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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 15
The Telltale Paw Print

 

The morning began with a scream.

Jon looked up from his spot in the grass with alarm. He had been doing his morning exercises just outside of the dome he and Kristen had occupied during the night. The feline woman was still asleep inside, but Jon's senses were alert and he jumped to his feet. Others around the camp who had already been up at sunrise were rushing toward the pens that had been set up to corral the sheep they had brought with them.

Arne was the first to arrive, having been the nearest, and although the African lion had not been particularly close to any of his housemates, Sissy saw him and immediately jumped into his arms with tears in her eyes.

“What's the mat—?” he started to say. Then he looked past the small orange cat in his arms and saw the broken wooden fence with the German Shepherd lying backward across it. The sheep were clustered together on the opposite side of the pen, just as far from the canine as possible.

Arne gently pushed Sissy away from him and approached the fence, but Avon's voice boomed out from behind.  “Don't touch him!” the grizzly commanded.

The lion pulled his hand back and looked up at the bear. “I was just gonna see if he was still breathing,” he explained.

“I think we can all see that he's not,” Jon said dryly. He was flanked on both sides by Aaron, Norman, Ken, Cheryl and Manny, and all were surprised at the scene they beheld.

Travis Tyndall's head was sprawled on a loose neck at an angle that nature had never designed, even for genetic hybrid. An indistinct, muddy paw print decorated the light colored fur at his throat, a likely testament that his broken neck had been no accident. Whoever had struck him had done so with such force to knock him backward into the thin wooden fence, breaking the top two rungs. His knees were bent across the bottom of the fence while the rest of him was sprawled across the broken pieces in the muddy grass inside the pen. The canine's eyes were wide open but unmoving, and his mouth was agape with his tongue up against his teeth. Blood stained both the tongue and the teeth scarlet.

Ken pushed Arne aside and approached Travis cautiously, putting a hand up to the German Shepherd's neck. The lupine doctor felt for a pulse, but after a moment he looked back at Avon and shook his head. “I know we're supposed to play the part of a colony separated from the rest of humanity,” he said, “but I think you should send word out to the director about this. This is no simulation.”

“Who could have done such a thing?” Sissy asked, quietly clinging to one of Cheryl's arms. Aaron and Norman immediately looked at Jon. Neither said anything, but Avon caught the gesture and cleared his throat.

“Yes, Marcelo should know about this,” he said, looking around at those around him.  “For now, I don't want anyone touching Travis, so please stay here and keep anyone else back. Leave him just as he is for the investigation.”

“Do I have to stay too?” Sissy squeaked.

“Were you the one who found him?”

“Y-yes.”

“Then I'll need you to speak to the director.”

“Oh, okay,” the orange feline replied, worrying her bottom lip. 

“Jon, why don't you come with me too,” he suggested.

“Huh?  Why?” the cougar asked.

“You have an eye for detail that we may need.”

“Uh, sure.” 

Aaron and Norman exchanged glances when the three of them departed to get word to Marcelo. “What was that look for?” Cheryl asked when they were out of earshot.

“What look?” Norman asked, trying to appear innocent.

“Oh, come on!” she said in exasperation, tilting her cowgirl hat to keep the morning sun peeking through the trees out of her eyes. “You two think Jon did it, don't you?”

“Now why would we think that?” Aaron said with dripping sarcasm. He swung an arm toward the deceased canine without looking at him. “He and Travis have been at one another's throats since they both got here!”

“After Travis tried to rape Kristen, I heard Jon threaten to break his neck if he tried something like that again,” Norman added.

“Yeah, but from what I heard, you threatened to toss Travis into the ravine yourself!” Cheryl retorted. “Shouldn't that make you a suspect too?”  She turned and glared at Aaron. “Even you sucker punched him in the kidney a couple times on our trek back!  None of you are guiltless!”

“The point is,” Ken said, stepping in between the Border Collie and the bears, “Avon heard Jon threaten to break Travis' neck too, and a broken neck is what's happened here. I'm pretty sure that's why he wanted Jon with him when they talk to the director.”

Manny knelt next to the downed canine, but refrained from touching him. “Is that a hand print or a foot print?” he muttered to himself, staring at the mud on Travis' neck. It was while he examined it that he suddenly realized what he was seeing.  The German Shepherd's neck was caved inward, his throat crushed from some terrific blow.

The arctic fox swallowed involuntarily, stood up and backed away.  

*** 

It took over an hour for Sheriff Davis to reach the secluded area of the Institute; Deputy Loggia pulled into the parking lot minutes later with an ambulance behind her and they were all ushered in through the grounds to the sectioned off area of the colony.  It would take some time for a crime scene investigation team to arrive, so the sheriff and his deputy would secure the area and begin taking statements from the Furs.

Jon had been suspicious when Avon requested his presence reporting the incident to the director, but counted it as yet another attempt by the grizzly to involve him in managerial actions; Avon had never given up trying to recruit the mountain lion to head up a Felis colony someday. However, after the Ursis leader had informed Marcelo of Travis' death in a conversation at the barrier gate, and Sissy confirmed it with her witness account, the director immediately fixed Jon with a dark glare.

