The bear was fast asleep, but he wasn’t the one snoring.
The black bear, a young male, lay on his side wrapped in rope netting, a small hillock of thick midnight fur. From where I stood, a good twenty feet away, he could have been fake—an oversized stuffed animal still in its wrapping from some upscale toy store, like the one I used to pass in the city. Only the slight rise and fall of that rounded side warned me against reaching out and running my hands through the lustrous coat that stood in contrast to the tawny weave of the ropes that bound him. That and the state warden who was approaching gingerly, tranquilizer gun in hand.
“Can you shut him up?” the warden, Greg Mishka, called out to me.
Greg was examining the net that held the bear, following a trailing line to a tree several feet behind the beast. He was moving slowly and very carefully with good reason: a bear that size could tear the rope around him like so much lace.
“On it.” I turned toward the other slumbering mammal, this one much less attractive in its natural state. Sleeping off a drunk, that is, and sloppy with it, a thin film of drool coating the side of his face that leaned against a rotting tree stump.
“Come on, Albert.” I used my foot, none too gently. Unlike the bear, this animal didn’t command my respect. “Time to go home.”
“Wuh?” With an ursine snuffle, the bearded mess blinked and woke, after a fashion. The eyes that stared up at me over his unkempt beard barely focused. Still soused, I suspected, though the smell of stale beer could easily be a holdover from the night—or the week—before. “Pru?”
“Yeah, you’re dreaming.” I kicked the prone man one more time, lest he get the wrong idea about what kind of dream this was. “Get up. Time to go home.”
“Pru?” Greg, this time. I turned to see the dark-haired warden had maneuvered around the animal, quite quietly for a man his size. “I could use a hand. From both of you.”
Leaving Albert to shake off his own form of hibernation, I walked back to the bear. His body was still caught in the netting, but a huge muzzle now covered the bear’s snout and mouth, and shackles—almost like human handcuffs—held his front and rear paws together.
“You should have waited.” I glanced at the warden, at the gun that now rested against the tree and the oversize syringe he was putting in his bag. Greg was built like a linebacker and I knew the bear was out cold. Still, protocol exists for a reason.
He nodded his acknowledgment as he pulled a heavy green tarp from his truck bed. “I figured I could get the BAM into him, the way he was.” The butorphanol, azaperone, and medetomidine cocktail was standard fare for wildlife removal. “I hate to do this to the poor thing.” He spread the tarp beside the sleeping bear. “But I have no idea what they gave him, and I don’t want to find out by him waking up in the truck.”
“Where do you want me?” Most men, I wouldn’t give such an opening. But Greg and I were colleagues, sort of, and I knew his mind was on this task at hand. It has to be, with wildlife management. As cuddly as this creature looked, he could kill in seconds—and would, if he felt threatened. Still, when I heard a snicker behind me, I knew Albert had roused.
“Hindquarters, please.” Another snicker. Albert might be our town’s animal control officer, but he never really got over junior high school.
“You.” Greg had taken Albert’s measure quickly enough. “I need you to help. Lift his midsection.”
“Me?” Albert’s voice squeaked, as if a mouse were hiding in his unkempt beard.
“Come on,” I growled. Albert feared me—feared most women, actually—more than any wild animal. “Time to make amends.”
Albert might weigh almost as much as Greg, but I’d bet I’m stronger. Between the three of us, we got the poor creature onto the tarp and then, using the lift, into the cage in Greg’s truck.
“Where are you taking him?” The effort had woken Albert to the point of curiosity, not his natural state. He stood staring as Greg checked the latches, absently picking twigs from his beard and shirt.
“The vet will check him out, and then we can release him.” Greg turned from Albert to me, his face serious. “We don’t need to hold him while we investigate.”
“Investigate?” That squeak again, but Greg didn’t answer. I didn’t either, at first, and simply watched the warden drive off. Then I brushed the leaf debris from my own shirt and started back toward my own, much less bulky, ride.
“You’re lucky, Al.” If he couldn’t hear the anger in my voice, that wasn’t my fault. “Luckier than that bear. You got a warning.”
