Beyond the Western
Captain Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was silently filling the office cat dish with milk. There was a strict policy of no pets in any room, office or building of any structure owned by the City of Sandersonville but the Chief of Detectives was in no danger of reprimand because the cat was not a pet. Therefore he was immune from chastisement. Harriet’s cat was also not a ‘pet.’ It was a ‘support animal’ and it and she, too, was in no danger of reprimand. No one on any floor of the City of Sandersonville Municipal Building said anything about the dog owned by Edward Paul Lizzard III, the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security. Lizzard claimed it was a bomb-sniffing dog and therefore indispensable for the security and safety of everyone in the City of Sandersonville Municipal Building. The dog never left Lizzard’s side and often left proof of its presence in the commissioner’s office and the hallways of the Municipal Building – and no one suggested the animal was pet.
It was going to be pleasant day for crime fighting. All miscreants with active cases had been dispensed with and no new lawbreakers had been apprehended. Thus it left the office free to examine old case, cold cases and bold cases of scofflaw which had been, heretofore, ignored because of lack of time, budget or Commissioner of Homeland Security enthusiasm. Noonan was about to open one of his lingering cold cases when the office phone on his desk purred.
“Better be, I’m paying his bills.”
“This is, uh, well, one of the strange calls you are famous for receiving. I’m calling from Watson, Georgia.” The speaker’s accent was so Southern Noonan expected a “honey chile” and thick enough to spread on toast. “Someone has stolen 20 tons of kitty litter.”
* * *
Noonan unconsciously looked down at the office non-pet lapping milk from the chipped bowl on the floor next to the box of kitty litter. “Kitty litter? A bit odd, don’t you think?
“Sh-o-o-o-re is, suh. That’s why I’m calling you.”
Noonan dug around in his office drawer for a notebook. “OK, why don’t you give me your name and details of this kitty litter theft.”
“I’m serious, suh. I really am.”
“I believe you. OK, your name?”
“Harold Watson. And I am no relation to the Watson of Watson, Georgia. I’m black; he wasn’t.”
“Is that important?”
“Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t have anything to do with kitty litter.”
“Ok, Harold Watson not related to the Watson of Watson, Georgia, tell me about the kitty litter.”
“20 tons of it. I’ll bet you didn’t know Georgia is the leading producer of kitty litter.”
“No, I did not know that.”
“Most people don’t. We, Georgia, are best known for peaches. Afterall, we’re the Peach State. But we also have record harvests of pecans, sweet onions and kitty litter.”
All Noonan could think to say was “Ummmm.”
“How much do you know about kitty litter?” Watson asked.
“I buy it in a bag, pour it into a flat container and once a week I throw it out.”
Noonan could hear Watson taking a breath. “I get the kitty litter question a lot from relatives. I’m from Cleveland.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“You been to Cleveland?” There was sorry in his voice.
“Once and it was one time too many.”
“OK, kitty litter. It’s a $100 million dollar industry in Georgia because of our unique clay. It’s called Fuller’s White Clay and it can absorb up to 95% of its own weight in water. The clay industry – not just the kitty litter industry – extracts about 750,000 tons of clay a year.”
Noonan kept writing as he said, “That’s surprising.”
“I can see you’re bored. Let me just give you thumbnail of what else kitty litter can do. And the reason I’m telling you is because I don’t want you thinking the only reason someone would steal kitty litter is because they have lots of cats.”
“Never crossed my mind.”
“R-i-g-h-t. Kitty litter can be used to remove pond scum, get rid of mold and mildew buildup, can be used for traction in snow though we don’t have a lot of snow down this way.”
“I never would have guessed. Snow in Georgia, odd.”
Watson was quiet for a moment. “Nothing personal, suh, but this is not a crank call. The Watson Commissioner of Homeland Security specifically told me to contact you. Apparently he and the Sandersonville Commission of Homeland Security are close friends. My commissioner was told you handle eccentric calls. That’s why I’m on the line. Kitty litter is big business down here and tons of it being stolen, well, it raises eyebrows.”
“Sorry about being flippant,” Noonan said. “Go on with your presentation and then I will have some questions for you.”
“Fine. Don’t think kitty litter is only used for cat boxes. You can put it in your refrigerator to remove moisture, it will soak up grease so you can use it in your outdoor grill or on your driveway for oil spills, you can put it in your garden to keep slugs away and, most surprising even to people like me, you can mix it with water and submerge your vegetables. The kitty litter mixture will remove harmful substances within the structure of the vegetables. It’s not just for cat litter boxes. Oh, I almost forgot, you can mix it with water and make a paste and use it as a face mask. It removes bacteria and dead skin from your face. Very medicinal.”
“Ok. Now tell me about the theft.”
Noonan could hear Watson take a deep breath. “I am serious, suh. I want you to know this.”
“I believe you. Now, the theft . . .” Noonan let the sentence hang.
“No one steals kitty litter in the raw, so to speak. It’s basically clay. The clay is taken by dump truck to Watson Enterprise, LLC where it is crumbled in a giant rotary crusher. As the clay is broken into minute particles, it is combined with pulverized additives like newspaper pulp, sawdust shavings, orange peels, peanut shells. All biodegradables. The crusher is inside a large warehouse to keep the clay out of the rain. After the raw material has been dumped from the crusher, it is scooped up by a bulldozer and deposited on a belt which carries the material through sorters and then it is falls into bags for sale. One, five, ten and 25 pounds primarily.”
“Fine,” Noonan added as he wrote. “Where was the theft?”
“Right out of the Watson Enterprise LLC warehouse. A dump truck came into the warehouse with paperwork. The bulldozer loaded up a dump truck and out the door it went. Only later did it turn out the paperwork was phony.”
“Does Watson Enterprises LLC sell kitty litter by the ton?”
“Not really. Sometimes the individual kitty litter producers trade stock back and forth. If one is running low, for instance, it may call another for a few tons. It’s in everyone interest to keep running. The industry is a 24/7 operation so stopping because a bridge was out or a road flooded is a hard dollar loss. There’s not a lot of competition in the business.”
“How much money are we talking about? That is, what’s 20 tons of kitty litter worth?”
“In the raw, not much. The big money with the product is after it’s been packaged and transported to a store. The raw litter at Watson Enterprise LLC doesn’t have a specific cost that can be identified. When it is bagged it is a few bucks a pound. Total cost of the theft is listed by the insurance is $25,000.”
“That’s quite a bit.”
“Not when the Watson Enterprises LLC is grossing several million a year. Kitty litter is big business.”
“But only in the bags, not crumbles.”
“Good way to state it,” Watson said with a laugh.
“So why are you calling me?” Noonan asked. “Seems like a straightforward theft that could be handled locally.”
“The dump truck that took the load was a Watson City vehicle and this, as you can guess, is an election year.”
* * *
Whenever Noonan worked on his loo loo calls, he had two tried and true sources of information: local history and local newspapers. Finding information on the history of Georgia was easy. Not so much for Watson, Georgia. Georgia, the state, was the last of the original 13 Colonies and, oddly, was the only colony which was governed by a Board of Trustees in London. It was also the only colony which had outlawed slavery – ‘odd,’ thought Noonan, ‘considering it would fight with the Confederacy’ – along with lawyers and Roman Catholics. [‘Got that half-right,’ mused Noonan.] It was founded by George Oglethorpe of the Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia in America, who brought debtors to the New World in 1732. The hope of the Trustees was debtors would develop a system of “agrarian equality” which, unfortunately, was to be achieved courtesy of cotton seeds provided by the Chelsea Medicinal Garden in London. Euphemistically stated by Wikipedia, “economic pressures eventually led to the lifting of the ban on slavery, as described below—and slavery was indispensable to the rise of large cotton-growing plantations throughout the Deep South.”
Watson Georgia, was a sprawling urban/rural community is Southeast Georgia midway between Highways 441 and 23. It had been named for Thomas Edward Watson, an anomaly in the South. Born in 1856, he became a leader of the Populist Party in Georgia and pushed for the rights of the small farmer and attacked the ‘big businesses’ of the day. He was popular enough to be considered as a running mate for William Jennings Bryan in 1896. (Bryan was not elected; any of the three time he ran for President.) Watson was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1890 and was famous for his Rural Free Delivery concept. This was basically free mail delivery in rural areas.
Things did not go well for Watson.
He began his career in Washington pushing the poor and against the elites. By 1900, he had switched sides, so to speak. He became a Nativist and mounted attacks on blacks, Catholics and Jews. He was so reviled his statue on the lawn of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta had to be relocated in 2013 because of public pressure.
Now Noonan knew why Harold Watson, a black, had made sure Noonan knew he was not kith, kin or collateral of Thomas Edward Watson.
