The Case of the Plugged Painting: A Sam Newbuck Mystery

Artwork © by Jef Murray

Artwork © by Jef Murray

I was sitting at my easel, working out how the light should fall on my latest painting of Great Smials, when all of a sudden, I heard a gunshot. Since I live on the seedy side of New Bree, I normally wouldn’t have paid it any attention; but this time the bullet ripped right through my canvas. “Damned orcs,” I muttered as I pulled out my .357.

My name’s Newbuck: Sam Newbuck. My mom named me Nickleby, but she really wanted a girl she could call “Nicola,” so when I got old enough for it to stick, I started calling myself “Sam”.

I’m in the graphics business, and sometimes my business gets graphic indeed. That’s my old shingle inside the door: “Sam Newbuck: Private I.” The “I” is for illustrator; and just then, it also stood for “irate”. I’d put up with just about as much as I was going to take from an orc; especially one that had just cost me a decent commission.

I found the bullet lodged high in the wall opposite my easel. It seemed to have been shot from the street through the window, which was open; and a good thing, too, since I could scarcely afford to replace it for the third time in one month. New Bree residents in general aren’t exactly members of the Forward and Upward Club, but the slimeballs on Mugwort Row enjoy smashing things more than a Mûmak with hemorrhoids.

The round was a 9mm, which surprised me. Usually an orc will go for something with more knock-down power, like a .357 or a .45. Hell, I’ve even seen them sweep the streets with a fully automatic 12-gauge. But a 9mm?! That’s a dame’s gun! It would barely stop a good-sized Hobbit, unless it was well-aimed; and orcs can’t aim worth a damn.

I doused the lights and peeped out the window. The alleyway below was pocked with light from the flophouse next door, but there were no customers; in fact, not another soul was in sight. Not, that is, unless you counted Cram Muckfern, the Jumbo boozer that lived in the Alley. All of his kin live on the streets, and have done for as long as anyone can remember. Cram was passed out next to a Shirrif’s call box near the main street. He was wrapped up, as usual, in old copies of the New Bree News. Funny thing about that call box, though; I didn’t remember seeing it there before.

Things weren’t always like this. Though I had a tough time starting out, what with my dad traveling all the time with Dwarves, and never being home long enough even to smoke a bowl of pipeweed, I had made my way. Illustration and landscape creation was my line, and folks paid big money for good artwork. What with all of the Farthings crammed with garbage and choked with exhaust fumes, jack-hammers, and planes roaring overhead, folks with ready coin craved paintings that took them somewhere peaceful, even if the forests, rivers, and mountains they got on their canvases came straight out of my head.

The problem was always with the competition. The minute you started to make a name for yourself as an artist, you’d have Jumbos and Pints from every part of New Bree, Shireopolis, and even points south, trying to steal your techniques, your ideas, and your clients.

I learned that the hard way when I first started attracting attention with my paintings. I took a flat in Fensington, within smog-filled walking distance of the museum district. High brows everywhere, and most of them pretty well heeled, at least those that wore heels. Most of the residents in Fensington Flats were Hobbits, but there were rooms on the upper floors for Jumbos, too.

And the parties! The parties were what would have driven me out, if the fame hadn’t beaten ‘em to it! Even if nobody knew you from Azog, you’d be dragged in to three or four parties, minimum, a week. And these weren’t genteel three hour affairs; they’d last days, most times, with people waking up in toilets and down sewer pipes all over the block.

An illustrator can’t work in that sort of environment; at least, I couldn’t. It was tough enough trying to hobnob with the patrons on their own terms, but eventually, when my studio was trashed for the fourth time by a Troll on meth, I decided I’d had enough; time to blow off Shireopolis and disappear for a while.

And, my plan had worked; at least until now. I’d contacted my patrons by post, and met them in neutral spots to discuss the landscape they wanted created, plus to deliver the goods. But I’d kept my studio whereabouts quiet; I figured no one was going to come looking for me on the Row, and especially not on the second floor of a tenement building: Hobbits hate heights. But now the regular rowdies had gotten a little too close to home, what with plugging my latest canvas; either that, or one of my competitors had finally zeroed in on my home base.

While I was thinking through all of this, I heard something drop through the slot in my front door. I never used the slot for mail, and I certainly wasn’t expecting any at ten o’clock at night, so I slid away from the window, cocked the hammer on my .357, and yanked the door open. The hallway was empty. But just inside the door was a packet with my initials on it, tied up with some sort of silver thread that glowed in the dark.

I bent down to pick it up, and just then I heard the sound of a hammer cock on a revolver and felt cold metal on the back of my neck.

“Drop your piece and shut the door,” said a voice. It was not one I recognized, even though I was so surprised I could barely think straight. After all, the hallway had been empty! Where’d this customer come from: thin air?!

“Look, mister, you’re makin’ a mistake,” I said, laying my gun on the floor. “I got nothin’ in here worth stealin’.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” said the voice. “But first, let’s just put on some lights so I can make sure you won’t try anything funny.” Then, there’s this big flash, and the whole room is filled with a bluish-white glow. “You can turn around now,” said the voice.

