Beyond the Western
Captain Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was in a heated conversation with himself about the facts of life and how he was going to explain them to his twins when he was pulled back to reality when a large, stinking, molding fish was plopped on his desk by none other than the scourge of mankind, Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security Edward Paul Lizzard III.
“What do you make of this?” Lizzard was ecstatic. “It’s a coelacanth!”
“OK,” said an unimpressed Noonan. “Are you going to eat it or stuff it?”
“Neither. I am going to donate it to a museum.”
“This is not just a fish. It’s a coelacanth.”
“It looks and smells like a fish to me,” said Noonan smartly and then changed his tune when he saw Harriet over Lizzard’s shoulder. She was shaking her head and wiggling a finger. “And you are showing me this fish because . . .” he let the sentence hang.
“First, it’s not a fish, it’s a coelacanth. You eat fish. This is a museum specimen.”
“Because. . . .” Noonan let this sentence hang as well.
“A coelacanth is an extinct animal. It was supposed to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs.”
“But here it is,” said Noonan. “Not quite alive but it looks like it was alive so it could not be extinct.”
“Exactly!” Lizzard became quite animated. “It was pulled from Pamlico Sound three days ago. A coelacanth! In Pamlico Sound! Three days ago!”
“And this is a police matter because . . .” Noonan was getting good at hanging sentences today.
“Because it is unclaimed property. No one is claiming it. So I am taking it to the Unclaimed Property Division. This is quite a coup, you know, having taking possession of the extinct fish.”
“But it’s not extinct if you are holding it and it was living three days ago. The dinosaurs died out a lot longer ago than that.”
Lizzard was not listening. He had turned toward Harriet and Lt. Weasel who wiped smiles off their faces faster than a Tyrannosaurus would swallow a titanosaur. “Aren’t you excited for Mother Nature?” he asked them. The two echoed somethings clearly interpreted by Lizzard as “yes,” “of course,” “why not” and/or “most certainly.” Turning back to Noonan, Lizzard said, “We need to get a chain of ownership of this coelacanth.” He paused and then said, “for the records for unclaimed property.”
“So,” said Noonan finally catching the drift, “you want me to drive down the coast of Pamlico Sound looking for someone who lost an extinct fish that was abandoned three days ago?”
“Excellent,” Lizzard explained. “You are a wonder, Captain. You read my mind completely. You can start at Butterflied Deep Sea Excursions. They are the ones who reported finding the coelacanth.”
“They found it. Don’t you mean they caught it?”
“No. They said they found it. Better yet, why don’t you go ask them?” Noonan made a helpless gesture with his hands and indicated his desk covered with paperwork. Lizzard was impressed. “Go! Do your duty in the name of science!”
Lt. Weasel was quick to chime in. “This appears to be a two-man operation, Commissioner. I’ll go with the Captain.”
“Excellent!” said Lizzard turning toward Noonan. “We have an investigative team!”
“But it will need back-up,” said Harriet quickly. “So I am volunteering my services!”
“Even better,” chortled Lizzard. “Now we have secretarial skills onboard as well!”
Lizzard was facing Noonan so he could not see the daggers blasting out of Harriet’s eyes.
* * *
It was an unbelievably horrible day to be away from the office. The temperature was in the mid-80s, there was not a cloud in the sky and every vehicle which contained a tourist was sequestered north of Virginia Beach. The roads were cluttered with sunshine and silence. Weasel made sure to collect both by driving the Sandersonville’s sole convertible with its top down. Weasel kept the car traveling at a steady 45 miles per hour and when Noonan suggested he speed up, Harriet, sitting in the passenger seat with sunglasses and her right hand full of a cold, canned daiquiri, remarked that “speed kills.” Noonan agreed so Weasel continued to drive a safe and sane 45 miles an hour all the way to Butterflied Deep Sea Excursions.
And then the fun began.
