Beyond the Western
Captain Heinz Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was in mortal combat with spider web in the upper corner of his office – or was it a cobweb? – when the beast of Satan, the living Beelzebub, began its irritating, galling, exasperating, gurgling chime and associated vibrations. It could not be his wife as she, blessedly, had lost her cell phone so that left only one possibility.
He would have preferred his wife on the ethernet.
“Captain Noonan,” came the cheery voice of the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, Edward Paul Lizzard III. “It’s good you are in this early.”
“It’s 10:38,” snapped Noonan one iota short of insubordination. “I am here to serve from 8 a.m. to whenever.”
“Good, good, good,” Lizzard squawked. “Something’s come up that has your name written all over it.”
“I can’t imagine that,” (pause) “sir. What exactly are we talking about?”
“Defluxing, Captain, Defluxing. Of insects. The kind of a case that is right up your alley.”
“Defluxing? I’m not familiar with the term,” (pause) “commissioner.”
“Defluxing. The opposite of influxing. Instead of things coming in, they are going out. You know, like the tide.”
“Tides recede,” (pause) “sir. I’ve never heard of defluxing.”
“Well, now you have. It’s up the beach a bit. In Nags Head.”
“That’s fine,” (pause) “sir. But if the case involves a crime that’s out of our jurisdiction. Shouldn’t the Nags Head police be handling the matter?”
“Tut, tut, Captain. This is a hush-hush matter. National security and all. Something we should keep to ourselves. I want you to talk to the Commissioner for Homeland Security in Nags Head. A fine woman, fine woman. Alice Fae Midgett. She’s one of the Midgetts. Old family on the Outer Banks. She’ll fill you in on the details.”
“What is her number?” Noonan asked, pulling out his notebook and pen.
“Not a problem, captain. She’ll be calling you. I said you were the best so live up to your reputation.”
Noonan was about to say something somewhat euphemistically rude but before the words could make it from brain to mental emergency brake, the electronic Frankenstein went dead. Not dead as never to rise again but, for the moment, back to slumbering in its coffin. The living dead always threaten to rise again and will when one least expects it.
That ‘least one expects it’ was ten seconds later. This time it was official. On his office phone. The one on his desk.
“Captain Noonan. This is Commissioner for Homeland Security in Nags Head Alice Fae
Great, thought Noonan. You could always tell how unimportant someone is by their title. The longer the title, the less work they actually do.
“Yes, Ms. Midgett. What can I do for you?”
“Call me Alice. Everyone does.”
“Fine, Alice. What can I do for you?”
“Well, this is an odd case. One the police took a look at, shivered and filed a report. That finished that.”
“The strangest criminal cases in America find their way to my desk. What was stolen?”
“7,429 hissing cockroaches, desert hairy scorpions, venomous and six-eyed sand spiders. About 80% of the Nags Head Insectarium collection.”
Noonan was silent for a moment, his pen hovering over his notepad. Then he slowly said, “Assuming this not a crank call, what is an insectarium?”
“That’s exactly what the Nags Head police said. Let me explain.”
“I’m all ears.”
“The world is full of exotic and endangered insects, spiders and snakes. Most people do not realize endangered species includes insects and spiders. Are you aware spiders are not insects?”
Noonan scratched his head as he search for a response. “As I recall from high school biology, spiders are arachnids and arachnids are not insects. I think crabs, lobster and shrimp are arachnids as well.”
“You got a good education.”
“No, I earned a good education. One earns an education. One gets Christmas gifts. Now, back to insects and arachnids . . .” and he let the sentence hang.
“In layperson terms, an insectarium is a holding facility for exotic insects. If a college in North Carolina wants to do research on the Gooty sapphire tarantula or the Mexican fireleg tarantulas, they can’t just import the arachnids. They are exotic animals. So the college imports them through an insectarium. They have the federal license to handle exotics. Every state has one.”
“And you are missing some exotics?”
“7,429 to be exact.”
“Do these exotic insects and arachnids have a value?”
“Oh, yes. They are quite expensive. We are talking upwards of $100,000 being stolen.”
“That’s what colleges and universities pay for these animals?!” Noonan was fiscally perplexed.
“Insects are a big business, captain. There’s research dollars, big dollars, at stake. Vector research, predator hunting, research to find what’s killing bees across the country. Like I said, insects are big business.”
“$100,000 is a lot of money.”
“We are an agricultural state, captain. Insects affect agriculture. That’s why there’s such an emphasis on insects and arachnids and why there’s a North Carolina insectarium.”
Noonan shook his head. “I didn’t know there was much money in insects.”
