Monday, November 30, 2009

NaBloPoMo: The obligatory "I did it!" post

I came, I saw, I kicked ass!

Not only did I post original material every day for thirty days, I even managed a couple of two-fers (like this very post, for instance). And since I've worked out an actual ending for "Deuce Baggins, Private Eye", I'll continue working on it into December until it's finished.

I'd like to take this opportunity to say thanks to the friends I've made at NaBloPoMo: vonCookie of One Tough vonCookie, Joanie from Raising an Army, Solnushka from Verbosity, Summeranne from La Vida Dulce, Roxy Adams of ...snippets..., Rammi of, and last but certainly not least, my blogswap partner Gnomesque of Gnomes at Night.

Now, it's time for the Johnny Pez blog to return to its regular schedule of political rants, alternate history, and old science fiction stories.

See you next year.

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye, chapter 13

Whoever came up with the flaming arrow trick was one smart cookie. They never actually scored a hit with one, probably due to some sort of magic, but the ringers clearly didn't like them, and they kept their distance. That was the good news.

The bad news was that we were now the prisoners of our rescuers. As they herded us along towards the Gap of Rohan, I got a good look at them by the light of the flaming baskets they carried. They looked very much like the Big Folk of Bree, with dark hair and eyes and evenly tanned skins. All the Big Guys around us were dressed alike, in black surcoats and iron helmets. Each of the surcoats had an emblem on the left breast of a white hand with spread fingers. The word "soldier" floated up into my mind, and I realized that was who these men were, soldiers in someone's army. There was a constant murmur of conversation coming from them, but I couldn't understand any of it. That clenched it as far as I was concerned: these Big Folk were Dunlendings, distant relatives of the Bree-men. I knew from hearing Uncle Lucky's stories that unlike their northern cousins, the Dunlendings had never picked up Westron, and still spoke their old language.

I got a good look at the baskets themselves, and they were cleverly made. They were made of thick iron wire, but each one had a wooden handle on either side that allowed the soldiers to carry them without burning their hands on the hot metal. As each glob of burning stuff burned away, it was replaced with a fresh one.

Another thing I remembered from Uncle Lucky's stories, and from the dwarvish teamsters we had traveled with, was that the Dunlendings were nomadic pastoralists, following their herds north and south along the western side of the mountains. Someone had persuaded them to give up their wandering ways and recruited them into an army.

It was a weary night, for the ponies as well as the riders, and we were all dog tired when dawn lit up the sky ahead of us. The Misty Mountains were on our left now, and in the growing light I could see a building surrounded by a wooden palisade on top of a high round hill. As the sun was rising we turned aside from the road and went up a path that led there.

"Dol Baran," Legs said to me. "The last time I saw it, there was nothing on top of it but heather. The Professor has been busy."

There were more soldiers in the stockaded fort, and they opened a narrow wooden gate to let us and our escorts in. The Big Guy who had talked to Legs earlier said to him, "Wait here," and went into the building. The fort was well-organized, with various uniformed Dunlendings walking here and there, and guards marching back and forth on a raised walkway near the top of the palisade. I took the opportunity to dismount from my pony and stretch my legs, and the others did the same.

Petals looked at the activity around us and said, "Looks like someone's getting ready for a fight."

I had to agree. Presumably it was the someone that the Dunlending had called the Old Man and Legs had called the Professor. "Who's this Professor guy?" I asked Legs.

"Professor Curunír, the head of the White Council," said Legs.

"Oh, that guy," I said. It was a name I had heard plenty of times from Doc Gandalf, usually when he was working his way through his second bottle of dwarvish rotgut and sunk in melancholy. Back when Doc was on the White Council he and Professor Curunír had had some major policy disputes, helped along by equally major personality conflicts. There had been some sort of power struggle which Doc lost. Doc had been purged from the Council, and Professor Curunír had moved ahead with his own plans.

After half an hour the Dunlending came back, and started giving orders to the men guarding us. He said, "Come with me," to Legs, and we followed him into the building while some of the soldiers led our ponies away.

Like the palisade, the building was made of wood, and since I hadn't seen many trees in the neighborhood I wondered where it came from. The Dunlending led us into a room with two Big Folk-sized beds and said, "Rest now. Later you see the Old Man."

That sounded like a good deal to me, seeing as I was practically dead on my feet after being awake and on the move for most of the last twenty-four hours. The Dunlending left us, and I heard a bar dropping into place behind the closed door. I hopped up onto the nearest bed, and within a minute I was out like a light.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12

Sunday, November 29, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye, chapter 12

While the ringers sat on their horses and tried to decide what to do about the wooden box floating away down the Brandywine, we made a hasty retreat. The Old Forest continued south past Haysend, so we stuck close to the east bank of the Brandywine. We didn't see any sign of the ringers, and the creepy feeling they caused didn't come back, so we must have confused them enough to keep them off our trail. For all I knew, they'd spend the next year searching along the riverbank in case the box washed up. On the other hand, they might have already found it, and when they did it wouldn't take them long to figure out that the ring inside wasn't the real deal.

Legs didn't even bat an eye when I threw the box in the river. I figured he must have seen me go into the jewelry shop and guessed what I did, or for all I know he peeked in one of the windows and saw me buy the box. He never said anything about it while we were on the road. Well, if he could play his cards close to the vest, so could I.

We were two days getting clear of the Old Forest, and then the country opened up to the east. Uncle Lucky once told me that the Old Forest used to run clear down to the Gap of Rohan. Then the Westies showed up, and naturally they had to cut down all the trees and make ships out of them. Now it was all grassland.

We spent another four days riding south along the river, and still no sign of the ringers. Once we reached Sarn Ford, we turned inland, following the Old South Road southeast. There's usually a fair amount of traffic along the Old South Road at this time of year as waggonloads of newly-harvested produce from the Shire travel down to market among the Dunlendings and Rohirrim. Every now and then we passed a convoy of waggons, and an occasional solitary one. The dwarves tend to dominate the carrying trade, which is fine with us hobbits, since most of us don't like to travel. We're happy to sell them our food and pipe-weed and let them do the hard work of carting it off.

The third day from Sarn Ford we reached the intersection of the Old South Road with the Greenway, the road leading south from the Bree-land. At that point, we had a decision to make. Legs told us that we could knock a hundred miles off of our journey to Minas Tirith if we cut across the land to the east and went over the Misty Mountains through the Redhorn Pass. The downside was that the pass was sometimes treacherous, and if the snows came early we could find the pass blocked and our shortcut would come to nothing. Taking the Old South Road would add a week to our travel time, but it would be safer. I decided that with the ringers still out there somewhere I preferred safety to speed. Here on the Old South Road we'd have the dwarvish teamsters for company if we wanted it, and those guys swing a mean ax.

From the intersection of the Greenway and the Old South Road to the Gap of Rohan is four hundred miles. There's not much to say about a long trip on horseback except that it's boring and it leaves you walking funny every night. I found myself wishing I could just whistle up one of Manwë's eagles and let it carry me to Minas Tirith.

Eventually I became bored enough to let my curiosity get the better of me. I asked Legs why he had involved himself with this case.

He thought about it for awhile, and finally said, "Let's just say I have a personal interest in seeing that Miss Rushlight's parcel reaches Minas Tirith."

"You know who she really is," I stated.

He managed to make his well-seasoned features assume a look of innocence. "You mean she's not from the Bree-land?"

"Fine," I said. "Be that way."

We were coming up on the foothills of the Misty Mountains, maybe a day's ride from the Gap of Rohan, when our luck ran out. A caravan of dwarvish waggons we had joined had stopped for the night and formed a circle. I was in the middle of a frugal meal of jerked beef and the waybread that the Big Folk of Dale aptly named cram when I got that creepy ringer feeling running up my spine. Legs evidently felt it too, because we looked at each other and then both sprang up at the same time. We both ran over to the dwarvish trail boss, Yari.

"Arm your people," Legs warned him, "we're about to be attacked."

If Yari was inclined to dispute Legs' assertion, the sudden shriek from beyond the circle of waggons convinced him. He jumped up and started shouting in dwarvish, and the calm dwarves' camp instantly became a scene of chaos as dwarves ran here and there, grabbing up weapons and armor.

Legs himself grabbed a burning branch from the nearest cookfire and headed out toward the circle of waggons. I followed suit and ran after him, but he stopped and said, "Deuce, you go back to where the horses are and get them ready to ride. We may need to make a quick getaway."

"Gotcha, Legs." Frankly, running away seemed like a better plan than staying and fighting. When I got to the ponies, I found out that Petals was already there, and already had two of them saddled. Sharp guy, that Petals. Between the two of us we had the last pony and Legs' horse ready to go in record time. There was a sudden commotion to the west, and another one of those horrifying shrieks the ringers made, and one of the waggons was suddenly tumbling across the ground, as though some giant had given it a good, hard kick. Legs came running up, vaulted into the saddle of his horse, and led us off to the east. We passed between two of the waggons and fled into the dark.

The ponies had already had a long day's ride with less than an hour to rest up, so it wasn't long before they had slowed to a walk. I found myself hoping the ringers would stay busy with the dwarves, but another shriek and the return of the creeps to my spine quickly dashed that hope. Legs and I had both left our burning branches behind when we left the camp, so all we had to face them with was our swords. We turned the horses around to face them, drew our swords, and waited.

The moon was a few days from full, and the area around us was well-lit enough to make out the dark shapes of the ringers. I didn't have time for a leisurely count, but I was pretty sure it was all nine of them out there, and they were closing on us fast.

A streak of fire thrummed past close overhead and passed between two of the ringers. It was followed by a couple dozen more. None of them hit, as far as I could see, but it stopped the ringers dead in their tracks. I looked back, and found that at least a hundred of the Big Folk were running up behind us, some of them carrying baskets with burning stuff in them. There were shouted orders, and maybe forty of the Bigs thrust arrows into the burning baskets, lighting their tips on fire. More shouted orders, and the Bigs aimed and fired at the ringers. The ringers evidently decided that the flaming arrows were too much trouble, and they turned and rode out of range.

The Bigs quickly surrounded us, and one of them walked up to Legs and said, "Come with us. The Old Man wants to see you." I noticed then that the ones who weren't pointing their arrows at the ringers were pointing them at us.

"Crap," said Petals.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Snowflakes in the air

Nostalgia time at the Johnny Pez blog. For me, the one thing that says Christmas more than anything else is hearing "Christmastime Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. I'm old enough to remember when CBS showed it every December back in the 60s. Along with the actual opening of presents Christmas morning, seeing this show was one of the high points of the season for me.

More recently, I was driving back to Newport from Philadelphia on the morning of November 3, 2004. I had spent the previous three days in Philadelphia working to get out the vote for John Kerry, and by the time I crossed the Rhode Island state line enough returns had come in to make it clear that Kerry had lost. I was pretty damn depressed, by the loss as well as by the knowledge that I'd have to report for work at Wal-Mart at 9AM. Then this song came on the radio, and for a moment I was a child again watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, and that helped to lift my spirits a little.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Friends and enemies

BarbinMD at the Great Orange Satan revealed earlier this week that the GOP is considering establishing a purity test for prospective Republican candidates. She quotes the following:

Republican leaders are circulating a resolution listing 10 positions Republican candidates should support to demonstrate that they "espouse conservative principles and public policies" that are in opposition to "Obama’s socialist agenda." According to the resolution, any Republican candidate who broke with the party on three or more of these issues– in votes cast, public statements made or answering a questionnaire – would be penalized by being denied party funds or the party endorsement.
Why three or more issues? Apparently, King Ronaldus Magnus once said that someone who agreed with him 8 out of 10 times was his friend, not his opponent. And in GOP-land, this means that someone who only agrees with you 7 out of 10 times is in fact your opponent, and not your friend.

If the right-wing ideologues do succeed in establishing a purity test for Republican candidates, it will mark an important milestone on the GOP's road to oblivion.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Basenji Odyssey

Ever since we were married, my wife has always insisted that we must eventually get a puppy. By the early months of 2004, we were approaching our sixth wedding anniversary, and apparently the sixth is the puppy anniversary, because my wife said that the time had come. She went looking online for the perfect breed of dog, and she finally decided that we had to get a basenji, because, in addition to being clean and rather on the small side, basenjis didn't bark. My wife had had more than her fill of barking dogs in the house back when her sister lived with us, and when she found out about these barkless dogs, she said, "That's the dog for us."

Our search for a basenji puppy led us here and there, and finally brought us to North Attleboro, Massachusetts, the location of Eldorado Basenjis, one of the top basenji breeders in New England. They had a litter of puppies ready for adoption, and as we sat in the living room at Eldorado Basenjis, my wife asked me which of the dogs I liked. All the puppies were of the red-and-white variety, and I finally decided for no good reason that I would like a dog with as much red and as little white as possible, so I picked out a puppy named Eldorado's Forever Amber (all the puppies in the litter were given "amber" names), and that was the puppy we brought home with us. My wife had no intention of referring to our new basenji as "Forever Amber", though, so the puppy was given the name Kleopatra Selene, after the daughter of the Queen of Egypt.
Klea had the usual puppy traits of being active, bouncy, and too cute for words. Even when she wasn't being active and bouncy, Klea always remained cute.
We had always been a cat household up until Klea's arrival, and our two cats didn't know quite what to make of her. Kali, the elder cat, finally decided that Klea must be an oversized cat, and she proceeded to ignore her as she would any other cat. However, Kali may have had premonitions concerning Klea's arrival, and they proved to be accurate.
Shortly after the new year 2005 began, my wife decided that Klea needed some canine companionship. She had begun looking online for another basenji to adopt, when we suddenly heard from the director of the New York State chapter of Basenji Rescue and Transport, aka BRAT, the national basenji breed rescue organization. It seemed there were two elderly basenjis in upstate New York that needed a new home, fast. They were eleven years old, had been together their whole lives, and both suffered from diabetes. They were not littermates, though they had a common father and had been born two weeks apart. Their names were Zane and Zoie.

Their owners were getting divorced, and neither one could care for the dogs. They were moving out of their current home in one week's time, and if no home could be found for Zane and Zoie by then, they would have to go to the animal shelter. The lifespan of a diabetic eleven-year-old dog in an animal shelter would be measured in the days, so their lives were hanging by a thread.

We had anticipated getting one dog, not two, and caring for diabetic dogs, with their need for regular insulin injections, would be a challenge. In the end, though, we decided that someone had to rescue Zane and Zoie before it was too late, and that someone was going to be us.

The logistics were going to be tricky. The New York BRAT director would be picking up the dogs from their current home, but she couldn't travel all the way to Newport. One of us would have to meet her halfway. I was working two jobs at the time, but I had a thirty-six hour period when I had off from both, on the 12th and 13th of January. In the end, my wife decided to come with me, so we booked a room at a motel in Lee, Massachusetts, near the New York state line, for the night of the 12th, and arranged to meet with the director at noon on the 13th in the parking lot of a McDonald's just off of Interstate 90.

January 2005 was a snowy month, and after dropping Klea off at my mother-in-law's house in Portsmouth, we went through intermittent snow showers all the way up Interstate 90, which is not the way you want to encounter an unfamiliar road. The snow became steady by the time we left the Interstate around 10 P.M., and a couple inches had piled up when we reached the motel in Lee. When we woke up in the morning, we found about eight inches of new snow on the ground. After spending the morning visiting Hancock Shaker Village (because my wife finds the Shakers fascinating), which looked particularly picturesque among the new-fallen snow, we made our way back to Lee for our rendezvous at McDonald's. The meeting went off without a hitch, and there in the snowy parking lot we first met Zane and Zoie.

Due to a miscommunication somewhere, we were given to understand that Zane was the red-and-white dog and Zoie was the tricolor, and I remarked on the odd fact that Zoie seemed to have a penis. We brought the dogs back with us to Rhode Island, stopping first at my mother-in-law's house to give Klea her first meeting with her new housemates. We figured the dogs would get along better at a neutral meeting ground than they would in our house, but there still seemed to be plenty of dog-meets-dog hostility. We expected Klea to get along better with the male than with another female, and we were surprised to find her growling more often at "Zane" than at "Zoie". I was away at work when my wife finally realized that Zane was actually the tricolor basenji and Zoie was the red-and-white.

After a week or so of growling and snarling, the new housemates finally settled down and learned to live amicably with one another.
My wife and I quickly became adept at giving our new dogs their twice-daily insulin injections, and mealtimes for all three dogs were arranged to coincide with them (and with the pills that Zoie required to treat her Cushing's disease). Trying to walk all three dogs at the same time through the streets of Newport would have required more dexterity that I possessed, so I tended to walk the older dogs together and then Klea separately. I would also take the three of them together to Newport's no-leash dog park, where they could wander about and fraternize with the other dogs, though the older dogs tended not to do much wandering.

2005 was winding down when Zane started to develop a cough. There was nothing that could be done about it; his body was finally starting to give out. His coughing slowly grew worse and he became steadily weaker until he experienced a sudden crisis at the end of February 2006 and passed away with my wife in attendance while I was away at work. I was weeping when I took his body to the Newport Animal Hospital to be cremated. My wife put the wooden box with his ashes on top of her dresser.

Zoie's lifelong companion was gone, but she still had Klea to keep her company, and the two dogs became friendlier.
Then, a couple of weeks after Zane's death, my wife heard from the owners of Eldorado Basenjis. They had heard about Zane's passsing, and they had a proposition for us. Six months before, they had had a puppy returned to them. His name was Eldorado's Dark Red N Ready, and his owners had named him Louis. He was actually related to Klea -- Klea's mother was Louis' half-sibling, making Klea his niece, though Louis was born a year after Klea. Louis' owners hadn't taken very good care of him, and they returned him to Eldorado Basenjis when they got divorced. Since we had just lost a dog, would we be intersted in adopting Louis?

My wife convinced me to drive up to Massachusetts and meet Louis. We brought Klea and Zoie along, and the three dogs spent some time getting to know each other in a fenced-in area outside. Klea in particular seemed to enjoy his company, so I finally agreed that we should become a three-dog household again.

The new pack of Klea, Zoie, and Louis (whom my wife quickly nicknamed Woo) got along well, though Zoie preferred to spend her time apart from the two younger dogs, and due to his unhappy puppyhood Woo found confinement to a crate unpleasant. Our routine remained much the same as it had been, with the three dogs getting daily visits to the dog park, and the occasional walk together late at night when I didn't have to worry about handling three dogs among the traffic-filled streets.

In November, though, Zoie suddenly stopped eating; the diabetes and the Cushing's had finally worn her out, and on the day before Thanksgiving we took her to the Newport Animal Hospital and she was sent to her rest. We had her body cremated, and her ashes now rest in the same wooden box as those of her lifelong companion Zane.

Now it's just Klea and her uncle (and kid brother) Woo. They're playing on the bed behind me even as I write this, and soon we'll be going together to my mother-in-law's house for Thanksgiving dinner, where they will spend much of their time stealing food from my mother-in-law's black lab and haunting the kitchen where dinner is being prepared. My wife occasionally talks about adopting another dog, but Klea and Woo form such a happy, stable pair that I'm reluctant to introduce another dog into the mix; and there's no denying that walking two dogs is much easier than walking three.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

NaBloPoMo: work

If you can't think of anything else to blog about, you can always blog about work. I'm all Deuced out at the moment, so I'll blog about work.

All Americans fall within one of three categories: former Wal-Mart employees, current Wal-Mart employees, and future Wal-Mart employees. This is the story of how I moved from category two to category one.

George W. Bush's first term was a bad time for me, as it was a bad time for humanity in general. I had been laid off from three successive jobs, each one paying less than the one before. By November 2002 I was desperate enough to apply to Wal-Mart for work as a cashier. They hired me, and I moved from category three to category two.

The pay was bad, the benefits were bad, and the work environment was bad. After two years, I wanted out, but I didn't dare leave unless I knew I had somewhere else to go. So I started looking in the help wanted section of the classifieds. (For those of you under the age of 25, the "classifieds" were low-cost ads in the back of the newspaper, and job offers were posted in what was called the "help wanted" section. Before Craigslist, this was how people used to look for work.)

There was an ad from a local hotel looking to hire a night auditor, which is the clerk who mans the front desk during the graveyard shift and totals up the day's receipts. A night auditor had to have some accounting experience, and one of the jobs I had been laid off from had been an accounting clerk. The work was only part-time, two nights a week filling in for the regular night auditor, but the pay was much better than Wal-Mart, and I'd be getting my foot in the door. If the regular night auditor ever quit, I could take over for him and quit my job at Wal-Mart. A slim hope, but better than none, and hope is thin on the ground at Wal-Mart. I applied for the job, and the hotel hired me right away.

Six months later, Brian, the regular night auditor, announced that he was indeed leaving in the near future. I gave Wal-Mart two weeks' notice, and at the end of the first week Brian quit, so I spent one harrowing week working full-time at both jobs. I counted down the days, then the hours, then the minutes, and finally the seconds, and then I was done my last shift at Wal-Mart. I hung up my smock and walked away. I had graduated from category two to category one. I was free.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye, chapter 11

Brandy Hall tends to be stuffed to the rafters with various Brandybuck relations and hangers-on, as I knew very well, having once been one of the former. However, Ace being the Master's kid, he was able to get us a room to ourselves near the Big Hole. Needless to say, there was no bed on the premises big enough to accommodate Legs, so he wound up measuring his Big Folk length on the floor under one of his own blankets.

Breakfast was as lavish as always at Brandy Hall, and Petals and I went through it like starved wargs, which the short rations on the road had made us resemble. Legs and I discussed our itinerary during the meal, while Petals focused on the food. We both agreed that the ringers would be watching the Brandywine Bridge and the Bucklebury ferry like hawks, and only a complete idiot would try to cut across the Old Forest to the east, so our best bet was to travel south down to Haysend and cross out of Buckland there.

Ace met us after breakfast and led us down the Big Hole to the main door. He proved as good as his word, and we found an extra two ponies waiting for us -- one for me, and another to carry our supplies. There was plenty of food and water, extra clothes, blankets, cookware, and, at Petals' insistance, a coiled length of rope. Despite all this, Ace was still clearly unhappy about staying behind, and I half-expected him to change his mind at the last minute a join us. He didn't, though.

"Keep yourself safe, Deuce," he said, giving me a thump on the shoulder.

"You too, Ace. Try not to get yourself disinherited." I turned and mounted my pony, a mare who was apparently named Malva. The day was clear again, and the sun was glinting off the windows set into Buck Hill when we set out.

It's about fifteen miles from Brandy Hall to Haysend. Neither Petals nor myself were used to going all day on horseback, and we were both still damned sore from our previous day's ride. Legs set an easy pace, and gave us a long meal break at the Waggon Wheel Inn in Standelf.

The hobbits in the Shire proper like to make a big deal about how strange the Bucklanders are, but apart from the boats (which I myself had avoided since my parents' accident), they're pretty much like hobbits everywhere, and the landscape reflected it. There were farmhouses surrounded by fields of grain, gardens, roots, greens, pipe-weed, and what have you, nearly ready for harvesting at this time of year. There were orchards, cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens, barking dogs, stands of trees, and hedgerows. Like the rest of the Shire, Buckland produced a lot of food, and contrary to what others might think, we hobbits don't eat it all ourselves. We sell a lot of it to the dwarves in the Blue Mountains and the elves in the Grey Havens, earning the hard currency that the dwarvish merchants are so fond of.

It was late afternoon, and we could see the Great Hay closing in on our left as we made our way down the narrow path that leads to Haysend. The Great Hay ends on the north bank of the Withywindle thirty feet or so upstream from where it empties into the Brandywine River. We were about a mile from Haysend when we heard a sudden clamor coming from behind us. I grew up in the Buckland, so I knew that sound. It was a distant clangor of horns being blown and pots and pans being banged together at every farmhouse and hole, and it meant trouble. I knew right away what kind of trouble, even before I looked back and saw the distant figures of riders in black coming up on us.

Now the easy pace we had set that day paid off, because our ponies were able to work up a good gallop. I didn't have to look back to tell that the ringers were gaining on us; I could feel the same creepy sensation from the ferry and from my confrontation with Khamûl in my office in Bywater. The land between the Great Hay and the Brandywine narrowed, and we left the last path behind and trampled down the rushes that lined the bank of the Withywindle before splashing across the stream itself. Our ponies struggled up the south bank of the stream and then stopped, exhausted by the sudden burst of speed. We turned and looked across, just in time to see five of the ringers pull up on the other side.

The westering sun was shining directly on them, but you never would have known it by looking at them. They were close enough for me to see the glaring red eyes of their horses, but there was nothing to see of the ringers themselves but their hooded cloaks, the black boots in their stirrups, and the black-bladed swords that they drew in creepy unison. One of them gave out that shriek again, and all of our ponies shied away from the noise. From across the stream I heard that unforgettable croaking whisper as one of them said, "Give us the ring."

I pulled the box from Noakes' jewelry shop out of the pocket of my trenchcoat and held it up. "You want it, buster? Go get it!" And with all the strength I could muster I threw the thing into the swiftly flowing Brandywine.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

Monday, November 23, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye, chapter 10

"We can play shirrifs and robbers later, Ace," I told my cousin. "I'm on a case."

"I thought you worked alone, Deuce," said Ace Brandybuck. "Who are these two?"

"The mug sitting behind me on the pony," I said, "is Petals Gamgee, the best lockpick in the Shire. The Big Guy is Legs, my muscle."

"Hey, Deuce, can I get in on this?" said Ace eagerly. A couple members of his gang chimed in as well. Though they were still masked, I recognized their voices: Snotty Took and Fat Freddy Bolger.

Our conversation was interrupted by an unearthly shriek. I recognized it from Bywater: it was the sound of one of the ringers.

"What the Halls was that?" exclaimed Ace.

"That's my tail," I explained. "Nine Big Guys on big horses carrying big swords. You bozos want in? Your first job is to keep them busy while we catch the ferry." Legs and I got our mounts moving down the ferry road. Ace's gang scattered, Ace and Snotty following our party.

We had managed to coax our mounts onto the ferry and were casting off when Ace and Snotty charged up the road and jumped on. They barely made it ahead of three of the ringers, who stopped and stared at us as we crossed the Brandywine, just like Khamûl had on the dock in Bywater. One of them let out another shriek. Maybe it was their way of signalling Sauron for new orders.

Ace and Snotty had collapsed onto the deck of the ferry, gasping for breath. Ace managed to gasp out, "What . . . the Halls . . . are they?"

"I told you, Ace, they're tailing me. According to Legs, they're immortal, invisible Big Guys."

"Damn, Deuce, you get the weirdest cases."

I sighed. "Tell me about it."

By the time the ferry put in at Bucklebury, Ace and Snotty had recovered. "You guys are coming to Brandy Hall with me," said Ace. "I want the skinny on those ringers."

Ordinarily, getting into Brandy Hall was as hard as getting into a Sackville-Bagginses wallet, since the Brandybucks were clannish even by hobbit standards. However, since Ace was the son of the Master of Buckland, he could pretty much do as he pleased, and did. Legs' horse and the pony were taken off our hands, and the five of us entered the Hall through the main door, which was high enough that Legs could pass through without having to hunch over.

There was the usual crowd of Brandybucks bustling around the Hall, which was a warren of holes dug into the side of Buck Hill. There were good wax candles lighting the Hall, but I didn't need them. I had grown up here, and I could have found my way around blindfolded. Ace led us down the Big Hole, the main passage of the Hall, into the oldest part where the Masters of Buckland had lived the good life for 680 years. The Big Hole had a high ceiling by hobbit standards, high enough that Legs was able to walk upright without having to worry about hitting his head.

Legs leaned close to me and said quietly, "Do you think it's a good idea telling Ace Brandybuck about our business?" So now it was our business. Typical pushy Big Folk thinking.

"We're the ones who led the ringers here," I reminded him. "The Brandybucks are going to have to deal with them, and I want them to know what the scoop is." Legs looked dubious but didn't say anything else.

Brandy Hall was unusual among hobbit dwellings in having a library, and Ace led us there. It didn't see much use, so he had to light a couple of candles. There was a table in the middle of the room, and we all sat ourselves around it. Needless to say, there were no chairs built to hold Big Folk, so Legs had to settle for perching on a tuffet. Since he was supposed to be the muscle, Legs kept to the background and let me do the talking.

"Here's the deal," I said to Ace and Snotty. "Lady hired me to take a box to her brother in Minas Tirith." I pulled the box from Noakes' jewelry shop out of my pocket and set it on the table. Petals, who had seen me throw the original box into the fireplace in the Green Dragon, gave me a quick wink. Sharp guy, that Petals.

"What's in it?" asked Ace.

"Don't know," I said. "There's a spell on it. Only way to open it is with the key, and the lady's brother has the key."

"You can't open it, Petals?" Ace asked him.

"I don't do magic," Petals replied.

"For some reason," I continued, "the Big Guys in the black cloaks want it. I'm going to see to it that they don't get it." I picked up the box and put it away. "What you boys have got to decide is whether you want to come to Minas Tirith with us."

"How far is it to Minas whatever?" asked Snotty.

"About eleven hundred miles," said Ace.

"I'm out," said Snotty. He got up from the table, said, "See you later, guys," and left.

"How about you, Ace?" I said.

He didn't say anything for a while, then finally shook his head. "Those guys in the cloaks are just too damned scary, Deuce. But if there's anything you need from me, just ask."

I could tell Ace was ashamed at leaving me in the lurch, so I said, "No big deal, Ace. I'd back out myself, but I took the lady's money, so I'm committed. Just give us a place to spend the night, and some food and supplies to get us on our way."

"You got it, Deuce. I'll go find you guys a room." He got up from the table, and followed Snotty out of the room.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9

Sunday, November 22, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye, chapter 9

It had been a long night for me and Petals both, and after we finished eating we both turned in, me wrapped in my trenchcoat, Petals in a blanket he got from Legs.

The sun was just rising when Legs woke us both and told us it was time to get going. I found out why Legs had ditched Doc's boat when I saw something I had missed the night before: a horse and a pony both hitched to a tree about ten yards from the fire.

Legs and Petals were traveling almost as light as me, so it didn't take us long to get started. Hobbits are pretty light compared to the Big Folk, so the pony had no trouble carrying me and Petals both. Legs led the way, near the south branch of the Water, but not close enough to be seen from the other side.

"What's the plan, Legs?" I asked him.

"By now," he said, "Khamûl and his friends are going to be scouting along both banks of the Water, so we stick to the island as long as possible."

"Any chance we can stop in Frogmorton for breakfast?" asked Petals.

Legs shook his head. "They'll have someone watching Frogmorton."

"Crap," said Petals. After a moment he went on. "Legs, I been thinking over what you and Deuce told me about the rings, and I still don't get it. What did Sauron think he was gonna do? So he takes over sixteen elves. So what? What could he do with sixteen elves?"

"These weren't just any elves," said Legs. "Celebrimbor and his people were the most skilled craftsmen in the world. Once he had them under his thumb, Sauron was going to order them to make more magic rings. Then he'd use them to take over more elves, until he had every elf in the world working for him."

"So that was the big plan?" I said. "Take over all the elves?"

Legs said, "I think that was just one part of the plan. Do you know what Sauron did after he took over West Island?"

"According to Uncle Lucky," I said, "he turned the whole island into one big military camp, and talked King Goldie into launching an invasion of the Far West, where the Valar lived."

"I think that was what he was planning to do once he took over the elves. Organize them into an army, and send them off to attack the Far West."

I whistled then. "Sauron doesn't think small, does he?"

"So what went wrong?" Petals asked. "Why didn't his plan with the rings work?"

"Sauron wasn't counting on a couple of things," said Legs. "When he finally finished forging the One Ring and tried to use it, he found out two things he hadn't been expecting. One, while he had been creating the One Ring behind Celebrimbor's back, Celebrimbor had been creating three more rings behind his back. One for himself, and one each for his sons. Second, the One Ring let him read the elves' minds, like he planned, but it also let the elves read his mind. That's when they found out who he really was. And as soon as they did, they just took the rings off. After that, he couldn't take over their minds, and the whole plan went crash."

"Bet Sauron was ticked off," said Petals.

"I'd imagine so," said Legs. "Sauron was not the sort to take a setback calmly. Eventually, though, he came up with his Plan B: take the rings away from the elves and use them to take over dwarves and Men." Legs said "men" with the inflection that meant "the Big Folk" instead of just "guys in general."

"And so we've got Khamûl and the other ringers turning the Shire inside out looking for us," I said.

A few hours' riding brought us to the east end of the island. Legs led us across the south branch of the Water, then hurried us across the East Road between Frogmorton and Whitfurrows. The sky had cleared up after yesterday's rain, and the sun was beating down on us.

"Be glad it is," said Legs. "Khamûl and his friends don't handle sunlight well. We ought to reach the Bucklebury ferry and be across the Brandywine before sunset."

At noon Legs called a halt, and we all rested and ate. Hobbits have a reputation as big eaters, and after the day I'd had I was ready to prove it. We finished off the last of Legs' grub, and then it was back on the pony for me and Petals. We kept off the roads, and circled around east of Stock, crossing the Stockbrook near where it joined the Brandywine.

The sun was getting low, and we were coming up on the Bucklebury ferry road, when half a dozen masked hobbits jumped out in front of us, waving knives around. I looked back and saw half a dozen more on the road behind us, cutting us off.

One of the hobbits in front of us waved his sticker around and shouted, "This is a robbery! Nobody move and nobody gets hurt!"

The mask hid his face, but I'd know that voice anywhere. "Ace, you jackass," I called out, "cut the crap! We gotta get to the ferry!"

"Deuce?" The leader pulled off his mask, and just as I thought, it was my cousin, Ace Brandybuck.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8

Saturday, November 21, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Going to work

Three days of rain came to an end in the afternoon, and the forecast is clear, so you decide to walk to work. Since you work the graveyard shift, you leave your house at a quarter till eleven at night. The air is still saturated with moisture, and a heavy fog covers Newport as you set out. There is a constant sound of distant foghorns from the harbor, like Martian war machines hooting back and forth across a deserted London.

As you pass the 7-Eleven on Broadway, there are a couple of cars in the parking lot, and a few people clustered together near the glass doors. You remember your own time working as a clerk there -- on the graveyard shift, of course. At this time of night, most of the customers are stoners buying Phillie blunts or munchies. You cross Mann Avenue and pass St. Joseph's just as the church bell rings out the quarter hour. There is a plastic bag from the 7-Eleven on the steps, with some empty food wrappers. The church steps are a popular place for the city's homeless to sit down and eat.

Glancing down, you see leaves scattered across the sidewalk, still damp from the rain. On the clear patches of sidewalk, there are remnants of departed leaves; the rain leached the tannin from them, then the wind blew them away, leaving their color behind.

There are a few other pedestrians walking through the fog, and the occasional car goes by, one or two playing music loud enough to hear. When the car drives off, there is just the silence punctuated by the foghorns.

Crossing Spring Street brings you to the southern end of Broadway. There are three bars in this last block, and as you walk past the foghorns are blotted out by the sound of music and conversation. A few of the patrons stand outside the doors, talking to each other and smoking. The sound swells, then dies away as you walk past each one.

You enter Washington Square, and walk across Eisenhower Park. The statue of Oliver Hazard Perry is dark, and backlit by the streetlights beyond. On your left you pass the Opera House Cinema, and glance at the movie posters for Coco Before Chanel, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and Pirate Radio. At the bottom of the square you round the corner at the Banana Republic and cross Thames Street. On the far side of the street is a woman walking a dog, a black-and-white boxer. You've met them a couple of times before, so you greet the woman while holding out your hand for the boxer to sniff. He does so, no doubt noticing the smell of your basenjis. After you pass his inspection, you take some time to give him a good thorough scratch on the rump. True, you have to clock in at work in a few minutes, but it is your firm conviction that time spent petting a dog is time well spent. Work can wait.

The woman and the dog depart, and you continue on your way. You're closer to the harbor now, and the foghorns are louder. You pass by the closed shops of the Brick Marketplace, avoiding the puddles that cover some of the brickwork paving that gives the area its name. Beyond the Brick Marketplace is America's Cup Avenue, and you stop to let a car go past before you cross on your way to the hotel where you work. The parking lot is mostly empty, which generally means a quiet night, and a quiet night is a good night. Satisfied, you pause while the front door opens, and enter.

Friday, November 20, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye - chapter 8

It took me a moment to collect my wits enough to finally say, "Petals, what the Halls are you doing here?"

"Bywater was getting too hot for me," Petals answered. "This Big Guy dressed all in black comes into the Dragon and starts hissing the name 'Baggins', and then starts wrecking the place when nobody pipes up. I figured it wouldn't be too long before some low-life rats me out, so I made like a tree. Then Legs here," he indicated Mister Sarcastic, "collars me and says he can hide me where Mister Black can't find me. Sounds like a good deal to me, so I tag along when he blows out of town. We went along the Water following your boat until you stopped here, so we waded across and Legs set up camp."

"It's good to see you, Petals," I said, and it was. Petals and me go way back. The first hole he ever nobbled was my Uncle Stinky's in Hobbiton, and I helped him fence the stuff he boosted. Made a nice piece of change, and gave me a chance to get back at the old rat for cheating Uncle Lucky. Then I looked over at the Ranger. "So what's the plan, Legs?"

"Khamûl and his buddies are going to be looking high and low for you, Deuce," said Legs, "so we've got to get you out of the Shire p.d.q."

"Buddies? Khamûl's got buddies? He didn't strike me as the convivial type."

"Eight of them," said Legs, "and they're all just as bad."

"Crap," muttered Petals. Maybe he was having second thoughts about palling around with Legs and me. I sure would.

"What's the deal with Khamûl?" I asked Legs. "Who's he working for?"

"Sauron," said Legs simply.

"You're full of it, Legs," I insisted. "The elves and the Westies took Sauron down a long time ago."

"Not for good they didn't," said Legs. "As long as the One Ring is still intact, Sauron can always make a comeback. And that's just what he's doing. If he gets his hands on it, he'll be back to his old tricks."

"What ring?" said Petals. So I filled him in on what Doc told me about the magic rings, with Legs chiming in now and then.

"After he got back the sixteen rings he helped Celebrimbor make," said Legs, "Sauron started handing them out to the dwarves and the Big Folk. He figured if he couldn't use them to take over Celebrimbor and the other top elves in Eregion, he could do it to someone else. It didn't work so well on the dwarves, just made them even more greedy than usual. But when one of the Big Folk puts one on, it makes him invisible, and helps him boss other people around. They loved that."

"I bet," I said. There's nothing Big Folk like more than bossing other people around.

"And they didn't get any older, and they loved that even more. But all the time the Big Folk were using their rings," Legs continued, "Sauron was getting them under his thumb. After a while, the Big Folk stayed invisible, even when they weren't wearing the rings. By that time, their minds were completely taken over. So Sauron ordered them to come to his hidout in Mordor and hand over the rings, and they did. After that, they did whatever he told them to."

I could see where Legs was going with this. "And that's who Khamûl and his pals are, huh? Immortal invisible Big Folk that Sauron has put the whammy on."

"You go it," said Legs. "Now he's got them all out trying to find the ring. Now that Khamûl thinks you've got it, Sauron's going to send the rest of them to find you."

"Crap," Petals said again. As far as I was concerned, that pretty much summed it up.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The liberal media conspiracy exposed!

Commenter kay at Balloon Juice inadvertently exposes the truth.

In a post called Once More, With Feeling, blogmeister John Cole notes Doug Hoffman's recent assertion that ACORN stole the NY-23 special election. In the comments, sloan states:

I’m surprised it took him this long to play the ACORN card. Hoffman also “unconceded” on the Glenn Beck show. It looks like he wants to pull a Norm Coleman but he might have blown it by being honest on election night and admitting that he lost.


(In other news, a certain former half-term Governor of Alaska is touring America bragging about the “conservative victory” in NY-23. Takes notes Mr Hoffman, this is how they do it in the big leagues.)

This in turn inspired kay to speculate:

This new approach is going to destroy conservative’s incentive to win. Losing really works out better. The money’s good, there’s no real responsibility or accountability, and they get more press than the winner.

I haven’t heard a word out of Bill Owens, and Sarah Palin is on television far more than Joe Biden.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the ugly truth exposed at last. This is the real reason for the nonstop coverage of the Sarah Palin book tour by the liberal media: they're secretly trying to encourage conservative candidates to throw elections so they can get lucrative book deals just like ex-Governor Palin.

There's only one way to bring this foul deception to a halt: don't buy Sarah Palin's book! Don't show up at her book tour! Make it clear to conservative politicians that LOSING IS A BAD THING! LOSING IS BAD!

People, the future of America rests in your hands wallets! Keep America free! Don't buy books from losers!

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye - chapter 7

"Hey, buddy," I said in annoyance, "how about some privacy here, huh?"

"Oh, please, excuse me, kind sir," said the Big Guy. "Far be it from me to intrude on your modesty. I'll just be going on about my business, then, and leave you to deal with Khamûl and his friends by yourself, shall I?"

"I'd appreciate it," I said. The Big Guy gave me an elaborate bow, turned, and walked back into the woods.

My clothes had dried out by now, thankfully, and I took my time getting back into them, while I thought about Mister Sarcastic. I wasn't worried that he would carry out his threat to leave me to the tender mercies of Mr. Khamûl. I'd never heard of any group of the Big Folk camping out on this island, and I didn't think his presence here was a coincidence. He'd been following Miss Rushlight, just like Mr. Khamûl had, and now he was following me.

His accent was a puzzle, though. He didn't sound at all like one of the Big Folk from the Bree-land. If anything, he sounded like one of the elves from Rivendell. I could tell he wasn't an elf, though. If you've ever seen an elf by starlight -- and I have -- you know what I mean. The stars light them up a lot more brightly than they have any business doing.

In fact, it finally occurred to me that the one person Mister Sarcastic really reminded me of was my Uncle Lucky. Lucky Baggins had been a well-to-do member of the leisure class, collecting rent on his various properties, reading old books, and writing poetry. Then he had gone off for a year on a business venture with some dwarves, and when he got back, he found that his cousin Stinky had had him declared legally dead and grabbed everything he owned, including his well-appointed hole, Bag End. Uncle Lucky had taken Stinky to court, but a crooked judge had ruled against him. All he had left was the money he made from his business with the dwarves, and the legal fees had eaten most of that. He wound up moving in with his mother's family in the Great Smials in Tookland, and I'd see him whenever he visited us in Brandy Hall. He could tell all kinds of stories about the Old Days, and he'd help me and my cousin Ace pilfer stuff from the pantries. Eventually, though, he got tired of being the poor relation, and he hit the road. Nobody had heard from him for twenty years or so.

Then a metaphorical candle lit up the air above my head. I knew who Mister Sarcastic was! Uncle Lucky's stories had mentioned his people: the Rangers. According to Uncle Lucky, the Rangers were some leftover Westies who had hung on after the old North Kingdom went belly up. These days, they mostly worked as tour guides, leading groups from the Shire out to places like Norbury and Weathertop to ooh and aah over the old ruins.

When I'd finished shrugging my trenchcoat into place, I called out, "All right, buddy, you can come out now."


"Hey, we both know you're still out there," I called. "You aren't going to let me out of your sight as long as you think I've got the you-know-what."

I couldn't see the expression on his face as he stepped out of the woods, but I could guess what it was when he said, "Little smart-ass."

"Got any grub?" I replied. "I'm starving over here."

"You're a hobbit," he said. "You'd be starving in the middle of a banquet." He strode past me to the boat, and gave it a hard shove with his foot, pushing it back into the stream. The current caught it, and it went drifting off down the north branch of the Water. Then he walked past me, saying, "Food is this way," and headed back into the woods.

"Doc's not gonna be happy," I said as I saw the boat drift out of sight. I sighed and followed the Ranger. We were a few hundred feet into the woods when I saw a yellow light in the distance. As we came closer I saw it was a small campfire, and that the Big Guy had company. A small figure was seated near the fire looking into the flames, and it turned and stood up as the Ranger and I stepped into view.

"Hey, Deuce, how's tricks?"

It was Petals.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye - chapter 6

If you want to spend a really miserable night, I highly recommend lying in an open rowboat in the rain. Doc may have had some magic spell to keep the rain off when he was using it, but that option wasn't open to me, so I just watched in the dark while the rainwater formed an ever-growing pool in the bottom of the boat. I finally found a wooden cup, and started using it to empty the water over the side.

Eventually the rain stopped, and I started seeing the stars here and there in the sky as the clouds finally began to lift. My clothes were soaking wet, so I took them off and hung them along the sides of the boat in the probably futile hope that they would dry out. There was a sort of bench spanning the middle of the boat, and I was able to stretch out on it, with my head resting on one side of the boat and my feet on the other. I was still cold, but at least I wasn't wet any more, and that was as comfortable as I was going to be for a while.

I took the opportunity to try to figure out what was what in the case so far. Miss Rushlight, despite her attempt to pass herself off as one of the Big Folk from the Bree-land, was a Rivendell elf. She had somehow gained possession of Sauron's master control ring, which had been missing for three thousand years. How she came across it, there was no way of knowing, but the question of where was easier to figure out. She was from Rivendell, so that was probably where she got the ring. The way she acted made it clear that she knew what she had.

So, she gets ahold of the lost control ring, and decides to travel to Bywater and hire me to take it to Minas Tirith. Why not take it there herself? Because the damned thing was dangerous, as the arrival of Mr. Khamûl made clear. So Miss Rushlight needs a patsy, and she settles on me. She travels all the way from Rivendell to the Shire, puts the ring in the box, puts a spell on the box to keep me from opening it, and hires me to take it to Minas Tirith, feeding me some cock-and-bull story about it being a family heirloom that she's sending to her brother.

Then there's Mr. Khamûl, who is clearly not your typical Big Guy. Based on the general air of creepiness surrounding him, and that spooky horse with the glowing red eyes, I figured he was the reason Miss Rushlight had been so cagey. Somehow, Mr. Khamûl had got wind of the fact that Miss Rushlight had the ring, and he was out to get it himself. He didn't strike me as being the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I figured he was working for someone else, identity presently unknown.

And then there was me, Deuce Baggins, private eye and all-around patsy. I had the ring, but damned if I knew what to do with it. Miss Rushlight wanted it taken to Minas Tirith, for reasons unknown. I had agreed to do so, and had taken her money, so as far as I was concerned that meant that I was working for her. If she wanted the ring taken to Minas Tirith, then that's where I would take it. My current assets consisted of the ring itself, currently hanging from a chain around my neck; a non-magical ring in a non-magical box, currently ensconced in a leather wallet beneath my head; twenty-three crowns in gold coins from Miss Rushlight, also currently ensconced in the leather wallet; and several articles of clothing, currently hanging here and there around the boat, drying out. Oh yeah, and the boat itself, a forced loan from Doc Gandalf. The majority of Miss Rushlight's money was back in my office, in a hollow behind a section of wall that no one but me knew about (I hoped).

My musings were interrupted by the boat coming to a sudden halt. Looking down, I could see that it had reached one of the banks of the Water. I sat up on the bench and looked around. There wasn't much to see in the dark, but the stars provided more light than the earlier clouds had, enough to make out the water of the Water. The boat had lodged itself on a sand bank in the middle of the stream, with the Water flowing away to either side. The sand bank led to higher ground, a full-fledged island in fact crowned by a forest, and I suddenly realized where I was. About twenty miles downstream from Bywater, the Water divided in two. The two branches of the Water went around a big island before meeting again around eight miles downstream. The village of Frogmorton was about four miles down the south branch.

I had a decision to make. I could either free up the boat and continue down the Water to the Brandywine River, or I could abandon it and make my way overland. My last meal had been at the Green Dragon, and I hadn't brought any food with me. I'd have to pick some up somewhere, and Frogmorton seemed as good a place as any, especially since I wasn't sure I'd be able to bring the boat to land on purpose if I wanted to. The south branch of the Water was shallow enough for me to cross it into Frogmorton without too much trouble. I didn't have enough money with me to buy a pony, but if I wanted to I could walk across country to the Bucklebury ferry, and once in Buckland I could probably hit up some of my Brandybuck relatives for some cash, and maybe even the loan of a pony.

Or, if I felt like roughing it and wanted to risk my neck in the boat, I could pull it back into the Water and continue downstream along the north branch. That would get me to the Brandywine, and I could float downstream from there to Bucklebury. It would also keep me out of Mr. Khamûl's reach, and I would just as soon not meet up with him again. Which way I went would depend on whether I was more worried about drowning or about Mr. Khamûl's big black sword.

The decision was taken out of my hands, though, because while I was sitting there turning over the pros and cons in my mind, one of the Big Folk came walking out of the trees on the island, coming to a halt next to the boat.

"I don't often see one of you Little Folk sunbathing," the Big Guy said. "Especially in the middle of the night."

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye - chapter 5

Noakes' jewelry shop was located in the classy part of Bywater, just down the road from Hobbiton. Old Noakes himself always insisted that his shop was in Hobbiton, a subterfuge that fooled no one. After my interview with Doc Gandalf I stopped in and picked out a plain gold ring and a Bree-land style wooden box to keep it in. Old Noakes balked when I asked him to put a lock on the box, but the sight of King Dáin's bearded profile made him change his tune. On a sudden impulse, I also picked out a stainless steel necklace chain from the Iron Hills, and while Noakes was occupied installing the lock I hung Miss Rushlight's ring on it and hung it around my neck. The damned thing still felt too heavy, and as cold as a chunk of ice against my skin. It made me feel more secure, though, and I felt a sense of growing confidence. That made me angry, because I knew the ring's magic was trying to manipulate me. Keep that up, I mentally informed it, and I'll throw you in the nearest outhouse. My threat didn't seem to have any effect.

By the time I had the wooden box in my pocket, it was getting dark. The sky was still overcast, and I knew that we'd be getting more rain soon. As I made my way down the still-muddy Bywater Road, I saw that most of the shops were closing up for the day. What with one thing and another, I hadn't had time to arrange for supplies and transportation for my upcoming trip to Minas Tirith, so it looked like I wouldn't be setting out as quickly as I had told Miss Rushlight.

I was pondering whether I could charge Miss Rushlight for the cost of replacing her enspelled wooden box, when I noticed a horse standing outside my office door. And not a pony, either; it was a full-sized horse like the Big Folk rode. It was dead black, and decked out in black armor. As I drew closer, something struck me as odd about it, and I finally realized what it was. Its reins weren't tied to the hitching post in front of my office; they were wrapped around the pommel of its saddle. Despite this, the horse stood stock still, making no attempt to move. I got the uneasy feeling that it couldn't have moved from the spot if its life depended on it. As I approached my office door it turned its head to look at me, and a pair of red eyes glared at me. Terrific, I thought, more magic. This case was looking worse all the time.

My office door was hanging slightly ajar, and I distinctly remembered locking it when I set out for the Green Dragon. I pulled it open and stepped inside.

There was someone sitting in the Big Folk chair, but whoever it was was damned hard to see in the dim light. Someone in a black hooded cloak, with a sheathed sword poking out of the bottom, its tip resting against the dirt floor of my office. The head turned to look my way, and I could hear breathing, but I couldn't see any face. I wanted to do two things at once: I wanted to turn around and run for the hills, and I wanted to pull the ring up from under my shirt and put it on. I didn't do either one. Instead, I got angry at the idea of more magic trying to manipulate me.

"You are Baggins?" the figure said in a croaking whisper.

Normally I respond by saying, "Call me Deuce," but this guy was ticking me off, so I said, "That's Mister Baggins to you, buster. Who are you, and what do you want?"

"I am Khamûl," he said, still in that croaking whisper. "The woman was here."

"If you're referring to Miss Rushlight, yeah, she was here. So what?"

"What did she give you?"

"My business with Miss Rushlight is none of yours. If that's all you're here for, you can leave. Now."

He rose suddenly from the chair, but like the Big Folk tend to do, he forgot about the low ceiling. It was plaster over wood, and his head went through it like it wasn't there. He started smashing at it with his fists, and I decided now would be a bad time to stand on my rights as a property owner. Anyway, it wasn't as if I actually owned the place. My landlord would probably have something to say about it, though.

While Mr. Khamûl was busy dealing with the sudden shower of plaster and wood, I ran for the front door. The horse was still standing out front, and it glared at me with those red eyes as I ran past. I hotfooted it up the Bywater Road, and turned down the lane that led to Doc Gandalf's shop. I pounded on the door, but Doc was either gone for the day or passed out on the floor. Looking back up the lane, I saw the dark shape of a mounted rider on the Bywater Road. I ran around the back of Doc's shop where it fronted onto the Bywater Pool. There was a dock there with a small boat tied up to it. Hobbits don't usually go in for boats, but Doc liked to use it to bring in certain supplies that the authorities frowned upon.

There was a rope tied to one of the pilings, and I undid it double-quick and stepped in. The thing rocked like a cradle, and I suddenly remembered that my parents had died when one of these things had tipped over with them in it. I knelt down, which seemed to steady it, then kicked off from the dock, sending the boat off into the middle of the Pool. Looking back, I could just make out Khamûl's shape standing on the dock in the gathering darkness. There came a sudden loud shriek that made me want to dig a hole and bury myself in it. It was not a practical impulse for someone cowering in a boat, so instead I felt around for something to propel myself with. I found a paddle, and spent a frantic minute or two trying to figure out how to use it to make the boat move. Like I say, we don't usually go in for boats.

I finally got the hang of it, and since the current was pulling me downstream anyway, I decided that was the best way to put some distance between me and Khamûl. Another look back showed him still standing on the dock, as if he wanted to jump in and follow me but couldn't work up the nerve. Apparently, it hadn't occurred to him to get back on his horse and follow me along the bank of the Pool. I was guessing that improvisation was not Khamûl's major talent.

I looked ahead again. The Pool was narrowing, and the current was picking up, as it emptied into the Water. If I wanted to, I could ride it all the way down to the Brandywine River.

It looked like I was setting out for Minas Tirith sooner than I expected.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

Monday, November 16, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye - chapter 4

Outside, the rain had let up, but the sky was still overcast and the street was still a river of mud. As I slogged through it I understood why the Big Folk insist on wearing clothes on their feet -- what they call shoes.

The apothecary shop was around the corner from the Green Dragon and up a side street that led to Bywater Pool. I entered after wiping my muddy feet on the mat outside.

The shop was dark. The windows had been shuttered against the rain and hadn't been opened again, and only a couple of cheap tallow candles lit the gloom. The ceiling was higher than you normally found in the Shire, and two of the walls bore shelves loaded with jars and boxes. A tall table sat in the center of the room with equally tall stools around it -- along with a single wooden chair big enough to seat one of the Big Folk, and currently occupied.

The Big Guy in the chair was an old one, with long gray tangled hair and an equally long gray tangled beard. His gray, often-patched robe had seen better days, and plenty of them, and his pointed hat was singed here and there. On the table in front of him was a mostly-empty bottle of Old Belegost, cheap rotgut that the dwarves in the Blue Mountains distilled from, it was said, tree moss. He was slumped over, and didn't look up when I came in.

I seated myself on one of the stools, then banged on the table while announcing loudly, "The Mayor says you have to double his cut."

"Like Halls I do," the man in the chair replied without moving. Finally he raised his head and peered at me with bloodshot eyes. They focused on me and he added, "Very funny, Deuce. Remind me to turn you into a slug next chance I get. Wouldn't be much of a change."

"Rise and shine, Doc," I said. "I need your expert services."

He answered in Quenya, or something that sounded like Quenya. I didn't catch the gist, and it's probably just as well.

Nobody knew how old Doc Galdalf was, or where he came from. He used to be a big shot on the White Council, but he backed the wrong faction in a power struggle about seventy-five years back, and wound up being purged. He had knocked around after that, showing up here and there to sponge off of old friends and outstaying his welcome. He finally ended up in Bywater, becoming the village apothecary more or less by default. Some of the stuff he sold was theoretically illegal in the Shire, but a monthly payment to the boys in Michel Delving took care of that.

"What do you make of this, Doc?" I asked, taking Miss Rushlight's ring from my vest pocket and setting it on the table. I noticed my hand hovering near it as if getting ready to snatch it back and return it to my pocket. Magic, I swore to myself again, and firmly stuffed the hand into the pocket of my trenchcoat.

Doc's bloodshot eyes widened at the sight of the thing. He stared at it for the longest time, as if he could discern its nature just by looking at it, and for all I knew he could. He finally said, "Celebrimbor."

"What's that?" I asked.

He gave me an annoyed look and said, "Celebrimbor is a who, not a what. One of Fëanor's brood. His father was Fëanor's fifth son, Curufin the Crafty. Celebrimbor managed to make it through the Old Days with his skin intact, and he settled down in Eregion, what you runts call Hollin. He was good with his hands, and he wanted to set up a jewelry factory like his grandfather, but gramps took the secret of making jewels with him to the Halls. When a stranger showed up in Eregion calling himself Annatar and claiming he could help Celebrimbor figure out his grandfather's trick with the jewelry, the kid didn't ask too many questions. He probably thought Annatar was Aulë the Smith going incognito, but Annatar turned out to be Sauron, who had been the Big Bad's ramrod in the Old Days.

"As a warm-up project, Sauron and Celebrimbor started making magic rings, or at least the kid thought it was a warm-up project. But Sauron had rooked him, and all the rings they made together turned out to be booby-trapped. Sauron went back to his hideout in Mordor to make a control ring that would let him take over anyone wearing one of the other rings. Then he came back to Eregion with an army at his back and beat the stuffing out of Celebrimbor's people. He worked the kid over until he spilled his guts about where he hid the rings, and Sauron grabbed them all. Eventually the elves teamed up with the Westies to take out Sauron, but when the dust settled it was the head of the Westies, Isildur, who wound up with the control ring. He was on his way back home when one of Sauron's suicide squads took him out, and the control ring got lost in the byplay. That was three thousand years ago, and nobody's seen it since then."

I looked back down at the ring on the table. "Doc, you think this could be the control ring?"

The old drunk shrugged. "Could be. How did you come by it?"

"Can't say, Doc. Has to do with a case I'm on."

Doc made like he was all shocked. "Professional ethics, Deuce? I never would have guessed."

"What can I say, Doc? I've got a reputation to keep up." Returning to the business at hand, I went on. "So, how do I tell if this is the big maguffin?"

"Throw it into a fire," Doc said. "If you see glowing red words in a funny language show up on it, that's means it's the real deal."

I didn't say anything out loud, but in my mind I was swearing like a sailor. How had Miss Rushlight come by the control ring? And why had she hired me to take it to a fake brother in Minas Tirith? There was plenty going on here that I didn't know about, and that always makes me see red.

At that moment, I decided, what I really needed was a hit off of Doc's bottle, so I took one. Doc of course got all offended, because I've got hobbit cooties or something, and ordered me to get out of his shop. I grabbed the ring and got.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Blog Swap: The Gnome in the Library

By Gnomesque

I watched as the gnome approached me. Oh shit, I thought. This can’t be good. It had been a long boring Friday evening at the library. I had been filing books and organizing shelves for hours, and had a lot of coffee in my system. By this time, it was really no surprise that I was imagining fictional creatures.

This little fellow looked as though he had walked right out of my neighbour’s garden. They had tons of the things, all closely resembling this guy -- short, plump figures dressed in blue robes and red caps, with bulbous noses and long white beards that hung down their fronts.

“Sorry,” I said as he reached me, “but I don’t have time for hallucinations right now. You’ll have to come back later.”

“No, please, I really, really need your help,” his shrill voice said petulantly. He sounded so pitiful that I couldn’t help but look down at him. One single tear slipped out of his eye and rolled down his face.

“Alright,” I sighed. “What do you need?”

“I’m looking for some books. About gnomes.”

“Right. Well, we don’t exactly have a ‘gnomes’ section, but I’ll search the database. Do you want anything specific, or just gnomes?”

“I’m looking for the history of gnomes, actually.”

