Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Phantasmagoric Highbinder
Steve Levi

Beyond the Western

Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was speaking in a conspiratorial whisper when the call came in. He and Harriet were in cahoots as to how best to convince the scourge of their joint existence, Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security Lizzard, to take an extended vacation. They had thought to create an office pool with the winner going to the Bahamas for the winter – and summer – but that was too obvious. They considered Las Vegas but neither wanted to bring the Commissioner joy, Bangor was too cold any time of year and Orlando too close. Barrow, Alaska, was a strong contender because it was as far as you could go from Sandersonville and still speak English.

The two were in a deep in devious mode when Harriet had to take a call on the office phone. Noonan was still pouring over slow-boat-to-China schedules to wherever they arrange for Lizzard to travel on vacation when Harriet handed him the phone.

“This is your kind of call.”

Noonan took the phone. “Captain Noonan here. How can I help you?”

“This is Wang Feng Lee with the San Francisco Bay Chinatown Historic Manuscript Archives. We have a phantasmagoric highbinder who is appearing in our collections and no one believes us.”

“I don’t doubt that. I know the term phantasmagoric but I am unfamiliar with highbinder.”

“That’s because you’re not from the West Coast. It’s a San Francisco Bay term – historical term actually – for the Chinese Tong gangsters in the 1800s. The Tongs were gangs in San Francisco.”

“That was a long time ago. Is there a specific reason you are using the term highbinder?”

“Because he appears on the security camera inside our vault just as if he stepped out of a time capsule. He’s authentic right down to the queue and hatchet.”

“How do you know you’re not being fooled by some razzle-dazzle electronics?”

“Because the highbinder left behind an opium pipe in the vault. Our curator identified the opium as a 19th Century blend.”

“You can probably buy that kind of opium if you know where to go.”

“True. But can it set off a smoke alarm in a locked vault?”

“And,” finished Noonan, “since nothing has been stolen there is no crime.”

“The Bay City Police think we’re crazy. The officer that took the report had a hard time keeping a straight face.”

“I can believe it.”

“But then someone at the security company talked to someone who talked to someone else and poof it was in a local tabloid and from there, well, you can imagine what happened next.”

“Front cover in the supermarket tabloids. Since I cannot go to the San Francisco Bay Area, let me see what I can do from the other side of the country. First off, tell me about the San Francisco Bay Chinatown Historic Manuscript Archives.”

“Do you know the difference between a museum and an archive?”

“Maybe. Tell me anyway.”

“A museum is a building displaying historical items. An archive is a building that only houses paper. If you went to a museum you would see paintings and silverware, maybe a diorama of old San Francisco with a cable car in the background and manikins in period dress in the foreground. We are a manuscript archive. We have old letters, diaries, some manuscript, photographs, maybe some ration stamps and old identity cards. Generally speaking, we just have paper.”

“Does the paper have any value? I mean in terms of cash.”

“If you mean can you sell an old letter on Ebay, yes. But we are not talking even hundreds of dollars. We buy West Coast Chinese documents off Ebay but we’re paying, at the most, a hundred dollars.”

“What’s the most valuable item in your collection?”

“We have some family histories from well-known 19th Century Chinese families but you’d have to know West Coast Chinese history to know who those people were. And the collectors who buy that kind of a collection are buying to give it to us.”

“So there’s no reason for anyone to want anything out of the collections for monetary gain?”

“I’d say not.”

‘Now let’s talk about the highbinder and the opium pipe. Did the highbinder just stand and then disappear or did he walk around in the vault?”

“He just appeared. There was nothing dramatic about his appearance, like a flash of light or something like that. The vault is lighted 24 hours a day for the security camera to work. One moment the highbinder was not there the next moment he was. He had an opium pipe in his hand and he pointed at some boxes on a shelf. Then he set the pipe on the floor and was gone.”

“So the highbinder didn’t move around the vault?”

“No. He just stood there, pointed to some boxes on a shelf, put down the opium pipe and disappeared.”

“Did the security camera pick up the pipe before the highbinder appeared? I mean, could the pipe have been on the floor before the highbinder appeared?”

“It could have been. The security cameras are trained on the collections, not the floor. They are primarily for fire and water problems, not people. I mean, who’d want to steal documents that have very little value?”