Midgett continued. “That $100,000 is not public money, captain. It’s from the private sector. Agricultural companies want to use insects to increase their bottom line. They’re willing to pay that kind of money to find the right insect to boost production.”
“So these insects and arachnids are housed by the insectarium are not just bought by colleges and universities?”
“Oh, no! Big Ag has their own researchers. And there are private collectors too. Most people do not think of private collectors when it comes to insects and arachnids.”
“I can understand that. But your insects and arachnids were stolen.”
“Oh, no question about it. It was an inside job. We’ve all the employees on security cameras. The problem is there is so much activity with the animals, keeping them alive and healthy, that our staff is constantly taking the insects and arachnids out of their cages, feeding them and whatever. That makes it easy to slip the animal into a small box and walk out the door. There’s big money if you’re making $15 an hour. Rhinoceros cockroaches go for $500 per mating pair. Mexican fireleg tarantulas can bring in $350 apiece and the street value of a Gooty sapphire tarantula is north of $300.”
“Can’t the sale of those insects be traced? If someone buys a cricket or spider, isn’t there a paper trail of some kind?”
“It’s not that simple. After we finish talking I’m going to give you a name of someone who can help you. This is a matter of national security. That’s why I called your commissioner.”
“Insects? National security?”
“Someone is clearing meddling with our economy. It’s the North Carolina agricultural economy now but it could be corn tomorrow or wheat and barley next week. America can feed itself ourselves. Right now. But any jiggle in the agricultural world will cause big dollar changes in the market.”
Noonan was silent for a moment. “But if the insects and arachnids were stolen, why aren’t the Nags Head Police looking into the theft?”
“Maybe they are. Maybe they are not. The police don’t pick up the phone once a week and say, ‘We’re still on the case.’ You report a suspicious circumstance and that’s all a citizen can do. If the police don’t want to investigate, that’s the end of the apple sauce. We in the national security business, so to speak, don’t have that option. We never sleep. That’s why I’m calling you.”
Noonan shook his head sadly, “So you need a private detective, so to speak. Why not just hire one there in Naps Head.”
“Homeland Security in Nags Head does not have a budget. We are only one person, me, and I share the office with the Division of Yacht Safety, another one-person division, and we are both in the same office carrel within a division of the Outdoor Safety Agency.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Alice. If the Nags Head Police are investigating there’s nothing I can do. You’re in their ball game.”
“When it comes to national security, we’re in everybody’s ballgame. Tell you what, let me call your commissioner and request your services for a day. Come on up to Nags Head, visit the insectarium, look at the security and tapes and make a decision. I just want to make sure we turn over every rock on the field.”
“If my commissioner says I have to go, I’ll come up to Nags Head,” Noonan said half-heartedly knowing full well if Commissioner Lizzard had already linked him to Midgett, he was going to be going to Nags Head. EOS, ‘end of story.’
“Fair enough. When you get to the insectarium, talk to Alfredo Segovia. He’s the kind of an inside man who knows what’s what.”
With that Midgett hung up. Noonan held the office phone receiver in his right hand for a moment, shook his head and then put it – the receiver, not his head – into its holder. Rhinoceros cockroaches? Mexican fireleg tarantulas? Gooty sapphire tarantulas? Could this call be a joke? Really? An insectarium? If it had been a crank call it was a good one.
Crank call or not, ten minutes later Commissioner Lizzard called – on the hellion of cyberspace. Noonan was to go to Nags Head for a day and he was not to speak to the Nags Head Police because this “case” was “hush hush,” dealt with “national security” and Lizzard himself would determine who “had the need to know” whatever Noonan uncovered.
* * *
In the world of bizarre individuals, Alfredo Segovia was a standout. Even Noonan, who had dealt with the strangest individuals in America – criminals in most cases – found him, at the very least, far out of the ordinary.
Then there was the insectarium. It was more appropriate to call it a warehouse. But once inside the office space was miniscule and slammed into a corner of the building. There was no support staff in the sense an administrative assistant guarded entry to a bank of offices. There was no bank of offices. Just one: Segovia’s, and it had his name on the door. There was no other door along the warehouse wall. It was just one office against a side wall. Everything else in the insectarium was shelving, small forklifts whipping down corridors with ten feet shelf/walls and a dozen people scampering, scurrying, scrambling and scuttling hither and yon with small boxes, large crates, filmy glass boxes and packing cases.
Noonan tapped on the door and a voice said “Come on in.”
Noonan opened the door and stepped inside.
He came in extending his hand expecting to shake Segovia’s hand.
But Segovia did have a hand.
It was a claw.
A lobster claw.
