The Matter of the Vagrant Tattoo

Steven C. Levi
11 min readAug 3, 2021

Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was having a wonderful afternoon. The Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security was hobnobbing with the money people out of Washington D. C. and his wife was ensconced in a weekend art retreat to capture in plein air of whatever was in plein air in Manteo. Or was it Nags Head? Virginia Beach? Wherever. But one thing was certain; there were not going to be any conversations on the electronic Beelzebub. Chortling to himself Noonan failed to remember one of his own adages: Whenever things are going along well, bad news is dialing your number.

In this case, it wasn’t bad news, just another loo-loo.

But it was on his tool of Satan which he was just about to lock inside his desk drawer. The area code was his but he did not recognize the number so, to be on the safe side, he was diplomatic.


“Captain Noonan?” The voice was an older woman. Ancient would have been a more appropriate guesstimation.

“Better be. I’m washing his clothes tonight.”

“This is, well, I’m not in the law enforcement business. But I have a problem that could be a crime. Maybe.”

“I’m here to serve. Who are you and, of course, how did you get this number.”

“I’m Rachel Sacerdote. I live in Currituck. It’s between Maple and Sligo on Highway 168.”

“I know where Currituck is. Let me guess, my wife gave you my number.”

“My lips are sealed. I have sworn an oath to keep them that way.”

“OK, What’s the crime?”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s a crime. But it’s really odd. I don’t know what to make of it.”

“I’m listening.”

“Well, I got a tattoo recently. Silly, at my age, of course, but I always wanted one. So I got the tattoo just before I went into the hospital. For a colonoscopy. When I got out, the tattoo was gone. Making it even stranger, I saw my tattoo on the shoulder of an actress promoting a play in Nags Head.”

* * *

“I don’t know how anyone can steal a tattoo but how do you know it was stolen? I mean, was it a permanent tattoo?” Noonan asked as he looked for something to write down the basics of the call.

“Oh, it was permanent all right. It hurt like the blazes, needles and all. It’s not what I was in the hospital for, but when I went in, I had the tattoo. When I came out it was gone.”


“Gone. As in nothing was there. The tattoo was gone.”

“It was an inked tattoo, not a washable one?”

“Yes. Needle and ink. It was a beaut.”

“I see. How do you know the tattoo on the actress was the same one?”

“Looked the same in the photograph.”

“Which paper?”

Nags Head Actor Central. Local actors tabloid. I’m an actress too. It’s where I find my gigs.”

“Do you know the actress who had the tattoo?”

“No. Her husband is a doctor at the same clinic where my husband works. That’s the only connection.”

Noonan was writing furiously. “And you are sure it is the same tattoo?”


“Do you have a photograph of the tattoo that is missing?”

“Yes. Do you want me to email it to you?”

“Please. Now, the actress, is she performing now?”

“Well, not at this minute. This evening, yes. And for the next two weeks at the Nags Head Performing Art Center. Tuesdays through Fridays. 7 pm. And two shows on Saturday and Sunday.”

“What’s her name?”

“Cleopatra Chaplin. She changed her name for the theater.”

Noonan chuckled. “I could have guessed that. What was her former name?”

“Joanna Simpson. But that was long ago.”

Noonan smiled as he shook his head. “OK, I’m going to give you a number of questions. Work on the answers and I’ll call you back next week. Do you have a pen and paper handy?”

“Just a sec,” she paused for a long moment. “OK, go ahead.”

“Let’s see, what was the cost of the tattoo, where did you get the design, who put the tattoo in your skin, where in your skin was the tattoo inked, when was it put under your skin, how long was it there before it disappeared, is there any indication on your skin you had a tattoo, how did you pay for the tattoo, how often do you act, where do you act, where might you have met Cleopatra Chaplin and, for the moment, that’s all I can think of.”

“I can answer all of these questions now.”

“No. Not now. I want to put in some think time.”

“I’ll wait for your call.”

* * *

Noonan would have made the perfect bestselling author. At least the post-publication phase of the operation. He did not mind the paperwork but he hated meeting the public. Murderers, bank robbers, thieves, pedophiles and people who overpark, fine. Regular citizens, nope. But in Sandersonville, he had the perfect stalking horse.

“Harriet!” Noonan was faux enthusiastic. Worse, he had to use the electronic Beelzebub because it was a weekend.

“No,” snapped Harriet as she answered the call. “It’s Saturday and there is a Margarita calling my name.”

“How can you be so flippant?” Noonan was humorous. “This is the call you’ve been waiting for! The opportunity of a lifetime. Well, maybe not a lifetime. But a weekend, anyway.”

Harriet was nonplussed. “It’s still ‘no.’ But just in case I might change my mind …” She let the sentence hang.

“Ah, intrigued!” Noonan chuckled. “How would you like to go to a play.”

“I wouldn’t. Unless it’s in New York with travel and per diem.”

“Not that far. Nags Head. For a show tomorrow. Choice of two, actually.”

She paused for a moment. “Nags Head, hmmm. That’s a long way from Sandersonville. It might take me a day or two to get back. With pay, of course. Then there are the travel expenses.”

“Harriet!” Noonan was all virtual smiles. “You could be up and back in a few hours. Then you could take that travel day off at another time.”

“Have I heard THAT before,” she sniped. “What about the travel time, per diem and expenses.”

“I’m sure we can get you mileage. Per diem might be hard.”

“Uh-huh. And what am I doing in Nags Head?”

This was going to be difficult. “Well, you would be undercover. You need to rub elbows with actors, go to a party maybe.”


“One of the actresses, a Cleopatra Chaplin has a new tattoo. I need you to look at it, talk about it, and get back with me.”

“Cleopatra Chaplin?! Let me guess, she changed her name from a Smith or a Jones.”

“Simpson, actually. Like Homer. Can you go to Nags Head for tomorrow’s show?”

Silence for a long moment. Then Harriet said, “W-e-l-l, you know, it’s a long way to Nags Head and I’d have to get something to eat along with way.”

“The Department will cover your meal.’

“There will be two of us. You know, if I have to hobnob with actors I’ll have to drink and you know how the department hates it when an employee drinks and drives.”

“OK, dinner for two. But only drinks for you. And bring receipts.”

“Well, I’d have to leave in the morning so there’s lunch ….”

Noonan knew when he was defeated. “OK, OK. Lunch for two as well. But he cannot drink.”

“How do you know I’m going with a ‘he?’”

“P-l-e-a-s-e.” Then he added, “Stop by my house. I have a copy of a tattoo I want you to investigate.”

* * *

Whenever Noonan had a loo-loo call, he went to his two best sources of information, history and the local papers. He had been steeped in the history of the Outer Banks of North Carolina since childhood so he did not need a refresher course. But he knew next to nothing about the tattoo industry, on the Outer Banks or elsewhere. He knew tattoos had been around since the Egyptians because he had seen photographs of mummies with tattoos. He knew of Māori tattoo and assumed that the tattoo on boxer Mike Tyson’s face was a Māori design.

Apparently it wasn’t.

Or not listed that way on Wikipedia.

It was identified only as a “warrior status” tattoo. And, typical of the Mike Tyson originality, he had a tattoo on his right bicep of Chairman Mao Zedong. Noonan was also unaware there had been a copyright dispute with the tattoo artist. The tattoo had been used in THE HANGOVER: PART TWO and the tattoo artist, S. Victor Whitmill, had sued the movie studio for copyright infringement. Clearly, tattoos were copyrightable but apparently only if they are on someone’s body. Rather, or in. Proof was that photographs of Mike Tyson and his facial tattoo proliferated on the internet and none of the URLs had been sued.

As far as the application of tattoos was concerned, there were two types: under the skin and painful and on the skin and temporary. The under-the-skin variety were permanent; the temporaries could last a few days or, if you could stand the fading, several months.

There were quite a few references to Cleopatra Chaplin on the internet, mostly from her own news releases, and two clips from a review. There was also an announcement in the Nags Head Actor Central she would be performing in Nags Head that week. Noonan could find nothing on a Joanna Simpson other than a marriage reference to Dr. John Simpson a decade earlier. Before that she had been Joanna Wickersham from Waves on the Outer Banks. Dr. Simpson was listed as a roving MD at a number of hospitals on the Carolina coast. He was based out of Manteo and part of a firm of specialists who proceeded hospital to hospital when one of their specialties was called upon. Another of the doctors in that firm was Joseph Sacerdote, an endocrine anatomist. When Noonan got Rachel Sacerdote on the phone, he asked if Joseph was her husband.

“Yes, he’s an endocrine specialist. No hospitals on the coast can afford to keep someone like that on staff so he’s on call.”

“Dr. John Simpson is in the same firm, correct?

“Yes, he’s another of the specialist on call.”

“I’m assuming the two of them know each other.”

“Not really. The firm is very loosey-goosey. They do not all go to work in a single office every day. The office is basically an answering service in Manteo. My husband lives in Currituck and goes where he is needed. Same with John Simpson.”

“How many people in that firm?”

“Good question. On paper about 15 but they are all on call, like I said, not in any office. They do not even get together for Christmas parties.”

“Where do the Simpson’s live?”

“Nags Head. That’s why his wife can be so prolific in the theater. She doesn’t have to drive an hour to do a show like I do.”

“OK,” Noonan said as he opened up his notebook. “Now, for the answers to the questions I gave you a while back.”

“Sure. Here goes. The tattoo cost $250 and I chose the design from a book in the tattoo artist’s portfolio. I think that’s what it’s called. The artist’s name was Jerome Williams and his shop is in Nags Head. He did the work, about two hours’ worth of needlework on the skin of my left shoulder blade. I wanted it there so it could be seen while I am sunbathing. Let’s see. Other questions. I act about ten times a year. That is, ten plays. Usually during the summer, you know. Memorial Day to Labor Day. Say, six plays of about two weeks each during the summer and another four scattered in the winter. I have never met Cleopatra Chaplin.”

“Noonan thought for a moment and then asked, “If the tattoo was on your back, did you see the tattoo when it was finished?”

“I had to use a mirror. In the tattoo parlor.”

“OK, go on.”

“I’ve lost my train of thought. Let’s see. It, the tattoo, went under my skin, or, I guess, into my skin, three weeks ago and disappeared the next week. I really didn’t know it was gone right away because there was a bandage over the tattoo. When I removed the bandage after the colonoscopy, it was gone.”

“No sign the tattoo was ever there to being with?”

“No holes in my skin or anything like that. Just, poof, and gone.”

Noonan thought for a moment. Then he asked, “How did you pay for the tattoo?”

“Credit card. Why?”

* * *

When Harriet came into the office on Monday she was wearing a massive pair of owl-eye sunglasses, had her hair pulled all the way to the back, knotted, and covered with a blue and red bandana. She sidled up to Noonan’s desk, leaned seductively and softly uttered, in her best Erich von Stroheim directed Gloria Swanson voice: “Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my Close-Up.”

Noonan didn’t bat an eye. He just looked at her bandana and sunglasses and said in his best Humphrey Bogart, “‘The stuff that dreams are made of.’ Now, the tattoo.”

Harriet pouted, “I spent all the way back from Nags Head practicing that line.”

“I’m sure you’ll find a use for it someday. Now, the tattoo.”

Harriet slumped into the chair beside Noonan’s desk. “Talk of arrogance personified. That woman could not shut up. If it wasn’t the heat in the theater it was the poor quality of makeup or the tight bodice. On and on.”

“The tattoo,” Noonan prodded.

“Could not stop talking about it. From a local artist in Nags Head. A Jerome Williams. I asked around and he is fairly well-known in the acting community. Gay, if that means anything. Associated with some doctor who’s an anesthesiologist in Nags Head.”

* * *

Three days later Harriet came into Noonan’s office with a photograph of a woman’s back. She had a tattoo of a mermaid seductively looking upwards. “This is not the missing tattoo,” Harriet said with a sneer. “But it’s better looking.”

“And temporary,” Noonan said. “You did your job well, Harriet. Seems your actress wanted the tattoo she got for herself and herself alone. When she found out it had already been sold, she used her charms on her husband’s buddy. Maybe some strong-arm too, I don’t know. So the tattoo artist jabbed our lady from Currituck for an hour or so and then slapped on a temporary tattoo.”

“She didn’t know it was temporary?”

“No. But the artist knew she was going in for a colonoscopy so the temporary tattoo only had to be visible for two days. He showed her the temporary tattoo in a mirror and then put a bandage on it. When the co-conspirator, the anesthesiologist, put her under, he wiped the temporary tattoo away.”

“But she had to know the tattoo was gone.”

“Yup,” replied Noonan. “But the tattoo artist didn’t charge her for the tattoo so she had no proof the tattoo had ever been applied in the first place.”

“That’s cruel and underhanded.” Harriet shook the picture. “But something jerked his chain.”

Noonan smiled and looked up at the ceiling. “I have no idea how that happened. But a little bird told me our lady from Currituck got a new tattoo at no cost. Said she wanted the tattoo but not another two hours of needlework. So a temporary was fine with her.”

“I can understand that. Why get a tattoo in the first place?”

“Why? Did you hear about the mathematician who got a tattoo of a pie?”

“A joke! No, I have not heard of that guy. Why a tattoo of a pie?”

“Because it’s irrational.”

Heinz Noonan novels can be found at