Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Larcenous Phantasm
Steve Levi


Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was in the process of packing for a well-earned vacation when he was stopped on the way out of his cubicle by Harriet, the office common sense maven, with a question: “What kind of a pistol does a ghost use to rob a bank?”

“Good question,” Noonan said blankly as he was locking his desk for a week in New Orleans. In February. With vacation pay. “I don’t have the slightest idea.”

“Ask the man on Line One,” Harriet said. “You’ll love it.”

“While I’m on vacation!” wailed Noonan.

“That,” snapped Harriet, “doesn’t start until five and,” looking at the clock on Noonan’s wall, “you’re on the clock for another five minutes.”

Noonan was not pleased as he snatched up his office phone. “Noonan.”

“Is this the ‘Bearded Holmes’ of the Sandersonville Police Department?”

“I’d lie but no one would believe me.”

“Well, I, er, I’m, er, calling from Hoover, Iowa. I’m, uh, not a cop or in law enforcement. I’m a bank president. Hoover Equitable. President John Johnson. We had a ghost rob us and the Hoover State Troopers aren’t taking me seriously.”

“A ghost who robs banks. And the police do not take it seriously? I’m shocked!”

“He, it’s, taken $50,000 in cash.”

“A ghost has taken $50,000 and the Hoover Troopers won’t take the case?”

“We, the bank, that is, cannot prove the $50,000 been stolen.”

“Then how do you know it was stolen in the first place?”

“It’s complicated.”

“I’ll bet. Do tell. Now tell me.”

“What I, we know for sure, er, because it’s on the surveillance feed, is a figure resembling a cowboy suddenly appeared in the bank’s vault. It pulled a gun on a teller who was in the vault and took a shot. The teller turned, shrieked and tried to get out of the vault room. But it was locked. She screamed for help but by the time we got there, the ghost was gone.”

“The gun actually discharged?”

“Yes. And a bullet whipped by the teller, went between the bars of the inner vault door and slammed into a hallway wall on the outside of the vault.”

“Are you sure the bullet hole wasn’t there before?”

“Pretty sure. I mean, we don’t check for bullet holes every day.”

“But it was a bullet hole? I mean, can you actually see a bullet in the hole?”

“No. It’s more of an impact crater. There’s no piece of metal inside.”

“Go on.”

“That’s it. The teller shrieked and we rushed to the vault. She was shaken but the ghost was not there. We didn’t believe her until we looked at the surveillance tape.”

“What about the $50,000?”

“Missing. It went into the vault on Friday and on Monday, the day of the ghostly appearance, it was gone.”

“How do you know it wasn’t stolen over the weekend?”

“There’s a time lock on the door. We checked the money in the night before and the time lock crunched the door shut. The teller was the first one into the vault the next morning.”

“Except for the ghost.”

“You’re not taking this seriously.”

“I take $50,000 disappearing seriously. Why don’t the police think the money is missing?”

“The vault has piles of boxes. There is cash in those boxes. Cash as in paper bills, which were just delivered from casinos. Until we can verify the money is not actually in any of those boxes, there is no robbery. That’s what the State Troopers told us, me.”

“Can you verify the money is missing?”

“At first glance, yes. All but one of the boxes in the vault were sealed. Inside the one that had been opened you can see a space where bundles of cash are not. Probably extracted. But before the troopers are going to do anything – other than file a report, let me quickly add – we have to prove money is missing.”

“Not trusting souls, I see.”

“Correct. Just because we SAY money is missing does not mean it IS missing. Can we know for sure this wasn’t a clever robbery in which the money was never put in the box in the first place? Not yet. Then there’s the question of whose money it actually is. Tracing ownership of the money in those boxes is not easy.”
“Why? The money’s there.”

“OK, a quick lesson in Iowa law and the casinos. Casinos are required to have twice as much cash on hand as needed for gamblers. This is to make sure every winner gets paid on the spot. So every weekend, when most of the gamblers show up, the casinos need – by law now – twice as much as could be won by gamblers. They never use that much but they are required by law to have that much. So, on Fridays, we send boxes of cash to the casinos. On Mondays, the casinos send us boxes of cash to put in the vault. It’s a recycling process.”

