The Matter of the Piedi Cognili
Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was not bad at presentations — when those presentations were for the young. Noonan knew he would not live forever and his twins, both in college now, had not given an iota of interest in being in law enforcement. Flouting of the law, particularly the drinking age, was their hallmark. But Noonan knew, from personal experience, this was probably a passing phase. At least he hoped it was.
Which made no difference this day because he was the local legend talking to the 6th and 7th grade students at the Sandersonville Middle School. The students were reasonably quiet, which surprised Noonan, and he was careful to tell only those stories which would interest the young. Unfortunately for Noonan, the students wanted gore, not sophisticated detective ingenuity to solve an impossible crime.
Things were going well until he asked for questions. The first one was from a group of girls who wanted to know how to keep someone from stealing rabbit feet. Rather, to stop them from stealing any more boxes of rabbit foot charms which had been donated to the Sandersonville Middle School Faire — which they pronounced with a verbal ‘e’ to make the world sound like ‘fairy.’
This took Noonan by surprise. “Rabbits’ feet?”
“Yes, sir,” one of the girls said. “You know, the good luck charms.”
“Odd,” Noonan said thinking fast on his feet — even though he was sitting. “Stolen as opposed to misplaced?”
“Oh, they were stolen all right,” another of the girls said. “Two boxes. First one, then ‘tother.”
“Two boxes?” Noonan was perplexed. “What do you mean by first one and then another.”
“Well,” a third girl started to speak but there was an uproar as to who should tell the story. Finally, the girl who had spoken first took the floor. “We raised money from bake sales and bought a bunch of items for the Faire,” (Again the long ‘e.’) “We got a lot of charms for the games we are going to play. Winner gets a prize, you know. Well, we bought a box of rabbits’ feet and it disappeared. The box, I mean. We thought we might have forgotten to get it from the distributor. He said it was possible and gave us another box. Than it disappeared. We’re talking 48 rabbits’ feet. Gone.”
“Gone? As stolen? Or lost?”
“Well,” continued the girl. “They were not locked up like in a vault. In a closet in the school. They are gone. Anyone could have taken them. It’s not like we were watching them all day and all night.”
“Odd,” Noonan thought about it for a moment. “Let me see, how many people knew you had the rabbits’ feet?”
“Everyone and their sister,” pipped up another of the girls. “They were prizes so everyone knew we had them.”
“How about the closet,” Noonan asked. “Where was it located? In a room or a hallway?”
“Classroom,” another girl said. “But, you know, this is Sandersonville. Rooms aren’t locked. Well, not until later in the afternoon.”
“How about security cameras?”
The girls laughed. Then one of them said. “Who’s gonna steal something from a middle school?”
* * *
Of all the things Noonan had heard of being stolen, rabbit’s feet were not on the radar. And 48 of them seemed hardly worth the effort. A quick check on the internet had rabbits’ feet selling for about a dollar apiece. In some cases, the shipping was more expensive than the feet. Just in case he was missing something, he punched up rabbits’ feet on Wikipedia and reaffirmed just about everything he already knew — except for the scientific name for the rabbit, Oryctolagus Cuniculus. Yes, rabbit’s feet had been considered good luck for centuries because it was believed they communed with the spirits of the dead because both lived underground — physically and metaphorically speaking. Among the early blacks in the South — in the days when those blacks were known as slaves — the rabbit became part of the hoodoo myth. It believed that a rabbit’s foot — and specifically the left rear foot — promised fertility and good luck. The luck was best if the rabbit had been sacrificed at midnight in a cemetery on the grave of a very bad person. There were not a lot of hoodoo congregations on the Outer Banks and all of the blacks were descendants of slaves, mostly escaped slaves, so that lead did not pan out.
So, following the detective’s Law of MOM, “Motive, Opportunity and Means,” Noonan ‘returned to the scene of the crime.’ In this case, it was virtual. He placed a call to the Sandersonville Middle School principal and asked about the theft of rabbits’ feet.
