Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Evanescing Elixir
Steve Levi


Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was seated beside the Sandersonville City Pool when he knew he was about to be accosted. It did not take the eyes of a seasoned detective to realize the accosting was about to take place. It only took open eyes. The man doing the accosting was of average height, average weight, had eyes of an indistinguishable color and brown hair which could be seen at a distance. As the man drew closer, the eyes were perceivable as blue. What gave away the accosting was the fact that the man in question was dressed as a police officer while the rest of the Sandersonville City Pool rabble were dressed for the weather, swelter and swimming pool.

“Let me guess,” snapped the “Bearded Holmes” without adjusting his sun glasses on his temple. “You have come with a problem only I can solve.”

“No,” replied the man. “I’ve come with a problem I’ve already solved and thought you might want to hear the story.”

“And why might I want to hear the story?”

“Because it is a case where the goods are gone but the gone goods are water under the bridge, so to speak. Besides, your secretary said you needed a laugh.”

“OK, I’ll buy that. What’s the story about?”
“Water. Stolen. 8,000 gallons.”

Noonan did not bat an eye. He had been on more than his fair share of law-and-order merry-go-rounds. That’s what he told the stranger – who was an Alaska State Police detective – and then asked, “Let me get this right. Someone in Alaska stole 8,000 gallons of water and you came all the way to North Carolina, to a swimming pool, on the Outer Banks, dressed in your uniform, in the middle of the summer, the best time to be in Alaska, to tell me this?”

“Not exactly,” the man replied. He stuck out his head, “Detective Stephan Gregory. I’m out of Petersburg and I know,” he looked at Noonan sideways with a knowing smirk, “you know where Petersburg is.”

“I know where Petersburg is,” Noonan snapped back with a similar smirk, “but Petersburg is not large enough for a State Police station and probably only has three police officers at best.”

“Yup, you got that right. No, I’m on assignment there, so to speak. My actual office is in Palmer but I was sent to Petersburg to solve a unique crime.”

“A unique crime? In Petersburg? A city of, what, 3,000? On assignment? There’s not a lot of crime in Petersburg. What does it have to do with 8,000 gallons of water and, again, why are you here on the Outer Banks.”

“Answering the second question first: wahoo. My wife is big into wahoo. But she doesn’t like Hawaii. So, when she discovered she could get wahoo along the Outer Banks, well, here we are.”

“From Alaska?”

“From Alaska. As far as you can get from Palmer and still speak English.”

“And why are you in uniform?”

“The law and order convention in Nags Head. That’s what brought us here. Companion fare and convention, cheaper than two tickets to Hawaii. I was expecting to see you at the convention, Captain. I was going to tell you my story there. When you weren’t there, I came here. It was my excuse to see the Cape Hatteras lighthouse anyway. It’s the tallest in the United States and moved 2,900 feet in 1999. I’d never heard of a lighthouse moving.”

“We’ve got some strong winds here on the Outer Banks.”

“Do tell,” Gregory responded. “Now my question for you: Why weren’t you at the law and order conference?”

Noonan snickered. “I’d never be a member of any organization that would have me as a member.”

Gregory snickered back. “That’s not original. It’s from Groucho Marx.”

“As true today as the when he spoke it. Now, the water?”

“Are you aware of what is being called the ‘Alaska Cold Rush?’”

“Sure. It’s the growing trend of collecting glacier ice and selling it as ice in a punch bowl or as the water in cosmetics and liquor. Glacier ice and glacier bergs are popular because the ice is a deep blue and is tens of thousands of years old. Created back in the days before all water on the planet was polluted with all kinds of nasty things. Is Petersburg part of the Alaska Cold Rush?”

“Absolutely. In the off-season, fishing boats harvest the floating glacier bergs. Those guys are called ‘iceberg cowboys,’ by the way. They haul the glacier bergs to the Petersburg dock where the vodka company hauls them into the distillery. The bergs are heated and converted into water and mixed with whatever makes vodka. Thus the water is transformed into Petersburg Glacier Vodka. It’s pricy but the distillery employs a dozen people which helps the local economy.”

“Let me guess,” Noonan pointed at a raised eyebrow. “Someone stole the water from the distillery.”

“Yes, but it’s a good bet they thought they were stealing the vodka. Petersburg is a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business so the thieves had to have come in barge to drain the tank. You can’t hide that kind of tanker truck in Petersburg and there are no roads out of the city. The only way the water could have left town was in a barge. The water probably made it all the way to Juneau with no one the wiser.”

“How could the thieves not know they were stealing water instead of vodka?”

“The whole distillery smells of vodka. There were only two large tanks, one for the glacier and the other for water. It’s was probably an eeny, meeny, miny, moe and they ended up with the water, not the vodka. Best guess, they were going to rebottle the vodka and sell it cheap. Street value, so to speak, is about $20 a quart which makes the 8,000 gallons worth about $650,000. Not bad for one night’s work.”

“Could they sell the water.”

“Unlikely. Glacier water is an expense, not an asset. It’s labor intensive. They get it by corralling glaciers at sea, dragging them into Petersburg, cutting them in slabs which are then melted. It’s the publicity that makes the water valuable. Glacier water does not taste any different than filtered water. It’s the romance of the glacier,” he accented the word glacier, “that makes it exotic.”

“OK,” Noonan said as he dropped his sunglasses from his brow to his nose, “is there a reason you are telling me this story?”

“No really. I was just in the neighborhood and you’ve got a reputation for the unusual.”

“But why was the Alaska State Police investigating?”

“Insurance. Petersburg Glacier Vodka needed a police report to file a claim.”

“Are you sure the water was stolen?”

“I know the vodka wasn’t. There’s no reason for Petersburg Glacier Vodka to fake stolen water. Even if they did, it’s a loss to them. They can’t use regular water as a substitute and it’s going to cost them to get more glacier bergs. Product slowed so there is a dollar loss. No, I don’t see any incentive for Petersburg Glacier Vodka to steal their own water.”

“And there’s no way for the water to have leaked out?”

“They could have opened a valve and drained the water tank in the Petersburg Bay but I don’t see that happening. I mean, why? There’s not a dime in doing that. AS far as a leak is concerned, I did an extensive walkthrough and saw no evidence of a leak. Even if the leak had been intentional, they could have replaced the glacier water with distilled water. Both taste the same. No one would have been the wiser. Besides, everyone in Petersburg knew of the theft the morning after. It even made into the newspapers in Southeast Alaska. You can’t keep a secret is a small town – or a bunch of them.”

Noonan was silent for a moment. Then he finally said, “Let’s suppose, let’s just suppose there really was a thief. [Pause] But he was actually after the water, not the vodka.”

Gregory guffawed, “Why?!”

“Well, suppose he had a rich client, say in Japan, who wanted glacier water ice cubes. All the thief would have to do was steal the glacier water and refreeze it. This time in small cubes.”

“That would be a lot of effort and a lot of risk. Petersburg is a small town so the nearest place to refreeze the water would be Juneau, about100 miles away. There’s a lot of miles where a boat with 8,000-gallon tank could be spotted.”

“Oh, I don’t think the water left Petersburg.”

“What?”

“Here’s what think happened. Someone in Petersburg cut a deal with someone who wanted a lot of glacier water, liquid or cubed I don’t know. Either way, it makes no difference. What the person needed was the illusion of theft.”

“What do you mean ‘illusion of theft?’”

Noonan smiled. “There is no chemical or taste difference between glacier water and filtered water. They are both water. But the glacier water has the romance. It’s exotic. So the thief sold his client on the romance of glacier water. Then he slipped into the distillery and drained the glacier water tank.”

“But no tanker boat was in the area and all of the tanker trucks in Petersburg were accounted for.”

“The thief didn’t take the water. He didn’t want the water. He wanted the headlines. He just drained the glacier water into Petersburg Bay. The newspaper said the glacier water had been stolen. That was his proof of the theft. Then he sold his client distilled water, or distilled water in cubes, as glacier water. Probably out of Juneau. You can fly that kind of cargo out of Juneau, not Petersburg. As long as the water came out of Southeast Alaska, the client would have to assume the water he bought was the stolen glacier water.”

“So the water was just drained into the bay?”

“Probably. It had no value. The newspaper story had the value.”

“And we got zip. We were played!”

“Don’t beat yourself up, there’s still an end game.”

“I don’t see how, the water’s gone and the thief has cash in his pocket.”

“We’ll see.”

* * *

A week later Harriet came into Noonan’s office with a box.

It was empty.

Noonan looked inside the box and then at Harriet questioningly. “You bring me an empty box?”

“Well, it wasn’t empty when it arrived. It had two bottles of vodka. Petersburg Glacier Vodka, as a matter of fact. I took them home.”

“What?!”

“You can’t take gifts or gratuities,” she snapped. “I can. If you want the bottles back, I’ll bring them in tomorrow.”

“Empty?”

“No other way to return vodka bottles.”

“Was anything else in the box?”

“A newspaper.”

“Ah,” said Noonan, the scales falling from his eyes. “I’ll bet there was a story about the recovery of 8,000 gallons of glacier water.”

Harriet tapped her forehead with her right index finger tip. “You are psychic. Let me guess, that Alaska State Policeman with the wild story.”

“Yup. I convinced him to fight fire with fire. The glacier water was never stolen, it was just drained out of the tank. What thief wanted was the headlines in the local paper. Then he sold distilled water as glacier water. The buyer never knew the difference.”

“So you had him gin up the alleged discovery of the 8,000 gallons . . .”

“Very good. You could be a detective. Right. Now the buyer of the supposedly stolen glacier water is going to have a heart-to-heart with the thief. Probably demand his money back. As Shakespeare said, he will have been hoisted on his own petard.”

“How do you know the thief if a man?”

“I don’t.”

“If it had been a women she would have gotten away with it.”

“How do you know that?”

“Women are smarter than me.”

“Really?”
“Absolutely,” Harriet said as she tapped the empty box on Noonan’s desk. “Who got the glacier water vodka and who got left to sup up day-old coffee he had to buy with his own money?”



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