The Matter of the Rain of Snakes
Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was up to his eyebrows in alligators. They were real alligators but, fortunately for the Chief of Detectives, the alligators — small — were in an aquarium, and he, the Chief of Detectives, was speaking through the aquarium to the shop owner, one Jaqueline Zahira. Zahira had a problem which she would only discuss in person. She had asked for his presence in the Sandersonville Pet Emporium and as it was an excellent excuse to be on-the-road on a Friday afternoon, Noonan relented — not reluctantly — and agreed to a visit.
“Snakes,” Zahira said and pointed to the ceiling.
Noonan was not sure what she was pointing at and saw nothing on the ceiling that appeared to be a snake. Or snake-like. It was just a posterboard ceiling like the one in his office in the Sandersonville Municipal Building.
“Snakes, Captain. Snakes.”
Noonan, never at a loss for words, found himself in a situation where a loss of words was an asset. So he said nothing. Zahira continued.
“Snakes. They fall from the ceiling. I have no idea how they got there. But they did.”
“How many?” Noonan asked now that the matter has cleared a bit.
“I know you think I am daffy. Everyone does. But, no, I know what is happening. I just don’t know how or why. On three occasions I have opened the Sandersonville Pet Emporium and found a dozen snakes running loose on the floor. They clearly came from the ceiling because some of the ceiling tiles had been broken by the weight of the snakes. It has happened three times, Captain, and I do not know why.”
“Off the top of my head,” Noonan said shaking his head, “I don’t know what to say. Were the snakes poisonous?”
“No. Common snakes.”
“Did the same number of snakes rain down each time?”
“Not sure. Snakes have no value as pets in my shop so I just opened the back door and swept them out. The Outer Banks have lots of snakes so a dozen or so more won’t affect the environment.”
“Were they local snakes or exotics?”
“Local. I may not like snakes but I can distinguish them. And these snakes were local so why would someone on the Outer Banks pay money for a snake they can capture in their back yard?”
“Good point. About how many snakes fell each time?”
“I’d say eight to ten. Some may have hidden when I was doing the sweeping. There are some cracks in the cement along the floor so some could have slithered out on their own.”
“How do you know for a fact the snakes came from the ceiling?”
“Broken ceiling tiles. The tiles were above the aquarium row,” she pointed to a double line of aquaria. “The tiles fell onto the top of the aquaria and broke into chunks. I found the posterboard chunks on the floor.”
“Do you still have those posterboards?”
“No. I threw them out. It was hard to replace them because of their position above the tanks.”
“Is there a business on the second floor?”
“Several of them. This is a mall, after all. And the Outer Banks. Businesses suddenly appear before Memorial Day and vanish with the last tourist on Labor Day. The businesses above are movable boutiques, not standalone enterprises. There are three up there now.”
“What kind of businesses?”
“Let me think, a T-shirt print and sale shop, a knickknack emporium and a sandwich shop.”
“Is the floor on the Second Floor solid?”
“As far as I know. Wood. Inlaid.”
“No holes in the side of the mall where snakes could be slipped in?”
“None I could find. And I looked.”
Noonan scratched his head. “OK, let me think on it. But first I’m going to need some answers to wild questions. Do you have a piece of paper and a pencil?
“Just a sec,” she said and flipped over an advertising circular and grabbed a pen. “OK, go.”
“How long have you been in business, do you have a partner, are you going through any personal traumas like a divorce or probate issue, do you have adult children who do not like the idea of you having a pet store, are you making a profit, do you ever clean the ceiling tiles, when was the last time you did a massive cleaning of the store, what is the highest price of the pet you have here, when was the last high priced pet sold, are you expecting any shipments soon, and far apart were the appearances of the snakes and that’s all I can think of right now.”
“When do you want these answers?”
“In about 20 minutes. I want to go upstairs for a bit.”
