Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Red Herring Elephant
Steve Levi


Beyond the Western

Captain Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville, North Carolina Police Department, was struggling to keep his eyes open into the third hour of the Homeland Security presentation by Commissioner Lizzard. Commissioner Lizzard – most frequently called Commissar Lizard behind his back – had just been promoted (his term) to Sandersonville’s official representative on the State Homeland Security Board of Advisors. Membership on the board was honorary in the sense that it came with no stipend, staff or privileges. But it did come with elegant business cards, which Lizzard made certain that everyone in the department had and displayed prominently, so members of the staff and the public in general (his selection of words) would know who to call if a suspicious event, circumstance or personage was experienced, seen or encountered. The curse of Lizzard’s appointment was that everyone in the department was expected to be as concerned with homeland security as he and thus the weekly meetings took gargantuan bites out of the time required for less important duties (again his choice of words) like solving crimes and arresting perpetrators.

Noonan had been on a steady diet of black coffee and very white NODOZ that had long since begun to affect the acid level in his stomach, which, in turn, required large handfuls of green MALOX. These chemicals, combined with the nicotine from the smoke in the room, which was not legally allowed there, and the high concentrations of salt, grease and sugar of a lunch only fit for teenagers, had given the Chief of Detectives a headache, which required a healthy dose of aspirin. Nausea was creeping in like a Category Four hurricane on the weather channel when he was handed a note from a stern-faced Homeland Security staff member—in this case, a paid bureaucrat. On the front of the folded note was the single word SECRET in red letters and underlined. The staff member apparently believed this to be a state secret and handled the note with reverence. Noonan knew it to be a state secret, but in this case a State of North Carolina secret for the State of North Carolina partially funded his office.

More importantly, Noonan recognized his secretary’s handwriting.

With all of the gravity with which one would handle a state secret—Federal, with a large “F,” in this case; not state with a small “s”—Noonan opened the note and read its contents all the while furrowing his brow. The note was succinct:

Come to your office immediately. I have some wacko on the phone who will not hang up until he talks to you. It’s another of your weird cases. It involves six pounds of caviar, three jewelers, two cases of champagne and a red elephant. I couldn’t make something like this up.


“Trouble on the Western Front,” Noonan muttered to the Homeland Security staff member as he rose to leave. The staff member nodded secretly, as though he and the Chief of Detectives were sharing a clandestine secret. Lizzard was too busy with his Power Point presentation to see Noonan leave.

* * *

“This is not a crank call,” was the first thing Noonan heard when he punched his phone line active.

“I believe you,” replied Noonan. “The strangest cases in America come in on this phone line. First of all, who are you?”

“I’m Danny Dee, that’s ‘D-E-E,’ just like a woman’s name. I’m calling from McLean, Virginia, which I assume to be the scene of the crime. I’m not actually a law enforcement officer per se. I’m State of Virginia Department of Fish and Game.”

“With a red elephant I can imagine that Fish and Game is involved.”

“Actually the red elephant is a gem, a ruby. Very large I’m told. I haven’t actually seen it. You see it’s missing. The reason I’m involved is because the gem is set in an elephant tusk that may or may not be legal in this country. It’s a real bureaucratic mess – not to mention a possible theft on top of that.”

“I can imagine. Just start from the beginning.”

“The actual item we are talking about is an end section of an elephant tusk about three feet in length. It has a gold cap on the top of the tusk where it was sawed off and filigree bands of gold circles the tusk to the tip. The filigree bands are connected beneath the tusk in such a way they cannot be seen when the tusk is on the stand. There is a collection of diamonds, an even dozen, spaced between the bands with a giant ruby in the center.”

“How big is the ruby?”

“It’s a whopper. I’ve got the particulars but all they mean to me is that it’s very big and very expensive.”

“Just read me the basics.”

“Okay. It’s a 5.7 carat, clean clarity, oval cut pigeon-blood red ruby from Madagascar insured at $47,987.01.”

“Where did the one cent come from?”

“I don’t know. I guess that’s the result of some calculation that involves a percentage. I don’t know gems.”

“I don’t either,” muttered Noonan. “I just know they are too expensive.”

“I’ll bet you’re a married man,” said Dee.

“You’ve been looking in my wallet. Now, why is Fish and Game involved?”

