The Matter of the Skedaddling Sundogs
Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department was dreaming of Alaska this morning. It was not unusual for him to hunger for Alaska in July. Afterall, in Anchorage in July it averaged a sweltering 75 in both sun and shade. It got cooler in August and in September it was time to be out of the Northland because October was coming. As Alaskan humorist Warren Sitka was fond of saying, “The Alaskan calendar only has three months and they all begin with the letter J.”
But here he was, in July, in Sandersonville, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where it got up to 85. And while 85 was not bad, the humidity would lurch into the 90s. High 90s. When it was into the high 90s you didn’t walk to the beach, you swam to it with your shirt plastered to your body like the sheet on a ghost.
Noonan was silently lamenting the fact he was not in Alaska for the summer — but then again, if he were in Alaska he would be dealing with in-laws — when Harriet, the office administrative assistant and common sense seer, came into his office with a question. “You’ve heard about the cow who jumped over the moon, right?”
“Heck of a leap,” Noonan said without looking up from the cold case he was perusing.
“Must have been,” Harriet snickered. “But that was just one cow. How many dogs does it take the circle the sun?”
Now Noonan looked up. “Dogs? Circling the sun?”
“Right,” Harriet said nonchalantly. “How many dogs does it take to circle the sun?”
Noonan thought for a moment and then said, perplexed, “I don’t really know. How many does it take?”
“Seven?! How’d you come up with that number?”
“I didn’t. The woman on Line 1 did.”
* * *
“Is this Heinz Noonan, the ‘Bearded Holmes?’ of the Outer Banks Police Department?”
“Sandersonville, actually. It’s on the Outer Banks. Who’s this?”
“Well, er, I’m not a cop but your name was given by the local police. They said you could help.”
“Maybe. If it’s a crime the local police should be handling it.”
“Well, er, it’s not a crime. Just an odd situation.”
“OK. What’s the situation. And what does it have to with dogs flying around the sun.”
There was a moment of silence. “That’s, er, not the way I explained it the woman on the phone. I’m Alaskan and we have a different vocabulary for some things.”
“My wife’s Alaskan. What’s the term?”
“Sundog. I’m missing seven of them. Do you know what a sundog is?”
“Yes. It’s an atmospheric condition where a lot of ice crystals swirl around in the sky. When you look at the sun, it appears to be surrounded by a rainbow circle.”
“I’m impressed. Not many outsiders know that.”
“Other than the fact you cannot steal a sun dog. Why are you calling?” Noonan began digging for a notebook in the midden of paperwork on his desk.
“Actually, you can. I’m Anna Miska. I’m an art gallery owner in Saxman. Do you know where that is?”
“Way south. Home of the totem pole with Abraham Lincoln.”
“Again, I’m impressed.
“OK. Enough of the Alaskanese. Now, the sun dogs.”
“I, my shop, Miska’s in in Saxman, was going to hold a show in Ketchikan. It’s just down the road for us. It was going to be for a month, just in time to catch the last of the tourists who are actually making it to Alaska during the COVID19 pandemic. I wanted to offer something unusual. I mean, why try to sell paintings of dogsleds, totem poles and Natives when everyone else is selling them as well. So I wanted to do something different. I chose what I call atmospherics. These would be paintings and photographs focused on the sky. Things like rainbows, unusual cloud formations, aurora borealis and sun dogs. I’m a consignment shop. You have to know that to understand why the police are not involved.”
Noonan wrote down ‘consignment’ in the notebook he had dragged from the bottom drawer of his desk. “What you mean is you don’t actually own the painting and photographs you are selling. You are selling them for the actual owners. Correct?”
“Yes. I don’t own the artwork. I’m just selling it. So, when seven sun dog items came up missing, I could not file a police report.”
“But someone else owns the artwork. Can’t they file?”
“They could if I could reach them. Two are outside somewhere and their home phone just rings. Three are in fish camp and the last two are on some cruise line to Italy. Until I can actually reach them I cannot claim anything has been stolen. I mean, they all could have asked to have their artwork returned and not bothered to tell me. As far as the police are concerned, nothing has been stolen.”
“And they gave you my name.”
“They said you solved unusual circumstances.”
Noonan grimaced. “How nice of them. Tell me about the missing items. They were all sun dogs and they were the only sun dog artwork in the show?”
“Correct. Seven of them. Three were paintings, two were large photographs and there was a pair of ear rings.”
“Where were the pieces of artwork when they disappeared?”
“In a storage closet in my shop.”
“Was it locked?”
“Nothing is locked in Saxman.”
“So anyone could have come in and lifted the artwork?”
“Yes, but we don’t have a lot of thievery in town. We are pretty small.”
“Just the sun dogs?”
“That’s all. Nothing else was touched.”
“Was the artwork wrapped?”
“No. Anyone could have walked it and seen the artwork. It was leaning against the sidewall.”
