“OK Phillip, we can do this the hard way or we can do it the easy way … (pause for dramatic, fear-inducing effect) … it’s up to you.”
Johnny was so darn proud of himself for coming up with his tough-guy line, and he used it every chance he got. He said it real slow, and in as deep of a voice as he could muster, which, truth be told, wasn’t an especially deep voice. Even for a squirrel.
It didn’t matter.
All the squirrels from Elm Street to Church, across Maple Avenue and over to Poplar, and even as far as Elm and Hillcrest, knew better than to mess with Johnny Oakland, the world’s greatest squirrel detective. And a well-known master of the nuggie.
And yet, they messed with Johnny. Time after time. After time.
Simple: Squirrels are stupid. That’s right, I’m using the stupid word. I know, it’s really mean to call any creature stupid, even cute little furry ones. But in this case, it’s just so darn true that to not call squirrels stupid would be intellectually dishonest. And an insult to smart.
FYI: Same goes for chipmunks. Maybe even more so.
And, when you combine stupid with a heaping helping of stubbornness and selfishness, especially when it comes to their nut stashes, well, you can sorta understand why so many squirrels insisted on doing it the hard way with Johnny. Their nut stash – and the quantity and quality of the nuts in their stash – is the difference between surviving and starving during a long, cold winter. Thousands of years of genetic conditioning, the whole survival-of-the-fittest squirrel thing, and the never-ending encroachment of civilization – not to mention cats – have combined to make squirrels totally obsessed with their nut stashes.
And, on top of all this, squirrels have terrible memories. Which, when you think about it, is probably connected to the stupid thing.
So, at some point during every long, cold winter, when there’s snow on the ground and it’s hard to remember where you buried your nuts or sniff them out, about 87.5 percent of all squirrels will forget where their nut stashes are buried.
It’s a recipe for disaster. And starvation. In fact, it’s the second leading cause of squirrel death, right after being run over by a car while running back and forth across the street for seemingly no good reason. More on this later.
The finding of their nut stashes is where Johnny comes in. And how he makes his living. For the most part.
Johnny is smart. Or, to be more precise, he’s a lot smarter than most squirrels. He’s not quite raccoon smart, but he’s pretty darn close. Then again, some squirrels say Johnny is part raccoon. He’s not, but he doesn’t do anything to discourage this rumor. It helps his image. And detective business.
And then, there’s Johnny’s nose. His sniffing abilities are off-the-chart amazing. He can detect an acorn buried deep within the frozen tundra from 50 paces. That’s squirrel paces, which are a lot shorter than cat, dog and human paces.
So, all of the above is how Johnny came to be sitting atop Phillip Oakington, with his sturdy squirrel legs wrapped tightly around Phillip’s arms and chest, slowly squeezing the air out of his lungs.
“Phillip, a deal is a deal. Pay up,” Johnny growled, balling up his tiny fist and rubbing it across Phillip’s forehead.
“Stop it Johnny, that hurts.”
“It’s a nuggie Phillip, it’s supposed to hurt, you idiot.”
The day before, Phillip had sent word that he needed Johnny’s professional help. And so, Johnny made the dangerous journey over to Phillip’s yard. He avoided two dogs, that nasty one-eyed cat on Hillcrest with the messed-up ear who had murdered Frank Oakman three days earlier, and safely crossed three streets to get to Phillip’s yard.
Seconds after he arrived, Johnny got to work.
He sniffed Phillip up and down, memorizing his scent. Let’s just say Phillip wasn’t the most hygienic squirrel, so Johnny had quite a pungent scent marker to work with. Johnny’s sense of smell is so magical that he could pick up trace whiffs of Phillip several inches beneath the surface of his yard. Sometimes, the scent from one of his squirrel clients was stronger than the nut scent, and sometimes it was the other way around. And often, the two combined to lead Johnny right to a well-buried nut stash.
Johnny started at the big oak tree and began walking slowly, in ever-expanding circles. He stopped several times and started digging, each time finding a few of Phillip’s hidden treasures.
Over the next two hours, Johnny sniffed out six of Phillip’s nut stashes; a total of 43 nuts.
It’s not overly dramatic to say that Johnny had just saved Phillip’s life. It was the middle of January and quite cold. At first, and for about 2.4 seconds, Phillip was grateful and totally planned to live up to his end of the bargain. And then, the whole deeply ingrained, stubborn, selfish squirrel thing kicked in.
It always did.
“I don’t know Johnny, 20 percent of my stash seems like a pretty steep price to pay. After all, I would have eventually…”
Johnny immediately pounced on top of Phillip. Experience had long ago taught him that an aggressive and preemptive strike would get his client’s attention. Most squirrels are meek and mild, and the mere threat of violence was enough to convince them to do the right thing.
And now, sitting atop the quivering, shaking Phillip, it was time for…
“OK Phillip, we can do this the hard way or the easy way … (pause for dramatic, fear-inducing effect) … it’s entirely up to you.”
Phillip thought about it for a couple seconds. While he contemplated his options, Johnny nuggied him again, hard and fast.
“OK, OK Johnny, I give. Uncle. I’ll give you your stupid 20 percent.”
Johnny loosened his grip and climbed off of Phillip, who rubbed his head and trembled the way scared squirrels tend to tremble.
“Johnny, that really hurt. You didn’t have to get so rough. I would have paid you.”
“They never learn,” Johnny mumbled as he collected his nuts.
By all rights, Johnny could have rounded up and taken nine nuts. And he could have taken any nine he wanted: the biggest, juiciest, tastiest nuts in Phillip’s stash.
“I’m letting you off easy and I’m only taking eight nuts Phillip,” Johnny said. He picked out two of the plumpest, tastiest-looking nuts, and then took three mediocre nuts and three borderline-spoiled nuts.
You see, while Johnny could come across as quite tough and nasty when he had to, deep down he’s a softy. All the other squirrels, including the idiot Phillip, know that when push came to shove and there are three feet of snow on the ground and their nut stashes were unreachable and they were losing weight and shivering and things looked bleak, Johnny would share a few nuts from his considerable – and well-hidden – stashes.
And this is why Venus Oakingham, when she found herself in more trouble than any squirrel should ever find herself in, came to see Johnny.
“Johnny, I need your help,” Venus said.