“The entire collection of gems was encased in an elephant tusk that did not, as far as we know, have an authorizing document. What that means . . . ”

“Is that it can legally be brought into the United States, right?”

“Correct. The reason the State of Virginia is involved is because the tusk showed up as part of an inheritance. We got the tip and went to investigate.”

“And when you got there the artifact of was gone?”

“We’re not sure. It’s not as if we talked to the heirs and they dodged us. They were out of town and as far as I know they don’t even know we’re looking for the artifact.”

“Well, when you got to the home what did happen?”

“That was when things began to get strange.”

“Really?” Noonan was sarcastic.

“You have no idea. We got to the address and were stopped by three jewelers, friends of the family. The family allows their home to be used for nonprofit gatherings. Oddly, this time it was a collection of jewelers. We got to the home and were asked for a search warrant.”

“I didn’t think Fish and Game needed a search warrant.”

“Yes and No. In this case, no. We had a credible tip that involved a suspected illegal animal part. But we have to be careful we don’t just crash a party and go looking through drawers. It leads to other problems.”

“Like?”

“Well, if we find any other illegal items we can’t confiscate them. That’s why we usually go to a residence with a real cop, er, I mean . . . .”

“Yes, I know what you mean. You go with a real cop because you can go in without a warrant and the cop can look at anything he wants because he doesn’t need a warrant.”

“Right. If we find any illegal stuff, like recreational drugs, we can’t seize them. By the time real cops get there, poof, they’re gone.”

“So you got to the house. . . . ” Noonan let the rest of the sentence hang.

“We, as in me, I was alone, got to the house and was stopped by three jewelers, fairly prominent men here in McLean. I showed them my badge and told them why I was there. Suddenly they got very belligerent. They demanded to see my warrant.”

“Which you don’t need.”

“Which I don’t need. They tried to block me from entering and I told them that if they didn’t let me in I would call a real cop.”

“Real cop, yes, go on.”

“Real cop and he’d search the premises for illegal activities and suspicious substances. That created a furor. It also created a flurry of activity. One of the jewelers kept me standing at the door while the two others disappeared. In the crack between the jeweler standing at the door and the door itself I saw activity which I interpreted as a possible hiding of evidence.”

“I’m not a jury, Johnny.”

“Everyone calls me DD.”

“OK, DD. Skip the legal jargon, just tell me what happened.”

“It looked like the two jewelers were burying something in a large tin of caviar that was sitting on the table. A waiter was refilling a bowl of caviar on the table from the tin when the two jewelers took the tin and were rotating its contents with a silver spoon.”

“You suspected it was drugs?”

“I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. All I know is that it was suspicious activity. But unless it involved a portion of an endangered species part, I didn’t have jurisdiction.”

“Tough call. What did you do?”

“I didn’t know what to do so I ordered the jeweler at the door aside and then ordered the other two jewelers to stop mixing the caviar. However, what had been happening at the door had attracted the attention of everyone in the room. Word must have flown throughout the room because everyone started eating the caviar as fast as they could. There were women in formal dress scooping up caviar with their bare hands and chomping in down. I have never seen anything like that.”

“Neither have I. Was there any evidence left?”

“If you mean caviar, no. It went pretty quick.”

“I’ll bet. So everyone knew that the cops were there so everyone was in on whatever was going down, so to speak.”

“My assessment exactly. Then I called for back-up. This was supposed to be a quiet visit to check out an anonymous lead. If we had thought it was dangerous, we would have gone with our own back up or a real cop.”

“Where is a cop when you need one, right?”

“Never a truer statement. What happened when the cops got there?”

“Oh, all of the fun stuff had stopped by then. While I was calling for backup there was a certain amount of chocking, as if some people were not used to eating caviar. Personally I wish I could afford caviar. If I could afford it I’m sure I’d like it.”

“You will. But I can only afford it when I go to a fundraiser. It’s low on carbs so my wife lets me have as much as I want.”

“I think your wife and mine went to the same finishing school.”

“They all did, DD. What happened while you was waiting for the police to arrive?”

“Just as I was hearing the choking sound I heard bottles of champagne corks being popped. And I mean a lot of them. I later found out it was two cases which just about fits. There were probably some loose bottles from another case. But the real cops found two open cases.”

“What were the people doing with the champagne? That’s quite a bit of it.”

“Yeah, it was a lot. They were, and I know you won’t believe me, . . . “

“Trust me. I’ve heard it all. But let me guess, they were spraying champagne all over the place.”

“Yeah, how’d you know that?”

“Sounds like you had a whole bunch of jewelers with, shall we say, ‘recreational drugs’ on the table. When you showed up, they figured it was the real cops and they downed the evidence. Spraying of the champagne was meant to dilute any particles that might have fallen off the table. It would make a mess but keep them out of the pokey.”

“That’s what the cops thought too until we found a loose diamond in the residue of the caviar dish.”

* * *

Noonan was silent for a moment. He had Harriet’s note in front of him and he had ticked off every one of the elements listed in the phone call as DD had mentioned them: six pounds of caviar, three jewelers, two cases of champagne and a red elephant. He was out of ticks.

“Bottom line, Chief. We don’t know what we got.”

“Well, did you find the red elephant?”

“Not yet. The house is now an official crime scene so I’m stuck on the outside of the yellow line. The real cops don’t need me now so I get to wait along with Channels 2, 4, 11 and 13—and Public Radio.”

“So you had some time and figured to call me, eh?”

“Why waste valuable time and apparently I’m doing you a favor.”

“How’s that?”

“I was volunteered for the Homeland Security Advisory Board here. I’ve spent about 1,000 hours in meetings listening to Washington D. C. people tell me about how hard they are working and I’ve yet to see sign of one terrorist who isn’t on television speaking about a jihad. When your secretary said you were in a Homeland Security meeting I just knew how to make myself your best friend.”

Noonan chuckled. “You are wise in the ways of the world, DD. Okay, I don’t know there’s much I can do for you. But let’s see what I can do. Just off the top of my head, here are some questions. How good is your anonymous source for the red elephant? How do you know it really exists? Where are the owners of the house at this moment? What was the name of the nonprofit gathering? How many jewelers are we talking about? How was everyone dressed? Is anyone dressed unlike everyone else at the gathering? What’s the weather like? Were there any loose diamonds at the fundraiser? Where did everyone park their cars and were there any waiters or champagne servers?”

“That’s quite a list,” DD said and Noonan could hear him writing down the questions. “Let me answer those that I know. I have never seen the red elephant and no one in my office had ever heard of it. The source was anonymous, a first timer. I have no idea how credible she is. The source was a woman, by the way, not that it makes any difference.”

“Go on,” Noonan said.

“The owners are rich travelers. They have not been in town for at least two months and I do not know where they are right now. I’ll let you know when the police contact them. The nonprofit holding the fundraiser is JEWELERS FOR JUSTICE; it’s a mucky-muck group of jewelers that raise money to hire lawyers for poor people. Total crowd was about 40; half of them wives. I’d say there were 20 jewelers total and the rest were spouses. The weather right now is hot and muggy, chance of a thunderstorm in a few hours. Pretty typical for this time of year. There were no waiters, just some women. I saw three. I wouldn’t call them champagne women. They were servers. One was pretty old and I only saw her looking at me through the serving window in the kitchen. The other two were young. The one that opened the door for me was about 25 and the other one might have been a little older. I’ll check on the clothing right now. We’re all being held for the moment so let me wander around and call you back. You aren’t going back to that meeting are you?”

“And miss your call? I think not! Be sure to find out where they parked their cars too.”

“Sure.”

Noonan hung the phone and found Harriet hanging on every word. “Is that red elephant Russian or one that’s being barbequed?”

“Neither, and you’re a bad girl for listening to someone else’s conversation.”

“Give me a break! Elephants? Caviar? Champagne? Jewelers? Not your typical crime scene.” She smiled slyly, “but it has possibilities. You could use this case as part of your I, Detective book,” she raised her arms as if she were looking at a banner, and said in stage voice, THE CASE OF THE DIAMOND IN THE CAVIAR BILGE”

“That’s very funny, Harriet. Very funny.”

“What do you tell your children when you go home at night? That you solve serious crimes like caviar poaching and champagne guzzling?”

“Actually I tell them I was working with Homeland Security all day.”

No one is working at Homeland Security. It’s just a military consultant’s retirement act.” She walked back to her desk. “The only people who are payroll are freezer burglars.”

“Freezer burglars?”

“Freezer burglars are people who sneak into your home in the middle of the night and steal leftovers.”

