This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Content warning: Lots of Lord of the Rings references.

The party had finally wound down, and after all the dancing, the schmoozing, the slurred propositions, all that was left were dozing tipplers and loose chatter. The stale perfume of spilled beer and junked cigarettes lent the survivors of the night a last-call atmosphere, like we were all fumbling about in the after-hours of a dive. About ten of us now sat in a circle out on the backyard deck. All my senses were numb, the noise muffled with cheap hooch. I was actually feeling relaxed for the first time since I got here. It was time to get to work.

I’d finally gotten a new tip about the missing girl. Weeks before, I’d been closing in on the perp and then everything got shot to shit. I got shot to shit, too. Slugged three times. One tunneled a hole through my shoulder, another sent a singing telegram of fire to my rib, and the third popped my left lung. I wanted to give the shooter a carnival prize for doing so well. I was in the hospital for weeks.

I never figured out what happened with the case. My leads dried up and I was just floating from one aimless angle to the next. HQ pulled me off the case, but every fiber in my body was in agreement. I was going to find that girl.

I trawled the back streets as long as my wounds would allow me, but I came up emptyhanded. Then, in the final hour, just as I was about to give in, a hooded figure appeared before me.

The voice was guttural. Male. “Tell me, who are you, yourself, alone, and nameless?”


“Correct. I know where the girls are. Block party, Underhill. Two Saturdays from now.”

“Who are you?”

“Call me ‘Strider’.”

I hadn’t understood the reference then, but so much had changed since that meeting.

“Okay… ‘Strider’. You think you can give me a little more than that?”

“Just this. What you think is irrelevant is not. Read the books. Watch the movies. The discrete pieces will all come together in a fellowship. If you open yourself to what is not there.”

I was about to tear into this guy, give him the third, but I was so mad all I could do was growl at him like an Uruk-hai with a hot poker up his tuchus.

“Guy, you’re playing games with a little girl’s life. Give it to me straight. Morgues ain’t a place for kids to hang around.”

The boob ignored me and vanished in the darkness of the night. I was left more confused than ever, like this Strider guy had just spat a mouthful of breadcrumbs in my face.


I’d been holding the same empty cup for about an hour now. The taps had floated a while back, and the party’s social lifeline had dried up. I’d been left alone, anonymous, trapped in my own thoughts. I observed and ruminated. That was my style.

I was vaguely aware of a conversation floating about me like a diseased cloud. I avoided eye contact, sat there, huddled tightly to my cup, hoping the cloud would pass by. Unfortunately, the Eye of Sauron sees all, and the invisible hand of after-party conversations tapped me on my shoulder. For whatever reason, attention was on me. I really wished I’d had the One Ring to disappear. I wasn’t ready to tip my mitt just yet.

I fingered the bullet hole in my right shoulder. I had completely lost the thread of the circle’s conversation, thinking instead about the Prancing Pony. The tavern where Frodo first met ‘Strider’, or Aragorn, the rightful king of Gondor. Wait—was the Prancing Pony a tavern? Or a pub? Why couldn’t I remember? What’s the difference between taverns and pubs anyway? That thought scratched into my brain with a dental hook. A pain throbbed right behind my left eye.

After ‘Strider’ left, I’d dug into some of the phrases he used and figured out pretty quick he was talking about The Lord of the Rings. I was desperate for a bigger bite of the cheese so I did what he said.

I read the books and fell for them harder than a Balrog on top of a gray wizard. The deep character moments between Frodo and Sam got me rubbing baby tears from my peepers. I fell completely apart when Frodo sailed off to the Undying Lands. I just stopped caring about it all. About life. Death. Sunlight. I picked up the drink again and wished I was a hobbit. I’d lost my mind over this case.