“Pru, I—” I turned and he fell silent. The dead-eye stare I’d perfected back in the city was as effective as that tranq mix, at least on creatures like Albert. He didn’t need me to tell him that drugging and trapping bears was illegal, and if he knew anything about me by now he’d know that I sympathized more with the poor creature in the back of Greg’s truck than I ever would with him, even if he weren’t involved in poaching.
Back in my car, I realized my hands were trembling. Rage, not fear, affects me that way, and I was grateful that Greg had responded to my call. I’d found the bear when I’d come looking for Albert. I handle most of his responsibilities here in my home-town of Beauville, but sometimes his signature is needed—and I have no patience for waiting. When he hadn’t answered his cell, I’d driven out here, hoping to find him in the clearing, a half-mile off the county road. I had no desire to venture into the ramshackle structure Albert and his friends called their camp, and which gave the term “man cave” new meaning.
What I found instead had prompted me to call for help right away. I had feared he was dead at first—the bear, not the man—and when I’d then stumbled on Albert, snoring on his stump, I was very close to making sure he followed. Crisis averted, or at least contained, I took a deep breath, hoping to release that adrenaline. Only when I saw Albert waddling up to my window did I start to think I might have another outlet for my anger.
“Pru!” He waved as he came close, his flannel shirt pulling loose from his stained denim. “Pru, wait!”
Another breath and I rolled down the window. “What is it, Albert?”
“Can I get a ride?” He was panting from his short sprint, and had the grace to look abashed as he shifted from foot to foot. “I can’t find my keys.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. Albert had endangered a more glorious creature than he would ever be. And to top it off, he smelled. My GTO hadn’t had that new car smell in decades, but it was my pride and joy—restored to better than its 1974 heyday through hard work and hard-earned money. Still, unless I was going to help him search, I had to do something. I doubt he’d have any sense of where he might have lost his keys—and I couldn’t discount the theory that one of his buddies had taken them, though more likely as a prank than as any kind of statement about his condition or ability to drive.
Besides, I had a feeling he wasn’t alone.
“You got Frank with you?”
If the portly man standing by my car found my query odd, he didn’t show it. Too dim to dissemble, he merely blinked and nodded.
“Okay,” I sighed. “Go get him.”
I watched as he rambled over to his truck and half-expected to hear a shout as he found his “lost” keys still in the ignition. I would have no such luck, however. But at least, as he made his way back toward me, I knew I’d have some decent conversation on the ride back to town.
“Hi, Frank.” I nodded as Albert lumbered back toward the car. The triangular head that poked out of his flannel shirt blinked in acknowledgment. Frank may be a ferret—his sable coloring and distinctive facial “mask” making him resemble a streamlined version of a raccoon—but he’s one of the more personable denizens of Beauville. Certainly more than his person, Albert.
Seeing him peer around, safe inside his flannel nest, I was glad I’d agreed to give the pair a ride. Frank was curious about the woods. He smelled the bear, I could tell, and his busy nose was picking up scents I couldn’t even begin to catalog. Still, such curiosity was best left unsatisfied. Albert might survive out here for a few days, if he’d had to. There had to be some provisions in that shed besides more beer. But Frank is small for a carnivore, and these deep woods were not his territory. Besides, Albert brought himself out—and into whatever trouble was brewing. Frank was an innocent bystander and, from the way he craned his head around now, I suspected that he’d spent most of the day huddled in some corner of the truck cab, waiting for the drive home.
Given my druthers, I’d have taken the ferret and left the man behind. I could learn a lot from the sleek creature, I knew, but it was pointless. I’d only end up coming out here again in the morning.
“Hop in.” I popped the lock and tried not to look as the larger of my passengers angled his large rear toward me as he maneuvered into the bucket seat. “So none of your buddies is meeting you out here?”
It was a leading question, and not too subtle. But in addition to my curiosity about his keys, I knew Albert wasn’t capable of figuring out how to capture a bear by himself—nor dispose of one, once he had it, for either its pelt or for some canned hunt.
“Nuh uh,” he said, shaking his head in what seemed even then too vehement a rejection. The movement must have spooked his pet, who ducked back inside his shirt.
