When Skunk next awoke it was to the sound of his wife’s voice.
“Wake up!” Skunk sat up. He blinked groggily, shielding his eyes from the sunlight. “You were sleeping through your ring tone,” Mink announced, the cell in her hand.
“Who is it?” Skunk asked, reaching for the phone.
“Officer Fanny Duster,” she responded. “I think it’s urgent.” The officer’s voice poured into Skunk’s ear, each word melding into the next. He spoke with such a panicked frenzy Skunk could barely understand him.
“Slow down!” he finally said. The officer ceased his verbal diarrhea and instead huffed furiously. “What happened?” Skunk asked.
“Just come down to the station as fast as you can,” Officer Fanny Duster said.
Skunk barely pulled into the lot of the police station when he saw Officer Fanny Duster’s elephantine form slouching sadly on the front steps. Beside the officer’s bulk was Temaru. His eyes were wide and red, and he was wrapped in an orange blanket, shivering and breathing spasmodically into a bag.
“They got eaten by bears,” Officer Fanny Duster squeaked.
“Sorry?” Skunk wasn’t sure he had heard the officer correctly. He sat still as a statue, his eyes fixed on the pavement.
“You heard me,” he whispered and clenched his fists. “Every one of the guards you hired was hunted down by a pack of wild bears on the Elm Valley Trail.” He muttered a swear and shook his head. Skunk didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t even sure he believed what the officer was telling him.
“How is that possible?” he finally asked. Temaru stood with wobbling legs.
“It’s all my fault,” he whimpered. “I called for back-up. I led them to the forest.” The man’s lip quivered and tears streamed down his face. “The bears were everywhere! They came out of nowhere and were so fast… I.. I hid amongst the trees. I was so scared I couldn’t make a sound. I let the vandal get away. The bears were so fast…no one had time to scream..I watched… so.. much…” Temaru wailed and tore at his hair. He fell to his knees, gasping and sobbing in shock.
“Lad’s lost his nerve,” Officer Fanny Duster said. He inched away from Temaru, and dug his phone out of the holster on his hip. “I’m calling him an ambulance before he completely loses his mind.”
Skunk watched in horror as Temaru twitched and gnawed rabidly on the orange blanket. He felt sick. The vandal had led all of his best men into a bear trap?! No way. Skunk crossed his arms incredulously and plucked the phone from Officer Fanny Duster’s sausage fingers.
“Hold up on that call, Officer,” he said. He took a seat beside Temaru. Inching tentatively toward him, Skunk gently called the man’s name. “You were very brave, Temaru,” Skunk esteemed him. “Whatever happened in the forest wasn’t your fault. You were only trying to follow my orders and apprehend the vandal.” Temaru relaxed upon the touch of Skunk’s appreciative hand. “I need you to do something for me, Temaru,” he continued. An eager look overcame the young lad.
“What would you have me do?” Temaru leaned uncomfortably close to Skunk. Skunk cleared his throat, uneasily.
“I need you to show us where the other patrol guards were attacked.” Temaru stood. The orange blanket draped from his shoulders. His uniform was dirtied at the knees and his hair was tangled with twig bits and pine needles. His eyes, though red and swollen, gleamed tenaciously. He offered a smudged hand to Skunk who took it uncertainly. Was this the same man who, only moments ago, had been overwritten with emotion?
“Anything for you, Mr. Mayor,” Temaru declared with a slight bow. Skunk looked to Officer Fanny Duster in confusion. The officer just shrugged and the three of them hopped into a police cruiser en route to the Elm Valley Trail.
Skunk sat squished in the back seat behind Officer Fanny Duster. The leather chair squeaked in protest under the officer’s enormity. Other than the squeal of the leather and the occasional nervous cough from Temaru, the ride to the forest was silent. Skunk could almost hear his head pounding. He had neglected to drink his morning coffee and was now feeling the ill effects of caffeine withdrawal. Skunk massaged his forehead. The depth of the wrinkles on his forehead had increased since he’d become mayor. His wife would say they were a result of too much thought. He could hear her voice now, “An unclear mind leads to an unclear forehead.” Skunk wasn’t concerned with his wrinkles. He was a middle-aged man who liked to think. Wrinkles suited him just fine. What really concerned Skunk was Temaru’s bear story. Skunk knew there were black bears inhabiting the forest, but rarely had anyone ever been attacked by one. Certainly not to the extent that Temaru had described. Skunk didn’t believe for a second his guards were killed by bears.
“Well, here we are.” Officer Fanny Duster stopped the cruiser in a patch of parking intended for hikers. The forest was a spray of rustling colours. Leaves fluttered to the ground like butterflies. Skunk took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the smell of fresh earth. Not a single tinge of blood soiled the air.
“Alright, Temaru,” Skunk said, placing a hand on the lad’s shoulder, “show us where this bear blood fest occurred.”
Temaru took them on a side trail created by passing deer. The trail was narrow and Skunk often had to call Temaru to wait for Officer Fanny Duster. Even with the pudgy policeman puffing behind him, Skunk still found the sound of the forest relaxing. The chattering of insects. The whoosh of birds overhead. The trickling of the creek…
“Here!” Temaru was on his knees, hidden behind a thicket. “You can still see their footprints,” he whimpered, more to himself than anyone. Skunk crossed a footbridge and knelt beside Temaru.