I’d hit a dark place and had no light of Eärendil’s Star to guide me out. I started watching the movies on repeat at night. Over twelve-hour blocks. To see Frodo, that innocent little guy, alive again. With his soft baby hands and doleful eyes. To feel the joy of reuniting with an old friend back from a long journey. To having that joy turn to dread, again and again, as that friend gets bit by a poisoned blade by that punk Nazgul. Every night for the past two weeks, splayed out on my couch, I watched the trilogy. Picking apart the scenes, hoping each time maybe some real magic might keep Frodo from stepping foot on Weathertop.

By day I’d read the books, hoping the words would rearrange themselves to suggest Frodo lived on. I even rewrote the ending, but it was an empty victory. It was like trying to find peace at the end of a bottle. That peace always sobered up.

I realized I’d gone too far down the hobbit hole, so I asked, “What would Frodo do?” I dried my tears and pulled myself together. The missing girl’s life meant more than my sorrow. I didn’t want another young soul to sail to the Undying Lands too soon.

Back at the party, here I was trying to figure out the difference between a pub and a tavern. For some reason that felt like a key clue in all this.

I rubbed my temple, looked up from the cud that was my thoughts, and noticed everyone staring at me. The sense of discomfort I’d felt when I first showed up to the party wormed its way back into my chest.

“I prefer people who talk,” a girl said. The guy whose lap she was sitting on snickered.

I couldn’t place these two—this bearded guy and college girl on his lap. They looked like a pair of dopes, though. I wondered if this was their party. I realized I should probably say something.

I raised a half-assed toast. “Huzzah,” I mumbled. The two of them laughed.

When it was clear I wasn’t going to respond, the guy went on trying to impress the girl in his lap, rambling on about building kitchen cupboards with his bare hands. Everyone in the circle seemed to be following along with sincere interest. They looked up to this guy, I was keen on that. They probably rode with him. Or maybe they were still too drunk to realize how incredibly boring he was. His words were all babble by the time they washed up on my brain.

I studied the cupboard carpenter superstar. He wore a scraggly red beard that he let grow for too long. It looked like half of his face and neck had gotten tangled up in a raspberry bush. His lips were buried somewhere in there, screaming for air, for attention. I could tell the guy was a deadbeat a mile away.

That’s when I noticed his pauses. Every time he took a second in his narration, his eyes flickered to a woman sitting next to me. I knew what fear looked like. He was trying to divide his attention between the girl on his lap and this woman. I regarded her—dressed in black, her lips pursed, her eyes locked on him. Now we were getting somewhere.

The light seemed to skip past her—it was hard to even notice she was there. Everyone else in the circle vied for Redbeard’s attention. She just stared at him, woeful, watchful, from the shadows.

The man’s droning began to decompress like a flat tire, and the rest of the circle scattered into its own individual conversations.

They immediately started jabbering away, bumping gums. The remnants of booze in their veins kept them prattling on and on, spitting at each other and never getting sick of the splash.

I was ready to poke the hornet’s nest. Something dirty was going on here, and I wasn’t going to figure it out by tiptoeing around. I had to take the Ring directly to Mount Doom. Just like Frodo.


God, the pain spiked me hard that time. I lifted my cup for some advice, but nobody was home. Was getting real tired of being sober.

Do it for Frodo, man. Push on.

I got up from my seat and stood directly in front of the lady in black. I took off my imaginary Ring of Power and she gave me a once over.

“Can I sit on your lap?” I asked. I wasn’t a heavy guy, she could manage.

The lady in black now wore a dopey face, confused.

“Why would you want to do that?”

“You looked upset.” I hooked a thumb over at the couple across the way. “I thought this would make you feel better.”

She peeked around me at the couple and smiled. I saw something devious behind those eyes of hers.

“Sure. Why not?” The lady smoothed her skirt and patted her lap. I sat upon it awkwardly. I’m a lanky guy, but we managed.

I looked down at her from my perch. She seemed familiar. Dark eyes, dark hair. Smooth olive skin. I would’ve bought her a drink at a bar.

Bar. Tavern. Pub. The Prancing Pony. Why did my mind keep going back to those details?

