Beyond the Western
Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was desperately trying to finish the interoffice Homeland Security memo for His Highness Lord Lizzard so he could beat the 4:30 Sandersonville traffic home. It was a glorious day, a Friday, and even more glorious, his wife was out of town! This meant he would have two days of bliss. He could lounge on the back deck with his only real world worry being the speed of ice turning to water in his ice chest. There would be no dandelion picking this weekend! Hurrah!
He was still silent cheering his good luck when Harriet, on her way out, brought a young man into Noonan’s office and deposited him in the chair opposite the detective’s desk. “It’s one of your kind of cases,” she said as she adjusted her sunglasses. “Tell me about it on Monday.” And with that statement she was as gone as last week’s emails.
Noonan glared at the young man. “Well?”
“I didn’t do it,” he said excitedly. “I had nothing to do with it. He just, just appeared.”
“Who’s he and where did he appear?”
“I don’t know who he is, was. He’s just a dead guy. He just appeared in my taxi cab. One minute I was looking for a fare, the next I’ve got this dead guy in the cab.”
“You mean he got into your cab and died?”
“No! He’s been dead a long time.”
Noonan shook his head. “You mean you found an old corpse in you cab? How did it get there?”
“I don’t know! You’re the detective! You tell me!”
* * *
If there was any doubt this young man – Alfred Newcomber – might be lying about the corpse in his taxi, it was put by rest Lt. George Weasel, the office hippopotamus. Weasel was large but incredibly sharp proving there was no correlation between body shape and intelligence. Weasel stated there had indeed been a corpse in the back Newcomber’s taxi. It was then in the Sandersonville Morgue and a preliminary examination had revealed a number of unusual assessments. First, the corpse, male, was petrified indicating the deceased had deceased a number of years earlier. Second, cause of death was probably a gunshot because a good portion of the back the skull had been blown away. (Weasel was always careful with his words. Anyone else would have said death was definitively caused by gunshot but Weasel was by the book so the cause of death was probably a gunshot.) Third, the corpse was dressed in a three-piece suit, the style of which was probably out the 1960s so the victim was probably not a street person. There was no identification on the corpse and at first glance Weasel estimated the age of the victim in his mid-40s. There were fewer than a dozen missing persons from Sandersonville which fit the sex and age of the victim but none were a close match. Statewide there were 30 with three who were close to sex, age, height and weight. But one was bald while the corpse had hair. Another had a tattoo on its right shoulder blade which Weasel had not detected and the third was Native American. It its current condition Weasel could not determine if the corpse was that missing person but doubted it because the Native American who had gone missing was from the back woods of eastern North Carolina and the corpse had manicured nails. The fingerprints on the corpse produced no hits.
“So we’ve got zip?” asked Noonan.
“Right now we’ve got zip.” Weasel was precise.
“Not even a
snippet of a clue?”
“Not even a snippet, sir.”
“Great. And call me Heinz.”
“Any idea how he got into the taxi without being seen?”
“That is interesting, sir.”
“Yes, sir. The cabbie’s story is plausible but it’s got some rather large holes. He’s driving cabs to get through college so he’s not a regular. He starts his shift by picking up his assigned cab from Sandersonville Cab and then heads for the airport. It’s his home base, so to speak. At least, that’s where he starts his day. After that he goes wherever the fares are.”
“Where did he say the corpse came from?”
“He said it must have been in the cab when he checked in. He got the keys to his cab and drove the cab out of the garage. It was dark in the garage so he could not see what was in the back seat.”
“You believe him?”
“Yes and no.”
“That’s not a good answer. “
“Yes, the garage is dark and he could have jumped into his car and not seen the corpse in the back. No, I find it hard to believe he could have missed something that large in the back. Yes, the corpse was on the floor so he might not have seen it. No, there was a smell associated with the corpse. Yes, if the window of the cab was open – and it was a fine day yesterday – the smell would have been blown out of the window. Or, if he had smelled the corpse, he would have thought it was an outdoor smell, not an in-cab smell. Yes, I’m reluctantly inclined to believe Newcomber because he allegedly discovered the cadaver when his first fare of the day opened the back door and there was the corpse. But no, it’s a real stretch to believe any cab driver would not check his cab and its trunk when he comes on shift.”
“I see. ‘Yes and No’ is a good answer. What do you think?”
“I think we should identify the corpse and see if there is a link between Newcomber and the deceased.”
“Or anyone else who works for Sandersonville Cab.”
“For the moment let’s assume that Newcomber is telling the truth. If he is telling the truth then someone else at Sandersonville Cab is connected to the corpse. How many cab drivers are there?”
“Depends on how you count. There are 12 employees, 6 regular drivers and 5 office folk. But some of the office folk drive cabs in a pinch. Then there are 18 temporary cab drivers who come and go, regularly and irregularly. Some, like Newcomber, are regular temporaries. Others come once a week and some are on the books but have not driven a cab in months.”
“How many were working the day Newcomber worked?”
