LOST IN THE WILDERNESS
— by Ted R. Blasingame
“The results of the DNA testing was performed and verified twice by the crime lab in Albany,” Sheriff Davis told Marcelo Delgado over the telephone. “Despite the circumstances that point to him, neither the red nor black fur taken from the victim's body has a match to Mr. Sunset. They're not even the same species.”
“Could you identify the species?” the director asked. He could hear the rustling paper of the report through the phone before the officer replied.
“The lab reports that all the fur samples are Vulpes vulpes, which I'm told means it's from a red fox. This concludes nothing, however. With so much activity at your colony play site, the fur could have merely been in the mud that Sunset got on his hands or feet prior to attacking Tyndall. Have there been any new developments on the autopsy by your own people?”
“Nothing beyond what we already knew, I'm afraid. The cause of death was from violent blunt-force trauma to the throat, jaw and spine resulting in a severed spinal cord from a broken neck. The direction of the assault was in an upward direction and the force of the impact also drove splintered bone chips up into the skull. It is believed that he died instantly.”
“I see. Was there anything to suggest there was a struggle – any defensive wounds?”
“None that we could find, but there was more red fur stuck to his claws.”
“Sunset has red fur on his head,” the sheriff reminded him. “I've always thought it was strange for an animal to have fur on its head that looks like human hair, but I'm no geneticist and don't know much about such things.”
Marcelo frowned at the man's remark relating all his Furs to nothing more than non-sentient animals, but before he could explain the difference between hair and fur, there was a soft knock upon his door. He glanced toward the panel and saw a small envelope slide into the office beneath the bottom of the door.
Without speaking, the swarthy director quietly set the handset onto the desk, bent down and retrieved the missive. The envelope was sealed, but his name was written on the outside with a brief instruction to deliver it to him immediately; he opened it quickly and drew out a simple yellow sheet of paper. While the sheriff continued droning on about his lack of evidence to convict the cougar, Marcelo's eyebrows raised at what he read.
“Excuse me, Sheriff,” he said suddenly, cutting off the officer's comments, “but I have a matter that's come up that I need to attend to. Please let me know if there's anything new that crops up, and I'll do the same for you.”
“Of course, Dr. Delgado. I know you're a busy man out there. I will talk to you later.”
“Goodbye.” The director hung up the phone almost absently as he looked back down at the message scrawled on the yellow note.
“Jon Sunset did not kill Travis Tyndall, but I know who did. I can meet with you and discuss it only on the condition of anonymity for my own protection. If you agree to this, come alone to the colony gate right away and put one of the orange plastic flowers from your office waiting room on the padlock keeping the Furs separated from the Institute. If I see the flower, I will come out to the gate to talk to you. Until I see this sign, I will remain silent.”
He did not recognize the handwriting, but Marcelo jumped to his feet and departed his office right away. On the way out the door, he stopped beside the bouquet of mixed plastic flowers on Sissy's counter and pulled out one that resembled an orange daisy. He hurried outside and jumped into the electric cart parked there for his convenience. He passed by one of the guards walking back toward the fence, probably the man who had delivered the envelope.
When the director pulled up near the gate, another guard approached him with a frown. “Is there a problem, sir?” the man asked.
Marcelo shook his head, getting out of the cart. “No problem, Martin. I'm just feeling restless in my office with all this. I thought I'd peek through the fence at our Furs and see how they're handling this.”
The man shrugged. “Nobody looks like they're having much of a good time,” he remarked, turning to resume his rounds. “I doubt I would either with a fresh murder in the air.”
“That's about what I expected, but I'm going to look in on them just the same.”
“As you wish, sir.”
Making sure the guard continued on his way without watching, Marcelo approached the gate and reached in through the chain link fence to place the plastic stem of the orange flower into the keyhole of the padlock.
He peered in through the three inch wide gap in the black curtain that covered the fence, but didn't see any nearby activity. He saw a number of listless Furs milling around the storage trailers, but no one seemed in any hurry to unload them of their supplies and none were looking his direction.
“Thank you for coming,” a familiar soft voice whispered from the other side of the gate. The director started, having not seen anyone approach. He quickly deduced that she had already been waiting just on the other side.
“I agree to your condition,” Marcelo whispered. “What do you have for me?”
The lupine female began speaking in a low voice, providing him with the information he needed to know. The director listened quietly without interruption until she was finished and only then did he ask a few questions for clarification.
When they were done, she handed the plastic flower back to him and he reaffirmed his acceptance on her condition of anonymity. With new thoughts to think about, Marcelo climbed back into the cart and sped across the grounds back to his office.
“Hey, lil' fox, are you okay?” Wendy asked. She knelt down in the grass beside Kevin and looked at him in concern. The small fennec fox sat on the ground with his back against one of the small domes, his knees up and his head down on them. He lifted his head only enough to peer back at the Golden Retriever. Moisture in his eyes glistened in the late morning sun.
“No, 'm not okay,” he mumbled, dropping his forehead back onto his knees.