“But where are the bear prints?” he questioned. “Where is the blood? Where are the bodies?” Skunk looked to Temaru, who was scratching his head in bewilderment.
“I don’t know!” he cried. “I swear I saw them. They were…they were―” Temaru broke down into tears. He resembled a sad little boy crouched in the dirt sobbing. Skunk sighed. The lad was a basket case. While Temaru rocked in the fetal position, Skunk inspected the footprints. Each one of the guards wore the same design of shoe. This was obvious as the shoes were part of their uniform. Oddly enough, however, the prints all appeared to be of the same size.
“May I borrow one of your shoes for a minute, Temaru?” Skunk inquired. Temaru sniffed and rubbed his watering eyes with the heel of his hand.
“Of course,” he gasped, desperately trying to compose himself. Skunk took the shoe from Temaru, who was now balancing like a flamingo on one leg, and positioned it over the prints. The shoe and the prints were a match.
“Temaru,” he said, “these prints belong to you and you only.” Temaru wavered on one leg. Clawing at the bark of a tree for support, his face bore the expression of genuine mystification. Officer Fanny Duster hobbled onto the scene just then. His face was pink and moist with perspiration. He attempted to speak, but was so out of breath, he could scarcely manage a word. By the looks of the folded bit of paper in is hand, he had found a clue.
“It’s a death certificate,” he finally breathed. “Found it in the ditch a ways over.” Skunk meticulously unfolded the damp document and squinted at the runny words. Even without the water damage, he still wouldn’t have been able to make heads or tails of the doctor’s signature. He felt his forehead crinkle as he shook his head in bemusement. Why would anyone be waltzing around a forest with a medical certificate of death? Skunk placed the paper in his jacket pocket. He would puzzle over its significance later. At the moment, he had a group of irresponsible guards to track down. Skunk tossed Temaru back his shoe.
“Do you want to know what really happened last night?” he asked the lad. Temaru nodded so frantically he dispelled the twigs from his hair. “You were drugged.” Officer Fanny Duster wheezed a chuckle.
“Drugs?! Mr. Mayor, Temaru’s a patrol officer. What punk would be stupid enough to scramble the senses of his own town’s protector?” Skunk knew exactly who. He probed his aching temples and stifled a yawn.
“Speaking of drugs,” he groaned, tiredly, “I could really use a shot of caffeine.” He brushed past both Temaru and Officer Fanny Duster, leaves crinkling underfoot. “Let’s go to a coffee shop. There’s no reception here.” He flipped open his phone to double check and then folded it neatly back into his jacket pocket. “I think it’s about time we give Temaru’s comrades a call.”
Once out of the vicinity of the forest and tucked snugly away in a warm coffee shop, Skunk used Temaru’s phone to call Giles, a patrol officer who worked closely with him. The steam from Skunk’s coffee wafted into his sinuses, rejuvenating his senses. Coffee was truly a magical brew.
“Hello?” a young man answered the phone.
“Hello, Giles, this is Mayor Skunk. I’m just calling to ask that you and the rest of your patrol shift meet Officer Fanny Duster and I at the station in fourteen hundred hours. We’re going to debrief on last night’s occurrences.”
“Occurrences?” Giles responded, clearing his throat anxiously.
“That’s right. We’ll see you and your shift soon.” Skunk hung up. He could see Giles swallowing guiltily. Across from him at the table, Temaru was wringing his hands and biting his lip as though there was something he desperately needed to say. “What is it, Temaru?” Skunk urged.
“It’s just…I shouldn’t have gone―” Temaru sighed―it was a frustrated sound, and took sips of his tea before continuing. “Last night, Giles offered to use his house as a place to crash for our shifts. He’s got a rich uncle who left him a good chunk of his fortune after he died, so his house is huge. Everyone loves Giles. He’s a fun guy and he’s got money. So, naturally, everyone agreed to sleep at his place for the night, including myself.” Temaru’s face fell sadly as he stared into his frothy green tea. “No one had ever invited me to anything before,” he added, “I just wanted to stop feeling like the outside man looking in.” Skunk guzzled the remainder of his coffee and nodded understandingly. He knew exactly how Temaru felt.
“Do you think that someone may have drugged you at Gile’s place?” he asked. Temaru nodded.
“Just before my shift began, Giles offered me a slice of mushroom pizza. People were having a great time at his house. The guards coming back from their shifts were jumping into his pool, playing video games, and laughing. I was feeling a little nervous… I mean I was potentially going to be going up against a serial vandal. Giles must have noticed. He told me a little food in my stomach would brighten me up. So I took the pizza, thinking he was just trying to be nice. Giles. The cool guy who, before then, had never said a word to me.” Again, Temaru hung his head in shame.
“Let me guess,” Skunk sighed, emptying the change from his pockets onto the table, “the mushrooms on the pizza tasted funny.”
“Yeah,” Temaru breathed. Skunk stood, his belly an angry ball of snakes. He hauled Officer Fanny Duster from his chair, where he had been quietly consuming boston cream donuts, and made for the door.
“Let’s go,” Skunk commanded.