“Why don’t the casinos just store the money in their vault?” Noonan asked.

“Because money sitting in their vaults earns no interest. The instant a casino puts the money, the cash, in a box, to be sent to us, it sends us a message as to the amount we will receive. Even though we do not have the actual money yet, we have the value of the money in our financial base. That gives us more money to lend. The casinos send their excess money to us on Monday and then take it back on Friday for the weekend. The money itself, the cash, sits in our vault for that time period but the credit – to use a term you will understand – is on our books. So, five days a week, the casino gets short term interest on their money in our vault and we get five days of enhanced financial assets. Over a year, this means the casinos get 260 days of short term interest and we get 260 days of enhanced financial ability to lend the money. And during those 260 days, the money just sits in those boxes. We recycle the cash, the actual money, in our vault for the casinos every week. But it’s not really our money because the same money the casinos send us is simply resent back to them on Friday. In the same boxes. So when the State Troopers ask how much money was in the boxes, all we, the bank, know for certain is what the casino told us was in the boxes. If we open the boxes to check, it will be like opening a can of worms. I hope you understand what I’m talking about.”

Noonan was writing furiously. “Probably,” he said as he paused. “Paper money is just a place holder. It’s what’s in the electronic data base that’s valuable. If I deposit $1,000 in cash in a bank, the $1,000 is electronically put in my account. But the cash, the $1,000 in bills, is just paper. It just sits in the vault. Businesses no longer use that much paper money, it’s all electronic.”

“More or less.”

“OK. Let’s start from scratch. Now, and correct me if I’m wrong, you are going through the boxes in the vault right now to see if you can find the supposedly-missing $50,000. Is that correct?”

“No. We are informing the casinos there was a problem and the bank wants them to check their boxes to see if any money is missing. It’s not the bank’s physical money; it’s theirs.”

“OK, then let’s work on the ghost.” Noonan looked at his notes. “What I think you said was a teller saw the ghost, shrieked and started to run toward the vault door. A shot was fired and the slug went through the bars on the vault door and slammed into the wall outside the vault. You looked at the surveillance tapes and saw the ghost. Is that about right?”

“Yes.”

“OK. A couple of quick questions. How long after the shot was fired did it take for the teller to get out of the vault?”

“Oh, maybe a minute or two. The vault is downstairs and she was alone. We heard the shriek and investigated. If you want to know the exact time, I can look at the surveillance feed and give you an exact number of seconds.”

“Do that. Now, I’m assuming you saw the ghost on the surveillance camera.”

“Briefly. And I mean maybe a second.”

“You still have the tape?”

“Absolutely. But it’s not a tape. Our surveillance is electronic so it’s a file, not a physical tape.”

“Where did the ghost appear?”

“Where?”

“Was there smoke in the vault, for instance, and the image appeared on the smoke.”

“I see. No. There was no smoke. The image was between the camera and one of the walls of the vault. It, the ghost, drew a gun and fired. There was a shot.”

“Was the shot recorded on the surveillance tape?
“Oh, yes. It was distinct sound.”

“Go on.”

“Then the ghost vanished. Poof. Gone.”

“That’s it?”

“About it. Oh, yeah, there was the smell of gunpowder in the vault. Light. The bank has a ventilation system so what was left of the gunpowder smell was light. Noticeable, I guess you’d say.”

“Is the smell still there in the vault?”

“I haven’t smelled it.”

“Well, while you are looking for the missing money, get a dog in there. I’m sure the Hoover State Troopers have a K9 unit. See if the dog smells anything.”

“Why? The ghost is gone.”

“The dog’s not looking for the ghost. It will be looking for the source of the gunpowder smell. Just to make sure it didn’t come from a safety deposit box, for instance. The vault does have safety deposit boxes, correct?”

