The Matter of the Vagrant Tombstones
Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department was relaxing in his office but shaking with fear because he was living one of his own adages: “Whenever things are going well, bad news is dialing your number.” The only philosophical adjustment to the words he would have made was to insert the word “speed” before “dialing.” But he never got the chance because the phone rang before he finished the thought.
Worse, it was bad news incarnate: the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security. The Commissioner was referred to as “His Majesty” by the staff of the Sandersonville Police Department who were, on paper and in the budget line item, listed as “His Department.” In reality they were “His serfs” and the only blessing was he only ‘came down’ from his throne room on the Third Floor in the form of phone calls. Whenever he called, it was truly bad news calling.
“Captain! I’m glad you are there!”
“It’s 10 a.m. (pause), sir. I am where I am supposed to be.”
“Fine! Fine! Fine!” Anytime the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security used a word three times, it meant he was mentally maneuvering to put into words an odious, immodest assignment. “It seems we have a situation here, Captain. It’s a delicate one but I am sure a man of your integrity and experience can handle it.”
“Yes, sir. (pause) And what would that assignment be?”
“Terrorists, Captain. Terrorist. They are at it again. Horrible situation.”
“Terrorists, sir?” It was hard to keep the incredulity out of his voice.
“Yes, Captain. Terrorists. They are everywhere. We must be vigilant. Vigilant. They are always plotting.”
“Yes, (pause) sir. Was there a reason for this call?”
“Absolutely, Captain. Vigilant. We must remain vigilant. It has come to my attention there is a terrorist cabal in Buxton. They meet every Thursday evening in the Sportsman’s Diner on the Highway. It’s a hole in the wall. Exactly the kind of a place the terrorist would choose as a meeting place.”
“Well, sir, if it’s public why would the terrorist meet there?”
“Cover, Captain. Cover! The last place in the world anyone would suspect a terrorist conclave to gather would be in a public place.”
This made no sense to Noonan. But then again, terrorists loose and running on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was a non sequitur in itself. In fact, there were not a lot of terrorists running around in the United States. Criminals, yes; terrorist, not that many. Other than the Boston Marathon Bombers, Noonan could not think of another one. Nut cases? The prisons were full of them. Terrorists? Zip, as they say in Alaska.
“Yes, sir. Is there an assignment here?”
“Ah, yes, Captain. You are perceptive. This is all hush-hush now. I want you to be present at a few of the meetings. To keep an eye on the miscreants. You never know when some evil deed may be being planned.”
Noonan rolled his eyes. “Isn’t this a job for the Buxton Police. I mean, Buxton is not in our jurisdiction.”
“Poppycock! When it comes to national security there are no jurisdictional boundaries! Besides, the Buxton terrorist cabal knows the Buxton Police on sight. You will be a new face. You will blend right in.”
“I’m not exactly the terrorist type, (pause) sir. Terrorists are young and strong and wild eyed. I’m none of those.”
“Undercover, Captain! You will be undercover. Use some makeup! Mumble jargon! You’ll fit right in.”
“I see.” Noonan did not see but that was the best he could think to say. “Is there anyone in particular I should be watching.”
“Gerald Powers. A devious soul. Dangerous, Captain, dangerous. Very dangerous. A nasty man.”
“What do we know about this Gerald Powers?” Noonan, with great reluctance, pulled a notebook from his desk drawer and wrote in the name Gerald Powers.
“Stealth, Captain, stealth. That is what is needed on this assignment. You will be America’s eyes and ears in this cabal. Vigilant. Be vigilant.”
“Is there anything in particular, I am . . .” Noonan began. And the forming question would never be answered because he found himself listening to a dial tone.
* * *
Noonan was not, as was said in his generation, a night owl. Even in his younger days, a night on the town usually ended at nine. Rarely at 10 and even on New Year’s Eve the number of times he had stayed up to the witching hour could be counted on one hand and on those nights he had been handcuffed to his in-laws, proverbially speaking. Thus the thought of spending even a moment of contemplation attending any evening event, much less a terrorist cabal in a public setting, was detestable.
Then a devious thought streaked across his mind.
With an evil grin he buzzed Harriet, the office administrative assistant and no nonsense realist.
But he was too late.
She had antennae which could pick up bad news from the far side of Pluto.
“What do you mean, ‘No!’?” Noonan asked with the innocent look of an overweight husband who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“I’m only half as dumb as I look,” she snapped. “You get off the phone with His Holiness . . .” she said as she looked skyward. Or, at least, ceilingward. But not all the way to Heaven, just the Third Floor lurking above them like gathering thunderclouds. She let the sentence hang.
“Harriet!” Noonan was as smooth as a bulldozer at work in a landfill. “How could you possibly think I would even suggest a loathsome assignment.”