I turned, and standing just inside the door was an old Jumbo in a grey bathrobe, holding onto a tall stick with light coming out the top. He was a bit of a codger: long matted hair and a beard you could stuff a mattress with.

“Pull down the blinds,” said the guy, so I went over to the window. I noticed Cram was awake in the alley and hitting on one of the flophouse girls, but I figured by the time I called out for help, this geezer would have plugged me. I shut the window and pull down the blinds.

“What’s this all about, mister?” I asked, turning around.

“Your paintings, of course,” he said, cool as a cucumber.

“So, you’re the one that shot up my canvas?!”

“No, I’m the one trying to save you from the ones that did.”

“Well, you’ve got a funny way of saving people, pokin’ a gun at ‘em…”

The guy grinned and held out his hand. In the light I could tell that he wasn’t packing a gun, but what was in his hand, I couldn’t quite reckon. It looked a bit like an electric torch, but the front glowed blue instead of white.

“Sorry I had to trick you,” he said, “but I needed to get you out of the hallway, fast. They’ll be coming for you, and we don’t have much time to waste.” He kicked my gun across the floor to me.

“Who’s coming for me?” I asked, picking up the gun. “And why should I trust you rather than them?”

“Well, for one reason, you’ve got your gun back. But, we don’t have time for a lecture, so you can either do what I say, or take your chances with the crew that popped your painting.” He scooped up the package on the floor. “You’ll need this, but right now, we’ve got to get you down to the alley, and not by way of the hall. Is there a fire escape?”

“Yeah, but not in here; it’s in the next room.”

“Good. Go in and get ready to climb down. I’ll make sure they can’t get in without smashing the door down.”

I hesitated a minute. I didn’t generally trust Jumbos, especially not the sort that dressed up like this one. But, on the other hand, somebody had sure shot up my work, and I figured there was nothing in the flat worth putting my life at risk for if this guy was on the up and up. I darted into the next room and pulled up the shade and the window. I could see that the alley was still empty; even Cram had vacated his usual spot.

I heard a weird buzzing from the other room, and then the geezer was beside me. There was pounding coming from the other room.

“Quick now,” he said. I climbed out onto the landing and tried to steady myself. I may have opted to hide my studio on the second floor, but I didn’t figure on ever having to make an emergency exit from these heights.

“Get to the street and head for the call box,” he told me as he squeezed himself out the window. Lucky for him this flat wasn’t originally built for Hobbits, else he’d never have gotten clear.

I grabbed hold of the ladder and pushed it down. Gunshots started ringing out, and a bullet ricocheted off the masonry. Whoever had shot at me before was still watching my place, it seemed. I fired a couple of shots toward the flashes. Then, I grabbed the rungs and slid myself down the ladder all the way to the ground, keeping my eyes closed the whole way down. The geezer was just just above me, moving faster than I’d ever have figured, and after I’d moved aside and he hit the ground, we both crouched as low as we were able.  He pointed to the call box and I nodded.

We started running down the alley, keeping low. At first all was well, but then we heard more shots, this time coming from the fire escape above us. Whoever had been pounding on my studio door had apparently gotten through, and now they were going to use us for target practice. But, we kept on the move, dodging around garbage cans and drain pipes. The bullets came close, but only one found its way home; a slug grazed my right shoulder. Lucky for me I’m a lefty….

When we finally got to the call box, we went around to the street side. I thought we were going to flee the alley, but the Jumbo grabbed me by the shoulder before I could get any farther — the shoulder that had just been popped, as it happened.

“Son of a…” I yelled, but by then the geezer had unlocked the call box. He yanked me inside and shut the door; it was as black as the hind end of a cave troll.

“You overgrown ape,” I hollered, “leggo my shoulder!!!”

“Certainly,” said the Jumbo. He let go and I rubbed my shoulder gingerly. I felt around, expecting to feel the walls of the box with my fingertips, but couldn’t. I took a step forward; still nothing.

“A bit of light?” asked the geezer. With that, my eyes were dab smacked with so much brightness that I couldn’t see for several seconds. Then my jaw dropped. We weren’t in a box at all; we were standing in a huge room filled with weird equipment, the likes of which I’d never seen before.

“Welcome to the TARDIS,” said the Jumbo.

“What the hell is a TARDIS? And where the hell are we?! Did that box open into the building next door?”

“No, we’re inside the box. Nevermind that, though, we’re safe.

“Safe?! So what’s preventing the folks that were shooting at us from breakin’ in here?!”

“Well, for one thing,” said the geezer, going over to a console in the center of the room and pulling a couple of switches, “there’s no ‘here’ for them to break into!” The room shook and I lost my balance, landing on my bum shoulder again, naturally.

“Son of a…” I yelled.

– – –

“They weren’t orcs, by the way; they were Southrons: Hired guns. And you can call me…let’s see….how about ‘Greyhame’?”

“Greyhame? You look more like a grey geezer to me. And what’s that you’re wearing, your momma’s bathrobe?” I was still feeling sore on account of my shoulder.

“Well, bathrobe, or tunic, or whatever you will, I am Greyhame, and Greyhame means me.”

We were sitting on benches inside of the TARDIS thing.

“Well then, Grey, what’s this all about? What the hell were Southrons doing on Mugwort Row? And how come you knew they’d be gunning for me?”

“That is a long, long tale. But, happily, we have time. Would you like something to eat?”

I realized then that I was famished. So, this Greyhame put out a really decent spread: some stuff I’d never seen before, but enough good eats to get my mind off my shoulder. He even patched that up after we had cleaned up the vittles.

“There you are, nearly as good as new. An inch to the left and we’d have had to set the bone.”

“Much obliged,” I said. “But I still don’t know why anyone would have wanted to off me. All I do is paint landscapes. I figure somebody must have made me a patsy for a drug deal gone bad….”

“There, you’d be wrong,” answered Grey. “They were definitely after you.”

“But why?”

“Because of your paintings, of course! You see, Sam…. May I call you Sam?”

“Sure.”

“You see, Sam, New Bree was never supposed to happen. Nor was Shireopolis, nor Mugwort Row, nor any of what you now know as Middle-earth. It was never supposed to be like that. It was supposed to be like the landscapes you paint.”

“Aw, heck, how can that be? Those come right out my head; I never been to places that look like that….”

“Precisely. No one has. But, all the residents of Middle-earth recognize their real home in your work. They know something’s wrong with their lives, but the only way they can react to it is to buy your paintings and spend hours wishing they were in the world you think you created. That’s why your work is so popular; and why it has become so dangerous.”

“Dangerous? How?”

“Look, if you had enslaved millions of people; turned them into thralls that had to work morning and night to keep themselves barely alive, and if you used their labor to enrich yourself and to make over the world in your own image — full of filth, and smokestacks, and secret deals, and wars — then what would you do if somebody started creating something that began to give hope to all of those slaves? Hope, that is, that there was something out there bigger and more important than just making their next mortgage payment?”

I thought about this. I could see where this Grey character was coming from; a lot of my clients had a bit of money and could buy my work, but plenty more would throng to my shows and just stare for hours at my paintings, almost like they were in some kind of a trance.

“But I make all those up,” I said. “How can make-believe give people hope?”

“Because it’s not make-believe; it’s real. Or at least, it once was real. And I’m going to take you there to see it for yourself. You see, once you realize how beautiful the real Shire is, you’ll be able to help convince those that live there now that it’s worth fighting for….”

. . .

All this happened decades ago. The package that Grey had dropped in my mail slot had clothes in it that helped me fit into this new place — short britches, a waistcoat, a shirt, and a cloak – the sort of stuff I had my characters wearing in my landscapes, but that I never figured I’d be caught dead in myself!

Grey took me to the Shire, like he said, but we started out in Bree; not New Bree, mind you, but the original deal. I could see that all of my “imagined” paintings were nowhere near as good as the real thing, but since I was a Hobbit, I could explore pretty freely without drawing too much attention to myself.

Grey told me that bad times were coming, and that the Jumbos that turned the Shire into Shireopolis in my day could be beaten, but that the Hobbits in the countryside needed some waking up.

My accent didn’t fit in anywhere, so I figured I ought to settle down someplace out of the way, but useful like. I eventually found a spot where folks weren’t too nosey; in the Marish, right on the eastern edge of the Shire, and just over the river from Buckland. I still painted, but once I saw the real thing, it seemed to me more important to try to preserve that than to replicate it. I took up farming, got married, and kept my ears open. Grey let folks know that I could be trusted, and before long I was able to pass news and advice along to those that needed it.

I stowed my .357 away in my barn and never felt a need to use it again, except for once, when one of those Black Riders came nosing around my place. It was all I could do to keep myself from putting a bullet in his black behind; but then, folks would have figured out that I wasn’t just the simple Hobbit they’d always assumed I was. “No,” I thought, “better to keep everyone in the dark. I’ll keep the gun and my old name to myself, and to everybody else, I’ll just stay the same, plain old fellow I ever was: Farmer Maggot of Bamfurlong farm.”


Jef Murray is an internationally known Tolkien and fantasy artist/illustrator and counterfeit essayist. His paintings, sketches, and writings sprout sporadically from the leaves of Tolkien and Inklings publications (Amon Hen, Mallorn, Beyond Bree, Silver Leaves, Mythprints) and Catholic journals (The St. Austin Review, Gilbert Magazine, The Georgia Bulletin) worldwide. Visit Jef’s website at www.JefMurray.com.

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About the Author

Jef Murray is an internationally known Tolkien and fantasy artist/illustrator and counterfeit essayist. His paintings, sketches, and writings sprout sporadically from the leaves of Tolkien and Inklings publications (Amon Hen, Mallorn, Beyond Bree, Silver Leaves, Mythprints) and Catholic journals (The St. Austin Review, Gilbert Magazine, The Georgia Bulletin) worldwide.

Contrary to all sense and sensibility, his images most recently wended their way into The Magic Ring: Deluxe Illustrated Edition by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque and Black & White Ogre Country: The Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien by Hilary A. R. Tolkien.

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