The Matter of the Errant Flatware – Readers and Writers Book Club

The Matter of the Errant Flatware

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was about to have a tough day.

No, it was worse.

It was going to be a ruthless day.

Actually, it was going to be a ruthful day. That was because he had been slated to meet with Ruth Lizzard, the daughter of the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security. Well aware of the ancient adage that the apple does not fall far from the tree from which it became a fruit, Noonan had visions of an encounter on the par with NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN.

Harriet, the Sandersonville office manager and common-sense baron, had the good sense to be ‘up the beach on an assignment’ Noonan knew nothing about. The other office ‘personnel’ were mysteriously ‘down the beach on assignments’ which, again, Noonan knew nothing about. This left Noonan in the Police Department by himself, like the LONE RANGER, but without a Tonto or white stallion.

The only thing Noonan knew of Ruth Lizzard – other than she was the daughter of His Holiness – was she had a degree in culinary arts. (That was a college major?) She managed a string of eateries for some regional restaurant chain based out of Elizabeth City. She was married with two children but kept her maiden name; not that Noonan cared. He was bracing for a social brute when Lizzard, in this case, Ruth, came into his office. She wasn’t in her thirties or, for that matter, in her fifties. Slim, dressed in slacks for office work, she had her Beelzebub beast in a holster on her belt, and carried a briefcase. She looked vaguely like the Commissioner but immediately impressed Noonan with the first sentence out of her mouth.

“I know what my father is,” she said as she sat in the empty chair beside Noonan’s desk, “and I am not that way. I manage people, I don’t order them around. I’m not going to apologize for him, but I do want you to know I understand the, uh, difficulty, you must have working for him.”

Noonan gave kind of a nod.

She gave kind of a nod in return and continued. “I’m not here because of him. In fact, he doesn’t know I’m here. I’m here on business and this is business. The restaurants I represent, and I will not name them, have a unique problem and you are known to resolve odd circumstances.”

“I’ve been lucky,” Noonan said flatly.

“Well, please be lucky for me. Over the past few months there has been an astonishing theft of flatware from the restaurants I manage. I called around to other eateries in the communities where my restaurants are located and they, too, have experienced a rash of disappearing flatware. We, and they, lose a lot of eating utensils to damage and people walking out with an occasional spoon or knife, but not at the rate it has happened recently.”

Noonan scrounged for a notebook in the pile of paper debris on his desktop. “What volume are we talking about?” Then he pulled a pen from the top drawer of his desk.

“I don’t know exactly,” Lizzard said flatly. “We, and the other restaurant managers, don’t count the utensils every night. We expect to lose a certain number of pieces and have a standing order to replace what has vanished. The last time I put in an order, three weeks ago, I had to double it. That was odd so I called around. Everyone I spoke with said the same thing: flatware has been vanishing at a very high rate.”

“And no one knows why?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

* * *

            “Do you know the difference between flatware and silverware?” Ruth Lizzard gave Noonan a quizzical look.

“Sorry, I don’t,” Noonan said as he wrote the two words in his notebook.

“Flatware are the eating utensils you use in a restaurant; silverware is what people steal because it is expensive.”

“So,” Noonan mused, “what you are telling me is the theft is of flatware, not software. That is, it has no value on the street. It can’t be pawned.”

“Correct. It has no value on the street. You can buy a set of 60 forks, knives, and spoons at Costco for about $100, about $1.75 per piece of flatware. What I am telling you is flatware stolen has no street value. In a normal year, a lot of it disappears when schools start. Particularly, colleges. But the rest of the year, not much flatware disappears. And when it does disappear, it is in onesies and twosies, not wholesale.”

Noonan fiddled with his pen. “How many pieces of flatware have been stolen?”

“In the range of a thousand. Like I said, that’s a lot of flatware to disappear.”

“Over what time period?”

“No way of getting an exact time frame. I’d say about six months. No one I spoke with said they discovered the thefts on a Tuesday. When I asked about flatware, many managers had to check their records. That was when they discovered the flatware had been stolen. And I say stolen because no restaurant can lose that volume of flatware just because of petty theft. We are talking lots of flatware.”

Noonan kind of mumbled. “So, you are saying this is a meticulous theft. Do the same people work at all the restaurants?”

