The Matter of the Itinerant Ink – Readers and Writers Book Club

The Matter of the Itinerant Ink

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was a master of the pen as an instrument of calligraphy. As long as he had a pen and an empty page in a notebook, he was a master of his universe. That universe was unusually small compared to the world at large but, at the same time, it was expansive enough for the ‘Bearded Holmes.’ It is said by astronomers and physicists there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the world but that, to Noonan, was trivia for, in his universe, his job was to parse every grain of sand which, metaphorically speaking, came upon his desk.

Or phone.

Long line or via the electronic Beelzebub he was required to keep on his person by the two disturbers of his life, his wife and the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security.

Who was, at that moment, on Line 1.

The Commissioner, not his wife.

His wife was, blessedly, busy with her en plein air art class on some remote stretch of beach between Sandersonville and Hatteras.

“Noonan.”

“We have another of your special calls, Captain.”

Anytime the Commissioner used the title ‘Captain,’ it meant an assignment was imminent. It also meant Noonan, a person of sweat, was going to do the work and he, the Commissioner, was going to claim all of the public relations credit. ‘Credit’ in the world of the Commissioner was the precursor to increased funding for the Sandersonville office from the Department of Homeland Security.

“Y-e-s.” Noonan’s response was drawn out and one iota of time less than insubordination.

“Your specialty, Captain. Seems a drum of 55 gallons of ink has vanished.”

“I see, (long pause) sir. And where did this vanishing occur?”

“Upstate. Small town. Tourist and summer camp town. The officer from the North Carolina State Troopers will fill you in.”

“Does he have a name?”

“Wilson. Or Wilburs. Or Wilkinson. Not sure.”

“A phone number would be nice, s-i-r.”

“No need. He’s on his way down to see you.”

* * *

Wilbur Wilson was not an officer of the North Carolina State Troopers or, for that matter, a member of any law enforcement agency. He was a minister. This Noonan could determine by the man’s collar. Noonan had no problem with men and women of God as long as they were not on his porch asking for money or saying they were seeking his salvation. But he did find it odd a man of God would be in his office. This was either very bad news or very, very bad news.

“What can I do for you, father?”

“Please, Captain, I’m just Wilbur. Everyone calls me Wilbur.”

“OK. In that case, I’m just Heinz. Until there’s a crime, I’m just Heinz.”

Wilson laughed. “We’ll get along just fine. I’m actually a bit nervous to be here. I, we, our community, usually work out our own problems. Sometimes, well, …” he let the sentence hang.

“I’m here to help,” Noonan said and pointed to the empty chair beside his desk. Wilson, all six feet of him with no fat and a whole head of gray hair, gracefully took the seat.

There was a moment of silence. Then Noonan kind of raised his hands and hunched his shoulders as if to say, ‘and?’

Wilson sighed. “I’m the leader of a religious summer camp community upstate. Christians in the Wilderness is the name of our retreat. Outside of Raleigh. We’re shuttered during the winter but during the summer, like right now, we will see about 400 young people coming through the camps a week at a time. We are a religious retreat, a Christian retreat in the sense we are not all of one denomination. We trade around, so to speak, when it comes to our camps. When we have a program on Jesus, for instance, all are welcome. And for programs on flora and fauna, the campers are all mixed.”

Noonan dug for a notebook in the paper heap on his desk. Then he mined for a pen. He opened a notebook to a blank page and looked at Wilson. “I hear you have a problem with ink?”

Wilson sighed. “It is odd. I want to be careful how I explain the circumstance. It’s not a crime, so to speak. But it is odd and I was advised to speak with the ‘Bearded Holmes’ because he was good at resolving difficult, er, matters.”

“I’ve been lucky. Tell me about the ink.”

“Ah, yes, the ink. The camp, that is, the whole camp, is several decades old. Over the years we have had a number of managers, all religious mind you, and we have a small print shop. Nothing fancy, just handouts and a sort of newsletter each week. Telling students each week who was there and some funny stories, a joke or two. Harmless stuff.”

“I see.” Noonan knew when to let the story work its way out. When in doubt, say as little as possible.

“For some reason, long ago, well before my time, the camp received a donation of some ink. It came in a 55-gallon drum. We use a bit of every year and when we went to get some this year, we discovered it was gone.”

“Gone as in dumped,” Noonan asked, “or gone as in stolen?”

“Good question. I do not know. But what I do know is we had a break-in where the ink was located. I, we, don’t know if there is a connection but, it is suspicious, and when something is suspicious, you are required to be a good citizen and contact the police.”

“I agree,” Noonan nodded as his pen hovered over the notebook page. “But you are from upstate. Why are you making the report to the police here?”

“The only thing the local police could do was file a report. I, we, believe the vanishing ink is much more than odd.” Wilson was silent for a l-o-n-g moment. Finally he said, “We have some new neighbors. A large company has bought a massive tract of land near us. They are constructing a hotel with most of the rooms on the second floor. The rooms on the side away from us face the mountains in the distance, a stunning view in the morning when the sun rises. Rooms on the other side of the building, our side, also have a stunning view of the mountains in the distance. The problem is, that is, the hotel’s problem is, we are in a direct line of that stunning view. During the summer, their prime tourist season, we are spoiling their view.”