“Total was 18 on the previous shift and 17 on Newcomber’s shift.”
“Do all start at the beginning of a shift and stop at the end of a shift.”
“That’s another of those ‘yes and no’ answers.”
“Do the cabbies have assigned cabs or is it a first-come-first-serve.”
“Yes and no.”
“OK. There are two possibilities – if we assume Newcomber is telling the truth. The first is the corpse was picked up somewhere, placed in Newcomber’s cab by a cabbie who was coming off shift. Maybe he was moving it from another location and was trying to dispose of it.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Weasel said with a straight face. “That would only happen if the cabbie was ordered back to the garage before he had a chance to dispose of the corpse.”
“I agree,” said Noonan. “The second possibility is the corpse was put in the car by a cabbie who intended to dispose of it while he was on duty. Then there was mix-up of keys and Newcomber ended up with the cabbie with the corpse.”
“I find that hard to believe as well. For that to happen the corpse had to have been removed for its hiding place, driven to Sandersonville Cab, taken out of some vehicle, dragged through the garage and placed in the very cab, somehow, the cabbie knew he was going to be driving that day. It’s a stretch.”
“So where did the corpse come from?”
“Don’t ask me. You’re the detective, sir.”
* * *
Cadavers do not appear out of thin air; they are the inevitable result of living. Living people do not appear out of thin air either. They leave footprints, so to speak, in the data universe. More footprints are left if the person runs afoul of the law. But the number of people who have not come in negative contact with the law are a large swatch of the population. The problem Noonan had was once he extended his search for the identity of the cadaver beyond the borders of North Carolina, things would get very difficult very fast. Getting a list of all missing males in their mid-40s from across the nation was going to give him a mountain of leads when what he needed was a molehill. So far he had been thinking like a law enforcement officer. He had been ticking off the usual. Fingerprints had been checked. Missing people in North Carolina had been checked. The pockets of the corpse had been checked. All he knew at this point was the male had not been in the military, had no police record and was not listed as missing in North Carolina.
But the body had been found in North Carolina. Therefore he had to have arrived in North Carolina. Being well-dressed and with manicured nails did not necessarily mean he lived in the Sandersonville area but it did mean his circle of friends were also reasonably well-heeled. But if he were dressed in mid-60s style, it would make his reasonably well-heeled friends in their 70s. That meant the body had been in situ for 40 years. If it had been hidden that long, why move it now?
Assuming the perpetrator had been forced to move the body because of some construction project, Noonan checked with city planners and, again, got zip. There were no major construction projects on the books. There were a lot of business and residential building permits on file. Noonan and Weasel divided them by size of project and, again, got zip. Then they divided them into piles for new construction, renovations, foundation removal, foundation strengthening and wall replacement. That produced six possibilities, none of which panned out.
Since the corpse of petrified, Noonan guessed he might have been frozen and that was what slowed the decomposition. It was a good thought and produced a snowstorm of leads. In addition to ice houses and cold storage units, there were butcher shops which had meat lockers, supermarkets with walk-in refrigerators and seafood houses. Then there were the refrigerated railway box cars along with all of the refrigerated trucks delivering meat and fish. And this list did not include the hundreds of thousands of home freezers in North Carolina.
They had zip.
So they tried another approach. They had been concentrating on trying to identify the corpse and gotten nowhere. So why not try to identify who would have put the corpse in the car? Newcomber was ruled out because he was about 28 which meant the cadaver had been killed 12 years before Newcomber had been born. So who was working for Sandersonville Cab who was in their up 60s and early 70s?
Weasel was in the field so Noonan went over Weasel’s notes and found a dozen names. They were scattered through the company, nine of them were cabbies and the other three were office staff: a secretary, mechanic and bookkeeper. None of the 12 had a police record. Five had a voting record. Six had fishing licenses. Three had second vehicles. All had traffic citations of some kind, most of them parking tickets. All of them had reasonable good credit ratings and none of them seemed to be having any severe money problems. Two had passports. He ran the names of the 12 through Homeland Security – one of the few times the name of Commissioner Lizzard was a blessing – and, again, got zip.
Then he pulled up the time cards for the dozen. There was nothing out of place. The three office staff had all punched in and out close to their regular time. When Weasel came back from the field, Noonan sent him to pick up the route slips for the nine cabbies while Noonan called to see the company had any security tapes.
He was in luck.
Yes, Sandersonville Cab had a security system but it was outside cameras only. Yes, Noonan said, he wanted the tapes for the previous 24 hours before the corpse had been discovered. When he got the tapes, again, he got zip. He could identify the cars of the office staff when they arrived for work and when they left. No out-of-place vehicles arrived during the critical 24 hours. When Weasel came back with the cab routing slips, the cabbies in question had alibis all over the Sandersonville.
But then again, maybe not. Noonan was pouring over the pile of inconsequential paperwork flooding his desk when he heard a distant bell go off. Something was amiss. Something was not right. He was clearly missing something. But what was it? He had plowed through the paperwork for hours – hours when he would have been enjoying a beer in the sunshine while his wife was out of town – and here he was up to his ear lobes in an unsolvable murder.