“Good point. Now, the highbinder pointed to some boxes on a shelf. Was that a single collection or does that shelf have many boxes for many people’s letters, diaries, manuscripts, whatever?”

“Half of the shelf is for one collection, the Fahn Quai. It’s an unusual collection. You see, Fahn Quai was the term the Tongs used to describe whites. It translates as ‘foreign devil’ or ‘white devil.’ That particular collection has documents relating to work of missionaries in Chinatown who were rescuing singsong girls from lives of prostitution. Sometimes the police would raid a brothel and the missionaries would parcel out young girls to families that would raise them.”

“Does the collection have names, dates and other data like that?”

“Some. But most of the names are in Chinese and worthless today. I mean, if you think that someone wanted to make sure that no one knew their grandmother was a singsong girl, that’s not likely. The singsong girls had names like Morning Dove, Rainbow and Sunshine. When they were freed they became June Morgan or Stephanie Albertson.”

“How about the other collections on that shelf?”

“Some land titles from buildings that burned down in the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, diaries of some Chinese servicemen during the Korean War, a few dozen identity cards from the Second World War and lots of letters.”

“Were the letters all part of a single collection or were they acquired one at a time?”


“How about the Korean War diaries. Anything special about them?”

“Several of them are unusual. They were by Chinese-American who had been taken prisoner of war by the Chinese. So here they were, Chinese-American soldier in a Prisoner of War camp being guarded by the Chinese. It was a strange ethnic mixing if you know what I mean.”

“I can imagine.”

“Now to the opium pipe. That pipe could have been on the floor for days, right?”

“Maybe not days but a day or two. We don’t walk all the aisles between the collections every day. That aisle is not well used so, yes, the pipe could have been there for a few days. But the smoke alarm did go off until right after the highbinders set the pipe down.”

“That leads to another set of questions. Tell me about the security arrangements for the vault.”

“I may have mislead you by calling it a vault. You might think it is something like a bank vault that has a time lock and a dial. Ours is just a fireproof door with a key lock, nothing elaborate. Inside the vault we have a security camera and a smoke detector.”

“And the lighting inside never goes off.”


“I’m assuming that there is some recording mechanism for the security camera. Where are the tapes held?”

“In my office. The camera runs continuously so it’s not as if we have a tape for June 1st and a tape for June 2nd.”

“Who has a key to your office?”

“Oh, I’d say about five people. I do, my assistant does and the security company has three.”

“And the smoke alarm?”

“It goes off when it goes off. There is no timer.”

“Now, when the smoke alarm went off. What happened in sequence?”

“First, the fire department was notified. They notified me at home and I rushed down to the archive. Security had already let the fire department into the vault. We could still smell the opium. That’s when we found the pipe.”

“And then you found the footage of the highbinder?”

“When we looked at the security camera footage, yes.”

“You said your assistant had a key. Where was he?”

“She’s at a conference in Atlanta. I reached her by phone. She had her key with her.”

“Now, the opium pipe. How do you know it is an antique?”

“It had better be. Opium has been illegal in California for a century.”

“Then how do you know the opium is an old blend?”
“The chemistry department at the state college matched it a mixture form a century ago.”

“Do you trust them?”

“They also serve the crime lab for the police, so, yes, I trust them.”

“You said that you filed a police report. Why?”

“It’s a requirement with the security company. If they respond to any kind of a call, the police are notified.”

“Did the police find the highbinder?”

“Actually, yes. They looked at the security tape and found the phantasmagoric figure.”

“What did they say?”

“They thought was a joke.”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s a prank. I don’t know how it was done but I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“OK. I need you to do some research for me. Do you have a pen and paper?”


“OK. Did you or the security company smell burned opium when you opened the vault? Is the key to the vault generic in the sense that you could get duplicate keys made at a hardware store? Was there anything unique about the highbinder that proved he was a century old? Are there more than one Chinatowns in the Bay Area and if so, where? Does your document collection included diaries and letters from just the Bay Area and if not, where else do the documents come from? Is there a local acting guild and if so, is it doing a play that includes a highbinder? I’m sure I will have some other questions when you call back.”

“I can give you some of those answers now.”

“No. I want all the answers at the same time.”

