The Matter of the Peculated Pencils – Readers and Writers Book Club

The Matter of the Peculated Pencils

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was cursing the free ink pen he had snagged an hour earlier from the gym where his wife was enrolled in a Group Power class. There had been a cup of such pens at the check-in desk, every one of them with the name and web page of the gym embedded in the plastic tube. Noonan was a sucker for pens. But he was only a sucker for pens that actually produced ink lines.

This one did not.

So it was back to the $2.50 each instruments from the office supply store. Those pens may have been expensive but they did not peter out midway through the signing your name for the first time.

As he was depositing the non-writing, ink writing instrument into File 13, Harriet, the office manager and common sense il Duce, came into his office and sat down in the empty chair beside his desk. She leaned toward him and whispered confidentially, “Do you know where pencils go on vacation?”

Noonan gave her a tired look. “I do not need a joke right now. I need something that will actually write.”

“Why not use a pencil?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Neither does the guy on Line 4. He’s lost two tons of them.”

“How can you lose two tons of pencils? There’s not a lot of profit in one pencil let alone two tons of them.”

“That and other mysteries of the universe will be answered on Line 4.” She pointed at the office phone.

“Where’s he calling from?”

“Where pencils go on vacation: Pencil-vania.”

* * *

            “Noonan,” he said as he dug through the paper mound on his desk for an instrument that would actually produce a line, ink or lead; it didn’t matter which.

“Is this the ‘Bearded Holmes?’”

“Better be. I’m picking up his wife in about two hours.”

“Ha! Funny guy! I needed a laugh today. I’m Harold Scheveningen. Here in Fine, Pennsylvania.”

“That’s fine with me.”

“It’s good you have a sense of humor. Fine, Pennsylvania, is named for Larry Fine, Larry Feinberg, Larry of The Three Stooges.”

“I didn’t know there was a town named for Larry. Is there one for Moe or Shemp?”

“Not as far as I know. We’re a fairly new town, 20 years old. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where the Conestoga wagon originated. Did you know the term for a cigar as a ‘stogie’ is a shortened version of ‘Conestoga?’”

“I did not,” Noonan replied. “An interesting history tidbit. Do you specialize in pencils?”

“Timber, actually. Or, if you are not in the business, lumber. We produce high-quality lumber for desks, cabinets, chairs, credenzas, etc. Our company also specializes in pencils. Colored pencils. The kind artists use.  Not the yellow Ticonderoga pencils you see in elementary school classrooms.”

“Some of which are missing, I hear.”

‘Corrrrrect,” Scheveningen said and dragged the word out to China. “Two tons of them. Basically two truck trailer containers of them. Pencils do not have street value, so to speak, so we do not keep them under lock and key. The two containers were stolen out of the factory yard sometime after we closed for the weekend. We didn’t know the containers were gone until this Monday afternoon when the trucking company showed up and could not find the containers.”

“You talked to the police there in Fine?”

“Yup. They filed a report and said, ‘Best of luck.’”

“Now you want to know why anyone would steal two truck container trailers of pencils that have no street value.”

“Corrrrrect,” Scheveningen answered and, again, dragged the word out to China.

“OK, get a pen and paper. I have some questions for you. After I’ve had a chance to do some research, I will call you back and want the answer to those questions.”

There was the sound of paper being moved about on the other end of the line and then Scheveningen was back on Line 4. “Go for it, Holmes.”

Noonan shook his head comically and then gave Scheveningen the list of questions. “Have there been any other odd robberies in Fine recently, how were the pencils packaged, was the truck tractor stolen along with the trailers, how were the containers packed, were the containers locked, if so who had the keys to the containers and the tractor, how did the tractor and trailers get out of your warehouse yard, how many employees do you have, how many of your employees are new, do any of your employees have criminal records, did any of your employees not show up the next week after the tractor and containers were stolen, did your surveillance cameras pick up the theft of the tractor and containers, did anything unusual happen in your shop the week before the theft, did anything unusual happen the week after the theft, and that’s about all I can think of right now.”

“I’ll wait for your call, Holmes.”

* * *

            Whenever Noonan received a loo-loo call, he went to his two tried-and-true sources of information: history and the local newspapers. He could not find Fine on any map of Lancaster County but he could find quite a bit of history of the county. It was, by Outer Banks standards, huge. More than half a million people lived in the county and more than 13 million people lived in Pennsylvania, making it the fifth-largest state in the United States by population. Lancaster County was known for being Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Lengeschder Kaundi, and was a tourist attraction because of its large Amish population. Many American, including Noonan, believed the term “Dutch” meant Holland when, in fact, it was a corruption of the word Deutsch, as in German. The term, which has been mistranslated over the centuries, translated as “popular” or “of the people.”

Lancaster County had a rich history. Before William Penn chartered the land in 1681, it was home to a diverse collection of Natives, each with their own language and customs. Those Natives included the Shawnee, Gawanese, Lenape, and Nanticoke peoples. There were also the Susquehannock, “Oyster River People,” whose name would be used to identify the river adjacent to Lancaster County, the Susquehanna. Early settlers named their principal city and the river which ran through it, Conestoga as a corruption of the Lenape’s principal village, Gan’ochs’a’go’jat’ga, meaning “roof place” or “town.” The county itself was established in 1729 and was named Lancaster after the city of the same name in England.

The western boundary of the county was the Susquehanna River and was one of the original boundaries of William Penn’s colony. Penn negotiated the land deal with the Lenape for all land between the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers. As the Pennsylvania colony grew in size and influence, the Susquehanna became increasingly important as a transportation corridor. In 1836, the waterway was connected to the Erie Canal which dramatically increased the traffic flow. But the increase did not last long. With the advent of the railroad, the transport of goods on the canal made it unprofitable. To reach the Atlantic Coast, the canal had to rise more than 1,000 feet over its journey to the saltwater and required more than 100 locks.

Historically and religiously speaking, the river was the birthplace of Mormonism. The Mormons believe their founder, Joseph Smith, and acolyte, Oliver Cowdery, received their priesthoods of Mormonism from heavenly beings at a site on the Susquehanna. Then, on May 15, 1829, the two were visited by John the Baptist and given Aaronic Priesthoods – after which the two baptized each other in the river. Later in the same year, the two were visited by the apostles Peter, James and John.

Since its early years, Lancaster County has added to both the culture and language of the United States. The Pennsylvania Long Rifle, misnamed the “Kentucky Rifle,” was invented in the county as was the Conestoga wagon. The Conestoga wagon was named for its origination in Conestoga Township in Lancaster County. Cigar production was also a key industry in Conestoga Township and the term ‘stogie’ was a shortened version of ‘Conestoga.’ Lancaster County is also famous for  being the birthplace of the Amish fabric artform, the quilt, and the Hamilton Electric 500, the first battery-powered watch, was invented in the county.

Noonan could not find Fine on a map of Lancaster County so he had to settle for Wikipedia. Larry Fine, birth name Larry Feinberg, began his career as a violinist in vaudeville in the mid-1920s. His parents were Russian Jews and owned a watch repair and jewelry store in Philadelphia. In 1929, Fine joined with two brothers, Shemp Howard, and Moe Howard, to form what was to become The Three Stooges. Hollywood legend has it that Fine’s hairstyle came into existence when he first met Ted Healy, the manager of The Three Stooges. Fine had wet his hair in a sink and was waiting for it to dry. Healy said to leave it that way. Fine did. Because of his bald pate and explosive hairstyle on the sides, Moe called Fine “Porcupine.” The duo became a trio with Shemp and the three men went on their own in 1934, careers which would make them the longest-running comedy trio in Hollywood history. They survived until 1957 when Columbia Pictures closed its short comedy production studio. There were several attempts to resurrect The Three Stooges afterwards, none of which were successful. Fine suffered physical setbacks and eventually retired to the Motion Picture Country House, the industry retirement home, where he died in 1974.

Noonan did not see an iota of a clue as to why anyone would steal pencils in the history of Larry Fine, so he looked up pencils on Wikipedia. The lead in the pencil, a form of carbon, was originally discovered in a deposit near Keswick, England in 1564. Two hundred years later, it was named “graphite” from the Greek word graphein, which meant “to write.” The word ‘pencil’ came from the Latin penicillus, ‘little tail.’

The average pencil can write about 35 miles of line, enough for about 45,000 words. The first mass production of pencils was in 1861, just in time for the Civil War. The mechanical pencil was invented in England in 1822 and the original factory lasted until 1941 when it was bombed to extinction by the Luftwaffe. About half of the pencils sold around the world come from China, 10 billion of them, enough to run around the equator 40 times. Pencils are painted yellow because early pencil sales companies used the best graphite in the world. It came from China and yellow was the color of Chinese royalty. The color yellow was thus a subtle way of advertising the pencils as of the best possible quality in the world.

Bread crumbs were originally used as erasers until 1770 when a French writer, reaching for his bread crumbs, accidentally used what was then called caoutchouc, a stretchy substance from a newly-discovered Para tree. Since the substance ‘rubbed out’ the graphite error, the matter was named rubber.

As to the #2, that was an invention of Henry David Thoreau. As a young man he worked in his father’s pencil factory. While there, he developed a system for measuring the hardness of the pencil leads. The hardness of each pencil was indicated by the numbers, 1 through 4 with 2 being the best. To this days, the #2 pencils are considered the most suitable for writing – by  school children.

Noonan did not see a single clue as to why pencils in bulk should be stolen so he looked for newspaper articles on Fine, PA.

He got zip.

The city did not have a newspaper and there was not a single mention of Fine in any of the Pennsylvania papers. Lancaster County had quite a few papers but there were no recent standout incidents that could be related to pencils. There was the usual mix of chamber of commerce stories, new businesses erupting from the commercial soil and the demise of older establishments with the rise of new technology. The only consistency over the previous year was the impact of global climate change on the world generally and Lancaster County in particular. Hurricane Ida, in late August and early September, had devastated the area. Simply labeling it as a Category 4 Hurricane did not come close to describing its impact. It was the second-most intense hurricane to date and brought massive flooding to Pennsylvania. Harrisburg International Airport, received a walloping 6.64 inches of rain over one 24-hour period. The inundation raised the waters of the Susquehanna River by 14 feet. But there was more than inundation problems for Lancaster County. The river was clogged with debris which settled along the shoreline and remained there as the river water receded.  It would take months for the rubbish to be removed for the river shoreline.

A dull clang rang in the deep recess of Noonan’s mind.

* * *

When Noonan called Scheveningen, he had a few more questions. “Ida? Remember her?”

“Hard to forget. Just about washed us out?”

“Who’s us, in this case?”

“Us, well, Fine. The city. Took a heavy hit. We’re close to the Susquehanna and when the river rose, we got water in the factory up to our plug line.”

“Plug line?”

“Where the plugs are in in the walls. You know, electric plugs for machinery.”

“How high was the water when the pencils were stolen?”

“Way down. Like after a heavy rainfall. I’d say an inch. We’re higher than a lot of the city. We’re all still in recovery mode. The remodel folks are making real money!”

“I would imagine so,” Noonan said flatly. “Now, how about the answer to my questions.”

“You got it. Here you go. There have been no odd robberies here in Fine. Frankly, there haven’t been any – ever. Or, rather, all the robberies have been usual. You know, stickups, car theft, drug sales, the like. The big robberies, like bank jobs, are elsewhere in the county. We only have one bank in town and I don’t think it’s ever been robbed.”

“Does it have a vault and safety deposit boxes?”

“Yup, but I have not heard anything about it being robbed – ever.”

“Go on.”

“The stolen pencils were in flat packs of a dozen and then jampacked in cardboard crates. The truck containers were locked with a padlock. Nothing fancy. The truck tractor doors were locked too, but, again, nothing fancy. We’re not high-tech here. No reason to be. This was the first theft of pencils – ever. There was a padlock on the company warehouse gate but it was gone when we got to the warehouse on Monday so I am assuming it was cut with a hacksaw. Keys, no real need for them because the driver carries the keys with him. Or her. There are no security cameras outside, at least not in the warehouse yard because, frankly, there is nothing there worth stealing. Again, the pencils are the first theft from our facility – ever. Let’s see, employees. At last count we have 35. Of those, 11 are permanent and the rest are temporary, seasonal or on-call. Eighteen have police records, so to speak, but we are talking DWI, shoplifting, possession of marijuana, fishing without a license and speeding. Only three have offenses I would call serious. One was for participating in a bar brawl. Another was insurance fraud but for an 18-year old and it was 23 years ago. The last was for running a gambling parlor. That particular employee cannot and does not have access to any sensitive information at the company. It’s part of our insurance requirement.”

Scheveningen paused and then continued. “Humm, employees, yes, no permanent employee was absent the week before the theft of the tractor and containers or after the theft. There were different temporary employees the week before and after the theft, but no one did not show up for work when they were supposed to. Other than the theft, nothing unusual happened before or after the theft.”

Noonan kind of shook his head. “And nothing unusual happened in town?”

“We’re all in recovery mode from the flooding of Ida.”

“How bad was it?”

“Well, the water came in with the debris. The water of the river is slowing going down but the debris is being left along the high water mark.”

“How high was the water in the city?”

“Depends on what part of town you are talking about. We’re higher than the railway yard, museum, police station and two of the malls. They still have water. The other professional mall, the one with the doctors and dentists, is dry, or getting dry. Road’s washed out on the east side of town and, of course, the bridges are gone.”

“The museum still has water? How deep?”

“About six feet. Now. It’s basement is still flooded but it’s dry on the first floor. No damage to any artwork or artifacts.”

The dull chime in Noonan’s cerebral cavity sounded. “But nothing is missing?”

“No. Lucky I guess. Before the waters came in they were moving things up to the second and third floor for an incoming exhibit. Egyptian artifacts. Imagine that, Egyptian gold artifacts on display in the middle of America!”

* * *

            When Harriet came into Noonan’s office the next week she was carrying a handful of colored pencils in small cartons.

“Ah!” said the ‘Bearded Holmes. “Let me guess. It was a fine day in Fine!”

“Yes,” she said cautiously. “How’d you know?”

“I was told if I was right I would get a fine gift from Fine that would be fine for school children.”

“There are a lot of fines there. None that cost money, though.”

“That’s fine with me. Did I get a fine letter from Fine?”

“Again the fines.”

“Yes, but I’m not paying them.”

Harriet sat in the empty chair beside Noonan’s desk with a faux snarl on her face. “Well, I’m fine. You’re fine. Fine is fine. There is no fine involved. It’s a fine day so tell mama why you would get a fine letter from Fine.”

“Just a guess. I guess it turned out to be fine.”

“ENOUGH with the fines. I know about the pencil theft. So, what was the crime you solved?”

“Didn’t solve it. Stopped it, I guess.”

“Well, tell me the guess.”

“The problem was figuring out why anyone would steal two tons of pencils in cartons like those,” Noonan said as he pointed at the pencils in the package. “You could not sell them on the street, they had no value for a criminal for their weight but, under the right conditions, they could be used as floating cover.”

“Floating cover?”

“The way I figured it, the waters of the Susquehanna River, which borders the city of Fine, rose about 14 feet because of Hurricane Ida.”

“But was last year.”

“Certainly was. The waters of the river went up and flooded the city. One of the casualties was the Fine Museum. Fortunately, the museum had been in the process of moving its regular displays up to the second and third floors. The museum was expecting an exhibition of gold Egyptian artifacts.”

“Gold! That will attract nefarious characters.”

“I guessed the same. At the time I got the loo-loo call, the museum’s basement was full of water but the main floor, where the Egyptian artifacts were going to be displayed, was dry.”


“So,” Noonan paused. “I figured the bad boys and girls would try and enter the museum through the water in the basement. I figured the security system in the basement was either turned off or shorted out because of the water. It would be the perfect entrance for a thief.”

“But there was deep water around the museum.”

“Correct. But only about five or six feet deep. I suspected the thieves would enter the museum through the basement, through the water in the basement, using scuba gear. But the water was still so shallow they would need a distraction. They would need something to keep the guards at the museum from seeing their wake and bubbles from the scuba divers.”

“So the pencils.”

“Yup. By dumping the packages of pencils into the water around the museum, they would act as cover. As the cardboard packages,” Noonan pointed to the pencil packages, “became waterlogged and fell apart, the pencils would coat the surface of the water. Even a slight breeze would cause movement of the floating pencils and cardboard shards.”

Harriet got an ‘ah hah!’ look on her face. “So even if the guards were watching the water, they would not see the bubbles of the scuba divers in the, what, five or six feet of water.”

“That was my guess.”

“It must have worked,” Harriet said as she placed a box of pencils on Noonan’s desk. “I’ll leave these here but don’t move them.”

“Why not?” Noonan asked perplexed.

“Because they are stationery.”

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.