While there had not been many cars on the road to Butterflied Deep Sea Excursions, the parking lot at Butterflied Deep Sea Excursions was up to its gills in press vehicles. Noonan, Weasel and Harriet elbowed their way to the front of the mob. There was a guard at front holding back the press. Only after Noonan flashed his badge did the guard reluctantly did let the three of them pass. Members of the press made unbroadcastable on-air comments as the trio made their way into the office of Butterflied Deep Sea Excursions.
Butterfield, the old man himself, was beside himself with a mixture of glee and regret. “I’m happy the press is here,” he told Noonan after the Captain had introduced himself, “because I can use the free publicity. But none of the press is going out and they are keeping customers from coming in.”
“We’d be happy to go out,” Harriet said quickly. “After all, this is police business and you can bill the Sandersonville Police Department for your assistance.”
Noonan was about to say something but did not. Weasel did. “We are investigating a matter for the Department of Homeland Security. If you doubt us, feel free to contact Commissioner Lizzard at the Sandersonville Police Department.”
“I’ll take you at your word,” Butterfield said to Harriet. “Does he go too?” He said pointing at Noonan.
“Absolutely,” said Harriet. “He’s part of our investigating team.”
Butterfield rose to get one of his boats ready. When he left the room Noonan said to Harriet. “Part of our investigating team. That was rich.”
“So’s he,” snapped Harriet. “He isn’t wearing a wedding ring. I’m not wearing a wedding ring. You and Weasel are going to be doing the investigating and I’ll do the interrogating.”
“A man with a boat,” said Weasel slyly. “What more could you ask for on the Outer Banks?”
“A friend who has cabin on the shore of Pamlico Sound,” Harriet retorted. “Which you have. And remember, I’m the one who got us out of the office today.”
* * *
“I don’t know what you’ve been told,” John Butterfield told Noonan and Weasel. “My father and I run a small operation and this fish thing has gotten out of hand.” Butterfield pointed at his father talking to Harriet at the stern of the craft. “We take parties out after local fish, Red Drum, Wahoo. When that, that . . .”
“Coelacanth,” added Weasel.
“Yeah, that thing,” said Butterfield. “It was a fish we had never seen before.”
“A lot of people haven’t,” said Noonan. “Did you pull it off a hook?”
“No. It was already on board when I saw it. That’s why I doubt we caught it. Our customers are city folk, the kind who don’t like baiting hooks. So I don’t think it was caught in the water. I think it was brought onto the boat.”
“Why would someone do that?” Weasel thought like a cop. “Catching a fish like that would generate a lot of publicity for your business.”
“You’d think so,” the young man replied. “But it has been just the opposite. Sure, it’s brought out the press but no one else. Everyone knows that, that,”
“Coelacanth,” Weasel added.
“Yeah, whatever. We haven’t seen an uptick of reservations. Everyone knows it’s a phony. We look bad even though we haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Who actually caught the fish?” Noonan asked.
“A fine question, Captain. It’s Captain isn’t it?”
“A fine question. There were three people in the party who could have left the fish. Out of New York. At least they said they were out of New York. They paid cash so we don’t have a credit card receipt. The came aboard and fished all day. Just as we were about to return, they caught the fish.”
“Or said they caught the fish.”
“How far out were you?”
“Miles. We were nowhere near shore.”
“How deep was the water there?”
“That’s quite an answer.”
“Captain, we know where the fishing grounds are and get there with GPS. Our job is to keep the boat steady while our clients fish. I’m sure I knew how deep it was once but over the years I have forgotten that tidbit. My father and I use GPS to get here and GPS to get back. As long as the clients catch fish, we’re happy. They’re happy and tell their friends about us. It was great until that . . .”
“Coelacanth” Weasel cut in again.
“. . .turned up.”
“Why didn’t they take the fish with them when they left?” Noonan asked.
“Good question. My answer: they didn’t. They took their gear into the parking lot, loaded up a car and left. Poof. Gone. Never came back for the fish.”