It was a costume lobster claw but it was, nevertheless, a lobster claw.
So was the other hand.
Segovia was dressed in a bright yellow slicker with reflective tape on both front and back, the kind of overcoat a traffic guard would wear in the rain. He wore three pair of trousers though the verb wore was inadequate to describe his dress. On the back of the trouser he wore in the conventional sense of the term, he had belted on a second pair and its legs hung down behind him. At the bottom of the pant leg of the free-falling trousers was another pair of trousers attached with duct tape. There were two pieces of footwear attached to the bottom of the free trouser legs. One was a Bunny boot, on the left, and, on the other leg end, was a galosh. Segovia was wearing a Seattle Seahawk cap with twin chopsticks as antenna, one red and the other blue, each topped with a collection of toothpicks glued to form some manner of an antenna dish. On his feet were two different shoes, a flip flop on the right and a cowboy boot with no toe on the left. Beneath the rain slicked was a T-shirt with the word Beetlejuice.
Noonan, rarely taken by surprise, was taken by surprise. He stalled for a moment and then said, hopefully, he thought, humorously, “Halloween must be a bit early here in Nags Head.”
If Segovia was looney, his voice did not betray it. “The Commissioner of Homeland Security for Nags Head ordered me to go undercover in this insectarium burglary. So I dressed for the job.”
“Well,” Noonan said, regaining his sense of humor. “You’re certainly dressed for the task.”
“Task,” Segovia said snidely, “is all it is. This entire episode was been, is and will continue to be one gigantic cluster. And with each day it grows bigger and bigger.” He pulled off the cap and set it down the desk behind him. He leaned back, crossed his lobster claw hands across his chest and stared at Noonan. “I’m dressed like this to make it absolutely, positively clear that this entire episode, the whole kit and caboodle, is a sham. Everyone knows what happened. There is no crime involved. There is no theft. There are no miscreants hiding in the shadows. It’s just a way for the Commissioner of Homeland Security for Nags Head to get some press coverage. The story is so stupid even the local paper would not cover it. That must tell you something.”
Segovia took a deep breath and continued. “So she went one better. She called the Commissioner of Homeland Security for Sandersonville in the hopes she could get coverage in the Sandersonville paper that would end up being reprinted in the Nags Head paper.”
“So that’s why the Nags Head Police dropped the case?”
“There is no case! Nothing was stolen the way you law enforcement people define it. You being here is just a perpetuation of a public relations opportunity that should have died on the vine a week ago, Jezz Louise and her brother George.”
Noonan smirked. “Why don’t you put all three of your seats on your chair,” he said indicating the office chair behind the desk behind Segovia. “And tell me your tale of woe.” Noonan smiled and then said, “But I do like your disguise. Great for undercover work with insects. Why, you’d have fit right in.”
“The best I could do on two hours’ notice.” Segovia snapped pleasantly.
* * * *
“What’s going on here is garbage,” Segovia said to Noonan after he sat down. “There is no crime. No crime, no investigation. The Nags Head Police were right to drop the investigation before it even started.”
“Well, what did happen?” Noonan asked as he pulled out his notebook. “And why was it not a crime. Property disappeared, didn’t it?”
“Sure, property did disappear. But it wasn’t stolen. It was just moved.”
“Moved, fine. Please explain.”
“You know who PETA is, right?”
“People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I know who they are. Are they involved?”
“Not the way you mean it. For those of us in the animal business – and I use the term animal business – because most people don’t think of insects and arachnids as animals, PETA is like an ocean tide. It exists. You have to account for its existence. It’s not a matter if you like them or oppose them, they are there. They are not going away.”
“You haven’t told me how PETA is involved.”
“I don’t know they are. But we in the insectarium refer to the PETA people who talk about insect rights as PETI, People for the Ethical Treatment of Insects. I, we, don’t know such a group exists. We can just feel their presence.”
“This movement of insects and arachnids. Here’s what we think happened. It’s what I told the Nags Head Police and the Commissioner of Homeland Security. The Nags Head Police agreed and that’s why they bailed on the case. The Commissioner of Homeland Security, well, she’s a bird of a different feather. But she’s still on the case and I’m on the hook.”
“First, she’s an in-law. A distant mother-in-law. She’s my wife’s brother’s brother’s wife. You live on the Outer Banks so you know that means something here. Second, she’s a Midgett, one of the original families on the islands. She’s related to everyone between the Bonner Bridge and Ocracoke. She got the job – and I use the word job loosely – because of her family connections. But to keep her funding she has to show she is doing something. This is that something on her plate right now.”
“Is she part of this PETI?”