Lizzard smiled. “You don’t know much about the restaurant business, do you?”

“I place my order and pay my bill. That’s it.”

Lizzard shook her head. “You don’t manage a restaurant; you’re married to it. You are there at seven in the morning to check the fish and meat as it is delivered, and you are there until the last employee leaves at 10 in the evening. During the day you deal with servers who want more pay, complaints that this waiter gets the good table that tips while that waiter doesn’t get any tips at all. You taste wine to make sure it is worth what you are paying, negotiate personal animosities with the kitchen staff, fill out State of North Carolina Health Questionnaires, file monthly taxes, assemble inventory lists. Anticipating your next question, the people who are most likely to steal flatware – why I cannot guess – are the dishwashers and kitchen staff. They are the lowest paid employees and the most unreliable. They come and they go. They show up for work or don’t. They get another job and don’t tell you. A lot of them have criminal records; not murder or embezzlement but DUIs, DVs, speeding, selling drugs, failure to pay child support. Low level stuff. Many are on probation or parole. They are not your usual good citizens. So, in anticipation of your next question, yes, there are a lot of kitchen workers who travel around the various restaurants, work for a while in one restaurant and then go to work for another restaurant. Yes, they all know each other and know others at the bottom of the legal food chain. But there is no money in stealing flatware so, I mean, why?”

“That,” mumbled Noonan as he etched a large question mark on his notebook page, “I do not know. But I do have some questions for you. I will call you back in a few days for the answers.”

Lizzard fumbled for a notebook from her briefcase. “OK, what are the questions?”

“Here goes, what percent of the total restaurant flatware is missing, do all restaurants buy their flatware from the same vendor, do all the restaurants buy their flatware at the same time, was anything else missing from the restaurants that is unusual, is anything unusual happening at any of the restaurants, have there been any money thefts at any of the restaurants, when do the replacement flatware arrive, how do the replacement flatware arrive, are any restaurants up for sale, and that’s all I can think of right now.”

Lizzard was looking at her list of questions when she asked, “When do you want these answers?”

“When I call you in a few days.”

* * *

When it came to silverware, rather, flatware, all Noonan knew was that it could be bought from Costco. So, his first bit of detecting was the Costco website. Flatware – not silverware at Costco – came in all manner of settings and styles. The generic settings came in sets of five: Salad Fork, Place Fork, Place Knife, Soup Spoon and Teaspoon. The weight per item was about 11.5 ounces. Which meant 1,000 pieces of flatware was about 150 pounds. Noonan did not see a clue to the theft there.

There was quite a bit on silverware theft on the internet – but not much on flatware theft. This was understandable because the money, so to speak, was in the silver not the flat. Disappearing flatware was not just a restaurant problem. It was universal. From cafeterias to dormitories to private offices, it appeared to be impossible to keep the assigned flatware where it was supposed to be. Humorously, it appeared the flatware in office breakrooms was usually from local restaurants and cafeteria having been purloined from those locales. This, however, did not stop the cycle of disappearance. Neither did signs on refrigerator doors or threats of chastisement to those who would steal flatware.

Where all the flatware went, no one knew. But everyone was furious when they had to eat soup with a butter knife or when the office staff replaced the stolen flatware with plastic utensils. Even etching the word “stolen” into flatware did not work either. The ‘stolen’ flatware disappeared at the same rate as the regularly purloined utensils. A statistical investigation into missing cutlery in Australia by the Burnet Institute, led to the astonishing conclusion that 18 million teaspoons in Melbourne went missing each year. This may be, it was humorously stated, the reason there are rings around Saturn. Also, humorously, but a bit closer in the universe, the Institute engraved the word “stolen” into the handles of 70 teaspoons and distributed them as a test case in public kitchens. Five months later, 80% of the spoons were gone. The last spoon was removed from the public sector and now hangs on the wall of the Burnet Institute and is titled “The Last of ‘The Spoons’ on the Ground Floor.” There was even a book on missing flatware, THE CASE OF THE MISSING CUTLERY: A LEADERSHIP COURSE FOR THE RISING STAR,” and in July of 2022, the legendary ‘Fork in the Road’ in Westport, Massachusetts, vanished. This fork was not usable in a kitchen as it was ten feet tall. But then again, Paul Bunyan could have ventured all the way south from Bangor, Maine for that utensil.