Noonan’s research on kitty litter didn’t yield more than Watson – Harold, not Thomas Edward – had told him. It was introduced onto the market in 1948 by Ed Lowe and replaced sand as the preferred toiletries for cats. Over the years there were a variety of cat litters but the name “kitty litter” stuck as the generic description of the product. Over the years as well, other substance were used in the product of the cat litter but, by and large, Georgia clay was the most common ingredient. About two million tons of cat litter ends up in landfills while the rest of the litter ends up in gardens, lawns and flowerpots.
Noonan had not taken thorough notes when Watson – again, the man not the community – when he had given the laundry list of uses of cat litter other than in a litter box. As it turned out, kitty litter could indeed be used to remove pond scum and obliterate mold and mildew buildup. You could put it in your refrigerator to remove moisture, soak up grease on your driveway or BBQ grill, keep slugs away in the garden and, yes, surprisingly, it could be used to remove harmful substances in vegetables. It could also be used as a dermatological mask to remove dead skin and bacteria but Noonan found it difficult to believe anyone would voluntarily tell anyone else they were using kitty litter as a cosmetic beauty enhancement.
Next Noonan went to the local newspapers. In this case, newspaper. In the singular. The Watson Bulletin was more tabloid than newsprint but it did offer a glimpse into the community. A limited view, alas, but at least a snapshot of the city. There were political advertisements for the upcoming election for mayor and city council and three propositions relating to dealing with the homeless, requiring a crackdown on opioid sales and bonding for a water project. The race for mayor did not appear even close and of the three city council seats open, only one had a challenger. The only issue dividing the challenged seat was water quality. One candidate wanted to recycle water from the wastewater facility and the other proposed pulling drinking water from the planned dam and reservoir – Watson Dam and Watson Reservoir – being constructed on the Watson River. Both choices were odious because it was going to take a gargantuan public relations campaign with either choice to convince residents to drink recycled sewer water or the purified the greenish, visually unappetizing, waters from the impending Watson Reservoir.
Crime statistics indicated there had been an increased in murders – from zero for the last five years to one in the current year. Robberies were up because cannabis enterprises – medicinal, the Watson Bulletin emphasized – still had to conduct all business with cash because the United States government and the banks still considered the revenue to be ‘drug money.’ Burglaries were up substantially but this is was blamed on the increasing size of the homeless population. There were also numerous letters on the increasing danger of rising health costs and the economic impact of too many young people with college debt who were not buying homes and cars in Watson. Or, at least near enough to Watson to spend their money in the city.
There were also advertisements for recreation businesses who intended to market the proposed Watson Reservoir when it was filled to capacity. Floating docks were being constructed with telephone poles planted deep into the soil near the expected high-water mark of the soon-to-be lake. Three fishing safari businesses were planned with lodges on the far side of the reservoir and the entrepreneurs were talking up the staggering range of fish the United States Department of Wildlife was going to stock in the lake as soon as the water level rose and the clouding of the incoming waters subsided.
A clang went off in the deepest recess of Noonan’s brain.
* * *
Harold Watson was enthusiastic when Noonan got him on the phone. “You’ve solved my kitty litter theft?”
“Sort of, ” Noonan replied. “I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first.”
“Any news would be good,” Watson stated with enthusiasm tinged with anticipation.
Here’s what I think but I can’t prove it.”
“I’ll take anything at this point.”
“Don’t say that too loud because you are not going to be able to do anything about the theft.”
“Really. Politics, my man, politics. Kitty litter can be used to kill algae but it turns the water cloudy for a short period of time. According to the Watson Bulletin, the incoming water to what will become the Watson Reservoir are cloudy. My guess, the cloudy water is because someone dumped the stolen kitty litter into the Watson River. Then the mixture, the kitty litter soup, washed into the building Watson Reservoir. The soup will kill the algae, possibly permanently. Which means . . .”
Watson was a political step-and-half ahead of Noonan. “. . . Councilman Jasper’s support of water from the lake looks good and he gets elected.”
“I didn’t say that,” Noonan said softy.
“You didn’t,” Watson replied. “I did.”
“But there’s nothing you can do about it,” Noonan said sadly.
Watson sighed. “It’ll just be another unsolved in the cold case file.”
Noonan laughed, “Just like a fish on bail.”
“Sorry?” Watson said.
“Off the hook,” Noonan replied, closed his notebook and hung up phone.