“Not a chance. She’s for herself and no one else. PETI, if it exists, is just an excuse to generate some publicity.”
“OK. What really happened?”
“Simple. All of the people working here, we’ve got 30 employees, half of them temps, like insects and arachnids. If you don’t like insects and arachnids, you would not be working here. A lot of these people have degrees in entomology. If they are not openly PETA, they are sympathetic. Not to PETA’s extreme demands, mind you, but to the belief you must treat animals well. I’m not a member of PETA but I believe in treating animals well. What I, we, the Nags Head Police, figure was a group of PETI-sort people decided to save some of the insects and arachnids from becoming experimental animals. So they took them out of the insectarium.”
“That’s called theft.”
Segovia smiled as he shook a friendly finger of warning at Noonan. “It’s only theft if the allegedly stolen objects were sold or kept for personal use. That’s what the police said. But the purloined insects and arachnids were not sold or kept for personal use. As far as we know, they were scattered to arboretums, planthouses, wildlife reserves, zoos and museums across Eastern North Carolina. As far as we know, all of the recipients of the insects and arachnids were state-owned institutions. So there was no theft. It was simply a matter of state-owned insects and arachnids from a state-owned insectarium being transported by state employees to state-owned arboretums, planthouses, wildlife reserves, zoos and museums. No crime, no foul.”
“Do you know for a fact the insects and arachnids actually made it the arboretums, planthouses, wildlife reserves, zoos and museums?”
“Paper wise, yes. Our employees are not stupid. The arboretums, planthouses, wildlife reserves, zoos and museums accepted the insects and arachnids unknowingly. They get deliveries from us all the time. One more delivery was nothing suspect. The insects and arachnids were signed in and added to their collections. Once into the collections you cannot tell which specimen came in and which ones were already there.”
“But did all the insects and arachnids make to those arboretums, planthouses, wildlife reserves, zoos and museums?”
“As far as we know, probably. Could some have been sold? Maybe but it is doubtful. Exotic insects and arachnids are not something you can buy over the counter, so to speak. You’ve got to have a license to buy them and you are required by law to keep an inventory. There are snap audits by the State of North Carolina every once in a while and your records had better match what you have, alive and dead. So, no, it is doubtful if any were sold. Kept as pets, maybe. But the only way to know is to get 30 search warrants and no judge is give a warrant on what we’ve got.”
“So no crime has been committed?” Noonan closed his notebook.
“That’s what I told the Nags Head Police and they agreed. That’s what they told the Nags Head Chief of Police who told the Commissioner of Homeland Security for Nags Head and suddenly you are here.”
Noonan shook his head. “Ah, the wages of politics.”
“So, now you know the truth, you’re in the same plate of Kimchi as I am.”
* * *
“You’ve been a busy boy,” Harriet said when she came into the office the next morning. “It’s all over the news, you know.”
“Eh?” Noonan played dumb.
“Don’t ‘eh?’ me. Anything associated with Homeland Security on the Outer Banks has your fingerprints all over it. You, we, he,” she looked above her, at the ceiling tiles, to indicate the office of Commissioner of Homeland Security for Sandersonville two floors up over their heads, “broke up a scorpion and tarantula smuggling ring? And these poisonous animals were, let me quote the warning, ‘destined for some as yet unknown but nefarious purpose.’ Fortuitously, the article goes on to say,” Harriett read on as she tapped the newspaper article with the tip of her right index finger, “the combined forces of the Department of Homeland Security in Nags Head and Sandersonville nipped the conspiracy in the bud.”
“Really?” Noonan was nonplussed.
“Really?! That’s all you have to say?”
“Humm, let me see.” Harriett kept reading, tapping her finger line by line. “It says here the mysterious disappearance of the poisonous insects and spiders was quickly resolved by the effort of the combined offices of the commissioners of Homeland Security for Nags Head and Sandersonville. And, get this, let me quote, ‘the citizens of Nags Head and Sandersonville can sleep easier tonight because all of the poisonous insects and spiders have been located and accounted for.’”
“What’s the problem? There’s not a single untruth in that statement. My report stated the mysterious disappearance of numbers insects and arachnids, some of them poisonous, had been resolved. Then he did what every bureaucrat does: he doubled the size of a threat that did not exist and quadrupled his role in solving it. The bureaucracy is a fire-breathing dragon, Harriett. If you fight it, you are eaten. If you run, you are roasted. You only survive if you ride it.”
“Until you retire,” Harriett sniped.
“Then it doesn’t matter,” Noonan replied with a smile. “But until then, I call it the ‘magic of the keyboard.’”