“Usually nobody sees me, especially at parties like this,” she said. I glimpsed something of a kinship in this lady’s eyes, like I knew she had the answer to questions I hadn’t asked yet. I decided to go for broke.

“Any chance you know the difference between a pub and a tavern?”

She turned it around on me. “If this is your attempt at a pickup line, I think I’m in love.” The tone in her voice was a hot bowl of sarcasm soup.

I decided to spill the beans. “I’m on a missing persons case. I got a tip to come here, to this party. And—I know this sounds silly—somehow the answer to her whereabouts is in The Lord of the Rings. I’ve spent weeks studying the movies and books. The characters stop at this… bar… the ‘Prancing Pony’. For some reason my memory slides around whether it was a pub or a tavern.”

“It was neither.”

My ears perked up. “…An inn. It was an inn!”

I started drawing lines in my mind. Underhill, this apartment block, used to be a seedy motel ‘til it was condemned by the city. A developer immediately swooped in and turned the building into residential units. Whether anyone actually leased out a unit was up in the air.

My thoughts flew back to the book for more answers.

“The Prancing Pony… that was just after the Bombadil bit.”

“You’re on a roll.”

Tom Bombadil.

That triggered something ‘Strider’ told me. About irrelevant bits not being so irrelevant. In the movies, there was no Bombadil character. In the book, Tom’s scene was a bizarre one with zero bearing on the outcome of the trilogy. Yet, he was described as an immensely powerful creature who superseded the rules of the books themselves. He was older than the Ring, older than the magic that created it, and he was just plain goofy. Completely out of place.

I was now sure Tom Bombadil was the answer to Strider’s puzzle. He’d been largely irrelevant to the story, which was why the movies left him out. But I still had no clue how he fit into the case. Maybe I was looking for a funny-looking guy with a tall hat and a kick to his step? A guy with a scraggly… beard?

I glanced down at the lady in black. “You want to tell me what your beef is with Old Neck Beard over there?”

Her laugh was about as pretty as a goose with a gas problem. “‘Old Neck Beard’ and I… we’re married. Or were. He murdered me just the other night.”


A lonely saxophone echoed its haunting tale off the brick walls of my mind’s back alley. The Saxophone of Gondor was warning me of trouble. That I was sitting in the middle of a boiling pot of Me soup.

Whether she was a hallucination in my head or what, the pieces of the case started to fit. The missing girl, meeting Strider, Tom Bombadil.

Even my shattered heart, yearning for Frodo to have lived.

I’ve been tricked, haven’t I, Master Frodo?

I’d been set up like a stack of kids’ blocks on a shag carpet.

Bombadil was Strider. He hadn’t killed me the first time, and he wanted me out of the picture. So he led me right to his devil’s den.

“By the way, you’re leaking,” the.. ghost… said. She pointed at my shirt.

I looked down. That old wound in my shoulder was crying red down my front in streaks. I suddenly didn’t feel so great. My head grew light and my heart was racing to a finish line I wasn’t ready to finish yet.

I tottered on the woman’s lap, but she caught me with surprisingly strong hands for a ghost. Everything was spinning in a cascade of electric color. Rich hues so hot they were burning my eyeballs.

Frodo. Why did you leave?

My descent into the ether was interrupted by Redbeard. Bombadil. He was now standing, a hulking, imposing figure with booming voice. “Ring a ding dillo! Wake up, wake up my friends!” The college girl he’d had on his lap was now a cocktail shrimp holding onto his pinkie finger with both arms.

Everyone in the circle began to rise, except for me and the lady in black.

“What’s this, what’s this?” His large eyes and raspberry bush beard regarded me. “A mucky-muck in my fair den? What shall we do, oh whatever shall we do with you?”

“Cut his eyes out!” One person from the circle yelled.

“Knit his intestines into a nice pair of socks for the winter months!” another cried.

I found the strength to stand under the shadow of this brute, this god older than Time itself.