Noonan nodded. “So, they want you gone.”

“Correct. But their current offer is pennies on the dollar. So there has been a lot of low-level harassment.”

“And you guess they stole the ink for some nefarious purpose.”

“I don’t know if they stole the ink. It just fits the pattern of harassment.”

“And you have no idea why anyone would steal 55 gallons of ink.”

“Not a clue. That’s why I’m talking with you. You have a reputation for resolving the unusual.”

Noonan was silent for a moment. Then he ripped a sheet of paper out of his notebook and handed it to Wilson. Then he mined a pen out of the paper mountain on his desk. He handed the pen to Wilson. “I’m going to give some questions to answer. After I have done some research, I’ll back to you.”

“Questions?”

“Correct, here we go. How many different Christian religions are represented in the camp, do they all come from the same city, where do they live on the property during the summer in relation to where the hotel is going to be located, do you have outhouses on the property, where do you get water for the property, where do you get electricity for the property, will you sell your property and move at the right price, when is the construction of the hotel set to commence? That’s about all I can think of right now. And I need a phone number to contact you.”

* * *

Whenever Noonan had a loo-loo matter, he started with his two, tried-and-true sources of information: local newspapers and history. He could not find anything in any North Carolina newspapers on Christians in the Wilderness but there was quite a bit of information on religious retreats. There were no stories of any malfeasance or nefarious activities, legal or otherwise. Most of the stories touted the positive experience – religious, that is – of such camps. In addition to religious services including forums and baptisms, there were arts and crafts workshops, nature tours, health and welfare discussions along with the usual fare for summer camps.

He plumbed North Carolina business tabloids and magazines for hotel construction projects and found so much the information it was worthless. Christians in the Wilderness did not have a street address, so to speak, and the location provided by Wilson was meaningless for pinpointing a specific construction project.

When he pulled the history of ink, he went from not enough information to use to too much information to use. Ink had been around since civilization itself. It started as soot, a byproduct of fire, mixed with some type of oil. Egyptians had red and black inks which included ocher, iron, phosphate, sulfate, chloride, lead and “carboxylate ions.” This, to Noonan, was the equivalent of scientific oversharing.

Then it got more complicated.

India ink had been invented in China – which Noonan found geographically odd – and the Chinese used animal glue in their ink. If this was not complicated enough, modern inks fell into four classes: aqueous, liquid, paste and powder. Noonan did know the difference between aqueous and liquid as, linguistically, both were the same, and how powdered ink was used Noonan did not have a clue.

He also did not have a clue as to why anyone would steal a 55-gallon drum of ink.

He had zip.

He was hopeful Wilbur Wilson could give him a clue.

Wilson was pleased to get Noonan’s call.

“I’ve been waiting, Captain. Have you solved our dilemma?”

“I’m working on it. I have a few more queries for you before you give the answer to the questions I have for you.”

“Fine. Go ahead and ask.”

“Have there been any precious metals, like gold, found on the property?”

Wilson laughed. “Not a chance. We do some gold panning on the property every summer, to give the young people a chance to see how hard it is and how there is nothing to find. You do know America’s first gold rush was in North Carolina.”

Noonan smiled though Wilson could not see the grin. “Started in 1799 and some people are still pulling out small nuggets today.”

“You know your history. Yes, we pan for gold. No, we do not find any. If there had been gold, we’d be a rich Christian retreat in more ways than one.”

Noonan chuckled. “Are there any other large-scale construction projects planned for the area?”

“That’s a ‘yes and no’ answer. The hotel will require a paved road, power line, a massive well with piping and some kind of garbage holding or recycling facility. But all of that is associated with the hotel and work is ongoing. There are no other large-scale construction projects in the area.”

“Will there be a landing strip for the hotel?”

“Doubt it. It’s wilderness up here, Heinz. That’s the draw for Christians in the Wilderness and, I’m guessing, the hotel.”

Noonan mumbled “Makes sense” as he wrote in his notebook. Then he said, “OK. Now your answers.”

“I don’t know what good the answers will be but here goes. We have 12 religious communities which participate, I don’t want to call them different religions. We’re all Christians, just different churches. The campers all come from different cities and all campers spend their week at Christians in the Wilderness in cabins on the property. We mix them up so every young person meets others from different cities. The cabins are scattered in the forest, not in a single area. The cafeteria, garage, print shop, parking area and meeting halls, three of them, are in the open. Those are the ones that are giving the hotel construction people heartburn.”

Noonan chuckled. “Go on.”

“We use outhouses and they are in the open area but well back from the other buildings. Another heartburn for the hotel,” Wilson chuckled. “We get our water from the river and cleanse it. We get it upriver from where we do our baptisms to make sure the water is as clean as possible.”

“Are the baptisms held within eyesight of the hotel construction?”