“I thought those were called children.”

“Whatever.”

* * *

When DD called back he didn’t have very much information. “Everyone is dressed about the same, tux and shined shoes. No standouts and everyone at the party is still here. Weather was fine, no rain if that’s what you were thinking about. There were some loose gems at the party—these people call them gems so I don’t know if they were specifically diamonds—and everyone including catering staff is parked up the hill from the house. There was a shuttle just in case it rained. So where does not leave us?”

“Well, over the phone I just have to guess.”

“I’ll take what I can get.”

“First off, I don’t believe there is a red elephant. The only word you have that there is came from an anonymous source, which, I believe, is one of the catering staff. There was something in the home they wanted. But they needed a distraction to get it out. They wanted Fish and Game to show up knowing you couldn’t arrest them for what they were doing. But you would create a major distraction. Reporting the presence of a part of an endangered species would get you to show up without a warrant.”

“So far so good. What about the jewelers?”

“I think the jewelers were passing around recreational drugs and when you showed up and wanted in, the waitress responsible for the scam urged the jewelers that met you at the door that John Law was there. They’re jewelers. They probably didn’t know the difference between you and a real cop. So they scarfed up the drugs and used the champagne to hose down any leftover grains on the floor. I’ll bet the waitress suggested that as well.”

“But that doesn’t explain the diamond in the caviar dish.”

“That was the cleverest part of the plan. The waitress expected you to call for back up. The real cop would show up and look for evidence of a crime. No evidence, no crime. With the recreational drugs gone, the real cop would have no reason to stay. So he’d leave. The perps could not afford that. They had to get the cops to create enough turmoil for them to do their evil deed. They only needed a few minutes alone for the robbery. So they got a cheap diamond—and I predict it will be a cheap diamond when you have a jeweler examine it—and tossed into the caviar sludge just before the real cop got there. Now the real cop has suspicions and clears out the house. The ruse has worked. Whatever was to be stolen from the house was snatched between the time the champagne was sprayed and the real cop arrived. My bet is that whatever it is went out the back door carried by a waitress. Probably dumped in the trash so the perp could come back later and get it. It has to be small because carrying a credenza out would be noticed. Big house, rich owners out of town on extended vacation and there probably was a sophisticated burglar system on the home.”

“That doesn’t make sense. One phone call will tell us the red elephant was a phony, a red herring.”

“A red herring red elephant. Nice. But I don’t think the perps thought of it that way. Yes, you are right. But the perps only needed a few minutes to get what they wanted, maybe a painting. Pull a painting off a wall; replace it with one that you brought in before the party. The owners aren’t present so there’s no one who knows that the original Van Gogh has been replaced with a Toulouse Lautrec poster. Put the painting in the garbage can. The cops clear the house and the waitress go out with the crowd. The cops do a quick search of the grounds and lock down the house leaving someone inside. Everyone else goes down to the station. As soon as the crowd leaves, a confederate of the waitress slips out of the woods pulls the painting out of the garbage can and disappears. The cop inside doesn’t even know the crime has been committed—no one will until the owners get back and find the Van Gogh missing.”

“But we would have caught the phony waitress as soon as the real cops ran her prints.”

“So what? There’s no evidence of a crime. They could not hold her. By the time the theft was discovered she’d be long gone. If she’s playing this alone, she might be the one going back to the house and get the loot.”

“Good point. So all the real cops have to do is watch the trash cans at the back of the house and wait for the confederate, as they say, to arrive.”

“That’s what I’d suggest.”

“What you say makes sense but it’s wild.”

“I could be wrong but, if I were there, that’s the way I’d play it.”

“Well, thanks for the lead. I’ll make sure the real cops get the hint.”

“You be sure you get credit for it. Real cops have a tendency to forget things like that.”

“Sure. One more thing. You asked about the weather. What difference would that make?”

“Just a guess. If what the perps were after was a painting they’d want to make sure there was no water damage. So they’d wrap it in a plastic bag. If it was small enough, they might have put it with the garbage. Double coverage.”

“Good thought. Anything I can do for you?”

“Absolutely. I have Homeland Security meetings every other Thursday from ten until God knows when. Can you get me exempted?”

“For that you need a real cop.” And with that the phone line went dead.



How can you help support Rope and Wire? Click here to find out.