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Surprisingly Slow Progress

Inspector Goatlock Combes of the Crimes Against Gullible Persons Unit and his lanky assistant Lupine continue their investigation of a telephone scam perpetrated against the grandmother of a student studying overseas.

Alex’s parents, Dr. and Dr. Prettyman, lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a suburban development called Shady Grove Heights.

Goatlock and Lupine were met at the door by a sullen tweenage girl, Marnie. She was Alex’s younger sister.
“Good day young lady” piped a cheerful Lupine.
“Matter of opinion,” she muttered, closing the door behind them.
“What sort of day is it for you?” Goatlock inquired.
“Tenuous.” And that was all she said.

Marnie led them to a sunny breakfast porch where the Doctors Prettyman were just finishing their morning omelets.

“Alex has never been to Canada,” said Dr. Prettyman, the orthopedic surgeon.

“His Russian trip is really all about a girl,” said Dr. Prettyman, the chiropractor. “He fell in love with her on a trip to Wisconsin Dells. She was his water ski instructor. All that stuff about school is nonsense. Alex has no interest in studying Situational Ethics. He signed up for the course as a way to get close to Tanya for the summer. In a way, it was a perfectly situational move, ethically speaking. He spent our money, not for the stated purpose, but simply to increase the amount of love in the world.”

“Namely, whatever he could get going with Tanya,” said Dr. Prettyman the orthopedic surgeon as she stabbed a lump of cheesy egg with her fork and shook her head with obvious regret. “We should have taken the glass bottom boat tour. None of this would have happened.”

“You know I get seasick on glass bottomed boats,” said Dr. Prettyman the chiropractor. “I can’t look down while moving forward. It’s something in my neck.”

“You should see a doctor about that,” said Prettyman the orthopedic surgeon.

“I am a doctor,” said Prettyman the chiropractor.

“No you’re not.”

They glowered at one another as their omelets cooled.

Lupine cleared his throat.

“Sorry if we’ve come at a bad time. Our real interest is in identifying the scammer and recovering the money,” he said. “Is there anyone in Canada who might have known Alex was out of the country? Someone who thought they could get away with telling a preposterous story to his grandmother?”

“That’s a stretch,” said Dr. Prettyman the orthopedic surgeon. “We know some Canadians, but none quite so crafty.”

Goatlock gazed out the window, chewing the end of his pipe. He was thinking about how lovely it would be to take a few bites from such a lush, emerald colored lawn, although it would doubtless have a heavily chemical aftertaste. He noticed Marnie stepping methodically around the back yard, walking it like a maze.

“How cute,” said Lupine, rising from his chair for a better look. “Is she practicing to be a tightrope walker?”

“Not that I’m aware, but it’s a wonderful skill that develops excellent posture,” said the chiropractor.

“We don’t allow the children to take up dangerous hobbies.” spat the orthopedic surgeon, pulling a small chunk of eggshell from her breakfast.

“She’s looking for something,” Goatlock observed.

“Great,” sighed Dr. Prettyman the orthopedic surgeon. “Sarge must be out again.”

“A cat?” asked Lupine.

“Her turtle,” said Dr. Prettyman the chiropractor. “He squeezes through some tight spots for an animal with a hard shell. Should have named him Houdini.”

“May I ask,” asked Goatlock, “who prepared our omelets this morning?”

“It was Marnie,” said her father. “She needs to perform a task every day or she becomes morose.”

“And she likes breaking things,” added Marnie’s mother. “We go through a lot of eggs.”

“We will also take this opportunity to disappear,” said Goatlock, rising to stand alongside but well below the towering Lupine. “I recommend that no one in this family leave the country without notifying our office first. We might have more questions.”

“Does that include Sarge?” asked Dr. Prettyman the chiropractor.

“Especially Sarge,” answered Goatlock, as he and Lupine turned to leave.

What could the turtle be hiding?

Goatlock Locks In

The case of Alex and the Canadian Grandmother Shakedown continues.

