With a genius IQ, a past career as a circus acrobat, and a black belt in karate, criminology professor Dr. Robert Frederickson—better known as “Mongo the Magnificent”—has a decidedly unusual background for a private investigator. He also just so happens to be a dwarf.
When Mongo’s sister asks him to investigate the death of his nephew, Tommy—the victim of an apparent murder-suicide—the private detective soon learns that everything’s tied to the computer game Tommy and his friends created: an elaborate quest based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The clues send Mongo on a cross-country journey, from a painful visit to his former hometown in Nebraska and back to New York, then on to the rugged coastline of California’s Big Sur and, ultimately, the frozen depths of the Arctic Ocean, where a mad genius will stop at nothing to achieve total Armageddon.
Grounded by his completely original private detective Mongo, author George C. Chesbro “writes wonderfully strange mystery novels” (Boston Sunday Herald).
The Beasts of Valhalla is the 4th book in the Mongo Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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An August Sunday, so hot you couldn't tell sweat from tears. It was an expensive funeral, costing more than I suspected my sister and her husband could easily afford, in a bargain basement family plot inside a rummage sale cemetery. Somebody had sold my sister the Deluxe Package, silk-lined mahogany casket and an acre or two of flowers that served only to magnify the decrepitude of the small village cemetery. The rusting back-hoe that had dug and would refill the grave was visible a hundred yards away, parked beside a rotting maintenance shack. The backhoe's unshaven operator was sitting in its cab, chewing the stub of yesterday's cigar and reading last month's magazine.
"Amen," the young, fresh-faced minister intoned as he finished a prayer. He sprinkled a handful of dirt over the lowered casket, wiped his hands.
"Shit," Garth murmured. We were standing a few yards apart from the rest of the family — our mother and father, Janet and her husband, assorted cousins, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts. There were a lot of Fredericksons in Peru County, Nebraska.
"How are you holding up?"
The sun was directly behind my brother's hand, forming a shimmering penumbra around thinning, wheat-colored hair that waved like a shredded, sad banner in the gentle, hot breeze that blew through this wasteland of weeds and pitted grave markers. "Why ask me? Tommy was your nephew, too."
"You know what I mean. We've been here two days now, and I thought you might be feeling the effects."
"I'm all right."
It wasn't true. Although I loved my parents dearly, wrote regularly, and had, over the years, managed to coax members of my immediate family into visiting me in New York City, home for me represented nothing so much as a long nightmare that had taken a lot of time and shrink money to kick into submission. I hadn't been back to Peru County in seventeen years, and the fragility of the scars remaining on my psyche amazed me. I felt porous, like something filled with stale air that was compacting under pressure of memory so fierce it was threatening to squeeze away and pop my center. Only something like the death of a favorite nephew could have brought me back to Peru. I knew it was a silly and unbecoming way to feel in the face of the awesome peace Tommy Dernhelm had found, but people preoccupied with questions of self-worth are easily smothered by the trivial. The me that had been constructed and nurtured far from this place was gasping for breath, desperate for escape.
It was finished. We all gathered around Janet and stood in silence for a few moments, as though sheer numbers were a poultice that could absorb some of her pain. Then we started slowly back along the dusty path leading out of the cemetery. Unconsciously, like a marionette still controlled by rotten strings implanted in its soft center a long time ago, I found myself walking apart from the other members of the family, as if I were something disgusting that could only add to the shame surrounding Tommy's death. Garth, as he had always done, walked with me.
Growing up a dwarf is a real pain in the mind; you're always a foot or two, and a lot of poundage, behind the inevitable tormenters. Also, in fairness to the fun group that had tossed me around like a medicine ball in an alley behind the local movie theater one night, I wasn't exactly the mellowest kid in the neighborhood; I'd never suffered anybody, much less loudmouthed fools, gladly. My brain had always been quick enough, and I'd been able to out-insult any gang of ten in the school. The problem, as I'd quickly learned, was that a sharp tongue was no defense against a punch in the mouth. The fact that Garth always thumped on the people who thumped on me wasn't enough. I hadn't needed an avatar so much as I'd needed to find my own means of self-defense and feelings of self-worth in a world of bigger things and bigger people where I'd always felt in imminent danger of being crushed, physically and spiritually.
The love of my family, combined with Garth's muscle, had carried me through childhood and adolescence; I'd known that I was going to have to make it as a whole, if undersized, adult on my own.
I'd escaped from Peru County by means of an academic scholarship to New York University. In New York, a state of mind as well as a geographical location where just about all things great and small would be considered freaky by Peru County standards, I'd immediately felt at home, and had begun to escape from the terrible, debilitating preoccupation with my dwarfism. I'd majored in criminology, probably out of a perverse fascination with freaks of a different dimension, graduated with honors, an invitation to graduate school, and the offer of a post as a research assistant.
I'd succeeded in school — but then, I'd always succeeded in school. I had other, more pressing, hungers — other things to prove. Nature, in her infinite irony, had made me a dwarf, but with maturation I discovered that I had also been endowed with considerable, if improbable, physical skills — excellent reflexes, coordination, and speed. Being a somewhat unusual dwarf — a redundancy, if ever there was one — in need of a means of livelihood, I pursued the only logical course of action: I joined the circus, in this case one owned by a gentleman named Phil Statler — the ugliest and kindest human being I've ever known.
