The Matter of the Evanescent Snake Charmer’s Basket

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was enjoying a rare day off. In this case, the ‘day off’ was not a day during which he was free of all official duties and requirements. It was simply one during which the two executives of his realm – his supervisor, the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security, and a higher authority, his wife – were indisposed. The Commissioner was in Virginia Beach on some errand of national security – or so he wrote for travel and per diem– and his wife was up to her Aces in a bridge tournament in Myrtle Beach which was supposed to last three days.

As he was lounging and enjoying the serene atmosphere of an office with no office politics, Harriet, the office manager and common sense deacon, came in and whispered in his ear, “What do you call a Mexican snake?”

“Mexican snake? I don’t have the slightest idea.”

“Hisssss-panic,” she replied.

Noonan gave her an odd look. “There is a reason for a snake joke this early in the day?” He looked at the time on his computer screen and stated with faux annoyance, “It’s not even 11 a.m.”

“Snakes do not have a sense of timing. When was the last time you saw a snake with a watch on its wrist?”

“About the same time I saw a snake with a wrist.”

“Well, do you know what you call a snake who works for the government?”


“Uh, no. A civil serpent.”

“And the snake jokes are for ….” Noonan let the sentence hang.

“The snake charmer on Line 4. Seems he lost his snake basket.”

* * *

            “Noonan. I hear you have a basket case.”

“That, Captain, is not a bit funny.”

“Little bit of levity, sir. What can I do for you?”

“As I told your assistant, I am a snake charmer. I know that’s an old label but, in my case it is somewhat accurate. My job is to handle snakes.  I’m usually a contractor for feeding and cleaning up the mess from snakes in stores, museums and sometimes private homes. I also search for lost snakes, venomous ones when that have become loose or lost in a community.”

“Poisonous ones, is that right?”

“Actually, no. Poisonous is something that, well, poisons you if you touch it. Snakes can be venomous because they can inject venom with their bite.”

“I stand corrected. I have been told you lost your basket.”


“Basket, as in what you have a snake come out of.”

“Correct again.”

“Is there anything special about your basket that would make someone want to steal it?”

“I doubt it. It is rather old, but not an antique. And I have not been anywhere where someone would want to secret something inside. It has warnings on the basket, as per federal requirements, that there might be a snake inside. And it cannot be taken into a cabin of an airplane when I fly. No snakes on a plane, thank you very much.”

“You haven’t been to a foreign country lately?”

“Not for several years. Like I said, there is no logical reason for someone to steal my snake basket.”

“Where’s the snake that is usually in the basket?”

“In my hotel room here in Nags Head.”

“Might I ask what kind of snake it is?”

“Cobra. That’s what usually pops out of snake charmer’s baskets.”


“Yup. So, as you can see, finding the basket is quite important.”

“Is there any chance the basket could be used to transport drugs? I mean, if it is labeled as containing a cobra, well, you know, law enforcement people might be hesitant to open it.”

“The North Carolina State Troopers asked that very question. They were concerned about the basket being used to smuggle drugs. The quick answer is ‘no.’ You would not have to open it to know if there were drugs inside because there are drug-sniffing dogs. If the dogs did not detect drugs, the basket would not have to be opened. Those dogs have extremely sensitive noses so just a trace of any drugs would alert them. Now, if I were coming from overseas, yes, the basket would be opened by TSA. But there would be no reason to open the basket here in the United States. And frankly, a lot of people do not want to deal with snakes, even the harmless ones. The notice on the side keeps people from opening the basket without me present.”

Noonan dug around for a notebook on his desk. When he found one, he opened it to a blank page. “OK, what’s your name?”

“Harold Dunleavy.”

“Not exactly a name I would associate with snake charming.”

“My stage name is Ramesh Gandhi. You have my cell phone number on your office phone, right?”

Noonan wrote down the number. “OK, I have a number of questions for you. I will call you back, probably pretty soon, for the answers. Do you have a pen and paper?”

“Go for it.”

“How large is the basket, how is the lid secured, exactly what does the warning on the basket say, how heavy is it without the snake, do you carry food for the snake with you, how often does the snake eat, how dangerous is the snake not being in the basket and that’s all I can think of right now. This is kind of a rush job so I will call you back within about two hours.”

“I’ll be waiting for the call.”

* * *

            Usually, when Noonan received a loo-loo call, he went to history and local newspapers for clues. In this case, that was not necessary. He was fully versed with Outer Banks history and the snake charmer had not been in any local newspapers. Noonan knew because he read all the local papers. The best he could do for the moment was jump onto the N-DEx system, the national database of criminal justice records.

He got zip for purloined snakes. He also found nothing associating snakes with any robberies. But he was surprised to see the number of snakes which escaped their captivity and lived for weeks without eating anything. To his surprise, snakes were very popular and were sometimes used as living security. A jewelry store might put a large snake in a terrarium with rings and necklaces to dissuade any thieves. Larger snakes were kept as pets in homes and allowed to slither freely. Pet stores sold nonvenomous species and zoos were always on the lookout for large snakes. Anacondas were particularly popular because of their size and some zoos had serpentines where day and night would be reversed. Patrons might see daytime snakes in ground level displays and then go downstairs where it was dark to see the nocturnal reptiles.

He tried the internet and found a lot of information that was, for this case, useless. He did learn that India, presumably the motherlode of the snake charming industry, was cracking down on snake charmers. And he learned that tropical snakes were disappearing because of fungal outbreaks in their populations of prey. The fastest snakes in America, the coachwhip family, could slither at 3.6 miles an hour and the fastest snake in the world was the black mamba which could move at 12.5 miles an hour. Interestingly, even at 12.5 miles an hour, the mambas were able to have 1/3 of their bodies erect as they moved.

He pulled up pictures of cobras, baskets and snake charmers on the computer and got photos that were clear enough to keep him awake for a month of Sundays. The cobras were easy to identify when their hoods were splayed but there did not seem to be a single type of snake charmer basket. Some of the baskets housed two cobras but many of them were simply generic reed baskets that could be purchased anywhere.

When he called Harold Dunleavy, aka Ramesh Gandhi – or the other way around – he asked for particulars regarding the missing basket.

“You said the basket was marked as containing a cobra. What kind of lettering are you talking about? Was it embedded in the reeds or a sign that was, oh, stapled or taped to the outside?”

“Embedded in the reeds. I have to be very careful when I travel and, for that matter, when I perform. Cobras are venomous. Anticipating your question, a bunch of them actually, I do not perform in a school or crowded venue. I travel to state fairs and wildlife symposia and perform in an enclosed setting. Usually it is on a low table in the middle of a circular canvas enclosure. I take the snakes out of a locked wooden box and place them in the basket. Then I use a flute to have them rise out of the basket. After about ten minutes, I stop playing and the cobra settles back in the basket. I do two or three shows a day during the fair or symposia. Then I move on.”

Noonan looked at his notebook. “How many events do you do in a year?”

“Maybe once a month.”

“Has the basket ever been stolen before?”

“No, this is the first time.”

“Do you ever do special services with the cobra?”

“Not with the cobra.  But I make the bulk of my money handling snakes for clients.  That is, people who have snakes but don’t like to touch them.”

“They don’t like snakes but have them as pets?”

“Yup. Maybe the snake is the husband’s pet and he’s out of town. Or the snake is part of a high school project for junior and mom and dad don’t want to handle the beast. A lot of people, usually store employees, are creepy about snakes. Store management wants the snakes for display, living ones, but the employees or security people do not want to handle or feed them. I make extra money handling snakes in those displays. Not zoos or pet stores, you understand, but hotels, restaurants, stores, schools, and some museums. I have a regular set of clients here in North Carolina.”

A dull clang reverberated in a deep crevice of Noonan’s brain.

* * *

            The following afternoon, Harriet came into Noonan’s office with a rubber snake. She was holding it by its tail and at arm’s length. “I don’t like these things even when they’re not the real thing.”

“A rubber snake, I see. Indigenous to the rubber plantations of Guatemala.”

“More likely in China. It came with a letter of thanks from the North Carolina Troopers.”

“How nice.”

“Nice?! About a snake?!” She tossed the legless beast onto Noonan’s desk where it bounced, slithered and coiled around the base of his desk lamp. Then she sat down. “Now, I took the call for the missing cobra basket. So the basket was found?”

“Never missing.”

“You got a call for a missing basket that was never missing?”

“A con, Harriet. It was just a con. At least that’s what I advised the Troopers. What I think happened was our snake handler was hired to do something with a snake in a jewelry store. Probably to get the store’s snake out of a jewelry case long enough for the remnants of its meals to be cleaned out.”


“Kind of like toilet cleaning, I’d guess. Then, while his hands were in the till, jewelry-ly speaking, he snagged a few gems. Sooner or later the jewelry store would know some of their gems were missing so he contrived to have his snake basket be stolen. I’m betting he went to the jewelry store with the empty basket to house the snake while he cleaned the jewelry display. He walked out of the store with some gems in the basket. Then he reported the basket stolen. Most likely he hid it in a place where it would found easily. Then, when it was found, the Troopers would search it and find no jewelry. That would put him in the clear and have them chasing phantom jewelry thieves.”

“But unless they found the gems on him, or in his room, they really couldn’t accuse him of anything.”

Noonan picked up the rubber snake by the tail and dangled it in front of Harriet. “Yup, but since we got this snake, it’s a good bet the Troopers found something. Then he grabbed the head of the snake and pulled the rubber beast taut. “Now that I have a boa. Do you have any arrows?”

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.