Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Frivolous Heists
Steve Levi

Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was up to ears in make-up. Commissioner of Homeland Security for Sandersville, Commissioner Lizzard – a double “z” though he looked more like his namesake than did Lt. George Weasel who, anatomically speaking, appeared more hippopotami than vector – demanded all of his staff participate in community activities and it fell to Noonan to be the clown for the charity fund drive. Noonan was unhappy to have been chosen to play a clown, but pleased to be out of the office on what had turned out to be a very slow day for crime but a phenomenally good day for being at the beach where, as a matter of fact, the charity event was being held.

His day would have been perfect except for the requirement he carry his cell phone “just in case” duty called. As he was putting on the red bulbous nose, the beast of many tones burbled to life. Smearing red-and-white stripes on the electronic beast, he saw the summons was from Commissioner Lizzard. Noonan popped the phone alive and snapped, “I’m up to my ears in greasepaint and cannot possibly be back in the office for a dozen years.”

“Fine with me,” a strange voice said. “I just want you to tell me why anyone would steal bridle path signs from the city park and a dozen bundles of Johnson for Mayor political signs from the city dump.”

“A good question,” said Noonan. “I don’t have the slightest idea. Nor do I know who you are or why you care?”

“As for who I am, Kevin Nixon. I’m the City Manager for Harperville. We’ve had some thefts and it was suggested I call you.”

“OK,” said Noonan. “You’ve called. Now the question is why? Some fraternity numbskulls probably stole the bridal path signs to put over their bed. As for the Johnson for Mayor! signs, if they were taken from the dump, well, that’s kind of public property. Why do you care? Election’s over.”

“I care,” Nixon said, “because the Mayor told me to care. That’s why I’m calling you.”

“Of all the calls I get this, shall we say, is a bit below my usual.”

Noonan was about to continue when the high-pitched voice of Commissioner Lizzard wafted through the gap in the electronic static, “Mayor Richard Johnson of Harperville is a key member of the Homeland Security family in North Carolina, Chief Noonan. Please see what you can do for him.”

There were some odd sounds from the electronic device of audio torture and then Nixon was back on the line. “It’s clear we are in this together, old boy. I have Mayor Johnson and you have Commissioner Lizzard.”

“Aren’t we both lucky.”

“Yeah. And I agree with you about the signs. But the mayor wants to make sure not one is going to be spray painting rude statements on his signs and then putting them up around town.”

“When was the election?”

“Two weeks ago.”

“Someone’s going to keep his signs in their garage for two years . . .”

“Three. Mayor serves for three years.”
“OK, three years and then put them up. Seems like a waste of time.
“I agree. But, you know, . . .”

“Yeah,” said Noonan. “Leave your name and phone number with Harriet, my secretary, and I’ll see what I can do.”

“There’s no one here. You’re the only one I could reach and only because your Commissioner . . .
“Aren’t I the lucky one.”

* * *

Commissioner Lizzard followed up Nixon’s phone call with an e-mail memo, another curse of the electronic age: the e-mail memo. The paper memo was not sufficient for the hoity-toity. The “You Have Mail” smiley face was flashing on Noonan’s computer when he came into the office the next day giving him no chance to shuffle the problem off for a few more hours. The bridal path sign was clearly a prank, something friends of his would have done in college and it was likely the political signs had been snatched because they could be used as insulation in a week-end cabin. Since the political signs were stolen from a dump there was no crime. The bridal path sign might have been worth all of $100 of which the Feds paid $95. State or federal crimes the theft might have been but it was not worth a phone call.

Until Commissioner Lizzard called and then a call to the United States Attorney was required.

Fortunately the Office of the United States Attorney had minions who had common sense so Noonan would not have to embarrass himself by asking a stupid question.

“Jerry! Heinz Noonan! Sandersonville! A voice from your past!”

“Not another vegetarian anaconda?”

“You’ve been reading my book! Great! All the profits go to the homeless shelter here in Sandersonville.”

“Good. Actually, I was about to call you?”

“State secret or more Homeland Security hush-hush?” He whispered the hush-hush as though it were a secret.

