related but the gold’s probably gone. Maybe. So are the gravel and the deck boat. And I don’t even know if these items are connected.”
* * *
“That’s quite a collection,” Noonan said as he dug through his desk drawer for a notebook. “And you think they’re all related?
“All happened at the same time,” Pausanias said with a sigh Noonan could feel through the phone line. “I think it’s syzygy. Are you familiar with the term?”
“One of the few words in the English language with no vowels. It’s an astronomy term. Means more than two objects lining up.”
“I’m impressed! And from someone in law enforcement.”
“I earned a good education. Let’s start with Acme. I’ve never heard of the company.”
Pausanias explained. “Keeping a long story long, it started with the Second World War. As you know – having earned a good education – North Carolina was subject to a lot of German submarine activity along the coast. What a lot of people do not know was there was also a great fear at some point there would be German war boats working their way up the rivers of North Carolina. By ‘war boats’ I mean smaller craft, like American PT boats in the Pacific. The Neuse River was a concern because of its broadness, as broad as three miles across where the Trent River meets the Neuse just outside of New Bern. Worse, there are a large number of tributaries so if the Germans PTs could have made it upriver, there were plenty of places to hide in the woods along the banks. Keep in mind in those days we didn’t have cell phones and the like.”
“The Neuse is quite a long river, I know that,” Noonan muttered. “How long is it?”
“About 275 miles. It starts in the foothills, the piedmont, near Durham, and then runs to Pamlico Sound.”
“I didn’t know the Germans made it inland during the Second World War.”
“They didn’t. But there was a fear they would. To make sure they didn’t, the United States Navy and Coast Guard built a number of what were called ‘river watch’ stations. They weren’t fortified but could withstand enemy fire. Only one was actually completed, ours, before the war ended.”
“Where are you actually located?”
“Remote. Even by North Carolina standards. You’ll have to get a map out to find us. We’re about 22 miles southeast of Smithville, North Carolina. We’re off Devil’s Racetrack Road and that really is the name of the roadway. Devil’s Racetrack parallels US 701. We’re down a dirt road heading due east. There’s a sign but it’s small. We’re on a bend in the Neuse River. And as soon as you get a map of the area you’ll see the term “bend of the Neuse River” has very little meaning. The river oxbows, bends, loops and twists all the way to New Bern. Which, as a matter of historical fact, would have made it an excellent watershed to hide German PTs.”
“I’ll take your word for the location.” Noonan was scribbling in his notebook. “You said it was an abandoned Coast Guard base. I thought the Coast Guard was a saltwater outfit. And only a saltwater outfit.”
“During peace time, probably. Not during the Second World War. A lot of people don’t know the Coast Guard was actively involved in combat operations. At least it does not get its proper historical credit. The amphibious invasion of Europe involved more than 350 Coast Guard vessels including 76 LSTs. And one Coast Guard ship, the Modoc was even involved in the sinking of the Bismarck.”
“You know a lot about the Coast Guard.”
“My father was a Commander and my father-in-law is a retired Captain. I’ve got saltwater in my veins.”
“It’s an important tidbit, Captain, er, Heinz. See, when the Coast Guard abandoned the base on the Neuse River, part of it went to the State of North Carolina, the dock part. The buildings were sold at auction. My father-in-law knew the auction was coming up and was the only bidder. He got the property for a song.”
“No one else wanted it?”
“Why would they? It was in the middle of nowhere. Even today. No business reason to buy it.”
“Why did your father-in-law buy it?”
“He was a gold bug. You know, someone who believe gold was a solid investment rather than stocks or bonds. He wanted to get into the business. But he needed a remote location for security.”
“And you are in the business, right?”
“Not the way my father-in-law envisioned it. What we do is take the gold, silver and precious metals from jewelry exchanges, metal merchants and precious metal exchanges and purify them.”
“You mean doré bars?”
“I am impressed! Very few people know what doré bars are.”
Noonan smiled. “My wife is an Alaskan.”
“Alaskans would certainly know what doré bars are. Yes, basically we get the rugged, congealed metal bars of precious metals from all along the East Coast from Virginia Beach to Myrtle Beach. We purify the doré bars into almost bullion and send the bars to the federal refinery.”
“Do you buy the precious metals or simply provide the service of purifying the metal?”
“A little of both. Depends on the client. Smaller businesses, yes, we buy the doré. For the bigger clients we are simply the middleman.”
“So, what kind of money are we looking at?” Noonan paused for moment. “Strange activities have a tendency to end with money being stolen.”
“That’s what’s so odd. We think there’s been a robbery but we aren’t sure. It’s a long story. Three of them, actually.”
“I’ve got time.” Noonan settled back in his office chair for the duration.
“As far as the money end of it is concerned, our procedures are pretty strict. A shipment arrives and the precious metal doré are brought into the building through security. The delivery people hand us the doré and paperwork. We weigh the incoming metal in front of the delivery personnel and if the weight numbers match, we sign off on the delivery. Then we purify the metal, the doré, and record the actual value of the precious metal. We then contact the company that made the delivery with the specific ounces of precious metals. We usually stockpile the precious metals until they are sent to a purifying company, depending on the metals and the poundage. Initially, the actual metal goes into our vault for storage. All the communication with our clients, large and small, is on the internet or paper. Once they drop off the precious metal, it’s held within our security system.”
“And something has gone wrong.” Noonan rolled his eyes to indicate he knew and expected the old here-comes-the-bad-news was next.
“We thought everything was ship shape, to use my father-in-law’s term,” Pausanias continued. “Then the State of North Carolina weights and measures people showed up. They do. Once a year. They checked our balances and found them just a shade low. Within the degree of error . . .”
“Let me guess,” Noonan cut in. “All of the scales were just a shade of a gram shy of normal.”
“Yes. Seven scales. all shy. Too odd to be coincidental. Say, about four grams total for all seven scales.” Pausanias’ voice shook.
“So, if we we’re talking gold, one gram would be about $50, right?” Noonan punched up ‘gold’ on the internet to get a price. How often do you get deliveries?”
“It’s not the deliveries that matter. It’s the number of time the scales are used. A small customer gets their precious metals weighted once. Larger customers have their precious metals weighed in what you would call five-pound units. In terms of how many times all the scales are used in a week, about 25. That’s four grams at $50 per gram, 25 times a week for 52 weeks.”
“So we’re talking the possibility of about a quarter of a million dollars.” Noonan whistled. “And a splinter of a gram low each time.”
“Just for this year. I don’t remember the weight and measure people coming last year. Maybe more. But, at a minimum, $250,000.”
“So the money went right out the front door. Any clue as to who . . “
“That’s why I’m calling you. No, the metal could not have gone out the front door. We have security procedures so no one can get sticky fingers. So the precious metal did not make it out front door. We’re sure of that.”
“Have you looked for it?” Noonan diddled in his notebook.
“This is where the story trifurcates,” she said sadly. “First, Acme bought an old Coast Guard building. We may own all of it but we only use a small portion. As an example, it’s about the size of an elementary school and we are only using the principal’s office, the multipurpose auditorium and six rooms. That leaves about 20 empty rooms. If someone wanted to hide something in any one of those rooms, we’d never find it. There are too many nooks and crannies where that kind of poundage could be hidden.”
“If any precious metal has really been stolen.”
“Oh,” Pausanias said quickly, “we’re sure the metal was stolen. Too many other strange things happened just after the weights and measure people took their data back to Raleigh and before their paperwork came back to Acme.”
“Strange things? Such as?”
“Now things get spooky. Which is, Captain, and in this case it is ‘Captain’ because I think a crime has been committed.”
“Two things happened at the same time. First, for some background, Acme is only the building part of the old Coast Guard base. The other part is a dock. A dock, not a harbor. Do you know the difference?”
“A dock is where boats can tie up to be loaded or unloaded. It’s a temporary location. A harbor is where boats can be stored. If you only want to use your boat on weekends but did not want to drag it home every Sunday, you rent a slip for the year. The dock here is only for short term use, maybe a day or so. You might dock the boat long enough to onload some heavy cargo because the dock is right next to the roadway. You reserve the docking facilities ahead of time.”
“Let me guess, an unexpected boat docked between the time the underperforming scales were discovered underperforming and the paperwork arrived.”
“Correct. She got the House, that’s the name of the boat, scheduled to dock over the weekend. It was a 26-footer. Then, come Monday morning, she was gone and hasn’t been seen since. The Coast Guard is on alert and an APB went out. But so far, nothing.”
“There has to be more to this story.”
“Yes. Here is where it gets odd. At the same time, coincidentally, the State of North Carolina has been covering the dirt road to the dock with gravel. So, over the past ten days, we’ve been seeing gravel trucks spreading about 20 tons of gravel a load on the road. The road’s been closed to traffic so all of our people have been coming in by boat. We set up a shuttle service, if you can call it that, out of Smithfield and adjusted the work schedule. We converted a few of the empty rooms into bunks and put the employees on 12 on/12 off. That’s why we were aware of She Got the House.”
“And . . “ Noonan could feel an oddity coming.
“That weekend, between the time the scales were checked and the paperwork arrived, someone stole a dump truck and about two tons of gravel. The gravel operation was concerned because nonemployees driving a truck puts them at legal risk. So they asked us if there had been a midnight run, just in case Acme had done it for some emergency. We told them ‘no.’ No one knows where the truck went or why.”
“Or who was driving it?”
“Or who was driving it,” she repeated.
“So, let me see what you’ve got.” Noonan looked at his notes. “A group of someones working for you might have fiddled with seven scales so they could skim about four grams of precious metals per delivery and there were 25 deliveries per week.”
“The possibly swindled precious metal was probably hidden somewhere in the building but since you didn’t know a theft had occurred, you did not do a search.”
“Correct again. And the strange events happened before I knew there might have been a scam so there was no reason to look for the gold.”
“Got it,” Noonan scribbled more notes in his notebook. “Between the time the scales were calibrated and the report came in, a boat, She Got the House, docked and a dump truck with about two tons of gravel was stolen. Why do you suspect these events are connected?”
“Because we discovered a hole in the back fence of Acme the next Monday morning. Whatever gold was taken – and I’m assuming a robbery – could not be taken out through the metal detectors. So it had to have been shoved through a break in the fence in the back. When we looked at the security tapes we could see one individual on the inside of the fence sticking a box through the opening to someone on the other side of the fence. We’re talking five seconds on the security tape.”
Noonan sighed. “I’m guessing they kept their faces hidden.”
“You got it.”
“Then you discovered the midnight run of the dump truck with the tons of gravel. How about the boat?”
“Due diligence by the police. Good folk. They’re looking for the boat; I’m looking for my inside people.”
* * *
Noonan was busily writing in his notebook when Pausanias broke into his thought pattern. “Are you still there?”
“Yes,” the sage of Sandersonville replied. “I’m just coming up with a list of questions for you. It’ll be a few seconds more.”
“OK,” she replied.
Finally, after about a minute of silence, Noonan was back on the phone line. “OK, here’s a list of questions. I’ll need all the answers at the same time so even if you know the answer to some questions, keep those answers together with the ones you have to research. I’ll want them all answered in, say, two days. OK?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Here we go. How many employees does Acme have, how many handle the weighing, do you maintain your own security or have you hired a firm to do the screening, why wasn’t the breach in the fence reported earlier, are your employees vetted, how far is the dock from the Acme building, how far is the road with the gravel from the dock, how far is the road with gravel from Acme, do any Acme employees have a criminal record, how do you know the missing gold wasn’t put in the forest around the company for pickup later, how are the refined metals sent out of Acme and where does it go, do any employees limp, and, finally, do any of the employees have a fishing license, boating license, SCUBA license, commercial driving license or business license?”
“That’s a load of questions. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Two days. I’ll call back in two days. In the meantime, have the Coast Guard keep looking for She Got the House.”