“Three walls of them.”

“And the fourth wall is the vault door and blank spaces behind where the door opens?”

“Correct.”

“Where is the surveillance camera for the vault?”

“There are two of them. One is on the wall outside the vault looking at the vault door. The second is inside the vault. Both showed the ghost.”

“Is there a time lock on the vault door?”

“Yes.”

“When the teller came down to get into the vault, was the time lock still on?”

“Yes. But we are talking a minute or two.”

“What did the teller do in that minute or two?”

“Can’t remember but I’ll look. Usually they just stand there or lean against the wall waiting for the time lock to open.”

“Is there a chair in the area?”

“Not a chair as in something you sit in. There’s a movable shelf. Sort of. It’s for someone who only wants to open up a security deposit box and put something in quickly. Otherwise they’d have to walk all the way down the hall to one of the secure booths. If a client only wanted to have access to a safety deposit box long enough to put something in, they just use the shelf.”

“Does the shelf have a drawer?”

“No. It’s just like a chair with no back.”

“How about inside the vault. Is the security camera in there on all the time?”

“Yes. We saw the teller come into the room and walk to the boxes on the floor. ”

“If she had the key to the gated doorway, why did you have to run all the way downstairs to let her out after she’d seen the ghost?”

“She was so frightened she jiggled the key out of the vault. It was outside on the hallway floor when we got downstairs.”

“All right. She opened the vault door and the door with the bars. The she went inside the vault. What was she actually doing there? She didn’t have anyone with her, right, no one trying to get into their safety deposit box.”

“It’s part of the routine of opening the bank. Every morning a teller goes downstairs with a key. When the time lock pops the vault door open, the teller goes inside, looks around to make sure everything is OK and then leaves the vault. This day, Monday, was only special because of the money, the cash, in the carboard boxes. Her job was to count the boxes, see they were still sealed and then return upstairs. That’s when she saw the ghost.”

“Was this the first time that teller had gone into the vault?”

“Hardly. She’s one of our oldest employees. Fifteen years. She went down because of the cash. In the delivery boxes. We needed to make sure the boxes were still there. It’s routine. The insurance companies require it.”

“Then the ghost appeared. Was there the sound of shot?”

“Yes. It’s on the surveillance tape.”

“Did it sound like a gun shot?”

“I’m not an expert on gun shot. Sounded like one to me. But then again, in a room with metal walls, you know . . .”

“I see. So the teller ran for the door, the one with the bars, and fumbled the key so she was locked inside. How long before everyone went downstairs?” Noonan thought for a moment. Then he said, “I have a number of questions for you. First, though, I need you to send me a copy of the file that shows the teller in the vault and the ghost.”

“I can do that. What’s your email address”

Noonan gave him the address. “Now, get the answer to all of these questions and when I call you back, have them ready for me.”

“OK.”

“Here we go. How long do you keep the electronic files of tellers going into the vault, when was the last time the vault was cleaned, when was the last time the hallway to the vault was cleaned, when was the last round of construction of any kind in the vault or the hallway, how did the cash in the boxes arrive, from where did the cash originate, how often does cash in boxes arrive in the bank, is the cash in the boxes sequenced or are the serial number random, when was the last time the ventilation system in the bank, vault and hallway to the vault checked, how long has the bank had its current insurance companies and have there been any changes to the normal routine of the bank and, finally, are any of the bank employees scheduled for a vacation within the next month?”

“Got them. The way I hear it, you want a copy of the surveillance file and the answers to those questions when you call me back.”

“Yes. And if you find the money, you will let me know right away.”

“Of course. But all the evidence . . .”

“Crimes involving large sums of money have a tendency to be quite complicated.”

“I see, but, frankly, $50,000 is not much in the banking world.”

“I’m betting it’s just the tip of a rather odious iceberg.”