“You won’t get one over on me, Tom. I know you hole your girls up here. Your sick game is through.”

“Ho hum! You mean my wives? Why, they love me as I do them. Don’t you, dear?” He looked at his shrimp, and she agreed the same way a deer agrees with a car before everything goes splat.

All three of my wounds were pouring out piñata candy now. I swayed, weaker than ever. I put up my dukes, my fists balled so tight my knuckles were white fire.

“Let’s see what cooks old Tom’s beef. Come at me—”

Tom pulled out a gun, but I’d played dirty pool before, too. I was ready for it.

Before he could fire, I knocked the pistol out of his hand with a swipe of my left paw and then lunged up at him. I grabbed his beard and pulled him down to the deck floorboards. As he cried in shock, I rapped my knuckles sharply on his chin and we both fell together in a heap in the middle of the circle. The circle of guests silently watched us. I shoved out from under Tom’s unconscious bulk, my head throbbing, the pain in my shoulder dragon’s fire. My damaged lung wheezed. I was suddenly aware that the forest around the deck had closed in tight, lusher than ever. I looked around me and felt like I recognized every one of the faces peering down. Hobbits, elves, dwarves, and the distant face of a tree ent, way up in the sky.

“You… beat him. You knocked Tom Bombadil out cold,” one of these forest creatures said.

Everyone had been so scared of Tom, of his magic powers, that nobody ever considered knocking him in the noodle. Tom certainly hadn’t expected that.

The circle of creatures about me seemed to have come out of a spell. One of them went inside the building and released the missing girls from Bombadil’s inn of evil. These girls surrounded me now, expressions of sorrow in their eyes as they saw my wounds bleeding out. The lady in black leaned down to me and spoke softly.

“I knew you would find the way. Now that Tom has been defeated, he no longer has his magic. When he awakens, he will be nothing more than a creep with a neckbeard.”

The lady’s face, her eyes, mouth, speech. She’s exactly how I’d pictured Galadriel, Lady of the Wood, in my head. I had a hunch I was right. My hunches usually were.

My vision was blurring, my time was up. “And now,” she continued, “your journey is at an end. Are you ready to set sail?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

That’s when I felt the swaying. The deck was rocking.


“I think you know.”

A lump formed in my throat. “W-will Frodo be there? And Bilbo?”

“I think you know that, too.”

As the tree ent carried us to a distant shore, I felt solace in something Frodo had told his best friend, Sam, just before he left for good. It would give me strength for my final voyage.

“I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved.

“But not for me.”

September 27, 2023 21:36

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Patricia Casey
03:20 Oct 03, 2023

Hi Peter, My favorite metaphors: "That thought scratched into my brain with a dental hook." "The tone in her voice was a hot bowl of sarcasm soup." Excellent descriptions throughout your story. I'm glad your protagonist freed the girls in the end. Patricia


Peter Gaskin
13:47 Oct 03, 2023

Thank you, Patricia!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Karen Corr
17:32 Sep 28, 2023

I loved it, Peter! You have a talent for hilarious metaphors. (I’d been set up like a stack of kids’ blocks on a shag carpet. She agreed the same way a deer agrees with a car before everything goes splat.) The ending was as perfect as a sunset on the moon if the moon had sunsets! (My horrible attempt at humor, but feel free to use it) Anyway, good job! :)


Peter Gaskin
22:10 Sep 28, 2023

Thank you so much, Karen! What's a detective story without some silly metaphors? 😁 I appreciate your kind words!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
14:49 Oct 06, 2023

Great throughout. Fun descriptions. Thanks for liking my Where the Wild Things Aren't


Show 0 replies
Luca King Greek
22:34 Oct 05, 2023

A fun read! "Pretty as a goose with a gas problem"... I think that will stay with me until my last breath.


Peter Gaskin
12:03 Oct 06, 2023

😂 Thank you so much!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | We made a writing app for you (photo) | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.