As the others had previously discussed, it was no secret that Jon and Travis had had it in for one another since they'd both arrived. Marcelo also had private knowledge of Jon's past, which only strengthened his suspicions, and when Avon revealed the nature of Jon's threat upon the German Shepherd's life following the canine's rape attempt, he was sure of the cougar's guilt.

Knowing that Jon had killed before, but legally bound not to reveal the information to just anyone else under the laws of the Witness Protection policies that had given Brian Barrett a new identification, Marcelo had ordered Jonathan Sunset to be escorted to a room that could be locked from the outside for questioning.

It had surprised and angered the mountain lion that he was the prime suspect to be responsible for Travis' demise, but allowed himself to be escorted without resistance. He didn't want to do anything else that might convince anyone that he was guilty of the crime, especially as he had noticed the side looks given to him by those at the crime scene. He was sure they all believed in his guilt; after all, he had made serious threats against the canine and had meant them at the time.

Jon couldn't help but wonder if he was going to wind up back in the Colorado prison where he had been incarcerated. Was Ross Forrester, the deranged bear still there awaiting the chance to finally get the meal he had been denied?  The mountain lion sat down heavily on the folding metal chair in the room where he'd been locked up and put his head in his hands.  

*** 

“I did not kill Travis,” Jon repeated wearily.  “Yes, I threatened to break his neck after he tried to rape Kristen, but no, I didn't follow through on it.”  He stared across the small folding table at CSI Agent Dorian, a tall, thin man possessing a face full of freckles, with his head and arms covered in thick hair that was brighter red than Jon's had been as a human. The sheriff and his deputy were stationed behind the suspected furman with orders to subdue him with any means necessary should he become agitated, but to otherwise keep silent during the interview.  Both had been supplied with fast-acting tranquilizer dart guns.

“Several strands of red and black fur not belonging to the victim were collected from the muddy paw print on Mr. Tyndall's neck,” Dorian remarked tonelessly. “They will be tested for your DNA signature, of course, especially the red ones.”

“They're probably your own…” Jon muttered beneath his breath.

“What was that?”

“Forget it. Listen – I wasn't Travis' only enemy,” Jon tried again. “He made a habit of ticking off just about everyone he met.”

“Yet you were the only one who openly threatened him in the exact manner of his death.” Dorian consulted his notes on the small steno pad in front of him.  “Although the genetic transformation enhances the strength of all who go through the furmankind process, there are actually very few who possess the kind of strength to crush Mr. Tyndall's throat in this manner.”  

The thin man gave Jon's broad shoulders and thick arms a brief glance. “I understand you maintain a regular exercise routine and have often displayed your physical fitness around your associates. It takes no real stretch of imagination to realize you possess the necessary strength for such an act. I believe you were even out exercising when the body was discovered.”

“I wasn't even out on the grounds when it happened!” Jon exclaimed in frustration. “I was sleeping in my dome – and I wasn't alone!” Dorian raised an eyebrow and Jon sighed audibly. “Kristen was sleeping beside me,” he added.

“It seems to be well-known among your associates that you and Ms. Eisenberg have not been on friendly terms in recent weeks,” Dorian said dryly. “It's interesting that you would choose her as your alibi.”

“We reconciled our differences last night,” Jon said in a quiet voice.

“Is killing him for her what mended your fences?”

Jon sputtered. “You're insane to think up something that preposterous!  Ask her.”

Dorian nodded toward the officers behind Jon. “Ms. Eisenberg volunteered to the sheriff that you had indeed slept beside her last night, but as she claims she was asleep at the time of the murder, she cannot prove that you were still with her when it happened.”

The man put down his steno pad and leaned forward slightly over the table.  “Did you get up during the night to relieve yourself and find Mr. Tyndall outside alone? Was there an argument, or did you simply attack him outright, making good on your threat at an opportune moment? You two did have an altercation just before this.”

“I did not kill Travis Tyndall,” Jon growled. “Use a polygraph test on me.”

Dorian smiled thinly. “I think you already know that polygraph tests do not work on Furs,” he remarked. “Something about your screwed up anatomy makes the readings show truth on everything you say – even outright lies.”

“I didn't kill him!” Jon repeated.

“You had the motive and the means, Mr. Sunset, and no solid alibi.”

“And you have no witnesses!” Jon retorted hotly. “This is all purely circumstantial!”

“Perhaps, but until our investigation reveals anything else, you will be held on suspicion of murder.  I understand that you Furs are governed by a slightly different laws in cases like this and the Furmankind Institute will provide you with an appropriate knowledgeable lawyer, but until further notice you are to be removed from this place and will occupy a cell in the sheriff's jail pending the outcome of this investigation.”

Jon gnashed his teeth and the sheriff behind him prepared to fire his dart gun, but the mountain lion exhaled sharply and then put both of his hands upon the table, his wrists facing upward.

“Fine, cuff me and take me in,” he spat out, “but make sure you do an outstanding job on your investigation, Agent Dorian. I'm innocent until proven guilty, and I repeat that I did not kill Travis Tyndall. I had no knowledge of his death until Sissy screamed and was just as shocked as everyone else to find him that way.”

“You're innocent until proven guilty,” Dorian agreed, “but you are the prime suspect – no, you're the only suspect in this case, so you are to be locked up good and tight.”

Without allowing Jon further rebuttal, the agent looked up at the sheriff and gestured toward the door with his chin. “He's all yours, Davis. Get him out of here.”

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.