* * *

Whenever Noonan had a loo-loo case, he turned to his two, tried-and-true sources of information: history and the newspapers. Finding information on Hoover, Iowa, was hard because it was so small. Located on the Raccoon River, between Carroll and Boone. Interestingly, Carroll was named for Charles Carroll of Carrolton, Maryland, the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Because of its central Iowa location, it was established as a railroad city. Boone was named for the son Daniel Boone, who, the father, never made it as far west as Iowa. The city of Boone was established by blacksmiths in 1849 to support the local mining industry. In 1865 it was platted in anticipation of the coming of the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company Railroad. It was originally named Montana – which Noonan found odd – but changed its name to Boone in 1871. Even with the railroad, Boone remained a mining town into the next century.

Smack dab between the two was Hoover, named for the President who was, Noonan knew from his history classes, from Iowa. And he was the last President of the United States to actually be born in a log cabin. He came from a working classes family and, another of those odd tidbits of history, was so poor he had to go to Stanford. In those days, Stanford was the university of choice for those students who lacked the money to get into the ‘good universities’ of the day. Not so much today, muttered Noonan. Hoover was lucky to get into Stanford because he failed all of the entrance exams (except mathematics) but it was Stanford’s first year as a university, 1891. He was a mediocre student. His skyrocket to fame came when he established the Commission for Relief in Belgium to feed the destitute of World War I. He was elected President of the United States in 1928 and by the middle of his term, America and the world had dropped into the Great Depression. It ruined his reputation and thus surprised Noonan there was a city name after the man.

Hoover, the city, did not have a newspaper and those in Carroll and Boone did not mention events or personalities in Hoover at all. There were some references to Hoover on Google but they were milquetoast. He did find one mention in a gambling journal but it was an aside.

Gambling in Iowa had been disjointed for a century. Iowa, the only state to be bounded by rivers on both east and west – Mississippi and Missouri respectively – had been a haven for riverboat gamblers. It started as an historical necessity and after Iowa became a state could not be regulated by the State of Iowa because the gambling was on the rivers, federal territory. As gambling was popular – and rivers in Iowa being numerous – offshore gambling took off. Offshore, in this case, was off a river or lake shore, not the ocean. Iowa has few ocean shore accesses. Then, in 1994, the Iowa Legislature bowed to the inevitable and allowed onshore gambling. It was inevitable because of the way the water-related gambling law was written. As an example, since gambling had to occur over water, large casinos were built on land but with the part of the structure where gambling was to take place constructed to float on top of giant water-filled bladders.

The change in the law, quite literally, altered the face of Iowa. Overnight Hoover erupted from the Tama; a term Noonan was not familiar with. (Iowa-specific, Tama soil was created from silt-sized particles, loess, which are blown around by the wind. In some areas the Tama is 60 inches deep.) Hoover was established as a supply depot specifically for the gambling industry in Iowa. It’s specific function was to stockpile money; money as in paper cash. By State of Iowa law, casino had to have a cash backup twice what they expected to ‘lose’ to gamblers. Noonan thought this was hilarious because casinos do not ‘lose’ to gamblers. If they did, there would be no casinos.

Since the volume of legally-required cash needed was so great and rarely used, the casinos simply recycled the cash they had. On a Monday they would take their excess dollars and airlift them into the banks of Hoover. The next Friday they would airlift the same dollars they had stored in Hoover to their individual casinos. All it was costing them were storage fees which are offset by short term interest. Basically it was just a recycling enterprise to satisfy Iowa law.

Now Noonan knew where the ‘big bucks’ for Hoover came from.

But who was doing the skimming?

And if you owned a casino, why cheat?

When Noonan got the security file from the surveillance file from Hoover Equitable, it did not do much to enlighten him. The teller came in through the gated vault door and walked toward a pile of boxes on the floor. She bent over the boxes for a second or two and then stood up straight. Instantaneously the ghost appeared with the pistol and there was the sound of a shot. Then the ghost vanished. The ghost was a momentary flash and even when the image was frozen, it was gnarled. It’s face revealed no features and was half-covered by a 10-gallon hat. The clothing was right out of the Wild West. There was not a speck of color and it was visually distorted by the safety deposit boxes on the back wall of the bank. The teller stumbled backwards and dashed six steps to the gated door and fumbled with her keys. Then she started yelling and looking back over her shoulder.

“So much for the visuals,” Noonan muttered as he turned off the surveillance file.

When Noonan called John Johnson, Noonan was hopeful there would be a clue in the answers to his questions.
“I’ve got your answers,” Johnson said over the phone. “I don’t know what good they will do.”

“You never know,” Noonan said. “Let’s have ‘em.”

“Here you go,” Johnson said as he started to rattle off the response. “The surveillance electronic files are stored for a year if there is any movement on them. If not, they are deleted monthly. The footage we have for the mornings are simply the teller opening the vault, checking boxes and leaving the vault. As clients come and go, they are recorded in the electronic files. The vault is cleaned weekly by a janitorial crew. The hallway, but not the vault, had major restoration a month ago . . . “

And a dull clang went off in Noonan’s brain. Before Johnson could go on, Noonan asked, “What was done a month ago?”

“We had a flood from one of the bathrooms and had to replace the carpet in the hallway. About 50 feet. Since we were going to be ripping up the rug and some of the wood paneling, we did a paint job on the wall, replaced some old lighting fixtures and put in new ceiling tiles.”

“Was there any changes to either of the security cameras?”

“No. They were left in place. And not turned off if that’s your next question.”

“It was. Go on.”

Johnson continued. “The cash comes into the bank in boxes. Cardboard boxes. Each casino has its own box. The casino puts the cash in a box, seals it and transports it to a landing strip. There a plane takes the box – weekly, let me add – to the Hoover airport. An armored car picks up the box and transports it here. To our vault. We do not open the box because the money is not ours. We simply acknowledge receipt of the cash boxes because they are in our possession and we charge a storage fee.”

“OK.”

“We, I, don’t know if the cash in the boxes has sequential serial numbers because we do not open the boxes. My guess is ‘no.’ The bills are what gamblers paid in to get chips. I see no reason for any gambler to be buying $20,000 of chips with sequential serial numbers. The ventilation system in the vault has not been checked in years and the ventilation system in the hallway was part of the upgrade. We have had the same insurance companies – three of them, for about ten years and there have been no changes to bank procedures in, oh, I don’t know, at least a dozen years. And, finally, three tellers have vacations within the next month . . .”

Noonan cut him off. “Is one those tellers the one who saw the ghost?”

There was a moment of silence. “Yes, as a matter of fact.”

And the clang in Noonan’s brain was metaphorically deafening.

* * *

“You are not a popular fellow in Iowa,” Harriet said as she flopped into the empty chair in Noonan’s office. “Hope it didn’t upset your vacation.”

“I was with in-laws,” Noonan sniped. “It wasn’t a vacation; it was an obligation.”

“Get a divorce. It gets rid of in-laws.”

Noonan chuckled. “Why are you here? Another loo-loo on the line?”

“No. Just a question. Why are you so unpopular in Iowa?”

“With the casinos. The rest of the folks between the two rivers have no idea what I did.”

“Two rivers?”

“Iowa is between two rivers, the Mississippi on the east and the Missouri on the west. The casinos had a nice little scam going and I put the kibosh on it.”

“How’d you do that?”

“Made a phone call to the office that handles gambling in Iowa. They were very interested in what I had to say.”

“Well, what did you say?”

“Something along the lines of humm.”

“OK. What did you actually say?”

“I told them what I thought.”

“OK, what was that?”

“Here’s what I think is happening. The way the system works, or is supposed to work, is casinos are legally required to have a certain amount of cash on hand to pay winners.”

“There are gamblers who are winners?” Harriet was incredulous.

“Not really,” Noonan replied. “After the IRS and expenses they’d be better off with a job. Anyway, suppose a casino needs, say, $100,000 to pay winners. But the $100,000 may not actually need to be cash.”

“Why not?”