Humor aside, Noonan did not see a single clue as to the disappearance of the flatware. As an historical aficionado of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, he was familiar with the local history of the area as he read all the local newspapers regularly. This eliminated his two tried-and-true sources of information when it came to loo-loo calls. But it did not eliminate the very real possibility the theft was associated with a crime to be. The volume of missing flatware over such a short period was an alarm he could not afford to ignore. So, when all else fails, you go oblique.

Rather than concentrate on what sources of money or valuables were stealable in the areas where the flatware had disappeared, he looked for what was new in the areas. He pulled up the local newspapers for where Lizzard’s restaurants were located: Elizabeth City, Morehead City, New Bern, Washington, Greenville, and Edenton. There were no new banks opening, and while there were advertisements for jewelry sales, none of the stores indicated they were new. He found a dozen rare coin stores in the area, but they were not standalone. They, like many jewelry stores, were in malls or shopping centers. He only found four items that were unusual in the sense they were ‘new.’ One was the creation of a low-head hydro project for an experimental, energy-efficient shopping mall. Another was the expansion of a riverfront dock and the associated insertion of ATMs. Then there was an about-to-open surfside brewery and a new vehicle dealership specializing in EVs, electric vehicles.

The low-head hydro project was unusual in the sense it was converting a weakness to a strength. Electricity has two great weaknesses. One is the loss of electricity during transmission. The further the power generation is from the ultimate consumer; the less electricity will be available. If electricity travels along 200 miles of wire to reach a home, there is a tremendous loss of power over those 200 miles. The second electrical weakness was storage. It isn’t easy to save electricity. Batteries can only store so much power and even the electricity stored must be used before it vanishes.

An environmental group was aware of these two weaknesses and sought to develop a cure. They built a dam on a local stream outside of Edenton with an adjustable spillway. During the night, when electrical usage was low, the spillway was closed, and the only electricity used came from storage batteries that had been ‘filled,’ so to speak, during the previous day. Then, at nine a.m., when the stores in the mall opened for the day and electrical usage started to surge, the spillway was opened, and electricity produced. The distance from the spillway to the mall outside of Edenton was only three miles and in a direct wire so there was negligible loss in transmission.

The placement of the ATMs on the dock in Morehead City was interesting but had little ‘crime’ value. All of the businesses on the pier were mom-and-pops and every sweep of a credit card cut into their profits. Thus the ATMs. One merchant on the dock had a safe and had offered to act as a bank so the individual businesses did not have to carry cash ashore every night. The surfside brewery in New Bern was anticipating creating quality liquors for discount sales to tourists along every beach and reach of Pamlico Sound.  But it would not be operational for six weeks. The EV sales yard was in the process of going online in Washington. Though not stated as such, it hinted that the reason Washington was chosen as a EV sales and service center was because it was close enough to Greenville pull customers away from the gasoline and diesel-powered dealerships.  Establishing recharge stations would be easier in Washington than Greenville because Washington had a mayor and city council who were “more amiable to experimentation” than those in Greenville.

And Noonan did not see a hint of a reason for anyone to steal flatware.

But he did have a few more questions when he called Ruth Lizzard back.

“You found my flatware?” She was being funny.

“Well, it’s not in the rings of Saturn (pause) yet.” He chuckled. “A few more questions. The people most likely to walk away with the flatware are the dishwashers and kitchen staff. How many total dishwashers are there in all the restaurants that have lost flatware?”

“Maybe forty. About 10 or 15 are regular and reliable. The others, not so much.”

“Men and women?”

“Very few women. Women can make more money as waitresses.”

“Any of the dishwashers who work for you married to a waitress?”

“Some. We have a husband-and-wife team.”

“They still with you?”

“As of last night, yes. At our restaurant in Edenton.”

There was a dull gong in the deepest recesses of Noonan’s cerebellum. “Good workers?”

“Reliable? Yes. Been with the restaurant for a few months. Is that important?”

“Don’t know. Anything unusual about the couple?”

“Not really. Only odd in the sense they are not down-and-outers like most of the other dishwashers. He’s retired Navy. Just got out and is taking a mindless job for a spell.”