“Yeah, right.” She snarled. “Let me guess. It involves overtime, orgies and oven cleaner.”
“Well, not the overtime.”
“P-l-e-a-s-e! You want me to s-a-c-r-f-i-c-e my valuable real life experience, not to mention my superior intellect and crime fighting ability, to satisfy the infantile impulses of His Majesty.”
“OK,” Noonan relented. “It involves overtime. The others are up to you.”
“And what despicable task am I assigned to cover.”
“You are to attend a terrorist cabal . . . .”
“Really? Do they have those?”
Noonan let his eyes drift upwards. “Apparently. In Buxton.”
“Buxton? Then it involves mileage as well.”
Again Noonan relented, “Yes, and mileage. All, what, five miles of it.”
“Five miles is five miles.”
“The terrorist meeting is at the Sportsman’s Diner on Interstate 12. It’s held every Thursday evening.”
“A secret terrorist meeting held in a public place?! What kind of bozos are we dealing with?”
“You. You mean what kind of bozos are you dealing with.”
“And expenses. If I am going to have to be undercover in public I will need expense money to appear legitimate.”
“You mean illegitimate. It’s a terrorist meeting.”
“In a public place! Do you have any more surprises for me?”
“Just keep an eye on a Gerard Powers. He’s supposedly the ring leader.”
Harriet rolled her eyes. “Let me get this straight, I am going to a covert terrorist meeting in a public restaurant to keep track of the secret leader of the cabal who you know by name.”
“Life is cruel.”
“A good way to bet. And what am I supposed to do with the plans of this secret terrorist conspiratorial gathering when those plans are made public in this restaurant.”
“Use your best judgement.”
“That,” Harriet said with a flip of her forelock, “is the only thing you have said in last ten minutes that makes any sense.”
* * *
The name Gerald Powers meant absolutely nothing to Noonan. That being said, His Majesty knew of the individual so that meant there was something nefarious — maybe — associated with the name. Flicking on his desktop computer, used his password to get into the national police files and punched in the name “Gerald Powers.”
He got more than a hundred hits.
He narrowed the list to North Carolina and got several dozens. He was able to eliminate those in Eastern North Carolina. That left four and they were clustered north of Sandersonville near the Great Dismal Swamp.
Noonan always wondered why it was called the GREAT Dismal Swamp. Just the Dismal Swamp would have been good enough. All swamps are dismal and if you get lost in one, they are all GREAT. So, naming it the GREAT Dismal Swamp seemed a waste of five letter. But the naming had been done in 1973 when he had been in the United States Army in Alaska. Even if he had been in North Carolina, he would have had little say in the matter. The marsh and morass was christened the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge when a company, the Union Camp Corporation, had finished logging 50,000 acres of land of every scrap of wood it could sell. It probably took the ‘donation’ as a write-off thus making ‘something’ on the books out of ‘nothing’ in the marketplace.
Historically, Noonan was pleased to note a century before the naming, the GREAT Dismal Swamp had been a refuge for blacks fleeing slavery. Understandable, once they went in, no fugitive slave hunters were willing to wade after them through muck teeming with rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths. Historically interesting, he learned a new word: Maroon. A Maroon was a black who had escaped from slavery and was living in the wilds of the Great Dismal Swamp. It was probably a play on the other two meanings of the word: a brown color and someone who had been abandoned in a deserted location.
It was odd there would be four Gerald Powers in the same location so he pulled their files. All had police records.
Of the four, one was dead. He had died in 1990. His police record indicated he had been arrested for shoplifting in 1965. 1965? Why was that even in the record? Digging deeper Noonan discovered the arrest had been because he had been arrested as a Freedom Rider and had been forcibly removed from a restaurant in a White’s Only section. The shoplifting charge had been the coffee he had ordered but had no paid for because he was being arrested.
The next Gerald Powers was a II and his arrest had been for a college sit-in in 1968 at the University of North Carolina. Gerald Powers III had three arrests, two for anti-nuclear war sit-ins in Chapel Hill and one for “resisting arrest.” The “resisting arrest” was tossed before the case went to court. Along with 16 other “resisting arrest” charges to 15 other people. Gerald Powers IV had a dozen arrests, all for “resisting arrest” and “failure to leave private property.” The arrest locations were all over Eastern North Carolina, the last being in Buxton.
Six weeks earlier.