“Because the casino might pay in chips or a check. Or even direct deposit. It will depend on what the winner wants. In reality, the $100,000 is not actually a cash loss. It might be as low as, say $20,000. In cash, mind you.”

“That’s still a lot of money.”

“Not really. Anyway, the State of Iowa law requires casinos to have twice the amount of losses they expect on hand. So, if the casino is expecting to lose $100,000 it has to have $200,000 cash on hand.”

“But it doesn’t need $200,000 in cash.”

“Precisely. So here’s what I think was happening. In the case of the Hoover Equitable, the bank with the ghost, what the casinos were doing was keeping the actual $200,000 in cash and sending a lot less in the boxes which were stored in banks. Since the bank never opened the boxes, there was no way of knowing if there was actually $200,000 in the boxes. The supposed $200,000 would come in on Monday morning when all of the weekend gamblers were gone. The boxes would sit in the vault until Friday when they would be resent back to the casino. The next Monday, the process would begin anew.”

“So the money was just going back and forth.”

“No, the boxes were. I don’t know about the money. And that’s the point. The money in the boxes in the vault was only making short term interest. So, I think, what the casinos were only putting in a few thousand dollars – just in case a State of Iowa auditor showed up. Just enough cash to fool the auditors. The casino might have boxes in three or four different banks. That way if the auditors said this casino didn’t have enough money in reserve, the casino could say the rest of the money was in other banks.”

The bank would never know the contents of the boxes because the bank never opened up the boxes.”

“Well, where was the money that was supposed to be there?”

“Invested somewhere. Instead of having $200,000 a week making short term interest, say 3%, the casinos secretly took the $200,000 and invested it. Maybe buying stock. I don’t know. But they could be making as much as 15%. Add the 3% of short term interest and the casino was making 18% on its money. It’s a scam because the casino is getting short term interest on money that is supposed to be boxed in the bank vault AND regular interest on their money someplace else.”

“How’d the ghost fit in?”

“Good question. I don’t know for sure. My bet, someone at one of the casinos got greedy. Someone with a connection to the teller at Hoover Equitable. About a month ago, there was major renovation in the hallway leading the vault. My guess, a small camera was placed under the surveillance camera in the hallway. It could not be seen by the hallway surveillance camera because it was beneath the surveillance camera. Then, at the right moment, it would shoot the image of the ghost into the vault. All that was needed was a split second.”

“But wouldn’t the camera be spotted when the ghost was investigated?”

“I’m sure it was pulled down in the melee when the teller started screaming. Everyone was looking toward the vault door, not back and upwards to the surveillance camera.”

“And the so-called bullet hole was put in during the upgrade as well?”

“My bet too.”

“Well, there had to be some kind of shot.”

“And smell of gunpowder. Easy. There was some kind of a recording device in one of the safety deposit boxes. The teller walked into the vault with her back to the surveillance camera. She opened a box, the one with the missing $50,000, . . .”

“That had already been taken out at the casino . . “

“Right. The $50,000 was already missing. All the teller had to do was open the box. That way the missing money would be linked to the ghost.”

“Not the casino!”

“Yup. She walked in with her back to the surveillance camera so she could not be seen opening a box. Then she started the recording device in the safety deposit box, possibly with her cell phone.”

“And the camera in the hallway at the same time!”

“Correct. Simultaneously there was the ghost and the shot.”

“But wasn’t there a smell of gunpowder ?”

“Yup. She probably went to a firing range over the weekend and got gunpowder all over her clothes. The next morning she wore a jacket to work over her clothes so no one would smell it. Then she took off the jacket when she went into the vault. Thus the smell of gunpowder.”

“But she didn’t make a dime.”

“Not yet. She’s going on vacation.”

“I’ll bet it will be a profitable one for her.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on what the State of Iowa does. All I can do is tell them what I think. After that, it’s up to them.”

“I hate ghost stories that are easily explained.”

“Life is tough. Did you know ghost like to drink?”

“Really?”

“Yeah, they just love boos.”