“We don’t do Homeland Security here.” He paused, “Thank God. No, just a collection of oddities.”

“Make my day, Jerry.”

“We have had a string of odd robberies down your area. Nothing big, all small. A lot of signs from a lot of communities, some plumbing fixtures, political campaign signs and highway paint.”

Noonan’s eyebrows went up. “Sounds interesting. Why is the United States Attorney involved?”

“We’re not and we don’t want to be. The signs which have been stolen are traffic signs and the Highway Fund paid for 95% of them. But all together it’s still small potatoes. The plumbing fixtures are out of city buildings so we’re not on the hook for them and no one cares about the political sign. The highway paint is a slight concern because it can be re-sold. No one is going to buy a used speed limit sign.”

“You never know, Jerry. You never know. Were these thefts all from the same city?”

“That’s the odd part. No. Six different cities called in. If you’re calling about another theft that will make seven. All small.”

“Why’d they call at all?”

“Insurance. Cities can’t get insurance coverage without a police report. Traffic signs require a note from Uncle Sam. You want one?”

“Harperville will. Can you send me the list of stolen items along with the cities who reported the thefts?”

“Sure. If any more come in, you want them too?”

“Wouldn’t hurt.”

As it turned out, this was a bad idea. Within a handful of days Noonan had a dozen reports of misdemeanors from cities up and down the North Carolina coast from Sandersonville. They included shoplifting, jaywalking, drunk and disorderly, trespass, vandalism, reckless driving, parking tickets, discharging of a firearm within city limits, possession of cannabis and the selling of pull tabs without a city license. They came in bundles, each with a note from Commissioner Lizzard. Apparently the Commissioner felt compelled to involve himself in this high-profile case of petty theft.

Noonan deftly piled the complaints in separate piles and asked Harriet to file the ones which had nothing to do with the stealing of oddities.

She did.

In a single cardboard box.

She just swept the piles into a shoe box and set in on Noonan’s desk.

“That’s it?” He asked.

Harriet pulled a felt pen from the open tin can on his desk and deftly wrote, “Useless Tickets” on the box. Then she handed Noonan the felt pen.

“Thank you very much,” snapped Noonan.

“You’re welcome,” snapped Harriet back.

What he had left on his desk were piles of odd thefts. More than 60 highway signs had been stolen, ranging from parking to speed limit. Several hundred political signs had been stolen, all in bundles, though stolen was the wrong verb to use because they had been stacked next to dumpsters or in landfills. (Why they were even reported as stolen was beyond Noonan.) There were also several hundred gallons of highway paint, an aggregate of a hundred pounds of toilet paper in rolls, several cases of paper towels, a dozen plumbing elbow joints and six hinged mirrors from bathroom wall medicine chests. More oddities included several cases of wood screws, cases of unused paper reams, some broken office chairs and used carpet savers which fit under a desk.

“Looks like someone is trying to make their own town,” said Harriet. “All they are going to need now are a lot of roads.”

Separating the thefts by date he found all had occurred over a six-week period. The first theft was close to the Virginia border and they progressed down the coast. He made a few calls to inland city police departments and found no unusual thefts had occurred in those locales. He made some random calls to police department in other cities on the Atlantic coast and found no thefts had occurred. Then he called the cities which had been hit and talked to their city managers. Many of them did not even know they had been struck and, to a person, none of them cared. Signs got stolen all the time, people liberate toilet paper rolls all the time, plumbing contractors don’t always hire the best repair people and who cared about old political signs anyway?

The insurance companies were no more helpful. Most were angry they had to fill out paperwork on the petty thefts. If there was any one thing in common with all of the insurance appraisers Noonan spoke with, they all accessed the same band of criminals: KIDS!!

Noonan was not so sure. 60 traffic signs was a lot of property. Because they were stolen in onesies and twosies this meant the thefts were designed to be kept below the radar. Everyone used toilet paper and anyone could use bathroom tissue and the political signs had no value at all. But what intrigued him was the highway paint. This was not something anyone would use inside their home. You had to have a highway to paint. Or a parking lot. Possibly an outside basketball court. So who had a highway to paint? Every road in America was post road, a road linking a mail box and a post office and the Feds paid 95% of almost all of those roads. Maintenances might be a local matter but the ongoing problem with most roads in North Carolina was potholes, not lack of paint. When he called a painting contractor and asked what highway paint could be used for the answer was simple: highways.

