There was an inmost coziness between glass and individual. Bear was not yet drowned in it, but they were engaged, one to the other. Very. He sat at the bar, legs dangling over a stool that would never prove too short, his sight glued to the TV above the shelves. Next to him, nursing a pint of dark beer, eyes downcast and body slumped, sat Christian Romero, his human underling. It was hard to tell who had his nose deeper into the alcohol.
A loud, constant drumming could be heard outside, homing in on the bar. Tadum. Tadum. Tadum. Tadadadadum.
“Shit,” Bear said, and gulped down more honey mead.
“Double shit,” echoed C.R., and gulped down some beer.
Hare materialized at their side, as if teleported, batwing doors still shimmying behind him and a trail of forest loam settling on the floor (and the drinks of some of the patrons).
“We. Are. In. Trouble. Guys,” he said, emphasizing with his knobby, hairy hands while still trying to catch his breath.
“Jesus, Hare,” said C.R., trying to downplay the leporid’s agitation. “Do you ever slow down for, like, anything?” He took some peanuts from the bowl in front of him and started de-shelling, adding to the collection of husks already piled on the bar.
“Maybe you should try not slowing doing,” Hare said, his stare full of indignation. “Like, for anything. Place wouldn’t be such a hoohole if you at least tried.”
He looked at Bear, who had not yet batted an eye and still watched the alluring parade of bikini-clad fairies on TV.
“If both of you tried.”
“Piss off, Hare,” Bear said. “Why should anyone do shit about whatever?”
He swiveled in his stool and faced the flustered big-eared bunch of nerves. He formed the shape of a letter with the oval of his wet mouth but in the end thought against it.
“Never mind,” he said, and wiped his mouth. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Bear was about to swivel back when Hare put a pair of padded hands on his shoulders.
“Bengal is dead,” Hare announced in a whisper.
C.R. turned to look at the dire messenger in slow motion, as if his head was submerged in the very same beer he was drinking. Which was not that inaccurate.
“Say again?” Bear said.
“Roo found him by the creek,” Hare explained, shooting glances at the surrounding tables and making sure other patrons could not hear him. “The fur of his tail was skinned and pulled inside out over the rest of his body. Looked like a bloody cotton bloom, poor thing.”
The world slowed down even more for the two drunkards. The sound of the pageant on the television dimmed to an inaudible level. C.R. swallowed a peanut whole.
“This is new, Sheriff,” he said after the hard lump had cleared his throat. He climbed down from his stool and tucked a stained white shirt into a pair of ill-fitting shorts.
Bear gave him a look that needed no words to explain he was already aware of that fact.
“Where?” he asked.
“Come and I’ll show you,” Hare said. “Will do morale around here some good, seeing you actually being dutiful.”
Bear and C.R. filed out of Piknicks after Hare (not before draining what remained of their respective drinks). The air outside was cloying, smelling of pine, boiled sweets, and animal fur; and their boozy disposition made it hard for them to maintain a full vertical.
That, and the one-two punches that met them as soon as they crossed the bar doors.
“What the…” Bear said.
A large light brown figure was jumping up and down in front of them, next to an equally jumpy small one.
“You let us down, Sheriff,” the large figure said.
“My friend is d… d… d…,” said the small one in a shrill, plaintive voice before jumping into a pouch in his mother’s belly.
The sky was clear as it could be but they both saw stars; these damn kangaroos used rocket fuel behind each jab.
C.R. cursed. Bear composed himself and gathered his wits.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he repeated with resignation. “If you’re done with your little show of animus, we’d better get going.”
The wind picked up as they made their way to the Sadnboggy, a meek creek that cut through the southeast corner of The Acreage. All around them was the buzzing of bees busy in their honey-making, which distracted Bear quite a bit. At one point, while they were passing under the shadow of a large and aromatic hive, C.R. had to come up to Bear and whisper in his ear.
“You’re drooling, boss.”
Bear had taken a moment to snap out and process the advice.
“Thanks,” he said, cleaning the froth from his jaw. His companions had made their displeasure known through accusing stares.
They reached the swampy edge of the Sadnboggy, an indeed sad affair darkened by the shade of dozens of weeping willows. On the nearby bank, half-hidden behind a dense curtain of sweet grass, was a stiff lump that played spectacle and feast to a cloud made of hundreds of pellet flies.
“Holly canolly,” said C.R., tapping a fresh pack of cigarettes against his palm. “Boy gone and got it good.” He drew a thin pale joint and lit it up.
Reproach rose to the faces of those around him.
“Give it a rest,” he said, taking a drag. “It will help with the bugs.”
Sheriff and deputy approached the humming feline corpse. A dozen daring flies, true to their name, separated from the colony and darted, kamikaze style, towards Bear and C.R. Tiny black welts rose on their skins and Bear cursed under his breath. C.R., shielding what he could with his arms in front of him, reached the cloud and blew thick smoke in its midst. The colony relinquished its claim on the body and droned away.
By now the worst of the inebriation had passed, but Bear and C.R. suffered the effects of a quick hangover made worse by the smell of decay and the strong swampy scent coming from the bog beyond the far shore. C.R. snuffed the unfinished cigarette and flicked the butt towards the lazy waters.
“I hate this place,” C.R. said.
Bear ignored him and commenced his analysis of the body. It was Bengal, alright, that stupid grin pasted onto his snout even in death. The skin of his tail had been cut into thin tatters that wound up, ribbon-like, enveloping the rest of his snowy, striped body and leaving behind a sort of fleshy stalk.
“Poor runt will have nightmares for nights on end,” Hare said, appearing next to the law enforcers.
Bear looked over to where a protective Kanga tried to console the quivering bulge inside her pouch, her back turned to the grisly tableau.
“Listen, man,” Bear said, having decided to come clean.
“I don’t want to hear about it,” Hare shot back. “Just do your job, for once.”
“Boss, take a look at this,” C.R. said. He had twisted the body on its side, revealing one strip that was not attached to Bengal’s tail.
Bear sighed and returned his attention to the crime scene. He crouched over the corpse and took the newfound segment in his hand. It felt thicker and fuller than the rest, and had a blood-matted, hairy tuft on one end, while a bent thumbtack at the top end was what held all the shreds together. Scanning the ground with his blood-shot eyes he found, buried in the mud, the tip of a pink bow.
A murmur in the stalks to the north revved Bear and C.R.’s instincts into high gear.
“Nobody move,” Bear said.
The reeds exploded and a gray blur could be seen zigzagging its way around the greenery, heading for Kanga and the child inside her. She brought her guard up, ready to strike.
C.R. ran a few strides, keeping parallel to the running assailant. It was a squat shape with crazy eyes and even crazier hair. It meant business. Between each step of the marauder’s frantic gallop, he could glimpse the glint of a blade held low in one hand. Seeing an opening once their bodies ran with relative closeness, he lunged, tackling the frenzied aggressor before he could reach his victims. They collapsed on the sloppy floor, C.R. restraining the blade with one hand and the would-be killer’s neck in a chokehold with the other.
Bear drew his trusty four-shooter and aimed it at the slumped and defeated figure of Donkey, who began sobbing.
“Take them back to the bar,” he instructed Hare. “Gather anyone you can find on the way and make them remain inside until I say otherwise.” Hare nodded his acknowledgement, leading the terrified pair of mother and son.
Bear looked at Donkey’s cloudy eyes and felt pity, sympathy, and pain. For all of them in The Acreage.
“I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to,” Donkey muttered every time his sobs allowed him some breathing space. “He would not give me the lolli. The lolli made Donkey not sad.”
Bear gave C.R. a knowing look. What would they do if someone took away their beer and their mead? Would they kill for the stuff?
C.R took the knife away from Donkey and released his grip.
“He knows. He knows,” Donkey said. “He is wise and knows that something’s wrong. Old ways, gone ways.”
Just then, the rustle of wings broke the otherwise empty space above the Sadnboggy; a canopy of gray feathers replacing the green canopy of leaves. One by one, the feathered newcomers settled atop willow branches, their intense stares letting everyone know there was no escape.
A larger and more imposing specimen made its way with leisure, neck craning this way and that, assessing the situation, its body heavy with authority. This one did not land on a tree, but on the splayed body of Donkey, thick claws pinching his skin.
“What will you do now, Sheriff,” Owl said with disdain. “Will you go back to the drink, letting mayhem consume The Acreage as its creator continues on his descent towards madness?”
“Can I have a lollipoppy?” Donkey asked, his still watery eyes full of expectation.
Owl laughed a haughty hoot that was echoed by the hundreds of owlings perched on the trees.
“Or will you try to stop me, denying these poor souls the only thing that allows them to forget their grim reality?”
The big bird took a bright red sucker from beneath one wing and placed it lovingly inside Donkey’s mouth. Donkey’s eyes went immediately blank.
“How long have you known,” asked Bear, pointing his revolver at Owl’s smug beaked face.
“Oh, probably way longer than you have,” he replied. “Gave me time to find a suitable, err, sedative, for those you have chosen to neglect.”
“You mean drug,” C.R. noted.
“YesIMeanDrugYouStupidLazyAssHumanScumbag,” Owl spat, his eyes becoming a pair of evil slits. He shook his feathers vigorously, slipping back into the eloquent and smarmy self he was known for.
“Now, make your choice, Bear,” Owl prompted. “But think about this. If you die now, who knows if you’ll come back once the pages turn?”
As if on cue, the air all around them whooshed, sending scores of feathery fiends into disarray.
“Oh, fuck me twice and make me a sandwich,” Owl exclaimed, and was blown by the gust as well, his head smashing on the trunk of a nearby tree.
“Hold on to me boss,” C.R. yelled over the din of snapping branches.
“See you on the flip,” Bear said, and they were all engulfed by whirlwind.
The maelstrom wound down as quickly as it came. Bear was being thrown into the air and caught by a giggling C.R. Around them, a coiled spring of a tail helped Bengal leap up and reach the same height.
“You can put me down now, Chris.” Bear said between grinding teeth.
Christian Romero looked at his surroundings, getting his bearings.
“Sorry,” he said, and placed Bear carefully on the ground.
They both looked at Bengal prancing around the clearing outside Bear’s home, unharmed, unbloodied, and still grinning like a fool.
“Now we know,” Bear said with a smile, when the land began to tremble and a pair of gargantuan pink legs smashed the trees not far from where they stood. A reverberating squeal rippled across the sky, the clouds retreating as if threatened.
Padded feet made their way towards them from the carrot patch. Tadum. Tadum. Tadum. Tadadadadum.
Hare materialized at their side, still chewing on a big orange stick.
“We. Are. In. Trouble. Guys,” he said, mouth half-full. “Piiiig trouble.”
“Shit,” Bear said.
“Double shit,” echoed C.R.