The Legion of Lost Gnomes

T.G. Browning

As crime waves ran, it couldn't really be called much of a wave. A rivulet, perhaps, hardly a wave. But when faced with the obvious, even the primally stubborn can be convinced and that's what Doris was. Convinced. Now, the only problem she saw, was that she wasn't sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing.

Somebody was stealing lawn gnomes.

Doris shuffled the three reports a second time and laid them out carefully, side by side. The first was from Jimmy and was a model of quiet police efficiency. Short, concise in the way short things should be but often aren't, and totally deadpan. No twists. Nothing to indicate that Jimmy found any of the incidents to be slightly on the broken side of Serious City.

The second was Marla's report and it, too, was a good example of police work, though there were twists and slants to the narrative that caused Doris to suspect that Marla had had a hard time keeping a straight face when she took the information. That little tiny doodle in the lower left corner that looked suspiciously like an inebriated squirrel hanging upside down from a branch was only the most obvious indication.

Still, all the facts were there and dutifully cataloged with direct quotes from the crime victim listed here and there as appropriate.

They also cracked Doris up. "Well, you don't think they just up and walked off by themselves, now do you missy?"

Doris could just see the victim, Gretchen Reinhart, canting her head to the side and looking up at Marla as she spoke.

The last of the three was from Mort, Doris's problem child in the office. Mort tried very hard but lacked that certain something that gives one confidence in someone allowed to carry a gun in public. He'd been improving steadily and this particular report couldn't have been easy for him, improvements or no. In a way, Doris was touched at the inner police officer it revealed. He obviously believed everything this latest victim of crime had to say and since that included a few scatological references to neighbors who just had to be guilty of something, Doris figured that Mort could probably keep busy with the follow-up all the way through Christmas.

Since it was currently the month of May, Doris figured she'd have to keep an eye on Mort. Doris looked back at the reports one final time, mentally added up how much the stuff taken could have been worth and then chucked them all into a basket she kept for things not finished and not really in need of finishing. By her reckoning, all the thefts taken together couldn't have cost the victims more than $300 and a bit of wounded pride.

She figured that what they had was an art teacher who'd been working too hard and needed a break. Conjectured art teacher probably snatched the little guys and then offed them with a small but sturdy hammer. The ex-gnomes were probably rounded hunks of concrete in the nearest landfill.

In Doris's worldview, justice wasn't really blind, just slow to balance.

Doris often went home for lunch since she only lived ten blocks away. It gave her a chance to look things over as she went, though she rarely saw anything more interesting than someone parked too far from the curb. But, she also figured that establishing a visible presence around town never hurt and she got the bonus of a hot meal with no interruptions from townspeople upset about parking or speeding tickets.

Just a block away from home, she spotted two of her neighbors, Cissy Brown and Verla Manning, talking animatedly. Doris had already started to give them her friendly, neighborhood cop I-see-you-but-I'm-busy wave when the animation speed jumped a couple of notches and the two women both started yelling, waving their arms, and moving with reckless speed in her direction. Doris sighed, pulled over and parked. She made a point of not getting out of the squad car.

Cissy Brown was in the lead in the race to get Doris's ear first. She had an advantage over her competitor since she had longer legs under a fairly trim body, kept in shape by fending off the attacks of a set of seven-year-old triplets vaguely rumored to be hers. She wore a bright blue t-shirt, shorts and, oddly enough, jogging shoes -- though the progress she was making toward the car would more properly be termed sprinting.

Verla Manning, Doris's other neighbor, was within easy striking distance behind Cissy and her legs were shorter and would remind one of tree trunks, had tree trunks been wearing faded denim this year. She was one of those people who had the misfortune to have large internal organs with shoulders to match. She resembled an Albanian weightlifter with a perm. Even so, Doris would have put money on Cissy over Verla but only if Verla wasn't looking.

"Doris, I want her--" Cissy got in first from about ten feet out.

"Damn it, Cissy, will you just--"

"--arrested. She stole--"

"--did not!"

"Did too, you--"

Both stopped abruptly when Doris started playing with the shotgun racked on the passenger side of the squad car. Doris had the good fortune to witness a rare phenomenon: Both women with their mouths open and no sounds coming out. Doris wished she had a videocam since she doubted she'd ever be so fortunate again. She got out of the squad car and leaned on the door.

In a mild voice, Doris asked, "Something you two need? I'm on my lunch break if you don't mind. I'd like to have chance to at least open the refrigerator before heading back to the office."

This time Verla got in the first shot. "Cissy's been robbed. She thinks I did it but I haven't touched any of her stuff." Verla glared at her next-door neighbor. This might not be the worst fight the two of them had had, but it was going to go down as one of the more official ones, if Verla had anything to say about it. Doris had the grim feeling that living six houses away from the conflict wouldn't be far enough if Cissy didn't apologize and damn soon.

"You always hated ..." Cissy snapped back, now glaring at Verla.

"Maybe, but I'm no thief. If you want tacky little concrete goblins--"


"--whatever, hiding in your rose bushes, that's your look out."

"Judas Priest!" Both of the women snapped their heads back to stare at Doris. Her expression must have been a shade grim because they both took a step backward. They had just discovered what small European nations felt when bus loads of Prussians stop for border checks. Without another word, Doris got on the radio.

That night after supper, Doris wandered out into the front yard, a bottle of Conceited Sonnavabitch Stout in hand, thinking dark thoughts. The stout didn't exactly help. Once opened, she'd committed to drinking it and frankly, as far as she could tell, this particular stout had nothing to be conceited about.

Milt, her husband and chief of police for the neighboring town of Newport, ambled out after a few minutes, wiping his hands on a dishrag and wondering why Doris had his bottle of C-SOBS. As far as he knew, she hated stout. He stopped for a moment, considered that, and then frowned.

The only way that would happen would be if Doris was in conference with her subconscious and not paying attention. He watched while she finally sat down on the grass under the hawthorne tree and looked disgusted.

"You want me to finish that? And maybe get you something you actually like?"

Doris blinked twice, looked at the bottle and then nodded gravely. "That would probably help. Then I got a couple of questions for you."

"Weird stuff?"

"Weird stuff."

Milt sighed and complied. Within a minute he plopped his wiry frame down beside his wife and braced himself. "Okay. What's up?"


"I beg your pardon?"

"Lawn gnomes. You have any thefts of lawn gnomes in Newport lately?"

"Not that I know about. But I rarely have time to go over more than half the reports these days. Too much court time. Unless Jesse flags it for me, I generally don't see it. Why? You missing some?"

"We are, not to put too fine a point on it, missing battalions. Legions. Whatever the hell you'd call a bunch of the little suckers."

"Well, they can't get far."

Doris glared at him. "Not funny."

"Sure it is. Listen to yourself. Lawn gnomes indeed."

Doris regarded him with a less than charitable expression. "Milt, I nearly had two neighbors who aren't particularly friendly go to war this afternoon because a couple of the concrete goobers are missing. Cissy Brown figured Verla had stolen them and probably dumped them in the Bay or possibly taken a sledgehammer to them. I don't need neighbor fights here in town, especially within six houses of where I try to sleep."

Milt looked thoughtful. "Why would anybody want to take them? They're not that expensive."

"Only thing I can figure is that somebody thinks they're tacky and hates them even more than I do."

"You don't think anybody would ... ah ... just use them?"

"Milt, people who'd take and actually use at least 12 or 13 of them are too sick to function in society. They'd never be able to plan a getaway. And they'd give themselves a hernia, to boot."

"That the only stuff that's been taken?" Inside the house he heard the sound of the dishwasher abruptly end with a rattle that meant the locking mechanism had come unlatched. Milt got up.

Doris twisted the top off her beer and drank some. She shook her head as she looked up at him. "No. One house was missing a pink flamingo and two ceramic toadstools." Doris sat up and started to drink a bit more beer and then stopped. "I'm kind of surprised you haven't had any taken."

"Guess Toledo and Newport have different hunting seasons." He started walking backward toward the front door, left hand gripping his stout, the right ready to fend off any attack from Doris.

"You're cruisin', Milt ... " she warned, standing up as she tried to roll up one sleeve while still holding her beer. Milt got what he figured was enough lead and then split for the front door. Now if he could just get it locked before she got there ...

Doris didn't enjoy holiday weekends. No police officer does, really, since it always means a lot of extra work keeping people from hamburgerizing themselves and near relatives in some car crash. The Toledo PD was short handed for this particular Memorial Day since Fred Vasquez had requested special holiday leave to visit family in Powell Butte, Oregon. With his accrued vacation leave, Doris couldn't see any way to deny him the vacation. The last time he'd taken off for more than a day had been during the first Reagan Administration.

Friday and Saturday nights went down smoothly enough. Doris issued several tickets for speeding, one DUI and one warning ticket for following too close. Considering the driver was tailgating a Southern Pacific Railroad train as it moseyed into the pulp mill, Doris couldn't talk herself into a full ticket.

Sunday night, Doris made several long, elliptical loops that meandered across the Yaquina River a couple of times and took in the Kauri Street Annex, Alder Lane--which doubled for Toledo's Nob Hill--the High School, and finally finished up with a brisk cruise down the US 20 bypass of Toledo. Every other time she'd park, get out the radar and clock a few cars as they bypassed the town.

It was nearly midnight and one of the rare, fine evenings just behind the Pacific Coast when the sky was clear as a bell and one could count meteors were one inclined and upwind of the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill. Milt, Doris figured, was undoubtedly enjoying the rustic moodiness one finds in coast towns with a surfeit of fog. Throw in that there was quite a lot of Newport stretched out along the coast and Doris figured he'd not only be home late but be in need of a cheery face once he got home.

Doris noticed lights behind her and readied the radar gun. Before squinting through the sight, it occurred to her that the car lights had come on, rather than appeared. Since the vehicle had come out of Cemetery Loop Road, the driver must have been rolling with the lights off before he hit the intersection.

The vehicle passed by her without any tell-tale red flashes from the brake lights but Doris figured the driver to have taken his foot off the gas--the radar gave out two readings, one after the other: 58 mph followed by 54.

Doris dumped the radar and pulled out after the car--a red SUV that vaguely looked familiar--and quickly discovered that their speed had dropped even further--the SUV was now doing under 50. After another 30 seconds, the car's right turn signal came on as it slowed and the driver turned onto the Siletz Highway, leaving Doris with a choice of following or not.

Not. No matter how suspicious Doris felt, she had no real reason to pull them over and the random hassling of motorists didn't happen to be one of her faults.

Still, she did take one final, quick glance as she passed the Siletz Highway turn-off and slowed to turn left onto Old Highway 20. The lighting wasn't great but she could see enough to recognize a back seat packed with three or four kids, each seat-belted into immobility. She even thought she saw one of the little buggers flip her off. She certainly saw one arm up in the air, though she couldn't tell how many fingers the rugrat had extended.

Doris had just turned onto Main Street when the radio crackled. Meg, the Toledo Dispatcher, keyed in.

"...units--" Doris laughed. Toledo had five squad cars and only had two on patrol at any one time. Even on Memorial Day Weekend. "--we have a robbery at 233 East Ridgemont."

Doris grabbed the mike. "Base, this is Doris--how long ago did it happen?" Doris's subconscious had started yammering in the corner.

"About ten minutes ago. That's the Cutter house--Maude Cutter phoned it in."

"Did she see anything--anybody?"

"Not really. Just caught a glimpse of a car headed down the road."


"Affirmative." Meg sounded miffed. She hated it when Doris second-guessed her so effortlessly.

"Base, this is Jimmy. I'm west of Butler Bridge--it'll take me a while to get there."

None of the three of them took advantage of the clear airwaves for several seconds and then Doris keyed in and off, paused and keyed in. "I'll take it, Jimmy. Meg, get in touch with the State Police. I think I saw the vehicle. It was a red SUV and they turned onto the Siletz Highway about five minutes ago. I didn't have any real reason to stop them then." Doris could have kicked herself but refrained. That could come later.

"Base, what was taken?"

There was a pause before Meg answered. "Three or four lawn gnomes and a urinating cherub birdbath."

Doris pulled over and ground her teeth a couple of times. It figured. What else could it have been?

Cops don't really have a special way of thinking. And of course, every cop is different and uses what mental equipment they have in the most expeditious way. Jimmy, for example, was a great linear thinker. He could leap-frog two or three steps if they happened to be in a straight line but throw a slow curve left into the mix and you'd see brake lights. Milt was better than Jimmy with any sort of randomized, slow to medium curve and he could second-guess the average person three times out of four.

Doris had a marvelously skewed set of brains. When events ran in twisted curves, she barreled along overtaking and even, occasionally, jumped the track to get in front. Like now.

Item: Three or four concrete goobers strapped in the back of a SUV.

Item: One of them flipping her off.

Conclusion: Since concrete doesn't bend very well, the upraised arm would have to have been a permanent gesture. After a little thought, Doris did recall having encountered at one time or another a couple of the tackier lawn eyesores posed to be waving bye-bye or its mercantile equivalent, check please, depending upon one's penchant for gruesome detail.

Item: Memorial Day. Doris shelved it for the moment. It was important, but at this point she wasn't sure how or why.

Possibly related item: Subject SUV last seen headed north-by-northeast along the Siletz Highway. Which, by happenstance and bad roadway was connected in two spots with the old Pioneer Mountain Road, which fed back in before the by-pass, about a mile east of it.

Before you could say Pioneer Mountain, Doris had the squad car turned and was making speed heading eastbound on Old Hwy. 20, all lights flashing, but no siren.

There was one cemetery Doris could think of in that direction and it got damn few visitors, ever. Doris was headed for it, all the while thinking how peculiar a concrete gnome looked, asking for a dinner check. That may not be what she seen but the image kind of fit somehow.

The clincher was that Memorial Day had already arrived, since it was already past midnight and that particular holiday was one of only two holidays carefully and religiously observed by the owner of that one rather private cemetery.

When Doris had taken US History from him in high school, he'd always made an effort to remind the kids of the point behind Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. He also owned a red SUV, now that Doris thought about it, but he hadn't been driving it much this last year or so because of poor health.

Judas Priest, she thought. Now why in hell did Tom have to steal them? He couldn't have just borrowed a few from friends or neighbors if he didn't have enough. Now I'll have to take steps.

A moment later, another circuit cut in and Doris nodded even more grimly. Mick's got to be handling it for him; Tom wouldn't have lifted the buggers. Besides, it's much too slick an operation for anybody else but Mick.

Long ago Doris had learned an interesting secret of life: Codgers get to be codgers, by devious, sneaky means. Some more sneaky than others.

Doris knew enough about Mick's history to piece together part of the puzzle. She just wondered what pieces Tom Smythe had in his past.

Doris killed the flashers as she turned onto Pioneer Mountain Road and went to sub-light speed. The road was tricky and had, back before 1960, been the original route of the Corvallis-Newport Highway--code name US 20 by the uninitiated. It sported all of the trappings of coast road building from that era, including steeply banked, back to back, narrow curves that were a blast to take on a motorcycle if you weren't subject to motion sickness. Doris didn't figure she needed any more thrills for the evening so she took them at the granny speed indicated by the mph riders of the curve signs. After a mile, she slowed even further, figuring she wanted to make damn sure she didn't get to the house first. She wanted to give them enough time to get the little guys unloaded--hopefully getting a strained back in the process. These two needed some sort of lingering aftereffect to mark this particular idiot notion.

One set of ugly curves back from Doris's intended destination, she slowed to a stop and considered her next move. She briefly considered turning off her own headlights but then sighed. What would be the point?

Just as surely as she could figure out what was going on, Mick could figure out just how long it would take Doris to figure it out. She had no doubt that he was currently sitting on either the front porch bench glide or was leaning against a tree in front of the house.

She shrugged, put the car in gear and moseyed around the curve to turn into 14480 Old Pioneer Mountain Road and possibly into an ugly situation.

As she had figured, Mick Reeves was sitting on the front porch. Had to be. Only Mick could have pulled any of this off.

Mick was closing in on 90 years old and had that wiry gauntness you see in old people who have been straight-arming the grim reaper for years, successfully. He had never been a big man, which was almost a given, considering his former line of work: Espionage--first for the old OSS during WWII and then later on, for the CIA up through the beginning of the 60's. Nondescript was probably the only adjective Mick would have aspired to and he more or less achieved it--barring anybody taking a close look at his deep-set cold, gray eyes. Those eyes gave everybody, including Doris the willies occasionally. He wore a pair of canvas deck shoes, corduroy pants with more than the usual number of pockets, a light blue polo shirt and a sardonic expression. Doris got out and leaned on the car door, to stare back at him.

After a few moments, she asked, "Where's Tom, Mick? Out back? I'd think you'd need to be helping him unload--Tom's not in that good a shape."

Mick nodded companionably. "Gene's helping him. They should be about done by now."

"Gene?" Doris repeated in a musing tone. "Oh, right. Gene Van Horn. Jeez, I would have thought he had more sense than this."

For the first time in her life, Doris saw a spasm of anger flicker across Mick's face. It was gone quickly but for a moment, Doris could believe some of the more unbelievable stories she'd heard about Mick and exploding German staff cars. His normally bland expression did yeoman work concealing the professional field agent.

"There are some remarks, Doris, you'd be wise to leave unsaid." He got up and came down the short stoop of four steps. "C'mon. I told the two of them to be expecting you."

Doris fell in step beside him and thought. She didn't see any way she could avoid shoving all three of the vets in jail and she was just going to hate doing that.

Tom Smythe stood to one side of Gene Van Horn as the latter finished smoothing out what could only be described as a miniature grave. Immediately to Gene's right was an already dug hole the same size, only this one had the chubby, jovial face of a lawn gnome peeking out of it.

That explained the lawn gnomes, Doris thought. She took a quick glance around.

This was only the third time Doris had ever been in Tom's backyard and he'd made a number of changes. While she had expected the garden hillside of terraces and flowers painstakingly tended to, she hadn't expected to see one third of the hillside dotted with small white crosses. The last three on the bottom right were brand new and only now was Gene finishing the internment.

The last time she'd been here, there had only been the seven pioneer graves Tom had showed her that time she'd visited, all of which were marked with weathered granite markers.

Over his shoulder without looking, Van Horn called out. "Thanks for coming, Doris. It's much appreciated."

Doris stopped, shook her head and then regarded Tom. "Evening, Tom. You guys look like you're just about done."

Tom looked puzzled but came over and offered his hand to her. "What's that, Doris? Fun? Not really ..."

Mick said in a stage whisper. "His hearing aids aren't working too well, Doris. You better speak up."

Van Horn shot her a glance and then dropped down into the last, still open grave and started to lay 1' 8" of tacky sculpture to symbolic eternal rest. He paused for a moment and then softly and slowly brushed a few particles of soil away from the gnome's face. Doris found herself sighing.

"Right--Gene, stop that. Climb up out of there and come sit down. We have a few things to discuss."

Gene nodded but looked at Mick. "I think she's upset with us."

Doris just shook her head.

"Okay, guys, what the hell do you think you're doing? You know I'm going to have to arrest and throw the lot of you into a cell, don't you? You can't go around ripping off lawn ornaments even if they do deserve to be buried face down in concrete. You're going to end up in jail ... "

Tom had been fiddling around with his left hearing aid and apparently, got most of Doris's little speech. "What do you mean, stolen? These were donated. Every single one of them."

Doris looked at Mick who shrugged before she replied, "Not hardly, Tom. I've got theft reports going back a couple of weeks or so." Tom looked puzzled for a moment and then shot an accusatory glance at Mick, who shrugged once again.

Mick held up a hand. "We--Gene and I--would have returned them over the next couple of weeks. It isn't like we were planning on keeping them."

Doris shook her head in disgust. "So? Damn it, Mick! I've had neighbors getting ready to go to war with each other all because you have some weird idea of observing Memorial Day. Jeez, why couldn't you guys have simply asked people? Chances are people would have let you borrow them."

Gene shook his head. "Come on, Doris. You know better than that. If you think it's a goofy idea, do you honestly believe anybody would loan them to us? Besides, this is private business.

"In any event, Mick and I did plan on returning them so what harm is there?"

"What--" Doris broke off. "Pink flamingos and lawn frogs too? The birdbath you lifted tonight?"

"Birdbath?" This was from an increasingly confused Tom Smythe. He frowned. "Doris, I owed it to them..."

"Owed ..."

" ... owed it to my mates. Damn it, there were only three of us that got out. I'm the last of them and I ain't likely to see another winter, let alone another spring or Memorial Day."

For the first time, Doris's expression softened. "I'm sorry, Tom--I don't... I mean, I didn't know--"

Mick shook his head and caught her attention. "I'll explain. I sent word to Allied Command of the situation and so, in a sense, I was a member of the team." Mick glanced at his two contemporaries, got the high sign and began.

"It was sixty-one years ago day before yesterday. The Germans were planning on bombing the hell out of the Allies in North Africa and had decided to test a special bomb they'd been working on for years. It was designed to blow up over a city and spread anthrax spores all over hell.

"I learned about it and discovered the location of the facility where they were doing the research about five weeks before they planned to deploy for the test. I passed all of that on to Allied Command, who quickly rustled up a team to go in and blow up the lab. Tom was the second in command of the commando unit that was sent in.

"To cut to the chase, they accomplished their mission even though they lost sixteen of the nineteen men on the team. Tom barely pulled through himself--he spent the whole summer recovering while we shifted him from safe house to safe house until he healed up enough to travel and we had a suitable route set up.

"They never released the information and Tom and the other two were ordered to keep their mouths shut--and like patriotic soldiers they did."

"Why on Earth did they do that?"

Mick shrugged. "Because they were worried our own attempts along those lines might surface if the word of the raid got out. The Nazis weren't that much further along then we were."

Doris sighed. "Okay, I can see where this is headed." She thought quickly for a minute and then shook her head. "I'm still going to have to take you all in ... "

Van Horn spoke up. "The US honors the dead of the Indianapolis and that ship carried two atomic bombs. We killed thousands with those bombs. Here Tom and his mates stop the use of biological warfare and get nothing. No word of thanks, no acknowledgement of sacrifice, not even medical disability for what they suffered. Those that survived were badly shot up--Tom included--and all had long term health problems stemming from those wounds. You know what sort of shape I was in after I got liberated from the Japanese POW camp I was in. Tom was nearly in as bad a shape. The VA wouldn't even look at them. The government ignored them completely."

Doris glanced at Smythe. He nodded. "It's true. What money I get from a pension is from the school district and Social Security." He glanced over at the memorial the three of them had constructed. "Brian and Rob never got anything either and when Rob died earlier this year, I..."

" ...had to make some acknowledgement. Ah, crap..." Doris sagged back in her seat. Doing the right thing is sometimes the wrong thing, especially whenever large-scale bureaucracies are involved.

Very softly, Mick added, "Where's the harm, Doris? Really, who's been hurt here?"

The owners, you sawed-of Mephistopheles, she thought. The neighbors who aren't speaking to each other anymore and are thinking of setting up razor-wire fences.

She didn't say anything for several seconds and then looked at Mick. "Why gnomes?"

"It seemed appropriate. The code name for the operation was Gnome King."

Doris closed her eyes and shook her head before she looked away toward the hillside that sported eighteen symbolic representations of doing one's duty. She looked at Smythe, the only living representation of how a nation rewards inconvenient to remember service.

Click. It should only have been audible to Doris since it was merely a mental affectation, but she watched Mick stiffen with a certain amount of pleasure. "Okay, guys, you got me. I can't force myself to haul you in. However ... " Doris let the pause linger and stared at Mick, "here's what you're going to do ..."

Mick didn't like it one bit, but he saw the symmetry of it. Not any of the humor but he did see the symmetry. Score: Doris 3, Mick 1, called in the ninth inning because of common sense and perhaps, a touch of justice.

It took them ten days and cost them $992.31 but every one of the lawn doodads and grass eyesores got returned. The owner would step outdoors and crack a shin on the little blighters, but all that would be forgotten when they noticed the envelope stuffed with rental money and a written apology. And all of the owners went to their graves wondering about the name and rank on the tag on each lawn gnome. At least this legion of now found gnomes would not be unknown soldiers.

Tom Smythe died comfortably fifty-nine days later, in his sleep one hot, bright, summer afternoon as he relaxed in the hammock which stood between two birch trees at the foot of the private memorial,

And Doris never explained to Milt why she brought home a rather jaunty lawn gnome, with one arm upraised and one finger extended. She faced him eastward the day after Tom died, under the apple tree and declined comment.

T.G. Browning ( is a traffic engineer in Oregon and has had several stories published via the web, although he generally spends his time writing novels.

InterText stories written by T.G. Browning: "The Gilding of Norm Lilly" (#54), "The Legion of Lost Gnomes" (#57).

InterText Copyright © 1991-2004 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of InterText #57. This story Copyright © 2003 T.G. Browning.