Sunday, September 11, 2016

A new unpublished Hasp Deadbolt tale

                                       Woodchuck Day

I was in my office, flicking paper footballs into or, more commonly, near a miniature basketball hoop stapled to the wall high in the far corner of the room. Outside the window, dark clouds roiled, threatening rain, but somehow never quite delivering. I flicked another football. Miss. Business wasn't just slow, it was in a persistent vegetative state. It seemed no one was being murdered or robbed anywhere in the city. Some might think that was a good thing, but crime is my bread and butter. My name is Hasp Deadbolt. I'm a PI.

There was a rap on the door. My last flick went wide. I muttered something that I have no intention of printing in this report.

I cleared my throat. "Come in," I called. No answer. I called again. Still no answer. If this was those brats from around the corner again.... Silently, I crept to the door. I gripped the knob, turned it, and yanked the door open, in what would have been a single smooth movement, if the door hadn't bounced off the toe of my right shoe and slammed hard enough to shake dust off the top of the frame. I had caught a glimpse of an extraordinarily stout individual who, to judge from the abbreviated scream and consequent "thud", had lost his footing. "Great," I said to myself, "you look like a fool in front of a fat deaf guy, and you probably killed him." I opened the door.

Sure enough, a man I can only describe as roly-poly lay on his back on the floor. With some difficulty I helped him to his feet. He was a good 6 inches shorter than I am and already losing his hair, though he could scarcely have been in middle age. His name was Simon Busby (no relation to the famous Berkeley Busbee of Berkeley Busbee's Bowlers). He wore a cheap checked suit and an expensive tie tack. He seemed a good sport about the way I opened the door. When we were both seated I asked him to tell me what was wrong.

"Mr. Deadbolt, it happened like this." He leaned forward in the chair and gestured with his arms. I moved my coffee cup out of reach.

"I was chopping wood. Or rather, had been chopping, but took a break for lunch. My wife and I ate leftover lasagna (she is an excellent cook)."

"I can well imagine," I murmured.

He continued. "I looked out the dining room window at the back yard. It is full of flowers and fruit trees, so you can't see every place in the yard from any one perspective. On the far side, the woods begin, or end, abruptly, in a solid wall of greenery that I used to appreciate more than I do now. [He shuddered.] We have no fence. As I admired Natalie's orange zinnias (Natalie is my wife), a log hurtled through the glass and across the room.

"We were terrified! Who, or what, could be responsible?

"'Gladys,' I whispered, 'stay low!'"

"Gladys?" I interjected.

"Gladys is her middle name. I crawled out of the room and darted to the front door. I picked up my stout walking stick on the way out."

I could have sworn I hadn't given myself away, but he suddenly stopped.

"Am I going on too long? My wife Gladys says I tend to do that."

"Perhaps just a bit," I said. "Maybe you could skip forward to the part where you see whoever threw the log."

He heaved a heavy sigh. "You're not going to believe me."

"Try me," I said. "I've seen things that would make giant toadstools grow from your toenails, things that would peel the enamel from your pots, things that would scare your blackberries white... Just try me."

"It was a woodchuck."


"A woodchuck threw a big chunk of wood through my window. Wearing lederhosen," he said.

"The wood!? I take it back. I don't believe you."

"The woodchuck was wearing lederhosen. And those little black shoes with buckles. The log was unclothed."

"I don't find that so terribly unbelievable," I replied, arranging my features in what I hoped was a "Please go on" sort of expression.

"Perhaps not. Anyway, woodchucks aren't very big. I shouted 'Hey!' and the creature looked at me. It didn't run. It looked me up and down and seemed to smile. Then two or three other woodchucks rose up behind it, dressed the same way, and holding pieces of wood from my woodpile. I turned and ran. As I rounded the corner of the house a big hunk of wood flew past a few inches away. It would have been enough to brain me. I ran back inside, grabbed Gladys, we jumped in the car and left. That was yesterday afternoon and I haven't been back."

"Don't worry, I'll check it out. Where are the two of you staying?"

"Gladys's sister has a place downtown. She has room for us and a bed that's more comfortable than our own." I got name, address, and phone number and ushered him out the door. I needed to check out what was going on at his house, and I wanted to get there well before nightfall. Woodchucks are diurnal, and I wanted to talk to them before they turned in. And even if they threw some wood at me, I can dodge pretty well. How much wood could a woodchuck toss?


The Busbys didn't live far out of town, but it was an area just beginning to be developed. It had been owned by a crooked man, a hermit who lived alone and refused to sell any of his land. He'd died recently, and his inheritors had lost no time in tearing down his crooked house and milking the property for whatever they could get. It was the old story of good land paved over, which had been played out countless times as the city grew. The Busbys owned a sweet couple of acres. Because no other houses had been built near theirs yet, there was plenty of room for kids to roam around in the woods. Pity they didn't have children. Pity also that they did have some bad-tempered neighbors. Groundhogs are nothing but trouble; they are easily annoyed and typically have no self control.

The front of the Busby house had some of those fake columns that don't actually contribute structural support but look vaguely expensive. The rest of the facade was equally undistinguished, and the front yard needed cutting. I parked facing out, in case I needed to make a quick getaway. I walked around to the side, staying close to the bushes that hid the foundation and moving as quietly as I could. I needn't have bothered. As soon as I rounded the corner I met the woodchuck gang, their quaint germanic outfits somewhat the worse for wear, as if they had had the backyard staked out continuously since they confronted Mr. Busby there the day before.

"Howdy boys," I said, ignoring the sticks tightly gripped in their forepaws. "What's cooking?"

The one in the middle, who I dubbed Moe just so I would have something to call him, responded. "Are you some kind of city slicker, who don't know what we do out here in the country?" He asked. "We don't cook our food."

"Looks like you don't pay for it either. What are you doing in the Busbys' backyard?"

"Not stealing food," the one on my left, Larry, interjected. "We're into wood." He tossed his stick up in the air and caught it as it came down.

"Do you plan to pay for the window you broke?"

Curly spoke up next. "We just have this thing about wood." He slapped his stick against his palm. They spread out a little bit, presumably so they'd have plenty of room to swing.

I made calm-down motions with my hands. "Just hold on a minute," I said.


The next thing I remember is waking up on the grass, in the rain, with the worst headache I've ever had. My head hurt like hell. I dragged myself to my feet, and started to stumble back towards the front of the house. The grass was almost carpeted with chunks of wood. Just how much wood could a woodchuck hurl, I asked myself. I gingerly touched a big bump on my left temple. My hand came away wet. I finally made it to the car, opened the door, and collapsed onto the seat. I felt a bunch of granular stuff under my butt. I picked up a piece and tried to squint at it, but this made me feel like red-hot lances were being stuck in my head in a misguided attempt to treat my throbbing skull via acupuncture. I dropped the little thing on the floor, and fumbled for my keys. I had to stop and rest my head on my arm a few times, but I finally got the keys out and in the ignition. I rewarded myself with a nap. Finally turned on the car and started slowly down the driveway. There was quite a stiff breeze, so I rolled up the window, but it didn't help. When I pulled out on the road, the breeze was even worse. It was some time later when I realized there probably wouldn't be a breeze if I still had a windshield. God damn woodchucks!


Over the next few weeks the woodchucks continued to occupy the Busbys' garden. They chased anyone who came near. One security officer hired by the Busbys was nearly brained with a log. The groundhogs were completely out of control. The Busbys were still living with relatives. One day, Simon Busby stopped by my office.

There was a knock at the door. I let him in, and he looked a little frazzled.

"What's got you frazzled?" I asked.

"What doesn't!" He sighed heavily. "My wife's sister is seriously OCD. I can't put down a glass of water in her house without having it washed and put in the dishwasher. And I don't think she likes me. I can't take off my jacket without her hanging it up in the hall closet and giving me a look that lets me know she knows I'm guilty of genocide in some third world country. Or worse.

"I can't go back home because of the woodchucks. You've got to do something!"

"I've never been much good at stopping wars, and it seems like that's what this has become. If only there was a way to talk to their leaders, possibly convince them to call off their attacks."

There was another knock on the door. It was Larry the woodchuck, in full Oktoberfest regalia. To say that I was surprised would be like saying that the sun is hot.

"Join the party, have a seat." He did, and I gave him a glass of water. When he didn't say anything, and neither did Mr. Busby, I thought I'd better break the ice. "What seems to be the problem?" That wasn't enough to get him talking, so I started talking about inconsequentials. Monosyllabic answers from Mr. Busby and nothing from the whistle pig were frustrating, but I kept at it. I tried global politics, history, celebrity gossip, the weather, and finally, in desperation, sports. "How 'bout them Jabberwocks, eh?"

Larry slammed his forepaw on the table. "I've heard enough about that game! I'm tired of hearing about how the worst team in the league blew us out of our lederhosen!"

I put up my hands. "Hey, the refs were completely off base. It's like they sent a bunch of moles out there to referee the game."

"Well then." His shoulders relaxed a little.

"So what do you want'?" I asked. "I mean what would make the woodchucks lay down their arms? Er, chunks?"

"That's our land. No one paid us before they came in and cut down the trees and built houses. Mr. Busby didn't pay us for the right to live on our traditional caber-tossing grounds. Our legends say that the first woodchuck chucked the first wood right there when the world began. I'm not here to argue about religion, but we've got our rights." He glared at Simon Busby.

Busby smiled and nodded. "No problem. But can you stop tossing your cabers through my window? And what about my wife's garden? Toss all you want in the grass between the hedge and the woods. And every Sunday we'll serve dinner on the grounds. Raw vegetables, nuts, succulent shoots, all the things you like. How does that sound?"

"Radishes? Even when they are out of season and very expensive?"

"Absolutely! We'll cut them into roses for you."

Larry smiled. "Deal! Come on back anytime you're ready. Just give me half an hour to get back home and tell the guys." He turned and offered his hand.


"I've been invited to go watch the caber tossing any Sunday I like. Want to go with me?"

Alma shook her head. "Not on your life! You're welcome to go without me. But I do have a suggestion about what we could do right now." She drained her wine glass.


"And it's on a triple word score, so that's 99 points," Alma said, marking on the score pad. She always wins, and she always wants the same reward. "Do you yield?"

"Oh, yes Ma'am," I said. "Utterly!"


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