“Okay, then.” I rolled toward the road, easing the classic chassis over the pocked dirt. Once I got to the state road, though, I floored it, venting my fury in speed. My GTO was made for this, especially with the modifications I’d been working on recently. Besides, I enjoyed how Albert was thrown back in his seat as we crested the hill, silenced by my speed. I knew Greg or I would get our answers eventually. Someone was helping Albert, and someone would be asking about that bear.
We wouldn’t find the body for another day.
Since Frank had retreated—asleep, I figured, after what must have been a tense day—I focused my queries on Albert.
“Tell me about the bear.” I didn’t look at my passenger as the trees flew by. Didn’t need to. I could feel him clench up in the seat beside me, and since I was on a straightaway back toward town, the curves of the state road evening out as we drove through the valley, I knew it was in response to my query.
“The bear?” He paused, and for a moment I thought he was going to deny any involvement. Never mind that he was found snoring yards away from the prone animal. “It’s my job,” he stuttered after the pause became too obvious. “It was a—whatchamacallit?—a nuisance.”
“A nuisance animal? Hardly.” I may not work for the town in any official capacity, but between Albert’s indolence and my, shall we call it, sensitivity, I end up handling a lot of Beauville’s animal issues. Some of that is purely mercenary. Although I inherited my mother’s house free and clear, I still have to pay taxes on the huge old wreck, which had been built back in the days when Beauville’s mills had translated to prosperity and families were larger. And bourbon alone isn’t enough to keep me warm under those ten-foot ceilings when the winter snows cover the Berkshires.
Some of what drives me, as Albert well knew, is preference. Animals like that bear—or the misunderstood pets who make up most of my practice—have more of my sympathy than does the average Beauville native. With reason: none of them can lie any better than Albert can, but unlike my portly colleague, the cats and puppies and canaries of our beaten-down little town don’t even try to deceive me.
“I read the same notices you do,” I lied. I did keep up on the alerts from the state police, reports on errant wildlife with the temerity to encroach on human habitation. I also knew Albert rarely noticed them, nor the more mundane notices—the ones to do with license renewals and the like. Well, not unless he needed one of the fliers to sop up spilled coffee. “There’s been nothing about a problem bear.”
“Just came in,” he said, with a burp. I turned my gaze from the road to eye him with suspicion. I really didn’t want him sicking up in my car. He hadn’t turned green, though, so I figured it was safe to continue.
“Who were you hanging out with—today, that is, at the camp?”
“No one.” He sounded sullen as a teen. I risked another glance—a hard-eyed stare this time. “Only Paul. He must have taken my keys.”
I let that one go. Paul Lanouette didn’t seem like a prankster. Leaner than Albert and nominally more intelligent, he was also more ambitious. I thought back to the man I’d known since high school and had avoided even then. Tall and rakishly handsome, at least before the drinking began to show, Paul was an operator, always looking for an edge. Something he could turn to his advantage, a trait I hadn’t seen him outgrow, whether he was plying it on one of Beauville’s less-perceptive women or in the series of odd jobs—contracting, painting, what-have-you—that he was always hustling, with that crooked grin and the light-brown hair he let go unfashionably long. The bear wasn’t particularly pretty, but Paul might have been behind the illegal trapping, if he’d seen some score in it. Anger, as much as a desire to get my fragrant colleague out of my ride, made my foot grow heavy.
“What were you going to do with it?” If Albert noticed that I’d ignored his denial, he didn’t let on. At the best of times, Albert wasn’t the sharpest tool in the woodshed, and as I neared town, I pushed into a final burst of speed that had him wide-eyed and gasping.
“Nothing.” Another hiccup. “Pru? Could you…?” I squealed to a halt and let my passenger tumble out, gagging, to the pavement. We’d reached Albert’s putative workplace, and I’d gotten all I could out of him. Putting my baby blue GTO into park, I debated going into the modern brick building myself, while Albert was still on all fours in the small lot. I might not have an actual position there, but I had my own set of keys for those mornings when Albert was “delayed.” There were reasons I didn’t want to set foot in that building, however.
“You going to clean that up?” The main reason stepped out of the foyer—Detective Jim Creighton, senior man at our little town’s cop shop, whose precinct shared an entrance with the animal control office. With that sun-bleached buzz cut and the jawline of a comic book hero, he might look like a boy scout, but he and I had a history.