With the exception of my parents and Garth, Statler would become the most nurturing influence in my life. He'd seen in me possibilities as a performer that no one else, most particularly me, would ever have thought of. I'd eventually become a star attraction with the Statler Brothers Circus, a headliner as a kind of funky gymnast and aerialist bouncing and flying his way through a succession of visually spectacular stunts involving fire and ice.
I parlayed my developing physical skills into a black belt in karate, and used the money I earned to finance my doctorate in criminology. With my advanced degree in hand, I retired from the circus and took up a post as an associate professor at NYU.
By this time Garth had joined me in the city, where his own considerable talents had led to his rapid advancement in the NYPD. As for me, I'd left the circus when I was on top and was settling into a career in academia ... and I still wanted more. I wasn't certain what I wanted more of, but it seemed I needed constantly to test myself against new challenges. Garth called it overcompensation, and I couldn't argue with him.
I acquired a private investigator's license, well aware that no sane person was likely to hire a dwarf as a private detective and that I'd probably never earn a penny in this particular corner of the marketplace. Surprise. I didn't get a lot of business, but the business I did get was certainly challenging; like some kind of bent, psychic lightning rod, I seemed to attract only the most bizarre cases. No matter how simple or straightforward an investigation might appear at the beginning, it almost inevitably ended up with people shooting at me, or worse. By now I'd achieved a certain degree of notoriety, a state of celebrity which NYU looked upon with distinct disapproval. However, I was still teaching — and I was still investigating, whenever a case came my way. The dual careers had kept me busy, reasonably satisfied, and reasonably happy.
Now it was all escaping from me. All my successes, my very sense of self, was imploding under the pressure of memory. I was losing my center, feeling like a frightened, angry defiant — and worthless — dwarf child again.
My brother grunted softly, a kind of warning. I looked up from the ground and saw the gaunt figure standing on the hillside, partially eclipsing the sun. His features were blacked out, but the shape of the boy had grown into the shape of the man. I would have known him anywhere.
"Coop Lugmor." The name in my mouth tasted like sickness. "The man's got a great sense of timing. I wonder what the hell he wants here?"
"I'm afraid we're about to find out."
Lugmor was over six feet, almost as tall as my brother. He was lanky, with arms too long for his torso and hands too small for his arms. His greasy black hair was long for Nebraska, and hung in strings around his long, pinched face. The smell of rotgut whiskey hovered about him like poison gas. I could feel tension spring from the group behind me, almost as palpable as a prod in the back.
Lugmor nodded sheepishly in the direction of my family, then fell into step beside me. His eyes darted nervously, slyly, all around, as if searching for hidden enemies, but never quite met my gaze. "Hello, Robby. Garth."
Garth and I said nothing.
"I sure am awful sorry about what happened."
We kept walking.
"Robby, can I talk to you?"
"Call my office for an appointment the next time you're in New York, Coop. My number's in the Manhattan directory."
A hand jerked into the air like a broken bird; grimy fingers with black nails gripped my shoulder. "Robby, I gotta talk to you!"
Lugmor's hand on my shoulder had much the same effect as a steep shot of liquor on an empty stomach; heat flashed across my face. I had a sudden, immensely gratifying vision of the man writhing on the ground with a broken kneecap. Then I remembered my mother and father walking behind me, my sister and brother-in-law with their grief, Tommy's corpse in the ground. I said quietly: "If you don't take your hand off me, Coop, I'll break something in you."
Lugmore laughed nervously and quickly snatched his hand away. "From what I hear tell about you, I actually think you could."
"Believe it," Garth said evenly.
He wasn't going to leave, and the palpable force of discomfort pushing on my back was growing stronger; I decided that the least I could do was remove Coop Lugmor from the immediate vicinity. I nodded toward a nearby copse of ragged fir trees and stepped off the path.
"It's all right, Garth, I'll handle it."
"I'll wait for you in the car," Garth replied as he slowed his pace in order to walk with the rest of the family.
"They really do call you 'Mongo,'" Lugmor said nervously as we reached the chiaroscuro shade of the trees. "Just like it says in the papers and newsmagazines."
"Some of my friends call me that," I said pointedly. "Not you."
Lugmor slipped his hands into the torn pockets of his baggy overalls and looked down at the tops of his stained rubber boots. "You're still mad at me even after all these years, aren't you, Robby?"
"For heaven's sake, Coop, whatever gave you that impression?"
He winced as if my words had been a physical blow, stared at me with brown, bloodshot eyes. "We were just kids, Robby, and you were the only dwarf anyone around here had ever seen outside the county fair freak show."
My first instinct was to hit him, my second to laugh. I laughed. Coop Lugmor, one of the two great monsters caged in my memory, was beginning to seem a very small and pathetic beastie indeed. It made me wonder how much I had distorted all the other memories; it occurred to me that, if I stayed around Peru County long enough, I might find all the monsters rolling belly-up in the surf like Lugmor, and I would go back to New York a paragon of mental health. "You always had such a way with words, Coop," I said evenly.
"I'm trying to say I'm sorry."
"Why don't you try saying why you want to talk to me?" Lugmor slowly drew his hands out of his overalls. He balled one hand into a fist, punched his opposite palm. "Your nephew and my little brother weren't having any fag love affair, Robby, and they didn't have any suicide agreement."
"How do you know?"
Lugmor stared hard at me, frowned. "Because Rod wasn't a fag."
"I don't know, Robby," Lugmor said evasively. "I'm not accusing Tommy of anything; I'm just saying Rod wasn't a fag."
"Coop," I sighed, suddenly very tired and very sad, "what difference does it make?"
He flushed, thrust out his lower lip. "It makes a difference!"
"They're dead, Coop. How they felt about, and what they did with, each other isn't important."
Lugmor shook his head like a dog trying to rid itself of fleas. "Don't you care that people are saying they were fags and that they had a suicide agreement?"
"Well, I do! Rod was my brother!"
"That's your problem."
He smacked his lips in frustration, worked his mouth about, finally forced some words out. "Robby, I'm telling you Rod wasn't a fag; if he wasn't a fag, then he and Tommy weren't having a love affair; if they weren't having a love affair, then Rod didn't shoot Tommy and then kill himself."
"The county sheriff and coroner say he did."
Lugmor hawked and spat; that made me wince. "The coroner ain't no doctor, and he's a bigger drunk than me. Jake Bolesh may be county sheriff, but he's on the take. He does and says whatever that big Goddamn company wants him to."
"I thought Jake Bolesh was a friend of yours. I seem to remember the two of you as being inseparable, especially when you were beating up on me."
"He's no friend of mind anymore, Robby. I tell you he's lying!"
"As far as I know, nobody else thinks so."
"Horseshit! What does anyone around here know?! They're a bunch of farmers who'll believe anything a guy with a badge and a uniform tells them to! This ain't New York City, Robby. We don't have many murders around these parts."
"Everybody just wants to forget about it as quick as possible, Robby! They want to forget it for personal reasons, and they want to forget it because the company wants them to! Nobody cares!"
"There were letters."
"Phony letters! That was a lot of crap they printed in the newspapers. Those letters were typed, and there were no signatures!"
"They were typed on your brother's typewriter."
"No!" It was an anguished howl.
"Coop, you think somebody else killed them?"
"Who would want to kill two fourteen-year-old boys?"
He shrugged, shuffled his feet.
"Why would anyone want to kill them?"
Another shrug, and then he mumbled something I couldn't quite catch. I asked him to repeat it.
Lugmor swallowed hard. "I said, that's what I'd like you to find out."
"Yeah!" Now his words came quickly, bumping into each other. "There's always a lot about you in the local newspaper, Robby. You may not be interested in us, but we're sure as hell interested in you; you're the hometown boy made good. I know all about you being an important college professor who's some kind of doctor, and I know all about you being a private detective. I want to hire you. I don't have much money right now, but —"
"To do what?"
"To find out the truth!"
"As far as I can see, you're the only person who doesn't believe we already know the truth. Let me tell you something straight, Coop; I loved my nephew very much, but he was nuttier than one of Jesse Braxton's fruitcakes. Sometimes that goes with the territory when you're a very bright kid. Maybe he would have grown out of it, maybe not; we'll never know. My sister accepts the fact that Tommy and most of his friends were a little crazy. Why can't you?"
"Because Rod was no fag!"
"Oh," I said quietly. "Coop, you know how muddled a dwarf can get, so let's see if I have a line on where you're coming from. You'd like me to root around, keep the dust and my family unsettled, and probably end up looking like the village idiot you always thought I was, on the off chance I might be able to prove that someone in your family wasn't a homosexual. Have I got it?"
"Robby, I —"
"I thought so," I said, starting to walk away.
"Robby, please! Wait a second!"
Wheeling around, I placed my stiffened index and middle fingers squarely over the center of Coop Lugmor's solar plexus, pressed slightly. "Stay!" I snapped, and he did.
We finished the lunch my mother had insisted on making. My parents, Garth, Janet, and I sat in silence at the table, staring into our empty coffee cups. Sparkling motes of dust floated in beams of golden sunlight, and the muffled laughter of a horde of young nieces and nephews could be heard outside in the yard. John Dernhelm, Janet's husband, emerged from the kitchen, wiped his eyes, then went out the door. Two burly uncles sat in a corner of the adjacent living room, talking in low voices, discussing weather and corn prices. Their wives sat at opposite ends of a worn sofa, crocheting.
My father disappeared for a few moments, then returned with a jug of corn liquor, surprising me, since I had never seen him or my mother drink so much as a glass of wine. He poured small glasses half full for everyone. My second surprise came when I drank the potion and came to an instant, complete understanding of why such stuff is called white lightning. My father offered me a second helping, and I covered my glass with a hand that already felt numb.
Excerpted from "The Beasts of Valhalla"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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