“Sort of. It’s actually not a river. More of a stream. Depending on where you stand you could see the site from the hotel. But there are a lot of trees in the area.”

“Is there enough water in the stream for the hotel?”

“I doubt it.”

“How about electricity?”

“We use generators. The hotel is going to have a powerline. That’s one of the construction projects I told you about.”

“OK,” Noonan kept writing.

“As to the rest of your questions, yes, we will sell out for the right price and we have given the hotel that price. So far they have not said ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ just that they were firm with their last offer.”

“Which was low.”

“Way low.”

Noonan stared at his notebook thinking. He had started the conversation with zip and he still had zip. “Just a few more questions.”

“Go ahead.”

“Where is the print shop?”

“I wouldn’t really call it a print shop. It’s just a work area in the back of the garage.”

“Is the garage open bay? That is, is it like a huge room?”

“Like a warehouse.”

“And the printing presses are in the back of the garage?”

“Correct.”

“You said the 55-gallon drum was stolen. But no other ink?”

“That’s correct. We only use ink during the summer so we bring in enough for the summer. The 55-gallon drum was a donation and we use the ink in it when we need it.”

“How often do you need it?”

“Not that often. Most of the ink we use is black, green, blue and occasionally some yellow.”

“What color is the ink in the 55-gallon drum?”

“Red.”

And a massive gong in Noonan’s cerebral cortex chimed.

* * *

Two weeks later Harriet, the office manager and Monarch of Common Sense, came into Noonan’s office with a plaque and an opened cardboard mailing box. Rather than ask about the plaque, she just sat down and shoved the plaque between Noonan’s eyes and the cold case file he was enjoying.

“What’s this?”

“Looks like a plaque to me.”

“P-l-e-a-s-e, an Honorary ‘Blood of the Lamb’ recipient. I didn’t even know you went to church.”

“I don’t. I’ve incorporated Biblical precepts into my character so I don’t have to go.”

“Then why the,” Harriet read the inscription in a deep voice, “Honorary ‘Blood of the Lamb’ certificate?”

“Who’s it from?”

“Give me a break. You know very well who it is from. But, just in case Alzheimer’s is setting in early or, in your case, late, it’s from Christians in the Wilderness.”

“Oh, those Christians!”

“Yes, those Christians. Now, tell mamma why you got,” and again in a deep voice, “the “Honorary ‘Blood of the Lamb’ certificate.”

Noonan put the cold case down on his desktop and stretched. “Another lucky guess. Not much.”

“Y-e-s, and what was the guess?”

“Well, there is this Christian summer camp….”

“I got that,” Harriet said as he pointed at the return address on the carboard mailing box.

Noonan continued. “The camp is directly in front of a view of a hotel that is being built. The hotel wanted them gone and offered a pittance for the property.”

“No surprise there.”

“The Christian camp said ‘no’ and, oddly, a large drum of red ink vanished.”

“As in stolen?”

“No one knows.” Noonan chuckled. “I was asked what I thought.”

“And what did you think?”

“Well, I told the leader of the Christians in the Wilderness to be subtle.”

“Subtle?”

“Subtle, Harriet. That’s where the greatest power is. Be subtle.”

“OK. How was the leader of the Christians in the Wilderness to be subtle?”

“I suggested he talk with the hotel people who offered the low, low, low amount for the Christians in the Wilderness land. He should hint he had received a vision that some of those Christian youth who were going to be baptized during summer would end up red, in the blood of the lamb red. That’s a part of the Bible.”

“That part of the Bible I know,” Harriet said flatly. “Let me guess, you think the hotel folks stole the red ink and were going to dump it into the local stream to coat the people being baptized red?”

“That was my guess.”
Harriet shook her head. “Where’s the ‘be subtle’ here? I don’t get it.”

“I suggested the hotel people would not either. So, again, I suggested the Christian leader insinuate that if his vision,” Noonan accented the term vision, “came to pass, there would be all kinds of Christians coming to the river to be baptized in the stream. A lot of them.”

“Might be good for a hotel.”

“Probably not. The kind of people who would come would camp out in the area and bring their own food. And they’d ruin any pristine view of the landscape.”

“Uh-huh. Let me guess. The hotel offered a better price.”

Noonan pointed to the plaque. “My guess.”

“Great.” Harriet looked heavenward and her gaze went through the ceiling tiles and, thereafter, to the Throne Room of the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security on the third floor. “Since the loo-loo call did not come through me, I must assume it came from His Highness.”

“It did.”

Harriet pointed to the plaque. “How are you going to handle that? You will have to tell him how you handled the matter. How is he going to use your plaque to get money for the department?”

“Subtlety, Harriet, Subtlety. It’s the way out of difficult situations. I’m going to give him the plaque.”

“GIVE him the plaque?! It’s got your name on it!”

“Correct. That way he cannot use it for publicity. He’s stuck with a win and no way to make money on it.”

Harriet snickered. “I love it.”

“Well, you know,” Noonan said with a straight face, “the Lord does work in mysterious ways.”

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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