“What do you usually do with fish leftover on a trip?” Noonan was interested.
“Most of the time we give them to charity. Legally I suppose we could take them home and eat them but we don’t want anyone ever saying we were overfishing for our own benefit.”
“So it’s not unusual for fish to be left onboard?”
“It’s rare. We usually clean the fish and clients take the fillets home. Very few clients leave fish onboard.”
“How did you know it was a coelacanth?”
“We didn’t. It was a strange fish so we showed it to a Park Ranger. He said it was an extinct fish and called the cops. That’s you guys, right?”
“Well,” Weasel squirmed, “we are cops, yes. But we did not get the call. Someone else did. That’s why the press showed up.”
“You guys didn’t call the press?”
“We don’t do things like that,” said Noonan. “What was the name of the Park Ranger you spoke with?
“I don’t know. The guy who was there at the time. He took the fish and that was the last we saw of it.”
Noonan was silent for a moment. Then he looked over the side of the boat and turned around. “How many clients can you take at a time?”
“Up to nine but we rarely have that many. Usually six.”
“All in the same group?”
“Maybe. Sometimes we have three individuals and two groups of three. Or six individuals. Depends.”
“These three people from New York. Did they rent the whole boat?”
“Yeah. And then said the others had backed out. They paid for the whole boat anyway.” “In cash?”
Noonan scratched his head. “How’s business been this year?”
“Good. It has not been a bad year. So if you are thinking that the, the,”
“Coelacanth” Weasel cut in again.
“Right. If you think the fish was a publicity stunt, you’re wrong. We’ve got all the business we can handle. So has everyone else up and down the coast. Publicity is nice but we don’t want clients who go out expecting to catch an extinct fish. And,” he stopped for a moment and coughed, “I thought something that was extinct had been long dead. How can you catch something that’s been dead for millions of years alive?”
“That,” said Weasel, “is a very good question.
* * *
Harriet stayed on the boat “investigating” while Noonan and Weasel headed for the National Park. It was still a terrible day to be away from the office and the two men had committed an unforgiveable sin by forgetting to turn their cell phones on. Weasel claimed his cell phone battery was low; Noonan just stated his electronic beast was “sleeping and it is best to let sleeping dogs lie.”
The story at the National Park was as bureaucratic as a sunrise. The Ranger in charge knew what he was looking at and turned “the specimen” which Noonan and Weasel called “a fish” over to the National Park biologist. The biologist put the fish in cold storage and called Homeland Security.
“Why,” asked Weasel before Noonan could ask the same question, “would you call Homeland Security?”
The biologist rolled his eyes and pointed to a BE PREPARED! Homeland Security poster on the wall. “Because that’s what my instructions are. See, here, Number 12. If anything out of ordinary happens I have to call Homeland Security in Washington D. C.”
“So you called D. C.”
“And what happened?”
“A guy named Lizard showed up.”
“Lizzard?” Noonan said accenting the second “z.”
“Probably the same guy. I told him what it was and he took off with it. I haven’t seen it since.”
“Do you see a lot of coelacanth around here?” asked Weasel with a straight face.
“Officer,” said the biologist clearly looking for a name tag, “we never see coelacanth around here. Off the coast of Madagascar, yes, but that’s a long way from here. Now, this one’s an import. Why I cannot tell you.”
“Let’s try this from another angle,” Noonan said. “Why would someone say they caught a coelacanth in these waters?”
“I have no idea,” said the biologist. “If you know what a coelacanth is you know this fish was a plant. If you don’t know what a coelacanth is you would probably care less. These are fishing waters, not scientific research waters.” He took a breath. “And if you think it was done as a publicity stunt by some of the fishing boats, forget it. It’s a good year. They don’t need any publicity.”
“So you’re stuck for an answer?”
“Call Lizzard. He said he had a crackerjack detective in Sandersonville. Why not ask him?”