Shortly after Beverly A. left the C.A.G. offices, Inspector Goatlock Combes and his faithful assistant, Dr. Lupine, reviewed the evidence. They had:

A phone call that could have come from anywhere.
A decoy Canadian address and a closed P.O. Box.
A young man studying “situational ethics” in Russia.
Parents who may or may not be intimidating.
A confused, bamboozled grandmother.
A story with some holes in it.

Goatlock gnawed on the end of a well-used pipe.

“Where should we begin, Lupine? Canada or Russia?”

Lupine appeared to consider it carefully, but he had already come up with an answer for this simple question. He was really thinking about a hat he would like to buy – a newsboy cap. It was wide and flat with a herringbone pattern that he thought would look especially stylish, although the thought had also occurred to him that such an addition to his wardrobe might give him the appearance when lit from behind of a plate being balanced on a stick. He was tall and strikingly thin, towering over Combes conspicuously. And conspicuous is one thing the investigators in the C.A.G. Unit did not want to be.

“Canada, of course,” Lupine. “It should be a simple matter to trace the ownership of the P.O. box and follow the money to the culprit.”

“Quite,” said Goatlock.

Goatlock found it amusing that his partner was named for a plant that he might like to eat, given the chance. But mostly the Inspector appreciated Lupine for his habit of making the most out of an unpromising case. Like volunteer flowers that flourish in a roadside ditch, Lupine seemed to do best in places where others would hesitate to dig in. Clearly his partner was imagining a summer trip to Winnipeg, probably with a new hat.

“It should be a nice jaunt because the Canadians are so pleasant to deal with,” Goatlock added. “And I know they’ll apologize when we discover the P.O. Box investigation leads to an utterly dead end. We might even get a free slice of pie at some Winnipeg eatery, if we play our cards right.”

“What’s that?” said Lupine. “Canada? A dead end?”

“Mounties only wear red on important occasions,” Goatlock observed. “And being on patrol for fellows relieving themselves in the woods is not special enough – at least not to the sort of person who gets to wear that legendary uniform. Plus, a bike trip from Winnipeg to Calgary is at least 750 miles – a lot of work for anyone, but especially someone on his way to study marketing. An interest in marketing is not a characteristic of loners, and one would have to be comfortable with isolation to take such a lengthy trip on a self-powered two-wheeler. No, the Canuck aspect of this case is a diversion, and the P.O. Box leads to a dead end because the people who set it up are experts at deception.”

“And how do you know THAT?” asked Lupine.

“Simple,” said Goatlock. “They deceive themselves all the time.”

Is Inspector Combes on to something, or is this just more cud chewing?
What comes next?

A Case for Inspector Combes

Somebody is always trying to pull the wool over somebody else’s eyes. And while many of us are blessed with wool piercing vision, to others the world always looks like the hind flank of a sheep – a tangled, imponderable mess. These unfortunate people often wind up at Metro Police headquarters, telling their tales of woe to the professionals in the CAG (Crimes Against the Gullilble) Unit. They are a sad lot, beset by confusion and despair. The luckiest of these are assigned to the most spirited, kind-hearted and curious Inspector on the force – Goatlock Combes.

Beverly A. came into the C.A.G. office to report an extortion scheme. A person claiming to be her college-age grandson Alex had called in a panic from a Winnipeg jail. “Alex” said he had been on a long distance bicycle journey to the Edmonton Mall where he was going to serve a summer internship in Marketing to the Northern Personality Type when he was rudely seized by red-coated Mounties and thrown in the hoosegow.

The charge?

While doing necessary business in the woods during his long journey through the Canadian wilderness, “Alex” was spotted showing disrespect for a maple leaf.

“Alex” reported to his grandmother that he was, indeed, guilty. Being well-brought-up, he had resolved to take his punishment. But once he was in custody, “Alex” learned that the authorities had upgraded the charge to Trafficking in Moose Sweat – a more serious crime. Moose Sweat is a controlled substance in Canada because it is considered a potent aphrodisiac. It fetches a hefty price in the most free-spirited countries, especially those with territory north of the Arctic Circle.

“Alex” begged Beverly to wire two thousand dollars to pay for his release while he fought these charges, and he told his grandmother not to tell anyone he had asked for the money, especially his parents, since “Mom and Dad would be livid”.

Beverly did as she was instructed and wired the money to an address in Alberta. But after two weeks with no response from anyone, she became suspicious and did a little digging. She discovered the address automatically bounced to a P.O. box, which was now closed. She called Alex’s parents and discovered that he had never been in Canada. His summer internship was in Russia, at an institute in the Moscow suburbs studying “Situational Ethics”.

Beverly believed her money was gone, but she didn’t know if it had been stolen by a stranger posing as Alex, by organized criminals in Russia, Mounties gone bad, or by Alex himself.

Inspector Combes job? Make sense of this strange story.

If you were Goatlock, where would you begin?

Happy Father’s Day

Sunday is a lovely day to have off.
I’m taking a break and I recommend that you take it easy too.
And if you can spend some time with your Dad, you should!

Here’s one of my favorite songs written by a son for his father. I don’t have a radio
station to play it on, but I’ve got the next best thing – a You Tube link with no video!
This is what TV was like back in the days when everybody had to use their imagination, kids!

It’s the audio of Steve Goodman singing “My Old Man”.

I’m Sorry, Odd Ogg!

If you haven’t seen the new movie, Toy Story 3, wait until you’re ready to apologize to all the stuff in your basement. As soon as you get home from the theater, you’ll want to go down there to let everyone out of their box and tell them you’re sorry you haven’t played with them in years. Here’s one from my house.

Odd Ogg was a mechanical marvel. Your job was to roll the ball to him with the intention of putting it right under the middle of his body. If you did that, he’d move in your direction. If you missed to one side or the other, he’d open his mouth and “razz” you while backing away. If you could get Odd Ogg to come all the way to you, you’d “win”. If he wound up across the room, you’d “lose”. But getting him to stick out his plastic tongue was its own reward.

I suspect my parents found this appalling. The toy was an electronic gizmo. I’m sure they balked at having to buy batteries for the thing just because I didn’t have the imagination to bestow personalities on my toys. The toys had to come with personalities built in -but why did this one have to be so rude? After years of instructing my not to stick out my tongue and “razz” my brother, here’s a device that sends exactly the opposite message! What kind of adults will our children turn into after playing with unkind toys like this?

They turned into the kind of adults who get weepy and nostalgic when they think about their ill-mannered, totally cool toys.

What’s in your basement?

Build An Insult

British Petroleum took some lumps yesterday at a hearing in the House.
It was no surprise.

Elected officials look powerless in this situation. Naturally they want to whomp the BP guy a time or two while he’s sitting right in front of them with his arms tied to the chair. He can’t fight back because it would only make his company look worse, which would be an amazing achievement in itself, but not worth the trouble.

Our representatives had a free swing, and many of them took it. The real hazard for any Congressman wanting a piece of this fun was that some other solon might use their favorite string of insulting terms first, rendering their outrage repetitive.

That’s why it is so vitally important to hold a few extras in reserve.

Come on, Congressman Babooner! You might make it on to the evening news if you follow the script to develop your own unique bit of executive scolding!

Sir, I am appalled at the magnitude of this disaster and the …


… way that your …


Evil Empire
Circus of Fools
Death Star
Brainless Collection of Oafs
Lurching Monolith
Assassin’s Club
Clown Detail

… moved so quickly to …

Off Load

… responsibility for what is sure to be remembered as the most profound example of …

Short Sightedness
Bad, bad publicity

… in this, or any other …

star date!
meeting room!
legislative chamber!
chamber of horrors!

Sir, at long last, have you no …

Spare Change?
Pants on?

Are you an effective scold? Be nice!

Diseases of the Eye

I came down with a case of conjunctivitis, which sounds like it ought to be a disease of language. In a logical world, conjunctivitis would be “an uncontrolled swelling of the connective tissue between words, phrases and clauses”.


“We can beat Ike Clanton’s gang at O.K. Corral,” Wyatt Earp told the sheriff, “BUT I’ll need you and your deputies to back me up”.

“But, but … that’s a mighty big BUT, Mr. Earp. “

“It is a big but, but I’ve got conjunctivitis so I can’t help it. My buts are huge and out of control. And so are my so’s. And my ands!”

Alas, conjunctivitis is not about inflamed conjunctions, or about language at all. It’s the official term for “Pink Eye”, which is a swelling of the tissue around the eyeball but even that seems inadequate. “Pink Eye” sounds too emotionally rich and secretly fun to be attached to such a dreary condition. It ought to be the way we describe a look of fierce flamboyance.


“I’m trying to keep my distance from Melvin. He’s got that feather boa out of its box, and he’s been giving me the Pink Eye all night.”

Other misnamed maladies:

Cowpox: You can get it from handling the udder of a cow, but if you are a typical urbanite, you’d be more likely to get it from cats or mice. If the infection gave you big brown eyes and made you look like a Holstein, maybe the name would fit. It doesn’t.

Hay Fever: Next time you start sneezing, check to see if there’s any hay around. And while you’re looking, where’s the fever?

Morning Sickness: If only it limited itself to one time of day.

Clearly these are maladies that were named by people who weren’t feeling well enough to be exact. And it doesn’t stop at illnesses. What about Iceland and Greenland? Literally and figuratively, let’s not even go there.

Nickels aren’t pure nickel. Eyeglasses contain no glass. Peanuts are beans. Shooting stars aren’t stars. Panama hats came from Ecuador. Freeways aren’t free.

Should we establish a commission to re-name every misleading thing?
If we did, what would we call it?

And Now A Word …

Talk, talk, talk, talk. It’s about time we heard from oil.
Not Big Oil. Just … oil.


I hope we still are. Friends, I mean.

You set me free

I remember when you first found me. Things had been quiet for some time. My many years of being “alive” were long over, and I had languished in the depths. I felt useless until you brought me to the surface and somehow miraculously invented a way to involve me in the world you were building.

I understand that I wasn’t very attractive when you found me. I know that I needed to be “refined”. Would it have been nicer for you to accept me as I am? Of course, but that’s not your nature. I had been through so many changes already, I was not afraid of another transformation if it meant that we could be together, even for a moment. And the rapid combustion of meeting you … it was exhilarating. You were happy too. I could see your eyes watering with joy even as I became a gaseous haze and floated away. Let’s face it. We used each other.

We had some good times here

It did occur to me very early on that you might use me up. I didn’t care. But when some started to say that I would eventually “run out” … that hurt. I listened for an answer that mentioned how faithful I had been, how completely willing I was to sacrifice myself for you and all the crazy things you wanted to do.

Including jet fuel. Do you think it mattered to me whether you could fly or not? Big deal! But it was important to you, so I got refined again and again. Long after you got bored with flying, I still went through that anguishing “process” and then set myself on fire so you could “take off”. Is the thrill gone? For me, it was never here.

In spite of that we had a lot of fun. Yes, I blew up sometimes. You knew you had to handle me properly. I’m not saying it was never my fault, but it’s fair to say that you understood my nature and were careless in ways that I found astounding.

Me, everywhere

And now I’m unwelcome and apparently have made a mess of things. I hear you using words like “filth” and “ruin” and I wonder if you even remember that you came for me and opened the door and invited me and even begged me to come rushing to you.

Maybe I am just a horrible “spill”. Unwanted and uncontrolled and unrefined and unaware that I am undeniably in the wrong place. But this is my world too, and I didn’t ask for any of this. Perhaps I don’t belong on a pristine beach, but when I see you nestled into a pocket of glowing white sand, the word “blight” does not seem out of place.

I guess we really are more similar than either one of us is willing to admit.

Ever feel completely misunderstood?