“You got it. I’ll call back tomorrow morning.”

“You mean afternoon. Your morning is my afternoon.”

“I forgot you were on the East Coast.”

* * *

It took two days for Wang Feng Lee to get back with Noonan.

“Any more highbinder specters?”

“No. Just the one. The good news is that the local newspapers thinks it’s a prank so they won’t print anything.”

“You think it’s a prank too, right?”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“That’s a good way to start an investigation. Did you get the information I needed?”

“I got what you wanted but I don’t know if it will help you. I got to the vault well after the fire department and the security company got there so I didn’t smell anything. The security people said it smelled like burned spice. The fire department people just said it smelled like something burned. I wouldn’t know what burned opium smelled like so that doesn’t help you at all.”

“OK. “

“Yes, the key to the vault is generic. You could get a copy made at a hardware store and, I hate to say this, I leave my keys in my desk drawer. All days and sometimes all night. Anyone could have gotten the key and made a duplicate. That won’t happen again.”

“Go on.”

“Highbinders did not change their style over the years. A highbinder in 1860 would like just like a highbinder in 1906. Look at any photograph of a highbinder and there is no way of knowing what year the photo was taken. They dressed in loose black shirts and trousers. They all had queues. So, no, there is nothing unique about the highbinder that would prove he was a century old. There were lots of Chinatowns in the Bay Area but with the exception of San Francisco, they were simply areas where the Chinese lived. Most were gone by the First World War. San Francisco’s Chinatown has been there since the building of the railroad. We have diaries and letters from all over Bay Area and there is no local play that has a highbinder.”

There was a long moment of silence. Finally Wang Feng Lee asked if he were still there.

“Yup. One last question. The Chinatowns in the Bay Area that disappeared. When did the last one go?”

“It’s going now. Right here in town. There’s a highway coming through.”

“Any Chinese left in that area?”

“No. They are long gone.”

“OK. Here’s what I think is happening. First, having the phantasmagoric highbinder appear would be child’s play. All someone had to do was get a duplicate of your key – which you said would not be hard – and then wait until the middle of the night. They would get into the vault with your key and do the disappearing and appearing.”

“How would they do that?”

“There were problem two of them. One person to stop the security camera until the highbinder was in place. Then that person would turn the camera on. The highbinder would do his part, point to a box on a shelf and then the camera would be turned off. The highbinder would then drop the opium pipe and leave the vault.”

“But the opium pipe . . .”

“Could have been bought from anywhere. That century-old opium was probably in the form of tar on the inside of the pipe. I found more than 30 antique opium pipes on EBay. You could probably get century old opium tar from any other pipe. Besides, your chemist did not say that the opium was 100 years old, only that it was a century old blend. That blend could have been concocted a week ago.”

“OK. So the two people open the vault, do a little highbinder dance, leave the opium pipe and set some kind of a spice on fire to set off the fire alarm. Is that what you are saying?”

“That’s what I think happened. They stopped the tape until the highbinder impersonator got into the vault. Then the camera turned on for five seconds, just enough time for the high binder to point to the shelf and drop the opium pipe. Then the camera was turned off.”

“So that’s why the highbinder appeared out of thin air and disappeared into thin air?””

“My guess, yes.”

“Then they pair left the building.”



“That is what I’ve been thinking about for two days. Since nothing came out of the vault, the only answer is that something went in. My bet is that someone put a document into one of the boxes on the shelf. My bet: it was in the box on land records. You said that there was a highway project in your city. Well, if an old land title was suddenly discovered, whoever is funding the highway would have to buy the property. They would probably have to move fast too. They would not slow down a $45 million project for a $100,000 piece of property.”

“So you think it’s a scam?”

“I don’t know what it is. But my advice is to go through the manuscripts and documents regarding land title and see if a new document has been added. It won’t be a San Francisco piece of property because I’ll bet people have been looking at those documents for years. No, it will be small piece of property. Maybe a quarter share of lot where there was Chinese grocery store or something like that. Land records a century ago are not what they are today. If you don’t find it, someone is going to hint at it in the newspaper. Better you find it.”

“So someone is trying to scam the government?”

“That’s my guess.”

“I wouldn’t think they’d have a Chinaman’s chance . . .”

“You can say that! I can’t.”