“What does his wife do? Does she wash dishes too?”

“Waitress. Does some cooking, too.”

“But they are only at the Edenton restaurant?”

“Yes and no. I manage six restaurants. If one restaurant is short a dishwasher, I find a substitute. So, they have worked at different restaurants.”

“But not at any of the other restaurants that are missing flatware?”

“They work for me regularly. They might pick up some extra cash working for another restaurant. Sometimes they are paid in cash so it’s a draw to those who want no paper trail the IRS can follow.”

“I see. Do all of the dishwashers in the area know each other?”

“Oh, yeah. They all travel in the same social circles, so to speak. Drink in the same taverns, go to the same after-hours clubs, strip joints, pull tab parlors. There’s a lot of mingling. When one quits at one restaurant, another can take his place. They all talk. A big family. Not necessarily a happy one.”

“The retired Navy dishwasher. Do you know what he did in the Navy?”

“Engineering of some kind. That’s what it said on his employment application. He’s a good worker. Shows up on time. Stays late. I’ve got no complaints.”

Noonan wrote ‘Engineer’ in his notebook and then said, “Now, to the answers to my questions.”

Lizzard sighed. “I don’t know how it will help but here goes. Overall, the percentage of flatware missing in terms of dollars is negligible. It’s an annoyance, not a critical number. Not all restaurants buy flatware from the same vendor. There are about a dozen restaurant supply houses in the area, and we all buy from them, not Costco. Flatware is bought when it is bought. The only clue I have to a timeframe is when I called and found out there had been a massive theft. No one said anything else was missing, including money, and the flatware arrives when it arrives. The flatware arrives by truck with other supplies, rarely by itself. No restaurants are up for sale. The only oddity, if you want to call it that, is one of our restaurants is new. Brand new. In Edenton. There’s a new mall there. An oddity because it’s, I guess you’d say, an experiment. It’s almost entirely powered by low-head hydro.”

A dull chime echoed in the deepest recesses of Noonan’s cerebral cavity. “Experimental? As in all the power is from the low-head hydro?”

“I’m surprised you know what low-head hydro is,” Lizzard said with a chuckle. “But no, not all the power is low-head hydro. The emergency backup is from the local electric utility, but the day-to-day needs are the low-head hydro.”

“Does that include the security system?” Noonan asked.

“Probably. I don’t know. We don’t have a security problem. Why not ask the security people in the mall? Need a contact and number? But I doubt he will give you his name. All secrecy and all.”

* * *

            “You’re a cop.” The voice was flat, emotionless, the tone a cop gets when he asks a witness at a bar brawl what she saw. Being a patrolwoman wouldn’t make it any easier. Cops are, well, cops. Worse, on the phone, there is no way to use the charm of your personality to ease the situation.

“Yeah,” said Noonan giving it a try anyway. “It embarrasses my family, but they’ve gotten used to it.”

There was a long moment of silence from the other end of the line. Finally, Noonan said. “Ruth Lizzard gave me your name as a contact for the Edenton Mall. If you don’t want to talk to a cop, I’ll find someone else.”

A much shorter moment of silence and then, “No. I’m as good as you are going to get. We have had more than our rash of problems here at the mall, so we are nervous about the cops. Especially the locals.”

An alarm chimed in Noonan’s cerebellum.

“Problems?”

“Not criminal, just security. You said your name was Noonan?”

“Better be or I’ll have to get another driver’s license.”

“Ha,” but it was a flat laugh lacking emotion. “You know the Midgets in Buxton?”

“Hard not to know them. Why?”

“Edenton is like the Outer Banks. Small town. Everyone talks. No secrets. How do I know you won’t talk.”

“Nobody listens to cops. You should know that.”

This brought a grunt. “Fair enough,” but still a flat tone. “What do you want to know?”

“Let’s start with the problems at the mall.”

There was a sigh on the other end of the phone line. “I would have thought Ruth would have filled you in.”

“She doesn’t share any secrets. Except that flatware is missing.”

“We should be so lucky. What do you know about Edenton?”