On a hunch, he placed calls to the United States Attorney’s offices in Columbia, South Carolina, Richmond, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee. Had there been any reports of odd robberies of traffic signs or highway paint? The attorneys who took the calls thought Noonan was “certainly barking up the wrong tree” or, as an Assistant Attorney for Insular Affairs in Richmond stated, Noonan was “barking at the moon.”

So this was a North Carolina-specific problem.

Well, Noonan reasoned, whoever was doing the snatching of the property had to know his territory – or her territory; it could be a woman. They meant they had to live fairly close to the cities where the thefts had occurred. So Noonan pulled out a map of North Carolina and tried to follow the inland highways from the coastal cities and see if there was any destination which would give him a clue as to where all this booty was going.

* * *

Three hours later Chief of Detectives of the Sandersonville Police Department, dressed in civilian clothes, pulled up at a cross bar across a dirt road which read “No Trespassing.” Noonan pushed the cross bar aside, drove through and then returned to replace the cross bar. A mile up the dirt road he came to the main compound. There were a cluster of people around a two-story building and they were using wood screws to secure the Vote for Johnson! political signs edge-to-edge across wall support beams. Next to the structure was a pile of traffic signs and five or six barrels of what Noonan guessed was highway paint.

“Let me guess,” said Noonan when he was approached by bushy bearded man in homespun. “It’s a barn-raising.”

“We’re a private commune, neighbor. You’re clearly lost.”

“Naw,” said Noonan. “I just don’t want to pull my badge because that would make it an official visit.”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“Don’t need one. I’m not here to make an arrest. Just a lookie-see.”

“What do you see?”

“It’s not what I see that matters,” Noonan scratched his beard. “It’s what I don’t see that matters.”

“What you don’t see?”

“I don’t see the need for any more insulation or outer covering for any buildings.”

The man with the ratty beard smiled. “No need necessary. Only the main building needed covering.”

“Let me guess,” said Noonan. “Those barrels are the paint for the outer coat.”

“Thick enough for roadways,” said the man, “Good enough for the outside of a meeting hall. We get a lot of wind and rain in these parts.”

“Well,” Noonan scratched his beard. “I’d use all the paint quickly and get rid of the canisters because you never know who’ll come driving into the commune.”

“Everything here was paid for with tax payer money. We’re tax payers. We just don’t get our due for the taxes we pay.”

“True, true,” Noonan said. “But not everyone is so understanding. I hear a good coat of paint will cover up a lot of defects.”

“A good coat of paint will keep out the winter wind.”

Noonan smiled. “Well, it’s time for me to mosey along. I’d hate to have to come back, you know.”

“No need. Paint will be on the meeting hall walls by sundown tomorrow. Smell gone in a day or two.”

* * *

“What!? What!? What is this?” whined Commissioner Lizzard waving a sheet of paper. “All the highway signs are in the rings of Saturn? That’s what you told the Mayor of Harperville?”

Noonan smiled. It was always so pleasant when Lizzard deigned to come to Noonan’s office. “No. I told the Mayor’s office I had exhausted all reasonable leads in the search for his political signs. I assured him it was highly improbable anyone would keep political signs for three years just to use against in the next election. In any case, if he was worried, he should change his logo and color pattern. That way he could ferret out who stole his signs.”

“What’s this ‘rings of Saturn’ nonsense?”

“That was what I told the United States Attorney’s office. I said I had exhausted all leads and as best and I could tell, the highway signs were in the rings of Saturn. That closed their case file. They appreciated my sense of humor.”

“Well, I don’t,” snapped Lizzard. “It makes me look, well, ridiculous!”

Behind Lizzard Noonan could see Harriett moving her right hand like a duck quacking.

“Well, Commissioner,” Noonan started to say but before he could continue, Lizzard was storming out the room talking to himself.

“Some people bring joy when they come,” said Harriet.

“And other when they leave,” Noonan finished the quote.