Noonan pulled that arrest record and discovered it was not a Police Report at all but a National Park Service memorandum. It was actually a formal complaint filed by Christina Dicksey of Buxton. That rang a very distinct bell. Christina Dicksey was the sister-in-law of the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security. Dicksey was, to use a local expression, crazier than a fly in a bass drum. She was susceptible (maybe?) to every conspiracy theory from aliens spotted fishing in Pamlico Sound to her drinking water — from the city water utility — being poisoned by Mexican day laborers. But there was always a monetary angle to every one of her alleged delusions. Her solution to aliens fishing in Pamlico Sound was for the State of North Carolina to buy the abandoned restaurant on her three acres of Pamlico Sound side property and turn it into an observation facility. She had also suggested the poisoned water could be filtered and cleaned with a new straining system from a company owned by her son-in-law. Whenever the name Dicksey came up, everyone in the community with an IQ above room temperature rolled their eyes and said, “Lordly, Lordy, what’s that woman coming up with now?”
* * *
The next morning, Harriet came to work in jeans and tennis shoes. Noonan didn’t say anything about proper business dress because on the Outer Banks, shoes — even if you are carrying them — are proper dress.
“Tough night of undercover work,” he hinted as she settled on his desk and shoved him a handful of receipts.
“Tough, tough, tough, this undercover work. It took me h-o-u-r-s to get to the bottom of the nefarious plot.”
“Yeah,” said Noonan as he examined the receipts. “Drinks for three. Were you plying the innocents for information?”
“Snakes alive! You should be happy. I was only paying a third.” She pointed at the receipts. “Those are my rounds.”
“Who paid the others?” Noonan said suspiciously. “Who’d you swindle for the two other rounds?”
“Swindle?! Such a terrible verb. It was I who was being plied for information. I did my best, boss, I swear. I did not leak a single secret.”
“Really? What secret do we have?”
“I’ll never tell! It’s a secret.”
Noonan shook his head and smiled mischievously. “OK,” he said as she wagged the handful of receipts. “Can you tell me who the other two were?”
“Cops?! How did you manage to find cops while you were undercover?”
Harriet smiled. “Silly boy, they were in uniform. Buxton police. Both divorced. My age. We were all assigned to be undercover.” She swung her tennis shoes back and forth. “We’re going to continue being undercover this afternoon. Down at the beach.”
Noonan shook his head like a cartoon character trying to clear his head to understand what was just said. “The Buxton Police were at a secret terrorist meeting dressed in their uniforms?”
“Odd, eh?” Harriet laughed. “That secret terrorist meeting was so secret the Park Service was there too. It was a preservation council meeting trying get 15 acres of land along Pamlico Sound designated as a Russian Rat Preserve. Talk about a love fest! Everyone was going to come out smelling like roses. The land owners were going to donate the land and write off their squalid property at the highest usable rate. The Park Service was going to get 15 acres at no cost and the preservation society was going to maintain the property. The man pushing the idea was Gerald Powers. He comes for a long line of social and animal rights advocates and wanted the Russian Rat Preserve because a hotel chain is looking at the area to build big. Everything had been going along swimmingly until Christina Dicksey showed up.”
Noonan smiled sadly and said flatly, “Like a bad penny.”
Harriet chuckled. “You got it. She was demanding she be paid to build a coastline road along the waters of Pamlico Sound through the scrub and tangle to reach her land on the southern end of preserve.”
“And,” Noonan said sadly, “her land is not being considered as part of the 15 acres of land for the preserve because it’s built up. Let me prognosticate. She wanted them to include her property in the preserve and pay for it.”
“Yup. And her land already links to Interstate 12. AND, there is an abandoned restaurant on her land and she’s been trying to scam someone into buying the land for years.” Harriet leaned forward. “Now comes the twist. Are you ready for this?”
“I am sure it has something to do with her brother-in-law, the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security.”
“You knew about that? Great. Then the next tidbit makes it easy. The Russian Rat Preserve is going to be managed by a nonprofit run by Gerald Powers and his wife. The land will be part of a string of preserves along the coast dedicated to maintaining land in pristine condition. The Park Service has nothing but nice things to say about the nonprofit because if the nonprofit maintains the Preserve and the Park Service owns it, the Park Service won’t have to won’t have to pay a dime for its upkeep.”
“A match made in heaven. OK, enter Christina Dicksey, the snake in the garden.”
“You got it. And what is Dicksey’s angle? It was going to be a sanctuary for Muslim terrorists on the Outer Banks.”
Noonan shook his head sadly, “Let me guess, The road would be the only way to keep an eye on those nefarious personages.”
“Correct. She’s been yelling about the Preserve being the front for a Muslim Sanctuary for weeks. So, every time there is a secret meeting — which happens every Thursday — the Buxton Police have to be there to keep an eye out for Muslims.”
Noonan shook his head sadly. “And how many Muslims ever show up?”
“One. Maybe. Gerald Powers wife is the daughter of an immigrant Lebanese couple. Her name is Yasmine Kallil and she dresses with a hijab. You know, the head covering of women in the Middle East.”
“So she is a Muslim?”
“Nope. Catholic. I asked. She just happens to like the hijab because, well, because she does. Nothing religious about it.” Harriett shook her head.