“Are you in the shop all the time? I mean, do you ever go out and leave the shop open?”
“Oh, yeah. Like I said. This is Saxman. We don’t have a lot of crime here. It’s not as if I went out lunch for an hour and left the shop open the whole time. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes at a time.”
“Well, lunch is regular. Then I go to the Post Office at around three. Coffee in the morning.”
“But someone in town could know when you would be out of the shop.”
“True. But why sun dogs?”
“That is a very good question. Now, do you have a pad of paper and pen. I have some questions.”
There was the sound of shuffling and Miska came back on line. “OK, what do you want to know.”
“I’m going to give you a list of questions. Call me back in two days and I’ll see what I can do for you. Ready?”
“How many art galleries are there in Saxman, are any galleries new, how many art galleries in Ketchikan, are any of them new, how many art galleries sell sun dog artwork of any kind, how many sell rainbow artwork of any kind, are any of those shops owned by Natives, are there any active ethnic groups in the area, are the pieces of artwork you are selling cheaper or more expensive than artwork sold in other shops, is anything special happening the last month of the cruise line season in Ketchikan, is your shop in Ketchikan going to be shared space or are in a standalone cubbyhole, did you sell any sundog artwork last year and if so, for how much and how did that amount compare to sundog artwork sold in Ketchikan? That’s all I can think of right now.”
There was silence for a moment and then Miska said, “I’m to call you back in two days with the answers, right?”
* * *
Noonan was a firm believer in the reality that history is not story of the past but the study of the future. Things do not ‘just happen.’ Events in the future have their roots in the past. Leaping onto the internet he was surprised to learn how little he really knew about sundogs. He had seen them in Alaska but, until that moment, they were just interesting meteorological phenomena. Their scientific name was parhelion and when viewed they were considered indicators of bad weather. Rainbows, by juxtaposition, were aural signs of bad weather passing. This Noonan found this humorous because when he had seen sundogs during the Alaska winter, the bad weather was actually there, not coming. Of dubious authenticity, it was suggested the phenomena was named sundog because the illusion ‘sits’ beside the sun like a loyal dog. “I’ll bet the jury’s out on that!” Noonan muttered to himself when he read of the alleged origin of the term.
Historically noteworthy, sundogs had been witnessed and reported for a long time. Also surprising, sometimes they appeared in the multiples and sometime with multiple ‘suns.’ 1843, for instance, in the British colony of Newfoundland, was known as the “Winter of Three Suns,” and on February 14, 2020, residents of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region reported five sundogs, according to Wikipedia, “linked to each other by rays, forming a circle among them.”
As there was nothing linking sundogs to thefts, Noonan punched up Saxman and found very little. It was a city on Revillagigedo Island, seven miles by road from Ketchikan with a population just over 400 and famous for a totem pole with a figure like Abraham Lincoln on top.
The information on Ketchikan was not much more illuminating. It was the wettest city in the world averaging 12.5 feet a year. I had a population of about 14,000. The city was named for the creek which runs through the city by its Tlingit name, Kitschk-hin. Maybe. And the island on which both Saxman and Ketchikan reside, Revillagigedo, was named in typical Alaskan style: by someone not from Alaska for someone who had never been to Alaska and who would never come to Alaska. It was christened in 1793 by British Explorer George Vancouver for then Viceroy of New Spain — now known as Mexico — by the name of Juan Vicente de Güemes, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo. The location of the city of Ketchikan had been around for eons as a summer fish camp for the Tlingit. Then, in 1885, it was chosen as the Alaskan locale for an Oregon canning operation and saltery.
As there was not a clue to guide Noonan toward the theft of sundogs, he delved in the local papers.
And came up dry.
So he expanded his search pattern. He looked at the newspapers from Juneau and even Anchorage, 600 miles away. Having spent considerable time in Alaska, Noonan knew Alaskans, unlike the residents of the Lower 48, do not think of distance in terms of miles. They consider it in flight time. Juneau to Anchorage was not 600 miles, it was an hour and half by air — with
nothing but forest, water and lots of moose between. But even with the great distance between the two cities, people in Juneau read the Anchorage paper.
There was nothing of note in the Juneau paper but, in the Anchorage Daily Journal was a small article on the allocation of federal funds for indigenous cultural organizations. There were a dozen and a half of these groups and the amount of money was modest. The organizations were scattered across Alaska with three of them in Southeast. It was a good lead but the names of the organizations in Southeast were written in Tlingit, not English. None were in Saxman or Ketchikan. The nearest to Saxman was in Klawock, 70 miles from Saxman. But there was no road between the two. It was a 30 minute flight or, by ferry, about five hours.
When Miska called back the next day, Noonan had a burning question. Was there any cultural group in Saxman with links to Klawock?
“How well do you know Alaska,” she asked?
“I married an Alaskan,” he replied.