But the bell, however distant, had gone off and the bearded Sherlock Holmes trusted his instincts. He took another look at the Sandersonville Cab time sheets and routing slips and then headed for the Sandersonville Police Garage.
* * *
“I hear you have our itinerant cadaver case solved,” congratulated Sandersonville Assistant District Attorney Mustapha Leopold.
“Itinerant cadaver,” smiled Noonan. “That’s rich.”
“The old odd cases we get come from your office,” Leopold said and waved his finger in a circle. “You make our day.”
“Well, unfortunately, I can only half make your day with this one. I can’t tell you who the cadaver is or who killed him but I can tell you how he got into the back seat of the taxi cab.”
“Give me what you have and I’ll take it from there.”
“Last Monday and Tuesday evening I took an undercover police vehicle, a cab, and parked near the entrance to Sandersonville Cab. When Jerome Butler, the lead mechanic for the cab company came out I followed him.”
“A guess. The cabbie who found the body would not have put it in his own cab. Besides, he had not been born when the cadaver in question was killed. I looked at the security tapes for the 24 hours before the corpse was discovered and saw no unusual vehicles. Cabbies drove their own cars into the garage before their shift and out again after. Other than that it was Sandersonville cabs going in and out all day.”
“To be expected.”
“But the corpse had to come in somehow. I suspected someone drove a Sandersonville cab out of the garage, picked up the corpse and drove it back into the garage. Then he left it.”
“Strange. He left a corpse in a car where it was going to be found?”
“Why not? If he knew the identity of the corpse, which I doubt, there was no link between the corpse and the man who moved it? He didn’t really care who found it. He just had to make sure he had an alibi when the corpse was found.” Noonan smiled mischievously, “If he knew about the corpse at all.”
“OK. Well who moved the corpse and why?”
“Why I don’t know. But I believe I can tell you who moved the corpse. It was Billy Watson, the mechanic. But he did not know it at the time.”
“How do you know that?”
“First, because he’s the right age. He would have been in his forties when the man in question was killed. Second, as a mechanic – and the lead mechanic at that – he didn’t have to account for his time in the garage. He could be gone an hour and no one was going to call him on it. I’m sure he grabbed cab keys, went to the location of the body where it was put in the car and then he drove back into the garage. Then he put the keys back on the board. He didn’t care who discovered the cadaver.”
“Can you prove any of it?”
“I can prove that on both Monday and Tuesday he left Sandersonville Cab and drove to the Autumn Leaves Restaurant where he met with a man his own age.”
“You followed him?”
“Driving a taxi cab, yes. Cabs are invisible in this town.”
“OK. Who was the man?”
“Steven Lewiston, the owner of Sandersonville Cab. I ran the plates on his car when he left the restaurant.”
“So Lewiston killed our itinerant corpse?”
“I don’t know. But there has to be money involved so there will be a paper trial. Your office should use some of your razzle-dazzle paperwork and dig into Lewiston’s past. See where he got the money to start the cab company. See if any partners have disappeared. See if Lewiston has a large freezer in his garage. Maybe Lewiston was stupid enough to keep the murder weapon.”
“Why did he move the corpse at all?”
“A good question. I asked that myself. Then I went back to the building permits and found one for the Lewiston residence. It filed for a major renovation. On a hunch I checked the SSDI. . .”
“Social Security Death Index. It’s the list of people with Social Security Numbers who have died.”
“Why the SSDI?”
“To see if a Mrs. Lewiston had died. One did. Then I checked to marriage records and found Steven Lewiston just got married to a Gloria Wiggins. I’m betting she wanted the major renovation and that meant the old man had to get rid of the body.”
“So he used the mechanic to get rid of the body?”
“I think not.”
“I think the mechanic was asked to come to Lewiston’s house on the QT in a company cab. The mechanic parked in the garage and while he was doing something inside, maybe a meaningless task Lewiston asked him do, Lewiston slipped the body into the cab. Then the mechanic drove the cab back to the garage and put the keys back on the board. He didn’t know there was a body in the car.”
“Then why did he meet with Lewiston later when you followed him?”
“Because the morning after the corpse was discovered he figured he’d been snookered. Then he wanted money. I’m sure the conversations in the restaurant were about money.”
“Well,” said Noonan pointing at the piles of paperwork on his desk, “I’ve done my share of the lifting. Now you can do yours. I’m taking the rest of the day off – and maybe tomorrow.”
“Hardly,” snapped the high pitched whine of Commissioner Lizzard who had tromped into Noonan’s office carrying a cardboard box. “These are invites for the Homeland Security Community Awareness Seminar this weekend. They have to be sorted, labeled and mailed ASAP.”
The Sandersonville Assistant Attorney General was half-way out the door by the time Commissioner Lizzard dropped the box of invites on Noonan’s desk.