Weasel did not crack a smile.
* * *
Noonan and Weasel struggled to make it back to Sandersonville by close of business – and failed. Weasel dropped Noonan off at the station to retrieve his car and, as it was Friday, Weasel decided to keep the city car for the weekend because he did not want to check the car in after office hours and run up overtime on the garage staff. It was going to be another terrible, Saturday, and Sunday was not going to be any better so Weasel swore he take good care of the car before he turned it in on Monday. Harriet had declined a ride back to the office earlier and stated she would “do just fine” so they left her at Butterflied Deep Sea Excursions.
As it turned out, both Saturday and Sunday were miserable days for Noonan. In addition to weed plucking, dirt moving, gravel spreading and dog poop picking upping he suffered the indignity of chauffeuring the twins to a skating party and a movie while his wife waited at home with spade and bucket in hand. Then she complained as to how hard supervising was.
It was not until Sunday night that Noonan was able to turn on the internet and do research on coelacanth. He learned absolutely nothing he did not know. But he did pick up a new term, “passive drift feeders" which meant the fish just went where the current took it and ate what came floating by, the antediluvian equivalent of “going with the flow.” Its meat was not tasty and its oil unusable. The only people who wanted the species were fish biologists.
So why fake the catching of a Madagascar fish off the coast of North Carolina?
That was such a good question Noonan did not have answer.
* * *
Noonan was not caught by surprise when Commissioner Lizzard came into his office at the crack of dawn – 10 a. m. for Lizzard because that was the crack of his dawn – and demanded to know why Noonan’s cell phone had been turned off all weekend. A fake-surprised Noonan reached for his phone and saw its power was extinct. He showed the phone to Lizzard who pointed to the power cord on Noonan’s desk.
“You missed my calls,” he snapped.
“If I had known you were calling I’d have answered,” Noonan replied with a hundred mile stare.
“Well?” Lizzard asked.
“Ah, yes, the coelacanth. You picked it up from the biologist at the National Park.”
“And it is downstairs in unclaimed property.”
“Negative. It is on its way to Washington D. C. There is a lot of interest in that fish.”
“Why? It’s obviously a fake.”
“Who knows? It could be part of a plot.”
“Really? What kind of a plot?”
“Well, not really a plot as in plot-plot. But there has been a lot of talk about global warming and this coelacanth could be proof.”
“That the oceans are warming up? We don’t need proof. It’s happening.”
“The coelacanth is more proof positive. An African fish showing up off the coast of North Carolina. A fish from a hot continent showing on a hot coast.”
“Commissioner, that fish was a plant. Someone wanted to generate publicity for . . .” and the scales fell from his eyes.
“Hardly,” continued Lizzard. “Why I hear a salt-water crocodiles turned up down the coast from Marvin City. They are usually only found in hot climates like Egypt. Why would they show up here?”
“Marvin City,” mused Noonan. “That’s not in our county.”
“Who knows? The water is warm enough the salt water crocodiles could be headed this way.”
“Really? Let me guess, Homeland Security has a watch out for salt water crocodiles.”
“Anything suspicious, out of the ordinary. When it turns up, we investigate.”
“Who’s the we that’s going to be investigating these out of the ordinary circumstances?”
“Now that the coelacanth has turned up in this county and the salt water crocodiles further south, I am going to be requesting more money from Homeland Security for the two adjoining counties.”
“But my report. . .” Noonan did not get a chance to finish.
“Oh, you don’t have to produce a report, Captain. I’ve already done it. We discovered a strange species of fish in our waters which we sent on to Washington D. C.”
“You didn’t put my name on the report did you?”
“Oh no,” Lizzard said as he gave a look of horror. “This is way above your pay grade.”
Noonan was relieved. “Let me guess, Homeland Security was handed a dead salt water crocodile which was found down the coast below Marvin City.”
“It did. How’d you guess?”