“Well,” she said. “then you know Alaska is not a state. It is a very small town on a very long road. Everyone has connections to everyone else, particularly in Southeast where the populations are small and scattered. But if you mean business ties, few if any. Both of us, Saxman and Klawock, compete for the tourist dollars. We fight each other for the dollars on the cruise lines and the Alaska marine Highway. There are no small businesses that are both Saxman and Klawock. And Klawock is really small, even by Alaskan standards. It’s twice the size of Saxman but we can drive to Ketchikan which is 25 times larger than Saxman.”
Noonan kind of grunted.
“Do you want your answers now?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“How much good they will do you I do not know but here goes. There is no standalone art gallery in Saxman. I’m the closest but I sell more than art. There are about five stores selling art but the artwork is sold along with groceries, clothing and when we’re wet, in liquor stores. Ketchikan is a tourist town, pure and simple. The city is chockablock with galleries selling all kinds of artwork, Alaskan crafts, paintings and the like. There are some that are established and some are fly-by-night. Last year I did not see a single sundog anything. Aurora, yes. Beautiful sunsets, yes. Sundogs, no. That’s why I concentered on sundogs. To make money I have to sell something no one else is. I don’t know how many shops in Ketchikan are owned by Natives and I don’t know how to find out. There are lots of active ethnic groups in Saxman and Ketchikan and they are all fighting each other all the time. But I would not say any of them are into crime. My sundog paintings would have been priced at the market rate in the sense I would have walked store to store in Ketchikan to see what paintings of the same size were selling for. That’s the price would have asked. As far as anything special happening, COVID19 has knocked the stuffing out of the tourism market so everything is special, special, special. We all have to make a year’s worth of income in, what, the six weeks that left of the tourist season. At least enough to survive until next year. My shop in Ketchikan is the back of wall of a boutique. I am part of an artist cooperative and we share the cost of the boutique.”
In the depths of Noonan’s convolutions a clang echoed.
“Is there anyone in your boutique from Klawock?”
“An odd question. Yes. One. An elder.”
* * *
Noonan was still struggling to discover the hidden markings on the backs of the cards in the deck his twin sons were using when Harriet came into his office with a small, framed photograph of a raven looking quizzically at the world beyond the wood encirclement.
“What’s with the raven,” she asked. “And what’s this, this, this,..” She thrust a letter toward forward to show him the letterhead: g̱agaan x̱anyádi.
Noonan chuckled as he pointed to the raven. “Ah, the reward of doing a good job. Did you know,” he looked at Harriet slyly, “that there is only one town in Alaska, maybe in the whole world, named for the sound an animal makes?”
“Harriet’s eyes narrowed. “No, but you’re dodging the question.”
“Not yet,” Noonan smirked as he kept pointing at the raven. “The sound a raven makes is klawock which is also the name of small town in Alaska.”
“OK, and . . .”
“It’s a famous town for its size, Harriet. It’s was a trading post before the Civil War and a hotbed of Native political leadership. The Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood both originated there in 1912 and in 1955, when Alaska became a state, the Mayor of Klawock, Frank Peratrovich, was one of the 55 delegates to the Alaska Constitution Convention.”
“OK, still, and . . .”
“And, to finish with a bit of Alaska history, when Frank Peratrovich’s wife Elizabeth was in the Alaska State Senate in 1945, she pushed through anti-discrimination legislation. At that time it was not uncommon to see signs on restaurants in Juneau, reading, “No dogs or Natives allowed.” She is most famous for her statement, “I am not a dog.” Today she has a Day named for her: February 16th” and a room in the State Capitol Building.
Harriet sat on Noonan’s desk heavily. She waved the letter. “Fine with the history. Now, the story of the raven and the sundogs and this letter.”
Noonan smiled. “It took me a while to figure out what was going on. See,” he pointed at the letterhead, “this was one of the groups that had received federal money for cultural activities. I spent some time on the internet and finally found a Tlingit-English dictionary. This term, their group, translates as “Children of the Sun” which, in the dictionary, is synonymous with sundogs.”
“So they stole the sundog paintings?”
“STOLE? Such an ugly word, Harriet. It would imply a violation of the law. Shame on you. No. I called the group and asked if the translation was correct. Then, . . .”
“. . . then you asked them about the theft, er, disappearance . . .”
“I might have done that. I said something along the lines of the sales paperwork of the artwork — all seven of them — had not been received yet.”
“Did you tell them you were a cop?”
“Oh, I might have. But then again, since they paid for the artwork, there’d be no reason for a cop, any cop to get involved.”
“I see, no crime, no case.”
“OK, why the raven?”
“Who knows?” Noonan was evasive and then said obliquely, “Did you know the Tlingits believe Raven was the creator of the world?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“But it was much more. It was also a bringer of light and,” Noonan gave a mischievous grin. “It is well-known to be an incurable trickster.”
“Well, then you certainly deserve a portrait of the raven.”
[Heinz Noonan mysteries can be found at www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi.]