“It’s not a theft,” Principal Sandoval Sato said quickly. “They are just misplaced. It’s hard to believe anyone would steal something of no value.”
“Any suspects,” Noonan stalled for a moment and then added, “that is, students who might borrow the rabbit’s feet on a lark?”
“All of our students are upstanding citizens,” Sato responded.
“I’m sure they are,” Noonan replied. “When I was there a century ago I was an upstanding student as well. But I occasionally strayed.”
“Well, there are a handful of students who, to use your term, stray occasionally. But they were on a field trip the day the first box vanished.”
“And the second box?”
“They were here with the rest of the student body.”
“Does the school have security cameras?”
“Yes, but the footage is worthless during school hours because so many students are milling around, opening closest, banging lockers and the like. After hours, nothing. If the box was taken, which I doubt, it vanished during school hours. Probably put in a school bag and spirited out the front door.”
Noonan thought for a long moment and then asked, “Anything special happening in the near future.”
“The Faire,” (again with the long ‘e.’)
“Other than that. Contests, sports events, tests, competitions.”
“Just the usual. No sports competitions this week, end of semester tests, two field trips to museums and a Wahoo fish fry at the Sportsman’s Club to raise money for athletic equipment.”
Deep in the cerebral convolutions of Noonan’s mind a gong sounded.
* * *
When Harriet, the office manager and common sense maven, came into Noonan’s office the next week she was scanning an expense sheet. “What,” she snarled in faux anger, is this expense for $100 for Piedi Cognili?”
“Charity,” Noonan said without looking up. “You can see the check was written to the Sandersonville Middle School Faire — (with the long ‘e’) — to be held next Saturday.”
“Yes, but what’s a Piedi Cognili? Sounds Italian.”
“Oh, it is,” Noonan said as he smiled. “Haven’t you notice the new decorum here in the office?” He pointed to a l-o-n-g string of multi-colored rabbit’s feet strung around the office.
Harriet took a long look at the string and then guessed, “It has something to do with your trip to the Middle School, right?”
“Correct,” Noonan smiled as he leaned back in his chair. “Seems a couple of boxes of rabbit’s feet vanished.”
“Vanished?” Harriet eyed him suspiciously.
“Yup. Poof and gone. Out of a closet at the school.”
Harriet gave the string of rabbit’s feet another long look and then sat in the chair beside Noonan’s desk. “Let me guess, you solve the case of the vanishing Piedi Cognili.”
“Correct. I couldn’t put rabbit’s feet on the receipt because, well,” he let his eyes drift up to the ceiling tiles as he let his gaze penetrate to the Third Floor where the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security had his throne room.
“I get it. Now, Piedi Cognili is rabbits’ feet in Italian.”
“You are a clever lady, Harriet.”
“Not clever enough to put the vanishing Piedi Cognili together with the receipt,” she waved the sheet of paper.
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” Noonan accented Basil Rathbone. “I guessed someone at the Sanderson Middle School believed that lots of rabbits’ feet would bring lots of luck on the upcoming semester tests.”
Harriet got it. “I see, so, just in case rabbits’ feet really brought luck…” she let the sentence hang.
“Yup. So I called the school’s student body president. Said the minions of law and order needed luck a lot more than any student because,” Noonan snickered, “test scores are based on study and answers and we,” he spread his hands to indicate his office, “need luck a lot more than any student.”
Harriet nodded and then added, “So you told them you’d be willing to, shall we say, exchange the rabbits’ feet for a donation to the Faire.” (She did not use the long ‘e.’)
Noonan nodded again. “It worked. I asked no questions, no one told me any lies and the Faire,” (this time with a long ‘e,’) “received a donation.”
“Listed as an expense,” Harriet said as she waved the receipt.
“Absolutely,” Noonan said smiling. “We’re lucky I didn’t have to pay for a 48 carrot ring.”
Harriet snapped back, “Well, you know rabbits are really lucky.”
“No, I didn’t know that. Why?”
“They all have four rabbit’s feet.”
Heinz Noonan novels can be found at www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi