by Will Zeilinger
Enjoy this never before published St. Patrick’s Day mystery short story.
The last thing I needed was to wake up to a yapping dog. Not on the morning after St. Patrick’s Day. I hadn’t thrown a party like that since my college days and the hangover I had was a killer. I managed to get both eyes open and drag my sorry ass out of bed to find out what was getting Lardass worked up.
I squinted at the morning sun and stumbled into the kitchen to brew a cup. Lucky for me I knew how to do that in the dark because my peepers were too pooped to participate. Meanwhile Lardass, my overweight Jack Russell Terrier, had come in via his doggie door yapping and dancing around, threading through my legs. Alternately he’d run to the kitchen door and bark some more.
I took a swallow of too hot coffee and watched him squeeze through the opening barely wide enough for his belly. He popped out the other side and took off across the yard. While he ran around like some wacko off his meds, I scanned the backyard, though I prefer to call it “surveying our estate.” The apple, orange, and fig trees all appeared well, as did the unruly pomegranate bush. But our patchy brown-green lawn hadn’t tasted a drop of water from the garden hose in months. Don’t get me wrong; I love our lawn like a member of the family, but here in Southern California the adobe soil is as hard as concrete. This also explains why all of our green plants live in pots filled with real garden soil from a nursery.
From my vantage point on the patio, (my wife likes to call it our “Lanai”) I noticed something different, something sinister. At the base of the wall that separates our yard from our neighbor’s, Lardass was digging furiously and barking at a small, dark mound of freshly turned earth. Out of curiosity I went outside and took three steps in that direction when Lardass pulled his head out and ran up to me with something in his mouth. Something green…and dropped it at my feet. When I bent down to pick it up, I noticed it was a tiny hat with a black band and gold buckle. It was so small I could only fit three fingers inside. Lardass ran in circles, barking, and back to the hole again. I took him by the collar and put him in the garage before the neighbors complained about the noise again. As I turned back toward the house, a furry little orange head with eyes the size of small raisins popped up for an instant and just as quickly disappeared down a tennis ball sized hole.
I thought it was a gopher, but I’d never seen an orange one. I ran toward the hole, but I was too late. Whatever it was plugged the opening with dirt and disappeared.
This didn’t seem possible. Our ground is so hard I can barely get a spade into it. But that didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to let some unknown thing dig up my land. I ran for the hose, shoved it into the hole a couple of feet, and turned on the tap. No water was too expensive for the defense of my estate.
Several minutes passed as I watched the earth swallowed up the pricey water. This left me wondering if someone’s fountain suddenly spurted to life in Shanghai.
I turned off the tap and went to “Plan B.”
Located next to our “lanai” was a pile of football-sized stones. In a previous life, they lined a small pond that once existed on the very spot of the incursion. I selected an appropriate specimen and dropped it onto the hole. For good measure, I stomped on it—twice.
Ahh—peace. Such a wonderful thing. My kingdom is safe. The terrible beast is drowned and sealed in the earth. I headed for the door, expecting my loving wife to forgive me for my raucous party and shower me, the victorious slayer of spiders and creepy crawlies, with kisses. But I never got to find out. There on the recently painted door were tiny, muddy handprints. They were too small for a child and still wet with mud. I called to my wife. “Julie!”
She swayed into the kitchen. “What? I thought we were going to sleep in this morning.” I pointed to the handprints.
“Jeez! You got me out of bed with a freaking hangover to show me raccoon prints?” Julie threw her arms up and slouched back toward the bedroom mumbling something I probably didn’t want to hear.
The rocks I pressed over the hole were holding. But in the recesses of my mind I knew it wasn’t over…and I was sure it wasn’t a raccoon, gopher, or something else.
Urgent phone calls to friends yielded no sure cure, magical incantations, or solutions.
That left “Plan C.”
“Whatcha got? A gopher?” I was surprised he was even vertical.
“I don’t know. My wife thinks it might be a raccoon.”
“Well, after I saw the little hole in your lawn, I called a friend at State Fish and Game. He thinks it’s a gopher, a Pocket Gopher, ‘Thomomys bottae,’ to be precise. The bad news was that they eat just about anything that grows, especially tree roots.”
I just stared at him, while I twirled the hat on my finger, “Thanks.”
He went on to tell me that pocket gophers were considered “non-game” animals by the State of California, and I was free to deal with them in any legal manner of my choosing. The bad news was raccoons were protected, and I’d have to live with them.
A short trip to Home Depot, and I was back with a couple of Macabee traps (mediaeval-looking devices that seemed to be made from coat hangers) which I placed under the stones I used to block the entrances of the burrow. Some other ideas suggested by well-meaning souls included ultrasonic transmitters, or a $50 eight-inch long vibrating device powered by four batteries that is inserted into the gopher’s tunnel… (I know, that’s what it sounded like to me too.) The traps seemed the way to go.
Satisfied, I went back inside. On the kitchen counter by the door I always kept a bowl full of quarters and loose change for parking meters. It was empty.
Julia was at the sink, “Maybe the raccoon came in while our backs were turned and stole them. They love shiny things.” She asked why I didn’t call an exterminator, but the smell of battle lingered in my nostrils. I grabbed my shovel and headed for the dirt mound. I dug down and followed the tunnels wherever they led me.
My wife, bless her heart, pointed out that this particular corner of our yard now looked like a diorama on World War I trench warfare techniques. I had to agree. Trenches and small craters littered the surface.
She said, “You’re really enjoying this aren’t you?”
Remembering how, as a child, I made roads and tunnels in my mashed potatoes and replied, “Yes, I think I do.”
In an effort to maintain tranquility on the home front and to encourage the grass to reappear, I reluctantly filled all the craters and trenches with gravel and smoothed the soil over.
Raccoons and gophers still didn’t explain the tiny green hat.
Finally, I spread grass seed on the war zone and set out the lawn sprinkler to wet the area. As I opened the kitchen door, I could swear I heard a tiny voice laughing at me. I spun around, but there was nothing. After a couple of aspirin for my hangover, I felt much better.
I took the tiny hat out of my pocket and set it in the center of the kitchen table. With a fresh cup of coffee, I stood and looked out the window feeling like an idiot when I could swear I saw a little red headed man with a beard wearing a green coat, knee-high pants and buckle shoes… and he was shaking his little fist at me. I knew I wasn’t nuts. Ducking down below the window sill, so he couldn’t see me, I ran to the front door. My plan was to circle around the side of the house and grab him. But as I crept towards him on my hands and knees, he saw me, and scurried along the wall behind the storage shed, I followed his tiny shoe prints in the mud to where they disappeared under the backyard fence and into the neighbor’s yard.
I ran back to the house and told my wife. “Come quick! I think we’ve got a freakin’ Leprechaun!”
“I’ll make you some black coffee.”
“Julia, you’ve got to believe me. Come into the kitchen—I have the little guy’s tiny green hat!” I took her by the hand into the kitchen. The hat was gone. All I had of this mystery was tiny muddy handprints on the door and three unused Macabee traps for the next time.
My dear wife put her hand on my forehead and looked at me with eyes that said, you poor dear, and asked, “Is there going to be a next time?”
I stood with my arms folded, staring across the battlefield that was once a corner of our backyard, and replied “You never know. But next time I’ll be ready.”
Peace returned to our estate—for now. As for my neighbor…should I tell him?
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