“He’s not my pet.” We both paused to watch as Albert finished up, staggering to his feet and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “And that’s no furball.”
“Albert, get a bucket.” Creighton sounded tired, but the note of command was hard to ignore. “Clean that up.”
“Yeah.” Albert glanced from the officer to me. If he expected me to speak up for him, he was mistaken. “Sorry.”
“You went out about that bear?”
I nodded. I respect protocol, at least where animal safety is concerned. Before I’d called Greg, I’d left a message for Creighton. If any charges were going to be levied, they would probably go through him. Not that I felt good about that. The handsome cop was working too many hours these days—Beauville was changing, but his budget wasn’t—and I knew his resources were stretched thin. Still, if Paul Lanouette had fled the scene, leaving Albert and the animal there as some idea of a prank, I’d push for endangerment—of the bear, not Albert.
“It was a young male,” I filled Creighton in. “Drugged but otherwise apparently unharmed. Greg’s bringing him to wildlife rehab to make sure.”
Creighton nodded, but from the tilt of his sandy head, it was clear he had another question queued up. I turned away, hoping to ignore it—and Albert—but he didn’t hold back long. “And he didn’t tell you anything?”
Now it was my turn to pause. Creighton didn’t mean the chubby town official, who was in the process of throwing as much water on himself as on the soiled pavement. He was smart enough to know that I knew that too.
“We’re talking about a bear, Jim.” My non-answer drew a silence that spoke volumes. Creighton knew more about me than was comfortable. About my sensitivity, in particular: a gift that I was still working to understand myself.
If I had to explain it, I’d say I could hear what animals are thinking. They don’t talk to me, per se—well, most of them, anyway—and they don’t necessarily think along the lines that you or I would, or, at least, they don’t share the so-called social graces. But for the past two years almost, thanks to a bout of fever and, perhaps, some neural damage done during the wild nights of my former life, I’ve been able to pick up on signals from the creatures around us that most humans can’t. It’s the nuts and bolts of food and safety, family and survival, mostly. Instinctive reactions, that I hear as words voiced inside my head.
Sometimes, I get their take on us—unvarnished and usually not very flattering—and sometimes what they notice helps me see the world in a new way. That wasn’t the case with the young bear, though. For starters, he was out cold, in a dreamless deep slumber. Besides, as I’d implied to Creighton, even at the best of times, I have trouble getting anything from truly wild animals—you don’t need any special gift to understand that they are often confused, if not afraid, around us.
In terms of communication with this other male, I was grateful to be able to answer somewhat honestly. Jim Creighton may not be an animal whisperer, but he has an uncanny ability to read me.
“Anyway, I’m glad I caught you.” I breathed a little easier, as Creighton seemed ready to leave that dangerous topic and move on. There was no way I could explain what I did, and questions could only lead to trouble. “A lady called about her lost cat.”
I nodded, waiting for details. That Creighton would field such a call wasn’t that strange. Beauville is a small town, and when Albert isn’t answering his phone the message directs callers to reach out to the police for any animal emergencies. One of the reasons the tall, lean man in front of me looked so tired.
“Maybe you can help her out.” He handed me a Post-it note with an address scrawled on it. “Or maybe you’ll want to hand this one off to Wallis.”
I glanced up sharply at that, but my sometime-beau was grinning. He seemed to know that I did, in fact, often confer with Wallis, the tabby who shared my big old house.
“You don’t know Wallis very well if you think she’d want me looking for another cat.” I turned it into a joke, glad to be able to lighten his mood as well as his workload. “But I’ll leave Albert here with you. He’s lost his car keys, apparently. I’m pretty sure Lou at the garage has a copy, if they don’t ‘turn up.’” I made air quotes around those last two words. Creighton shared my opinion of the slovenly mess of an official, who now stood staring at the particularly un-distinguished puddle he’d made. “He was hanging with Paul Lanouette, though, so maybe Paul will ride to the rescue.”
“I’ll take care of it.” He turned toward our erstwhile colleague. “You go find that kitty.”