I entered the search and quickly scanned the results. “Ok, we’ve got a few matches, but not many. They’re all in the fiction section, right over there,” I pointed. I handed him a printout of all the books we had on the subject.

For the next half hour, I shelved books and reorganized the magazine rack about five times. I was just taking a sip of my coffee when I heard a long wail of anguish.

I rushed over to where the sound had come from, and found the gnome sitting beside a stack of open books. “This is a library,” I shushed. “You have to be quiet!”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I was really counting on those books, but they’re useless!” I could see the tears brimming in his eyes again.

“Okay, okay,” I said, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t start crying again. “Just tell me what you need, and I’ll do my best to help you. Anything, I’ll do anything.”

“A place to stay would be really nice…” he said wistfully.

* * *

When we got home that night, a familiar face popped up over the hedge. “Oh, hi there, Mrs. Doodlefeather,” I said unenthusiastically.

“Hello, I’m sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if you had maybe seen a gnome around? One of ours went missing.”

“Oh, um…” At this point I noticed that my gnome was hiding behind my legs. “Nope, I haven’t seen any gnomes, sorry.”

Her face fell. “Oh, okay, well thanks anyway.”

I glared at my gnome all the way back into the house. Once we were safely inside, I picked him up so that he was at eye level. “Did you come from over there?” I growled. He turned his eyes away from my face and squirmed, trying to escape. But it was no use; I had a tight hold on him. “Answer me!’ I roared, shaking him. He cringed and hung limp.

“Yes,” he muttered.

I dropped him. “I want you to go over there and get back in that garden, right now!”

“No, I’m not going back, never! You can’t make me. You promised I could stay here!” Tears welled up in his eyes.

“Fine. Come in and tell me what’s going on; then I’ll decide what to do with you, okay?”

He hugged my legs again. “Oh yes, yes, thank you so much!” We settled into the living room, and then he began. “Long ago, thousands of years by your time, gnomes lived all over this planet.

“Those were prosperous times for us. Then the unexpected hit: a war between humans and dwarves. We gnomes were forced underground.

“We made the best of it all, and tried maintain the usual gnomish policy of cheer and honesty. But some were discontented. They turned to violence and thievery, stealing food to survive.

“The gods were very displeased by this. They decided to punish the behaviour. The war ended when you humans had slaughtered all the dwarves. It was safe to return to the surface. But when we did, we found that we couldn’t move! As punishment, the gods had turned us to stone.

“When the humans found us, they carried us off and put us in their gardens. Luckily, the curse was only to last for 1500 years. That time has just ended. The curse wore off last night.

“For many years, I lived in that garden next door. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by many of my clansmen. When we could move at last, we held a great meeting. It was decided that our first objective was to find the gnomes who had brought this fate upon us and exact our revenge. I was elected the leader of our group. That is why I showed up at your library today. I was hoping you might have some books which would shed illumination on who was at fault.

“So what will you do now?” I asked, interested, in spite of myself.

“We will consult the gods.” His voice was low, dangerous. “We will do it tonight. It is an ancient gnomish ritual that has never been seen by human eyes. No matter what you hear tonight, you must stay in your bed, or your life will be in grave danger.”

* * *

Sleep did not come easily that night, but after much tossing and turning, I eventually drifted off. I was awakened later by a cacophony of babbling noise. In the first few minutes of disoriented wakefulness I tried to discern where the sound was coming from. Then I realized it was all around me. I was completely surrounded by gnomes.

Suddenly, I was moving. The gnomes had lifted me and were carrying me out of bed and down the hall. My body was barely six inches off the floor. They took me out the back door, into the yard. The moon, which was full, shone brightly. They carried me towards a pole in the centre of the yard, surrounded by a pile logs and grass. They tied my hands around the pole behind me with good tight knots.

It was only then that I realized how different these gnomes were from the one I had spent the day with. Their long white hair and beards hung in little rows of braids. They were dressed in grass skirts, with light leather armour across their shoulders and chests. Most had dark lines on their cheeks that looked like war paint. Some carried miniature spears in their hands.

As I watched, one gnome got up onto a little wooden block and gave a long loud shout. Silence fell instantly. Every little gnomish head turned to face this one, whom I assumed to be their leader. Then the music started. Several drums wove a complicated rhythm. A haunting melody, played on some sort of whistle, floated over it.

The gnomes suddenly came swarming toward me. The funny little men began to do a strange shuffling dance. One of them came forward; he was holding something – a torch? Then he held it down to the bottom of the pile I stood on, which caught fire.

The flames spread quickly up the pile. The inner circle of dancing gnomes came forward and threw more logs on. I began to struggle. I pulled at the ropes around my wrists, hoping to either break them or slip my hands out. But the ropes were strong and tied tightly.

The flames were climbing higher and higher. I could now feel the heat getting uncomfortable on my legs. And the gnomes kept throwing more wood on. I yelled at them frantically. They just laughed. The last thing I ever heard was the little buggers laughing at me.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Warning: blog swap

Those wild and crazy bloggers at NaBloPoMo are doing a blog swap tomorrow, Sunday, November 15. Prepare to watch the blogosphere undergo massive destruction like that stuff you see in those trailers for 2012, only worse.

The Johnny Pez blog will be taking part in the upheaval. Tomorrow, I'll be putting up a blog post from Gnomesque, a college student in Nova Scotia ("Blame Canada! Blame Canada!"), while chapter 3 of "Deuce Baggins, Private Eye" will be appearing on her blog, Gnomes at Night.

If the blogosphere survives the reality-twisting nightmare of Blog Swap Day, the Johnny Pez blog will resume its usual program of crude double-entendres and spittle-flecked rants.

Thank you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

NaBloPoMo: Deuce Baggins, Private Eye, chapter 2

It was raining in Bywater that day, a heavy late summer rain that turned the village's dirt streets into a sloppy, slippery muck that clung to the hair on your feet. I held my trenchcoat close to my collar and hunched my head down as the mud squirmed its way between my toes. Days like this I usually spend in my warm, dry office, relying on a bottle of Old Winyards to keep me entertained, but Miss Rushlight's little locked box had me curious.

I pushed my way into the Green Dragon and looked around. There was the usual crowd of locals keeping the bar's waitresses busy, and a few travelers who had stopped in for some liquid refreshment. The man I was looking for was in his usual spot at the end of the bar. I'd been worried that he might have his crony Greasy Sandyman with him, because I wanted my business to stay my business. Fortunately, Greasy wasn't around, and my man was alone. I eased myself onto a stool next to him.

"Hey, Deuce," he greeted me.

I nodded back. "Petals," I said, "I may have a job for you. Where can we talk?"

He rose from the bar and led me into a backroom, tossing a quarter-crown to the landlord. He sat down at the scarred wooden table, and I sat down across from him.

"Whatta ya got for me, Deuce?" he said.

If Petals had been one of the Big Folk, they would have called him a second story man, but we hobbits don't go in much for second stories. His mean old drunk of a father had named him Halfwit, but everyone called him Petals because of his cover as a gardener. Despite the old drunk's name, little went on that Petals' beady eyes missed. You could case a joint pretty thoroughly when you were supposed to be trimming the verges, and Petals could slip in and out of a locked hole quicker than a dagger thrust. If you had a lock that you wanted picked, then Petals Gamgee was the man to see.

I produced Miss Rushlight's box and set it on the table in front of Petals. He screwed a jeweler's loupe into one eye and gave the thing a quick, thorough going over. Finally, he set the box down, removed the loupe, and said, "Magic. Elf magic."

I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. "So you can't open it?"

"A troll couldn't open it. You couldn't even saw open the wood. Nothing and no one can open this box unless they use the key. But," and he paused while a sneaky grin spread across his homely features.

"But?" I prompted him.

"The elves are smart cookies," said Petals, "and they got a lot of know-how, but they think in straight lines. An elf'll look at a box like this and think, 'I need to cast a spell so no one can open it,' and they do. But the box is still wood. It'll burn just like any other piece of wood."

Matching Petals' grin, I picked up the box and threw it into the fireplace.

Petals was right. Miss Rushlight's magic box burned just like any other wooden object. I figured it would take maybe an hour to burn away, and then I'd find out what was so important that it was worth a hundred fifty crowns to get to Minas Tirith.

"What do I owe you, Petals?"

"Ten C's."

I counted out some of Miss Rushlight's gold coins, and Petals looked on with great interest. "New client, Deuce?" Like I say, not much got by Petals.

"That depends, Petals. How much 'mind your own business' does that ten buy me?"

Petals sighed. "All right, Deuce. I hear you."

As he got up to leave, I sent another portrait of King Dáin rolling across the table. "Tell the landlord I'll be here for another two hours."

Scooping up the coin, he nodded. "You got it, Deuce."

Then he left, and it was just me and the fireplace.

Chapter 1