The scales fell from Noonan’s eyes. “So that’s the basis for Christina Dicksey’s scam. Give me money to build a road or I’ll yell and scream it’s a Muslim terrorist sanctuary.”
Harriet snickered sadly. “And with a brother-in-law who is Commissioner for Homeland Security she can browbeat, well, her rumor of a terrorist cabal might make it all the way to the Washington D. C. It kinda, sorta looks like the Park Service is going to have to come up with the money to shut her up.”
Noonan thought for a long moment. Then he looked at Harriet and gave a sly smile. “How well do the Buxton Police know Gerald Powers and his wife?”
“According to my friends,” she waggled her tennis shoes again, “they’re best buds. If not before, then after working with him for weeks on this preserve concept.”
Noonan’s face now broke into a wide smile. “Well, while you are undercover at the beach this afternoon — or in swimsuit — have your friends tell Gerald Powers to give me a call.”
* * *
Noonan was enjoying his last cup of coffee for the day — at 9:15 am — when Harriet sauntered into his office with an embossed letter. She waggled it in front of Noonan’s eyes and snarled, “What is this? An Honorary Maroon? What exactly is a Maroon and how did you get to be an Honorary one,” she said as she accented “Honorary.”
Noonan was all faux casual. “Ah, a Maroon. Well, a Maroon is a black who escaped the bonds of slavery and dashed into the Great Dismal Swamp never to be in chains again.”
“Don’t give me that hogwash.” Harriet would not be satisfied with the obfuscation. “The Civil War ended before your grandfather was born.”
“Terrible war. Terrible war,” Noonan muttered.
“Uh, huh,” Harriet said as she pulled another sheet of paper from behind the embossed letter. “What’s this about all lives matter, even Russian Rats.”
“Oh, that!” Noonan said as he rolled his eyes. “I guess it’s for a job well done. Not my job, of course, because, as you know, I am a public servant and we get no kudos.”
“Don’t give me that ‘public servant’ line. I see Gerald Powers signed the letter.” She shook it. “So, what does the Great Dismal Swamp have to do with Russian Rats on the Outer Banks.”
“Nothing actually,” Noonan was coy. “I just made a suggestion and maybe it was taken seriously.”
“Uh, huh. And what was that suggestion.”
“Remember our friend Christina Dicksey and the road she wanted to build through the proposed Russian Rat Preservation.”
“She’s hard to forget though I will try hard.”
“Well, politically speaking, she was a hard case to deal with. She had relatives in all the right places to cause a great deal of problem.”
“With the road, yeah, and being the sister-in-law to his majesty,” she let her eyes drift upwards.
“Correct. You never win fighting people like her head on. You must be subtle. You have to come in from an oblique angle.”
“R-e-a-l-l-y? And what was your oblique angle?”
“Oh, I didn’t have one. I am, of course, an officer of the law and everything I do has to be above board.”
“Don’t pull that one on me. Give!”
“Well, I had a brief talk with Gerald Powers and happened to mention someone could stall the construction of a road for years if not forever if the proposed roadway disrupted an historical site.”
“Historical site? There’s no historical site anywhere Christina Dicksey wanted to build the road.”
Noonan got suddenly coy. “I don’t know that. But, as I told Gerald Powers, ‘You Know, Gerald, if some historical objects appeared in the proposed path of the roadway which indicated an historical site, it could stall the road forever.’”
“Historical object.” Harriet took a long moment thinking. Then she looked at the embossed letter again. Suddenly it dawned on her and she became as evasive as Noonan had been. “Humm, let me speculate. If, say, a tombstone or two from an abandoned Maroon graveyard in the Great Dismal Swamp showed up in the path of the proposed roadway . . .”
“ . . an historical object indicating a graveyard,” Noonan finished her sentence. “No one knew the Maroons came this far south, but you know, if there are tombstones, well, that would indicate they did. Now it’s up to the historians to determine.”
“Come this far south,” Harriet mimicked. “Which would stop any roadway.”
“Even more important,” Noonan said blankly, “it would nullify any political connections one had. If one wanted to build a roadway. No one could build a road without Corps of Engineers approval and National Park Service Approval and Buxton City Council Approval and maybe even getting a nod of approval from the Black Lives Matter people.”
“Which would take years,” Harriet said thoughtfully as he looked up. “How did his Majesty take the news?”
“He hasn’t said a word which, frankly, is A-OK with me. I’m sure he’s up to his elbows dealing with a recalcitrant sister-in-law. But for the moment, he’s off both the terrorist cabal and in-law hooks.”
“I am sure Christina Dicksey is not happy.”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer person.” Noonan pointed to the corner of his right eye with the index finger of his right hand. “If you look very carefully, you will see a teardrop of compassion.”
[Heinz Noonan impossible crime novels and short stories can be found at www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi ]