Though it sounds violent, Henderson’s annual slugfest is less vicious than it is slimy. The regional festival honors the normally detested California banana slug with competitions to prove which slug is the biggest, fastest, or—in the event that gives the festival its notoriety—the tastiest. Rather than eat crow, the area’s local politicians atone for their sins by eating slug hot dogs, slug chili, and slug pie. This year, one dish will prove murderously foul. Edwina Henderson is the last of her family to live in the town that bears their name. A committed environmentalist, she is also the woman responsible for this year’s slugfest, and will take her place at the judge’s table. When a slug-pizza knocks her flat, the crowd assumes it was just an especially gross slice. But when she doesn’t get up, meter-reader Vejay Haskell must confront the devious murder of the town’s leading treehugger.
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The Last Annual Slugfest is the 3rd book in the Vejay Haskell Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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About the Author
Susan Dunlap (b. 1943) is a prolific author of mystery novels. Born in the suburbs of New York, Dunlap majored in English at Bucknell College and earned a masters in teaching from the University of North Carolina. She was a social worker before an Agatha Christie novel inspired her to try her hand writing mysteries. Five attempts and five years later, she published Karma (1981), which began a ten book series about brash Berkeley cop Jill Smith. Since then, Dunlap has published more than twenty novels and numerous short stories. Her other ongoing characters include the meter-reading detective Vejay Haskell, medical examiner Kiernan O’Shaugnessy, and Zen student turned detective Darcy Loft. In addition to writing, Dunlap has taught yoga, worked as a paralegal, and helped found the women’s mystery organization Sisters In Crime. She lives in San Francisco.
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The Last Annual Slugfest
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
I slammed on the brakes of the PG&E truck. Barely a foot ahead, a mud slide covered the road. I had been pondering Edwina Henderson, the last Henderson of the town of Henderson, and her perplexing connection with tonight's Slugfest. I'd nearly driven into the mud slide.
"Damn!" Three more meters to read on this street, and one of them had to be blocked by mud! As I climbed down from the truck to check the mound, rain from the eucalyptus branches above splatted on my shoulders, and the fresh eucalyptus scent battled with the dank smell of mud. In March, at the end of the winter rains, mud slides were not uncommon in the Russian River area. It was not even surprising to find slides from last year still covering smaller roads. But this one was new; it crossed Kiev Road in a viscous drift and oozed down the hillside beyond. There was no way to drive over it or through it, and certainly no way to walk around it. Picking up my route book, I marked M-5—Road Blocked—where the read for the Yunellos' account should have gone. This Missed Meter, because of its acceptable reason, would be added to the office's count rather than to mine. But I would have to justify it to Mr. Bobbs when I got back—another nuisance.
The next account was a tiny red cottage whose owner had had visions of making a killing in real estate and had added a deck twice the size of the house to the rear; it looked as if the weight of the deck would catapult the little dwelling down the hillside and into the river. But despite the winter rains, it stood. And for me, the addition of the deck meant that the meter, which had once been easily accessible at the rear of the house, was now a full six feet under the edge. Tucking my route book under my chin, I crawled through the wet weeds to it.
The final account on Route H-4 (Henderson Office, Route 4) was the Victorian house of Edwina Henderson herself. It had been built here on Kiev Road near the top of the hill by her grandfather, the town founder, Edwin Henderson. Unlike the cottages that had sprung up around it, the pale blue-and-white stick-style Victorian had been lovingly maintained. It occupied one of the few flat parcels of land on the hillside.
I had read the meter here many times in the two years I'd lived in Henderson, but Edwina Henderson had never been home. There was no reason to assume she would be now, and even less to suspect that she would tell me, her meter reader, why she had pressured everyone from our local assemblyman to the Chamber of Commerce to hold this year's Slugfest in Henderson. Still, I checked as I made my way around the side of the house to the rear porch. The meter was on the outside. Some meters were on enclosed porches and customers gave us keys to get in. This had been such a meter, but instead of entrusting her key to strangers, even bonded strangers, Edwina Henderson had had the meter moved. Jotting down the read, I closed the route book and headed back around the house.
A blue Volvo pulled into the driveway.
But Edwina Henderson wasn't inside. The driver was a man I didn't know. There were faces I couldn't put names to, but few that I didn't recognize at all after two years of reading town meters. But this man, who was probably close to forty, tall, with curly brown hair, a beard, and lapis blue eyes that shined through his rimless glasses, was certainly not one I would have overlooked. As he climbed out of the Volvo, I noted its parking sticker—SFSU—San Francisco State University. Was he a professor? In his brown herringbone jacket and black turtleneck, he looked the part.
Standing in the shelter of the house, I asked, "Have you come to see Edwina Henderson?"
"Right. She here?"
"I doubt it."
He raised his bushy eyebrows. "I have a four-thirty appointment with her. I'm already late. Are you sure she's not here?"
"Not positive. But it is Friday afternoon, and she does have a store to run. Maybe she planned on meeting you there."
"But this is the address on her correspondence."
I smiled. "She probably just forgot that, being from out of town, you wouldn't realize she'd be at the shop. In all likelihood, she's pacing around behind her special blends right now, irritated that you're late."
He shrugged. "Where is it?"
"On North Bank Road, the main street. It's the tobacco shop."
"Tobacco shop!" He laughed, and behind his glasses, his eyes relaxed. He had, I realized, quite a nice face. "You wouldn't think the lady of this house would be selling cigars."
"I suppose not. But Henderson Tobacconist's Shop is as old as this house. It was founded by her grandfather after he gave up logging for the comforts of the indoor life."
"He had the right idea. I had an awful time finding this place in the rain. I must have been up every winding dirt road on the hillside. Twice I had to back down. I almost went over the side the last time. If I had known about the shop being in the middle of town ..." He turned toward the car, then stopped. "What do you do at night here?"
"Put on the headlights."
He laughed. "I mean, where's a good place to stay and what's here in the way of night life?"
"Genelle's Family Cabins, just west of town. And the bar."
"If you want to drive into Santa Rosa there are movies and things you can find in any city. But here in Henderson the entertainment is the bar."
He sighed. "I was hoping for, well, something with a little more local color, something that would be sort of a memento of the area."
"An event you wouldn't find in the city? One you could tell your friends about?"
He nodded hesitantly.
"Well, if you want memorable, you should come to the Slugfest tonight."
"Slugfest! I was looking for colorful, not barbaric."
I laughed. "It's not what you think."
"It sounds like an event in a muddy field where the burliest drunks in town bash it out."
"It's not so violent, but it is probably just as disgusting. The Slugfest isn't a boxing match, it's an annual tribute to the California slug."
The slimy California slug—the shell-less snail that slithers toward the tasty green of just-sprouted flowers, that decimates lettuce and spinach plants, and lops off every bud in an entire garden in one night's outing, leaving a trail oozing from the scene of one disaster to the next—moves most Californians to excess. Slugs range in size from those in the drier suburban areas that are no bigger than a finger, to the banana slug that makes its unwelcome home in damp spots like San Francisco and the Russian River area. Banana slugs grow up to twelve gelatinous inches long. Gardeners put out slug pellets, build moats of broken glass around their plants, and leave dishes of beer to lure the invaders to a sodden grave, but the slugs are undeterred. "At the Slugfest, there's a prize for the biggest slug," I said. "You have to be under twelve years old to enter one. It's the first of three events. The second is the slug race."
"A test of patience?"
"Very few photo finishes. The course is about two feet long, and the record is something like five minutes."
"And? You said there were three things."
I let a moment lapse. "The third event is the slug tasting."
He didn't speak; he just stared. I'd seen that expression before when people got their first inkling of the nature of that event. "It's a take-off on county fairs where people bring their favorite foods. The essential ingredient in all of these recipes is slugs."