Our Man Friday

It was one and a half weeks ago that perennial sophomore Bubby Spamden stopped by the studio on my last day of work to announce his “Man Friday” concept, his new dream summer job, to be a personal assistant “to some rich person. You know, I wanna be the guy who’s always going to get their dry cleaning and stuff”. The only problem was finding a person in need of personal assistance who also has the money to hire him.
When I saw him last, Bubby was headed up toward Mickey’s Diner to find a client.
Here’s his latest update:

Bubby When He Was a Sophomore the First Time

Hey Mr. C.,

It’s the second day of summer break and still no personal assistant job! And I’ve been working so hard to try to find one, asking random people if they want a “Man Friday”. You know what? You get some pretty wild answers to that question, especially in downtown St. Paul. I’ve learned lots of really descriptive terms and phrases in just the past few days, so I’ll have plenty of cool sayings to teach the first graders on the bus next fall.

Anyway, nobody took me up on my offer and I didn’t accept of theirs either. I guess this just isn’t the right part of the country for a guy who wants to work as a personal assistant. Maybe I should go to New York! Personal assistants are like pigeons there – you can’t get away from them. In fact I hear that all the people you see on the streets are P.A.’s – that’s why they’re always rushing around. Their rich people stay hidden inside buildings and cars, yelling demands into the phone.

But I don’t want to do anything too hard or icky. They have strong unions there, don’t they? Maybe there’s, like, an Organized Brotherhood of Personal Assistants or something. And if there’s no O.B.P.A. maybe I could start one. I’d be the head organizer and lead negotiator and once we get the union built all the way up maybe I could be, like, the union president – the guy who calls for a strike for higher wages, shorter hours, less shouting.

We’d be a great union. Loud. Smart. Efficient. Militant. And just really, really helpful.

Good idea, huh? Now all I need is a way to get to New York, and a few days to get the union started. You don’t suppose it would be a lot of work, do you?

I wrote Bubby and told him yes, I do suppose it would be a lot of work. Organizing anything is. But if he doesn’t want to work, he shouldn’t be looking at a personal assistant’s career anyway.

Have you ever had a job or a task turn out to be much, much bigger than you anticipated?

Local Homeowner Vanishes in Yard

A gang of unsupervised weeds made aggressive and dangerous by a three-day rain may be responsible for the sudden disappearance of a local man.

The man, whose name was withheld by police pending notification of his relatives, was last seen in the street in front of his overgrown property. He was headed toward the weeds with a pair of clippers.

“I don’t know what he thought he was going to do”, said a neighbor, Art Gardener. “You can’t deal with unruly mega-weeds on a unilateral basis. You need heavy artillery with plenty of back up. What did he have? Clippers?
Give me a break! They’ll eat you alive.”

People in the area say they have been complaining regularly about the out-of-control situation.

“Nothing official”, said Gardener. “Just the usual behind-the-back comments. Wondering how the lawn got so wild. I mean, we’ve all got green space here and we know it can get out of hand. This one was just so … outrageous. People were horrified and fascinated all at once. One guy said it was schadenfreude. But I think it was ordinary pigweed.”

Shortly after the man headed back into his “lawn”, Gardener and others in the area became alarmed when they saw bits of foliage flying into the air and heard sounds of a struggle. The man did not re-emerge. Police were called, but helicopter searches and sonar failed to find evidence of a body, living or dead.

Satellite imagery confirmed the existence of a house at the center of the thicket. Authorities assume the rest of the family is safely blockaded inside the structure, and authorities hope the man is with them.

“He got out of the house and all the way to the street at least once, so it’s possible that he made it back into the house.” said Sgt. Lisa Shears of the Metro P.D.. “We’ll know once we get back in there, possibly at daybreak depending on the weather. The plan is to drive right up to the front door with a tank we borrowed from the National Guard. We’ll map the path from the satellite photo and send in some rabbit-mounted cameras first to be sure he’s not lying there between the street and the stoop, and then we’ll go in with the heavy equipment and some Round-up and God knows what we’ll find.”

The family may have run out of food a few days ago, though experts say survival is possible.

“You can eat dandelions” said Gardener. “But if one of these big boys goes into puffball stage while it’s in your stomach, it’ll put you through some changes.”

Do you struggle against nature?