* * *
Once Cheryl Pausanias was off looking for her answers, Noonan went to the two, tried and true sources of information in his loo loo crime detection toolkit: history and the local newspapers. A quick look at a map of the area revealed Acme was indeed located ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ Further, to have said the Neuse River had bends and oxbows was a colossal understatement. It looked more like a contorted, wriggling worm on the map. He had no trouble finding US701 on the Google Map but had to focus in to find Devi’s Racetrack Road.
According to Wikipedia, the road had been used by General Sherman on his march to Raleigh but earned its name because of the saloons and gambling joints along the roadway. The nearest historical landmark in the area was Bentonville, a booming rural community of less than 2,000. It had been the site of the Battle of Bentonville, a significant Civil War skirmish involving 80,000 troops, 60,000 of them union soldiers. It was a brutal three-day battle with about 4,000 casualties. It ended with a Confederate retreat.
The Neuse River had a longer history, a pun Noonan chuckled over. The river had a run of about 275 miles and was the longest river entirely within the borders of North Carolina. It originated west of Raleigh and until it reached western Craven County – well past the location of Acme – it was a fast-moving river. Then it slowed until it flooded into Pamlico Sound. It was wide, the widest river in the United States as a matter of fact, stretching three miles across in some locations. But it was also shallow, no deeper than 25 feet with the average depth being as shallow as nine feet when it reached New Bern. It was only narrow in one spot, the “Cliffs of the Neuse,” near Goldsboro where it became a 90-foot wide river when it cut through a sandstone and limestone upcropping.
The name of river came from the local Indian tribe, the Neusiok, and was one of the first rivers in America to be named. That was in 1584 when Sir Walter Raleigh commissioned two English captains, Arthur Barlowe and Phillip Armadas, to map the area. The river had another splash of Civil War fame when, in 1865 as the war was winding down, one of the last Confederate ironclads, the Ram Neuse, was scuttled to keep from falling into Union hands. The water where the ironclad sank was so shallow it was raised in 1963.
To the joy of hunters, fishermen, campers, sailboats and weekend adventurers, the river and its banks were chockablock with fish, fowl, birds, alligators and winds strong enough for sailing and keeping the clouds of insects away from the shoreline. On the flipside, it was also chockablock with poisonous snakes of every North American species except desert sidewinders – and only because there were no deserts in the Neuse river basin.
Smithfield, the nearest large city to Acme and from where the employees were shuttled was even small by North Carolina standards, about 12,000 people. Interestingly, it was the site of the Ava Gardner Museum, a 6,400 square foot museum dedicated to the film star Ava Gardner (no surprise there, mused Noonan) who came from Smithfield. The town was originally named for a ferry across the Neuse River owned by a family named Smith. It was incorporated as Smithfield in 1777 and hosted the Third North Carolina Legislature in 1779 and 1780.
And that was as much history as Noonan could find on Smithfield.
His research on gravel was not much more enlightening. It came in a variety of forms and covered more than a million miles of roads in the United States. It was also used as a bedding for asphalt covered roads, to a depth of more than two feet depending on the underlying sediment. Every mile of gravel roadway required about 38,000 tons. The research on boats was even less informative: they float because they displace water. The larger the boat, the more water is displaced. The local newspapers offered, as Noonan’s Alaskan in-laws would say, “zip.” There was lots of news but not a single article of interest. That left Noonan with nothing to consider except the answers to the questions he had given to Cheryl Pausanias.
When Pausanias did come back online, she was hopeful. “You’ve solved the supposed crime, yes?”
“I’m still working on it,” Noonan said flatly. “You have some answers for me?”
“I’ve got information,” she said. “I don’t see a lot of answers but I’ll tell you want I’ve got.”
Noonan pulled out his notebook. “Shoot.”
“OK, for what it’s worth, and sort of in the order you asked. We have 30 employees, half of them are part time, on call or occasional. Only five have access to the scales, if that’s what you were thinking. The rest are office staff and secretarial. We have a security company whose employees handle the surveillance cameras, metal detectors at the front gate. The back gate is locked and bolted. It hasn’t been used in years. The security company also does the screening for employees. That’s where I got a lot of information you wanted. We have three regular employees with felony records, two for possession of marijuana but those are decades old. One has a manslaughter conviction from an automobile accident. That was decades ago too. All totaled, the rest of the employees have about 20 felony and misdemeanors. Removing the parking ticket, speeding, and failure to have a current fishing license there is one case of clam poaching . . .”