Noonan smiled. He was now in his favorite milieu. “Quite a bit, actually. Small community today. It was the second Capitol of North Carolina and was named for the Governor of North Carolina at that time. Famous for the Edenton Tea Party. It was a shocker because it was an all-women protest, probably the first in the colonies. Women were invisible then and the Tea Party, in support of the Boston Tea Party, scandalized British society. It’s also the home, or, rather, the hiding hovel, of Harriet Jacobs where she hid in the crawlspace of her free black grandmother. There were free blacks in North Carolina in those days. She eventually fled to New York and wrote the classic INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL. After the Civil War, Edenton had a river lighthouse built with a unique construction. The pilings were screwed into the Roanoke River bottom. And I am betting the Roanoke is now the source of the water for the low-head hydro serving the mall.”

This time there was no stalling. “I am impressed. And for a cop!” The man whistled. “There are people in town who do not know that much history. Kudos to you.”

“Thanks for the verbal applause. Now, tell me about the problems.”

“Nothing criminal otherwise I’d have called the police. Overall, the big problem has been the low-head hydro. It is going to be the primary source of electricity. This required some unusual wiring. Rather, an unusual prioritizing of how the electricity will be distributed. Nothing the electrical people cannot handle, just different. But it has created some problems.”

“Like?”

“Like a gap between low power is used and when the full power of the hydro comes on. The way I, we, the mall people understand it, during the night there is not a lot of need for electricity, so the dam spillway is closed. During those hours, the mall operates on stored power from the day before. At nine a.m., when the spillway opens, raw power comes into the mall. Some of it replaces the electricity already in reserve.”

“Seems logical,” Noonan said. “What’s the problem?”

“The hydropower is the prime power. If it does not kick in on time, the mall is left with the stored power. During the night, it is not a problem. But after nine in the morning, it could be a real problem. Lizzard’s restaurant is not open to the public yet, but her crew is already there. Everyone else is open and we will be using a lot of electricity. The mall is bustling. There are bank people and clothing salespeople and jewelry store display personnel, security folks. Captain,…”

“Heinz. Until there’s a crime, I’m Heinz.”

“Fine, Heinz. Heinz, a mall is a city. There are workers in the mall and stores around the clock. Most people think of a store as something that is open from 9 am to whenever. But long before the store opens at 9 am, people are already working here.”

“And the problem is …” Noonan let the question hang.

“The problem is the power for the mall is hydro. As long as the water runs out of the spillway at 9 am and the water wheels spin, we’re doing OK. But if there is a problem at nine a.m., everything in the mall has to stay on the low power saved from the previous day. We don’t know how long that power will last.  We can get a boost from the City of Edenton but it will not be instantaneous.”

“That’s a problem?”

“We don’t know. We only have the word of the hydro person. He says it will not be a problem. Anytime someone tells me ‘Don’t worry, no problem,’ I start to worry.”

“I’m with you there. So, if the hydropower goes out, how long will it take for the city electricity to kick in?”

“Good question. It’s like how many French soldiers does it take to protect Paris from the Germans?”

“That better be a joke.”

“It is. A French joke. My wife’s French. How many soldiers does it take to protect Paris from the Germans? Quick answer: no one knows because it’s never been done.”

Noonan knew there was something missing here.

It ‘smelled wrong’ so Noonan cautiously asked, “You seem awfully nervous about something that probably won’t happen.”

“I have to be. I’m security here at the mall. It’s a new system and they always make me nervous. And right now, until the system is totally online, I’m depending on a man who’s never been in the security business. He’s a retired Navy engineer.”

The chiming of a gong in Noonan’s brain was deafening – figuratively speaking.

* * *

            Heinz Noonan, the ‘Bearded Holmes’ of the Sandersonville Police Department, politely, politically, professionally, and patriarchally ignored the three-layered chocolate cake with chocolate frosting on the top of his desk. Written around the rim of the cake was the word CONGRATULATIONS followed by four !s. Noonan ignored the cake obtrusively resting on the pile of notebooks on his desk. He sat in his office chair as though this day was just another regular day, and the cake was nothing more than an odd desk adornment.

It didn’t work.

The office staff would have none of that. Harriet, the office manager and common-sense guru, advanced on Noonan with a handful of paper plates and flatware.

“These,” Harriet said as she put the flatware on Noonan’s desktop, “were stolen just for you. The cake is from Ruth Lizzard.”

“Never heard of her,” Noonan said flatly.

“Oh,” said Harriet in a voice of mock amusement. “Then let’s ask the Commissioner if she’s a relative.” Harriet looked skyward, or, at least, ceilingward, with the rest of the office staff. They, ensemble, peered through the ceiling tiles to the Throne Room of the unremarkable but self-aggrandizing Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security.

“No,” said Noonan humorously, “no reason to get him involved.”

The room exploded in laughter as Harriet cut the cake. She was about to hand Noonan his piece which, at the last moment, she withheld. “Not yet! Tell your loyal band about the flatware.”

“What flatware?” Noonan said with faux innocence.

Harriet fanned a sheet of paper in her hand. “The note with the cake reads, ‘Scavenge a few forks to enjoy this!’ So, tell us all about the forks and the Edenton Mall.”

“How do you know the cake came from the Edenton Mall?”

“Because that was where the special delivery began.” Harriet pointed at the cake with the note. “Now, cough up or no cake!” She comically pulled the piece of cake back from Noonan’s grasp.

“Nothing much to say. Ruth Lizzard reported a lot of flatware,” Noonan pointed at the flatware in Harriet’s hand, “had been stolen. She asked me to look into it. I called around and discovered one of her restaurants was in the Edenton Mall. The mall is brand new and is being powered by low-head hydro, a small dam. The dam spillway is closed at night and when the mall needs power during the day, the spillway is opened, and electricity is produced.”

“So?” said one of the officers chowing down on a piece of cake.

Noonan gave a salute with a fork. “There was a flaw in the system. If power from the dam is stalled or stopped, the mall depends on backup power. But there was a glitch. There is not that much stored power and if the outage lasts too long, electricity has to be transmitted in from the City of Edenton. So, there will be a time gap between when the hydropower stops and the mainline power comes on. During that gap, the mall is low on power and that will affect the security system.”

“So,” another officer said in an ah-ha! voice, “someone could rob a bank and not set off the alarm for a few minutes.”

“Or a jewelry store,” Noonan added. “But the trick was for the bad people to be able to know exactly when the power outage would occur.”

“Y-y-y-e-e-a-a-h-h,” said another voice. “But how do you get inside information on a hydro project? I mean, it’s run by water not people, so to speak.”

“Good observation,” Noonan said as he took a bite of cake. “The bad people had two things going for them. One of their own had designed the electrical system to fail during those critical minutes.”

“What was the other?” someone in the back of the crowd at the cake asked.”

“The key to the theft of the flatware,” Noonan replied. “For theft to occur, you have to stop the water wheels in the low-head hydro from turning.” He waved a fork. “That was why the flatware was stolen. It was the key. The flatware was stolen because it could not be traced. Then it was welded into a large ball. The intent was to drop the ball in front of the dam spillway when the spillway was closed. The ball was small enough to be completely covered by water. Then, when the spillway was opened in the morning, the rushing water would roll the flatware ball downstream and over the water wheel mechanism. That would momentarily stop the production of electricity.”

“But someone would find the flatware ball and trace it back to whomever, right?”

“Could,” Noonan said. “But I doubt it. The ball was probably designed to disrupt the low-head hydro system, not damage it. As the water built up behind it, it would be washed downstream.”

“And into the Roanoke River,” someone said. “That’s just outside Edenton.”

“My guess too,” Noonan said. “The flatware ball just had to be disruptive enough to stop the power wheels for a minute or two. Then it rolled on. It’s also a good bet the welding of the flatware was just strong enough to keep the forks, knives, and spoons in place for a short period of time. After the wheel was pushed beyond the wheelworks, it began to fall apart. No wheel, no way to prove there was any bad intent.”

“So, someone got away with robbery?”

“I don’t think so,” Noonan said between chews. “I was told the flatware wheel was pulled out of the water before the spillway was opened. No power outage; no robbery.”

“How about the mastermind? The person who came up with the idea. The electrical guy who set the whole thing up?”

“Well,” Noonan said with a smile, “if he can be charged, they’ll put him in a dry cell.”

Steven C. Levi is a sixty-something freelance historian and commercial writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, his home for past 40 years. He has a BA in European History and MA in American history from the University of California Davis and San Jose State. He has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle. 

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