* * *
A rain of snakes was something new to Noonan. He was particularly afraid of snakes but only those which were poisonous. Those he left alone. Others he had no feelings for, pro or con. But snakes falling from ceiling tiles were an oddity he had not encountered before.
Just to double-check what he had been told, he went upstairs from the Sandersonville Pet Emporium and ordered a sandwich from the shop. Pastrami because his wife was another of her vegan kicks. He wandered through the other boutiques as if he were a customer running a sharp eye along the floorboards and the wall footings. He saw nothing moveable, removable or suspicious. The same could be said for the outside walls of the Sandersonville Pet Emporium. Then he got a ladder and flashlight and examined the real ceiling above the false ceiling of posterboard. He saw no way for snakes to be inserted from the outside, much less maneuvered over the row of aquaria.
As he was putting the ladder away, Zahira asked if he wanted the answers to his questions now.
“Might as well,” Noonan said as his easy afternoon was going.
“The answer to most of the questions is ‘no.’ I’ve been in business for three years, tourist season and offseason. I do not have a husband, wife, partner, no children and I am going through no personal trauma. The store is making a small profit, enough for me to live on the Outer Banks and save a few shekels, I have never cleaned the ceiling tiles, I did a floor-to-ceiling cleaning of the aquaria about three months ago, the most expensive pet I have sold is $375 and it sold a while back. I get shipments all the time but no exotic pets are expected. The exotic pets are for special order only and no new ones have been ordered yet. The first rain of snakes was 90 days ago. The next one about a month and a half ago and the last one was last week.”
“And nothing was stolen during any time the snakes rained?”
“Nothing I could find. No pets anyway. I don’t have a running inventory of pet food so if they stole a bag or two, I won’t know until I do inventory in the fall.”
Noonan thought for a long moment and then he asked. “Have you been in business in this location for the entire three years?”
“Sort of. I started off next door and as business got better, I expanded into this space,” she indicated the back half of the shop.
“What was this area before you moved in?”
“Just like upstairs, a host of businesses that came and went. Another sandwich shop, clock shop, jewelry repair operation, T-shirt shop, fishing tour headquarters. Depends on when you mean.”
A soft chime resonated in the deepest recess of his mind.
“How long was the jewelry repair operation in business?”
“Not sure. It was here when I got here. Right after that it got busted for stolen items. Then it sat empty until the T-shirt shop moved in and when it went out of business, I took the space.”
Noonan walked over to the bank of aquaria. “Is this bank of aquaria where the jewelry repair facility was?”
* * *
“I’m sure you’ve heard the news,” Harriet, the office Il Duce’ of common sense, told Noonan as she sat down in the empty chair beside his desk. “His majesty,” she let her eyes leap to the ceiling tiles as her x-ray vision went to the Throne Room of His Majesty, the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, “has just announced the thwarting of theft of millions of dollars in jewelry meant to fund a Muslim terrorist cabal on the Outer Banks.”
Noonan didn’t bother to look up. “There are at least five false items in that announcement.”
“No kidding,” Harriet shook her head. “Now, tell Momma the truth.”
“Nothing to tell. Just good detective work. Back in the day when there was a jewelry repair facility where the Sandersonville Pet Emporium is now, the owner apparently knew he was going to be busted. So he hid some jewels under the floorboards. He goes to jail. When he gets out the Sandersonville Pet Emporium had taken over his space.”
Harriet shook her head. “Crooks the same the world over. If he wants the gems he’s gotta get the emporium to move.”
“Yup. I’m betting he still had the key to the building so it was easy to get in. Figured to scare her out by letting snakes appear in her store. From the ceiling. Probably broke the ceiling posterboard tiles with a long pole and then dumped local snakes on the floor. Had the business that took over his space not been a pet store, he might have gotten away with it.”
“Look that joke up just a bit ago?”
“Well, do you know why you cannot fool a snake?”
“OK, I give.”
“It does not have a leg to pull.”
Heinz Noonan novels can be found at www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi