“The Matter of the Smallgarian Wall and the Portuguese Undertaker” by Steve Levi

Captain Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes“ of the Sandersonville Police Department, was working on being inconspicuous at the Sandersonville Chamber of Commerce luncheon announcing the inauguration of a new police public relations campaign when he was spotted by Police Commissioner Lizzard who, unlike Noonan, was trying to be as visible as possible. This was hard considering that Lizzard only stood an inch taller than a filing cabinet and had a personality to match. Unfortunately for Lizzard, the only people who were paying him any attention were the waiters and that was because he kept asking for a second serving of cheesecake while they were trying to clear the tables.

“Noonan,” hissed Lizzard to keep his voice below the drone of the Chief of Police on stage. He wiggled his dessert fork to indicate Noonan should join him at Lizzard’s table.

Noonan looked from Lizzard to the Chief’s distant figure and then back to Commissioner. With a helpless look on his face he slowly rose and slinked across the ballroom walking as though his tail was tucked between his legs. He never made it. Midway between the press pit and the bank of cameras on tripods he was accosted by his aide, Lt. Geraldine Cohen, who handed him a cellular phone unceremoniously. Noonan gave Lizzard one of those I’d-love-to-talk-but-duty-calls looks and took the phone.

“Quick thinking, Cohen. Take the rest of the day off.”

“It’s Saturday evening,” she sniped, “and this is a real call. Every once in a while you win one.”

“Thank God!” Noonan said in mock jest. “I’d hate to think that I’d have to go through life with nary a lucky break.”

“You shouldn’t say that until you finished talking to this bird,” she said as she indicated the cell phone. “You might think you’d be better off talking with Lizard.”

“Not possible.” Noonan gave her a strange look and then stepped over the river of television cables and walked briskly past two tables of mesmerized myrmidons, their eyes locked on the distant image of the Chief. Noonan smiled politically but it was an exercise in futility. He was only a Captain and there were plenty of them here tonight.

Outside in the hallway Noonan leaned against a soft drink machine and pulled the cellular phone to his ear, and, with all the dignity he could muster on his day off, he said “This is Captain Noonan. How may I help you?”

“Did I break you away from something important? Gee, I didn’t want to do that. I do have an important problem, well, at least it’s important to me, and, well, to a lot of other people too but I didn’t want to break you away from an important meeting on a Saturday evening. But it is important and I do need some kind of answer, help, but . . .”

“Whoa!” Noonan barked into the mouthpiece. “Let’s take this slowly, OK. I’m on the phone. Now, who is this?”

“This is, is, well, this is a public defender, Stanley Berkowitz, in Sepulveda City, Nevada. We’re a community that straddles the California-Nevada border, not that there is much of a border you can see here. We’re a very small town and . . .”

“Yes, I can imagine so. I thought everything in Nevada was small except the claims of Reno and Las Vegas.”

“And Carson City, Captain. That’s where they tell us how large our budget is going to be each year.”

“Good comeback. Now what can I do for you Mr. Berkowitz?”

“Please call me Stan or Stanley. Everyone around here calls me ‘Son of.’”

“‘Son of,’ as in son-of-a-bit . . .” Noonan had a confused look on his face before Berkowitz cut him off mid-curse.

“We can’t use that term here. No. As in ‘Son of Sam’ Berkowitz. He was a . . .”

“Yes. Yes. I’m aware of him. Now. What can I do for you specifically?”

“Well, it’s rather a convoluted matter.”

“I’ll bet it is.” Noonan tipped his right wrist so he could catch a glimpse of his watch. “It’s pushing 21:30 here and you’re an hour ahead of me—and on a Saturday night.”

“Well, I’ve got this hearing on Monday afternoon and well, this case is too complicated to discuss with the rest of the people in the office. You see, I’ve got a Smallgarian Wall and a Portuguese Undertaker to consider. Things have been, well, rough . . .”

“Whoa! Once again, Stan, you’ve got to take these matters slowly. I can’t fol . . .”

“Thanks for calling me Stan. Everyone else calls me . . . “

“Yes, I know. Son of Sam. Now. Slowly. Very slowly. Tell me what you need. But first. What is a Smallgarian Wall?”

“Smallgarian Wall? Well, we’ll start there OK.”

“Fine with me.” Noonan looked across the lobby at Lt. Cohen who was shaking her head and smiling with an I-told-you-so look. Noonan tossed his head in response and turned toward the wall.

“Our boss doesn’t like to use ethnic words so he changed the word ‘Chinese’ to ‘Smallgarian.’ There aren’t any Smallgarians, you see.”

“What a surprise.” Noonan smiled in amusement. “So what you mean is the ethical wall between two attorneys in the same office who are handling different clients but the same case.”

“Right. Right. I’m handling the Portuguese Undertaker and another attorney in this office is representing the Gypsy Embalmer. He’s Jewish.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to use ethnic terms in the office.”

“Oh, oh, oh, we’re not. You see, the Portuguese Undertaker is, well, that’s his business name, except it’s in Portuguese.”

“How clever.”

“Right. Yes. And the Gypsy Embalmer is just that. He’s an embalmer who works on the fly, so to speak. We only have one undertaker in town and three in the general area on both sides of the border. The embalmer works for all of them. Out of his car. A station wagon. He drifts from undertaker to undertaker.”

“Peripatetically.” Noonan chuckled at his little joke.

It took Berkowitz a moment to catch the drift. “Yes. You could say that. But his business name is the ‘Gypsy Embalmer.’ That’s what he calls himself. And the other lawyer is George Jewish. He’s Catholic.”

“Right. Now, why is that I think this is a crank call?”

“Oh, no, no. This is really Stanley Berkowitz calling from Sepulveda City, Nevada. I know it sounds wild but, well, do you know how hard it is to use these names in the Public Defender’s office with a straight face in front of a boss who’s PC?”

“I can imagine. Now. Let’s get to the meat of the problem.”

“Right. Right.”


“The meat of the problem, right. Well, I’m representing . . .” Berkowitz was clearly nervous.

“The Portuguese Undertaker and George Jewish, a Catholic, is representing the Gypsy Embalmer. I’ve made it that far.”

“Right. They were working on the body of a local sheepherder, a Basque . . .”

“Is there any ethnic group left out of this case?”

There was silence on the other end of the phone for a moment. “Well, Sepulveda City does have a sizable Italian population that has nothing whatsoever to do with this case.”

“What a pity,” rumbled Noonan. “Go on.”

“Oh, OK. The Portuguese Undertaker and the Gypsy Embalmer were working on this Basque sheepherder when the body was seized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

“The BIA?” Noonan was clearly having a hard time following this last twist in the tale.

“Yes. I know it sounds strange.”

“Hey, it’s the most normal thing I’ve heard in this conversation so far.”

“Yes, I imagine this is a strange case. The BIA seized the body because the Basque sheepherder is married to a local Indian activist. He wants to bury his wife in a traditional manner: left exposed to the elements.”

“Why’s the BIA involved. This sounds like a health matter.”

“Not if the exposure is going to occur on a reservation.”

“OK. Whatever. What—and I shudder to venture forward—is your problem?”

“Well, well, eh, the Portuguese Undertaker and the Gypsy Embalmer had both completed their work on the Basque sheepherder when the body was taken by the BIA.”

“That I kind of gathered.”

“Since the sheepherder was a veteran, the funeral expenses were paid by the federal government. These included the embalming and undertaking services. They also included payment for any incidental legal fees that may arise, you know, such as permits and permissions to bury an individual on private land, spread ashes on public property, stuff like that.”


“Well, the undertaking and embalming expenses were never paid by the feds because the body was seized. Since the undertaker and embalmer couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer and sue the BIA they filed a charge of theft with the Sheriff’s office.”

“That must have thrilled him to no end.”

“Her. Our Sheriff is a she. Well, she didn’t really care but by the time she went looking for the body, it had disappeared.”

“Disappeared? You mean as in bureaucratically lost?”

“No. I mean as in gone. Poof. It had been wrapped in material, as per tribal dictates, and placed in a hearse for transportation to this elevated platform for the burial ceremony—except it wouldn’t really be burial ceremony since the body wasn’t going into the ground. It was going overhead in a . . .”

“I get the point, Stan. What happened to the body?”

“It disappeared. The hearse was seized by the BIA and driven into a cold storage locker where it guarded night and day. When the BIA checked the locker two days later, the body was gone.”

“How far was it from the undertaker’s salon to the cold storage locker?”

“One hundred yards.”

“One hundred yards?”

“Right. And everyone was watching the hearse the whole time.”

“Who put the body in the hearse?”

“The BIA. They stormed the undertaker’s salon and took it out through the garage to the hearse. Then they drove the hearse the one hundred yards to the cold storage locker to hold it until they could get a court order to do whatever.”

Noonan tapped his forehead with the tips of the fingers from his left hand. “Didn’t they have to take the corpse out of the hearse to get it into the storage locker?”

“Oh, no. I guess I didn’t make myself clear. They drove the whole car into the cold storage building. The whole car. They drove it in and locked the door behind them. The car was in there for two days. They had a 24-hour guard on that locker just in case someone tried to sneak the body out.”

“Like the Indian activist.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to. So the building was guarded for two days. Who saw the body being loaded into the hearse?”

“About two dozen angry Indian activists. It took a dozen BIA people to keep them calm enough to get the body into the hearse. That was the first time I’ve ever seen an armed escort for a cadaver.”

“Now, let me tell you what you told me so I can be sure I have this story right. A cadaver . . .”

“. . . of a Basque sheepherder.”

“Let’s not get ethnic yet, OK. A cadaver wrapped in material is taken by force by a contingent of about 12 men from the BIA from an undertaker’s salon and placed in a hearse while about 24 angry citizens watched them do it.”

“Right. And . . .”

“Not yet, Stan. Let me finish first. Those same 24 angry citizens had the hearse in full view from the undertaking salon to the cold storage building. The hearse was driven into the cold storage building with the Indian activists watching and then the BIA agents exited the building and locked it up. They had an around-the-clock guard posted on the building and when it was opened for the first time two days later the body was gone?”

“Right as rain.”

“Interesting.” Noonan was silent for a moment, too long for Berkowitz.


“I’m here, Stanley. I’m here. But I shudder to ask the next question.”

“I know. You’re going to ask what a state Public Defender’s office has to do with a missing corpse in federal custody and why there’s a Smallgarian Wall, right?”

“Yeaaaah, basically.”

“Well, when the case was filed as a criminal action—and after it was discovered that the body had disappeared—the BIA reacted by hitting the Portuguese Undertaker and the Gypsy Embalmer with a wide variety of felony charges. These included aiding and abetting a violation of federal health statutes, intent to litter federal property, transporting controlled substances across a state line, conspiracy to loiter on a federal reservation, transportation of human remains without a permit, conspiracy to trespass on federal reservation and some other ones they dug out of ancient law book.”

“But you’re a state officer, right? Why are you messing with federal issues?”

“We’re a small town. I may get a paycheck from the State of Nevada but I’m assigned to handle all cases involving indigents in a 10,000 square mile area whether the problems are city, county, state or federal. That’s the way we do things here. On this particular case, I’m wearing a federal hat even though I’m being paid by the State of Nevada. I and George Jewish, a cath . . .”

“Catholic. Yes, I know.”

“I and George Jewish got the case. We started out defending the two together but as soon as BIA got serious and began talking jail time that split the friendship. The Portuguese Undertaker didn’t want to take any heat for transporting controlled substances across a state line and turned on the Gypsy Embalmer claiming he, the undertaker, didn’t know what substances the embalmer was using. The Gypsy Embalmer felt sure he could beat that rap because he was only transporting substances that were being used regularly everywhere else in the industry. The Gypsy Embalmer lives on the California side of the line while the Portuguese Undertaker is in Nevada. That’s where the ‘crossing a state line’ charge came from.”

“OK. Why is the Gypsy Embalmer turning evidence against the Portuguese Undertaker?”

“Because the cold storage building is in California and the undertaker’s hearse was used to move the body across a state line the other way. The embalmer thinks the toughest charge to fight would be the transportation of a body across a state line. Besides, he can’t get a union lawyer to fight that charge.”

“Embalmers have a union?” Noonan was incredulous.

“Strange isn’t it?”

“Nothing about this case strikes me as normal.” Noonan shook his head and then added, “Basically what you need to resolve this case is to find the corpse and decide how it’s going to be buried so that everyone’s happy.”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that. If we don’t find the corpse, there are two men who are going to be spending a lot of time in court trying to explain to a judge how they didn’t steal a body or do any of a wide range of felonies and misdemeanors. If the BIA does find the corpse, it’s going to be a legal rats’ nest with Indian activists demanding aboriginal rights to dispose of their deceased. Time isn’t going to heal these wounds very quickly because the BIA lawyers have set a preliminary hearing for felony charges against the Portuguese Undertaker and the Gypsy Embalmer for Monday at 2 p.m. if they don’t come up with the body.”

“Which they don’t have.”

“Not as far as I know.”

“OK. I don’t know what I can do for you but I need the following information and a call on Monday. Monday, Stanley, that’s not tomorrow. That’s the day after tomorrow. Got it?”

“Yes. Monday. The day of the hearing.”

“Right. Now, how big is the cold storage locker? How many exits does it have? How many Bureau of Indian Affairs agents were actually at the raid on the corpse? How large is the hearse? How far is it to the nearest BIA-recognized Indian reservation? How long has that reservation been in existence? What kind of car does the Indian activist husband drive, where does he live and what is the status of the land on which he lives? Where was he when the BIA arrived? Got those questions?”

“I hope so. And I’ll call you on Monday.

“Yes, Monday. And Stanley . . .”


“Do you think we could keep our conversation centered on facts and not ethnics on Monday?”

“I can try.”

“Work extra hard.”

* * *

Monday morning found Captain Noonan slaving over a pile of fiscal reports so deep in red ink he needed SCUBA gear to read the bottom line. Worse, Commissioner Lizzard was pressing for another $40,000 to be shifted to a community relations campaign that was over funded already. Noonan was juggling the funds he had left when Coretta from the administrative assistant pool came by to take lunch orders.

“You want burger and fries, pizza or a French dip?”

“What’s the pizza?” Noonan looked up at the clock. “And why are you taking lunch orders at 10 a.m.?”

“Got a busy day, Captain. Lizzard has all of us working on his community relations program—and that’s in addition to our regular work. Can you keep him off our backs?”

“I can’t keep him off my back. What’s the pizza?”

“How do I know? It’s got cheese and crust and meat and olives. It’s greasy, fatty, bad for your heart and arteries but tastes better than a spinach salad with Roquefort and croutons.”

“If you’d have said Italian we’d of covered every ethnic base in Europe.”

Coretta thought about it for a minute. Then she smiled. “Oooh, that’s very good, Captain. We are being very PC today, are we? If that’s the way you feel I can get you Chinese or Korean. Or how about some Spanish rice, tacos or some nice burned yakitori? And there’s a neat Vietnamese restaurant next to that Thai hash house on Sand Point Drive. I could send one of the boys out with a mule to pick it up.”

Noonan smiled mischievously at Coretta as he dug a five dollar bill out of his wallet. “That won’t be necessary, Coretta. Here, surprise me with anything except anchovies.”

“That’s very white of you.” Coretta took the bill from his hand. “I hope you like grits and fried chicken.”

“Anything. Anything. And if you’ll get Lizzard on the line I’ll see if I can get him off your back.”

“That man has a sense of humor so small he only sees jokes by appointment.” Coretta shook her head. “I’ll get the shrimp on the line mo-men-tar-i-ly.”

Noonan shook his head as she left the office door and then went back to his pile of fiscal notes. When the phone rang he just snapped it up.

“Lizzard, we’ve got a problem down here. I’m already understaffed and now you have my secretarial pool . . .”

“They’re not secretaries any more, Captain. They’re administrative assistants. At least that’s what we call them here in Sepulveda City.”

“Ah, yes, Son of Sam, how are things in the Nevada desert?”

“Very hot even at this time of day. You do remember that I have a hearing in about three hours?”

“Yes. Yes. I’ve been thinking about your problem. Do you have some answers for me?”

“Yeah. Let’s see. The storage locker is 3,600 square feet on the first floor and half that on the second. There is an 800 square foot entryway. A truck drives into the building and a door closes behind him. When the seal is airtight, a door opens into the freezer. That’s to keep the cold air inside.”

“What about inside?”

“Three main rooms on the first floor, one of them for super freeze. The largest of the rooms is used for box storage. It’s about 1,500 square feet. The other one’s about 400 square feet and it’s used to hang game. The second floor is for long term storage items in boxes.”

“Why do you need that much cold storage for a little town?”

“Everyone uses the cold storage building instead of a garage freezer. It’s cheaper considering the cost of electricity. We buy food in bulk and store it there. Most of us hunt too and it’s a place to hang the game.”


“Front door, back door, escape hatch in the side of the building and a trapdoor on the roof. All are sealed and have alarms on them. As of this morning, the seals weren’t broken.”

“How about the storage boxes in the building.”

“Far too many to go through. Besides. If someone put the body into one of the boxes, he would have had to stay inside the building to do it after the BIA locked it up. If that was the case, he wouldn’t be alive now.”

“How about the BIA people?”

“The original raid included 17 men. Five secured the cold storage building and the remaining dozen raided the Portuguese Undertaker’s place. Four men actually went into the embalming room and took out the corpse. The other eight secured the doorways and garage.”

“How did the Indian activists know the BIA was making the raid?”

“Are you kidding? We live in a town of 3,000 people. We even know what color underwear the Mayor is wearing!”

“Really? What color is it today?”

“White silk with a trim of blue. She’s my wife.”

“I see your point. Now, the hearse.”

“A hearse is a hearse, of course, of course. It’s long and black and has an eight foot back for cargo of the cadaverous type.”

“That works for me. Now, how far is it to the nearest BIA-recognized Indian reservation?”

“Not as far as I thought. The nearest land that Indians have legal control of is six miles from town straddling the border. It was part of land grant settlement that stopped a dispute between Nevada and California when they petitioned for statehood. The Indian activist husband, his name is Harry Trueblood by the way, actually lives right next to that land. Oh, he drives a pinto, ironic eh?”

“You might say that.” Noonan scratched his beard. “But how far is the nearest reservation where Indians run their own government?”

“About 100 miles away. As far as where Trueblood was when the BIA arrived, I don’t know. But he was scuffling with the BIA next to the hearse when the body came out so I’d guess and say that he was in the undertaker’s salon when the raid came down. Does this help you?”

“Who knows? I can only make a guess based on the facts that I’ve got.”

“I need anything I get right now.”

“OK. First, there is no body in the cold storage building because it was never there.”

“Never there?”

“Right. I’m guessing that for the simple reason that it couldn’t have been hidden in the little time that the BIA had in the building. Therefore . . .”

“But I saw the body being taken into the hearse and the hearse being driven into the cold storage building.”

“No. What you saw was a body covered with a sheet being carried out of the undertaker’s salon by four men and placed in a hearse. Then you saw the hearse drive into the cold storage building and BIA agents come out of the building. What you really saw but didn’t know you saw was a BIA man under a sheet pretending to be a corpse.”

“If that’s true why did Harry Trueblood put up such a fuss in the garage?”

“A distraction. Everyone was looking at him, not the corpse.”

“What you’re saying is that the BIA faked the seizure of the corpse and all. Then why are they charging the Portuguese Undertaker and the Gypsy Embalmer.”

“Well, Berkowitz, I don’t know the BIA but I do know government agencies. There’s a great deal of difference between the joe on the front desk and the poohbah who runs the regional office. I’ll bet someone in Reno or wherever the BIA had a regional office heard about Harry Trueblood wanting to leave his wife’s body exposed and didn’t take to that means of burial. So he sent down some underlings to Sepulveda City to seize the body. The local BIA were people were smart enough to know what was going to happen when they showed up so they conveniently didn’t seize the body. They told their superiors they took the body but somehow it just disappeared. No body, no case.”

“Then why is my client being prosecuted?”

“Because the BIA honcho that ordered this ludicrous raid feels stupid. He’s been fooled and doesn’t know who did it. He feels that if he backs away his authority will be questioned.”

“We questioned his authority before the raid.”

“I know that and you know that but he doesn’t know that. Now he’s in even deeper Kimchee. He can’t drop the charges now that they’ve been filed and he can’t win in court even if he finds the body.”

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

“Come on, Berkowitz. Do you really think anyone’s going to take those charges seriously? Naw. He’s just stalling. I’ll bet that you’ll find your hearing has been postponed.”

“I do have a note here to call the judge but I haven’t gotten around to it. But if what you saw is true, how am I going to get my client off the hook without pis . . . er, perturbing the BIA.”

“Simple, make sure the corpse stays missing.”

“But it has disappeared!”

“No it hasn’t. While everyone was watching the BIA drive into the cold storage building, Harry Trueblood put the corpse in the back of the pinto and drove it out to that property you were telling me about. It’s out there being exposed right now. I don’t know what kind of heat you have out there but if it’s like a blast furnace, there’s probably not much left—assuming the animals didn’t get to it first. How long’s the body been missing?”

“Ten days.”

“It’s gone, Stanley. What you’ve got out there are scattered bones and lots of happy ants and rodents.”

“But the body was embalmed! Animals aren’t going to be eat that!”

“Berkowitz! You’re not thinking. The body was never embalmed. That was a scam. Harry Trueblood needed the Portuguese Undertaker and Gypsy Embalmer to help him pull the switch. They didn’t embalm her, they just filed out the paperwork and said they did.”

“How do you know that? And why?”

“How do I know? Because Harry Trueblood wouldn’t embalm a body he knew he was going to expose. He needed the body in its natural state. He paid off the Portuguese Undertaker and the Gypsy Embalmer by letting them have the VA money for burial. They basically sat around the salon with a body waiting for Harry. They probably signed a piece of paper saying the body was fit for burial. With that signature a burial is legal. It was just paperwork to them. Then, when the BIA showed up all three men had to be a little more creative.”

“What’s going to happen when the BIA dimwit finds out where the body is? Sooner or later he’s going to figure it out.”

“Figure out what? There isn’t a corpse, Berkowitz. According to BIA records the cadaver disappeared while it was being guarded in a cold storage building. You know bureaucrats. They’re going to assume that the body is still there. No one went in and nobody came out ergo there is no body being exposed to the elements because all corpses for Sepulveda City have been accounted for. They may be momentarily misplaced the object they were guarding, but they have not lost it.”

“Well, I’m lost. What am I going to say when I go to court?”

“Simple. Demand that all charges be dropped. No corpse, no evidence.”

“But aren’t I covering up a crime? Didn’t the undertaker and embalmer scam the VA for burial charges?”

“No. They complied with the wishes of the next-of-kin. The VA paid for a burial and that’s what it got. Cut-rate it surely was but it was still legal.”

“What’s the BIA going to do?”

“I’ll bet they’ll guard the cold storage building for a week or two and then do a quick search. The body will be listed as missing and that will be that. They’ll say things like ‘When the body shows up we’ll prosecute’ or ‘We know it hasn’t left town yet’ but that will finish the matter. Just sit tight for a week and make sure Harry Trueblood stays out of town.”

“You seem very confident of your analysis.”

“Do you have a better one?”

“I don’t have any one so I’ll have to live with yours.”

“Good boy. Talk to Harry Trueblood when he gets back to town.”

“Well, what can I say but thanks for the assistance.”

“Forget it. If you need any more help, you can kraut on me.” Noonan chortled as he hung up the phone and looked up just in time to see the bulbous head of Commissioner Lizzard in the outer office moving toward Noonan’s open office door.

Steve Levi is an Alaskan historian and writer. A 40-year resident of Anchorage, he has 80 books in print and on Kindle. His nonfiction books on Alaska history include Boom to Bust in the Alaska Gold Fields, an historical forensic investigation into the sinking of Alaska’s ghost ship, the Clara Nevada, as well as a history of Alaska’s bush pilot heritage, Cowboys of the Sky. Levi believes that his books—both fiction and nonfiction—should be readable, understandable and educational. They must be all three for the reader to keep turning the pages. He is also dedicated to making history interesting to young readers. His Making History Interesting to Students series on Kindle is a collection of eight books specifically written to teach middle and high school students what they are supposed to be learning in their history classes. More of Levi’s Captain Heinz Noonan stories are available at Author Masterminds.

Image courtesy of P.J.L. Laurens/Wikipedia, altered by Cartoonize.

11 thoughts on ““The Matter of the Smallgarian Wall and the Portuguese Undertaker” by Steve Levi

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