“Clam poaching?” Noonan was a bit surprised. “Not from the Neuse River.”
“No. The Outer Banks. Your neck of the woods. Do you have woods there?”
“Some. About the clam poaching . . “
“On National Park land. Five years ago. But we are talking about a bucket of clams, quahogs, if that’s how you pronounce the word.”
“Yup. But just a bucket?”
“Just a bucket. Creates quite a laugh whenever it’s brought up. The kid’s 25 so we are talking a youngster when it happened.”
“During the Second World War, kids that age were flying combat missions over Germany.”
“I didn’t know that. Back to your questions. The breach in the fence was discovered the next morning when the sun came up. We do not have any kind of motion detection system on the fence so it was a visual discovery, not a machine-generated lead, if you know what I mean. The distance from the dock to the Acme front gate is about 20 yards and the gravel road runs right up to the dock. It’s a four-mile road but it’s been closed for a week so the gravel trucks will not encounter any passenger traffic. It’s possible the gold is in the forest but we doubt it. The police did a grid search and there are lots of snakes in those woods. We have woods here, by the way. Not a lot surf and sand like the Outer Banks but we have thick woods.”
“Surf and sand we have a lot of out here,” Noonan said. “Go on.”
“OK, the precious metal we send out is not pure but it’s pretty close. It’s sent to the United States government in armored cars – and insured if that’s a concern to you – and the pickups are when we call. There have been none for the past three weeks because of the graveling of the road. None of our employees limp, if you were implying the employees who did limp could be excluded because of the surveillance tape.”
“Finally, our security company has the license information. Everyone has a regular driver’s license, most of our employees have fishing licenses, four own boats but those boats have been checked by the police, eight have business licenses, none that involve precious metals or have offices. Six have SCUBA permits but that’s kind of a red herring.”
“Because it’s a saltwater sport. The Neuse River current is far too strong for skin diving.”
“Does one of those SCUBA permits belong to the clam poacher?”
And a powerful gong went on in the deepest convolutions of Noonan’s brain.
* * *
“You,” snapped Harriet, Noonan’s administrative assistant and the Office Minister of Common sense, “are in a great deal of trouble.” She set the Sandersonville Gazette down on Noonan’s desk. She pointed to a front-page story with the bold heading “‘Bearded Holmes’ Solves Gold Robbery on the Neuse River!”
“His majesty,” Harriet said as she let her eyes drift upwards. But not to Heaven. To the ceiling tiles where, two floors up, sat His Incompetence, Edward Paul Lizzard III, the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, who stole every iota of credit for any newspaper coverage. “His majesty,” she rolled her eyes, “will be upset.”
“Not a problem,” Noonan said. “He’ll be on television and that, for him, is a better venue.” Noonan pronounced the word venue with a sardonic accent. “His term,” he added to Harriet, “not mine. Anyway, he is going to claim credit for discovering the three tons of gravel were used to sink She Got the House. He will also claim credit for ordering the United States Coast Guard to recover the gold.”
“The Neuse is a pretty quick river. How are they going to do that?”
“Using some of their razzle dazzle equipment to remove some of the gravel from the boat. When they have removed enough gravel, the boat will come bobbing up to the surface. The perps put enough gravel on the boat to sink it. Taking gravel off with cause it to rise,” Noonan indicated a rise with his right hand. “ His majesty is planning on being there when the boat rises. In front of the television cameras.”
“And,” she looked over the paper, “it’s doesn’t say anyone was arrested.”
“No one to arrest. Nothing was stolen. It’s just one of those many mysteries of life.”
“But someone stole the gold.”
“Sure. But who? No fingerprints. No trail of money. As my in-laws would say, ‘we’ve got zip.’ No noose to put around anyone’s neck.” He chortled at his pun.