When he still didn't speak, I could feel myself getting into the spirit of the Slugfest. "Slug Chili is a perennial favorite. Slug Dogs were quite a hit one year. And for dessert, there's Chocolate Sludge, and Banana Cream Pie—you know what kind of banana, of course."
"And someone eats them?"
"The judges have to. That's why they're judges."
"Where do they get these judges? The local asylums?"
I laughed. "The politicians find it hard to refuse. Every other year the Slugfest was run by The Paper, one of the area newspapers in Guerneville. The Paper ran stories on whom they'd asked and what their excuses were. The year Santa Rosa dumped its sewage into the Russian River the Santa Rosa city manager was a judge."
"That's real mea culpa."
"He was a good sport. But this year the Slugfest will be here in Henderson. Edwina Henderson is organizing it."
"This Edwina Henderson?" He glanced at the tidy Victorian house, then back to me. Admittedly, it didn't look like the dwelling of a Slugfest devotee. "What kind of woman is she?"
Not knowing who this man was, I hesitated. Finally, I said, "She's the last of the founding Hendersons. She calls herself an 'historical environmentalist,' someone who wants to keep the area as it was. Almost singlehandedly she got the county to pass an ordinance making it a crime to deface the Nine Warriors—nine giant redwoods along the river. That campaign was her great triumph. The trees are her great love; I think they symbolize the natural history of the area to her. She's also the authority on the history of the town and the Pomo Indians, who lived here before the white man. And she's fascinated with Asia—the land, the cultures. If there's a slide-show on China or a lecture on Bushido, she'll be there."
What I didn't say was that she was a wiry little woman whom I had rarely seen without both a cigarette and a cup of coffee. She was always rushing off to a town council meeting, lobbying to restore the Henderson railway depot, or circulating a petition to save this or preserve that. No one could get an injunction or court order faster than Edwina Henderson. She knew the ropes and the judges. Her dedication to historical Henderson, to preserving the Russian River, and to Pomo Indian history and rights was nearly boundless. If you had a battle, tireless Edwina Henderson was the woman you'd want in your corner. She'd give you her all, and the all of everyone she decided should be as committed as she was. But if you planned to relax back in that corner after the struggle, she'd drive you crazy in ten minutes. She was viewed, by the winter people in this resort area, with a fond but distant tolerance. Even members of the minority groups she supported and admired—Indians and Asians (groups with notably few members in our area)—found life on her pedestal trying.
I added, "She's the last person you'd picture at the Slugfest. I'd be willing to bet she never went near any of the ones in Guerneville. But for some reason, she had to have this year's Slugfest as a Henderson event, held in Henderson, with Henderson judges."
"Who are those lucky souls?"
"Well, there's Father Calloway of St. Agnes's."
"Showing mortification of the senses?"
I could tell I was dealing with a budding enthusiast here. "Then there's Angelina Rudd, the manager of the fish ranch out at the ocean, and Curry Cunningham, who runs Crestwood Logging. He's a member of the town council, the historical society, and an usher at St. Agnes's."
"Up-and-coming town leader?"
"The closest thing to a politician Edwina could get."
"And who else?" he demanded. It didn't seem to matter that he wouldn't know any of these local people.
"There's Edwina Henderson, herself, of course. And"—I couldn't restrain my grin—"the manager of the town PG and E office, Mr. Bobbs."
He glanced at my uniform. "Like having your boss eat his words, only better, huh?"
I nodded. At first glance, stoical Mr. Bobbs seemed the antithesis of Edwina Henderson. In his tan suit, which was the color of the PG&E trucks, he rarely got up from his desk in the windowless cubicle that served as his office; he was as much a fixture there as the tan bookcase or tan chair. But his sedentary nature was not an indication of laziness. Far from it. He husbanded all his energy for his one passion: the management of the Henderson PG&E office. He was installed behind his desk before the first meter reader arrived at seven A.M. and still fixed in his chair when the last of us left. He could recall which meters had been tampered with in 1968 or what the read was for Fischer's Ice Cream Shop in June 1973. And he knew the Missed Meter Count of every office in Sonoma County, and doggedly struggled to limit his own—or failing that, to shift the guilt from the overall office count to the individual readers, as he would do with me today, when I got back to the office. A clear show of devotion to the company was his acquiescence to representing it at the Slugfest. The wonderfully ludicrous prospect of Mr. Bobbs downing a spoonful of Cream of Slug Soup could never be fully explained to a stranger.
"But why does Edwina Henderson want to have the Slugfest here? Does she have a bizarre sense of humor?" her visitor asked.
"No. It's odd. She doesn't have any sense of humor at all. But she wrenched the Slugfest from Guerneville, where it's always been. She has to have some reason. You can ask her when you see her, but I wouldn't count on getting an answer. You'll probably just have to come tonight to find out."
I gave him directions to Steelhead Lodge, where the Fest would be—clear directions. I was getting to like this man. I wanted him to be there. He would have to wait more than three hours to sate his curiosity, but Steelhead Lodge was on my route. I had saved that read for last. I figured if anyone had an idea why the Slugfest was going to be there it would be Bert Lucci, the manager. I knew what Bert Lucci thought of Edwina Henderson. If there was scandal or subterfuge involved, Bert Lucci would be delighted to tell me.CHAPTER 2
Steelhead Lodge was one of those places realtors describe to prospects as "charming" and to each other as "dilapidated." Named for the river trout that was the focus of most of its guests, the lodge was a big wooden rectangle with a high, pointed roof. The roof sloped down over a veranda that ran the length of the building. Had it sported comfortable rockers, screens to keep out the mosquitoes, and a view of the river, the veranda might have been appealing. But it had none of those plusses. It was bare of furniture. Once, more than twenty years ago, Steelhead Lodge had been painted green, but now most of that paint had peeled off and what remained was coated with dust from the unpaved parking area. The long-ago-shingled roof leaned heavily on rough posts, and the thick railings between those posts looked like they had supported too many beer-sodden fishermen.
This, I thought, is where the first lady of Henderson has chosen to have her Fest! Perhaps she did have a sense of humor.
I had been inside the lodge a number of times when I read this route. The lodge was notorious among meter readers, especially female meter readers, because it was one of those old buildings built before anyone conceived of women having such jobs as meter reading. The meter was in the men's room! And in steelhead season, when every bunk in the lodge was filled with the Sonoma Fishermen's Association, or the Modoc Fly and Tackle Club, and a goodly proportion of the club members were still suffering from the previous night's drinking, making a dash into that bathroom when it was empty was a precision task.
Normally, at this time of year, the lodge would have been full. The same groups came year after year. The pine-paneled main room, with its sway-backed sofas, rattan tables that sagged from the weight of too many boots, and still-sticky spills on the floor, would be strewn with forgotten clothes, magazines, and aluminum cans that served as ashtrays or spittoons. The smell of stale smoke filled the room. This was not the type of place I could picture Edwina Henderson choosing for anything, even the Slugfest. I couldn't imagine her agreeing to be inside here for two hours.
Another thing I couldn't imagine was Bert Lucci working. But as I approached the front door, the sounds of hammering inside were clear. Mr. Bobbs might appear to be the antithesis of Edwina Henderson, but Bert Lucci was. Easygoing, he was always willing to stop, talk, and laugh. It was as if the energy for two people had been split between Edwina and Bert, and she had gotten it all. He was an averaged-sized man, bald but for a few tufts of gray hair poking out the sides. Habitually, he wore well-stained overalls and a shirt, denim or plaid, that matched the pants in accumulation of grime. He carried a hammer in his belt loop, but I had never before seen him use it.
Excerpted from The Last Annual Slugfest by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 1986 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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