“Are you hurting?” she asked gently. “Are you having transformation pains?”
“No, but I wanna go home!” the teenager replied plaintively. “I don't want to do this anymore!” Wendy stretched out a hand and put her fingers lightly on his shoulder. She could feel him shaking, but before she could inquire further, he volunteered the information on his own.
“Whelan killed himself, Dante died because he couldn't take the changes, and now one of my best friends has murdered Travis in a fight! I'm… scared!” he blurted out. “What if I'm next to die?”
“Kevin…” Wendy began, not really knowing what to say, “I'm just as sorry as you are that all these things have happened, but you know you can't go home ever again.” She gestured around at the simulated colony, even though he wasn't looking at her. “This setting is going to be the closest thing to a home that any of us will ever see again.”
“I'm too young to do this!” Kevin exclaimed into his knees. “I shouldn't have come here!”
“You were adult enough to take responsibility for your own life,” Wendy reminded him. “You're no boy, Kevin – you're a man… even if you do have large ears and a fluffy tail. You can take it all as experience just as the rest of us have to do. You aren't alone, and you don't have to go through this alone. These events can frighten anybody!”
The young fox didn't respond and she felt helpless. Her heart went out to him, but she was inexperienced at trying to lift anyone out of fear and depression. However, she did know someone who was.
Wendy moved her hand to his cheek and brushed it gently with a finger. “Come on,” she suggested quietly. “Let's go see Erin. Perhaps she can lend a better ear than my own.”
“Whu-why?” Kevin asked with a hard swallow. He looked up at the canine through moist eyes. Ever since she had been attacked by wild coyotes out in the forest, Kevin had spent a good deal of time around Erin and was suddenly afraid that Wendy was trying to push him together with her to get his mind off his fears. He liked Erin a lot, but after his breakup with Rose, he wasn't interested in another relationship.
“Because she's our counselor,” Wendy reminded him without understanding his hesitation. “She can listen and help you through your fears. I'm… I'm not very good at this, but I care, Kevin. We all have to stick together through this, and no matter what happens, you will never be alone!”
The young fox lifted his head and then wiped his eyes with both hands. He felt foolish, but he was still afraid. If they were dying off one by one now, how were they to ever survive on another world?
Wendy held out a hand to him and he took it after a brief hesitation. She helped him to his feet and then walked with him toward the place she had last seen the other fennec fox.
Kristen was kneeling in the dirt in her garden, idly trying to force herself to concentrate on her work instead of moping around in fear of what had happened during the night. Just when she had finally patched things up with Jon, he had been taken from her. She didn't want to believe that the male cougar had actually killed Travis, but due to his criminal past, she was ashamed to think that he might have killed the German Shepherd. After all, he had previously admitted to killing another Fur – the reason for his very presence at the Institute was proof of that. That murder had come about because of a woman, and Kristen was almost afraid that this crime had also been done over a woman, namely herself.
She didn't want to be the cause of anyone's death, even Travis Tyndall's. She'd hated the canine for what he'd tried to do to her, but she had never wished him dead – that was simply not the way she'd been raised to believe – and she certainly didn't feel vindicated about it. Jon had once taken a life. Had he now taken another?
The lioness choked back a sob and fought back the tears. It would have been better if she'd just allowed Travis to have his conquest, she thought. He might have been insufferable to live with afterward, but he would still be alive and no one would have had to defend her.
She looked up toward the overhead clouds without actually seeing them, but then something at the edge of her vision made her look back across the camp. There always seemed to be movement around the colony that she tried to ignore, but ever since her transformation, her feline eyes missed little around her. She didn't always remember things until later, but her visual acuity was much sharper than it had ever been. Despite her preoccupation, something made her notice this particular movement across the settlement.
Marcelo, Sheriff Davis, Deputy Loggia and Agent Dorian entered through the colony gate, all bearing looks of determination. Martin locked the gate behind them and took up a position inside the fence to wait. Other Furs around the colony stopped what they were doing and watched as the small group made its way toward the Great Dome. Some of them wondered if the humans were there to conduct more interviews, but when Avon met them coming out of the large geodesic structure, he listened to the director for a moment and then leveled a large paw at one of the smaller domes nearby.
The large bear followed them to the place he'd indicated and then a hush fell over the grounds. Kristen got up onto all fours and padded quietly out of the garden to get closer.
Avon looked into the open doorway of the dome and knocked on the side with his thick knuckles. “Jazz, can you come out here, please?” he called.
The eldest of the vixens appeared momentarily, pulling a strap of her cutoff overalls up onto her shoulder. She saw the sheriff and deputy before she looked at the director and suddenly she buried her face into her black-furred hands with a choked sob.
“You know why we're here,” asked Marcelo, “don't you?”
“Yes…” the fox croaked out in a raspy voice.
“Jasmine Fleur,” Sheriff Davis told her in a matter-of-fact tone, “you are under arrest on suspicion for the murder of Travis Tyndall. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in the court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you by the Furmankind Institute. Do you understand these rights as they have been given to you?”
Jasmine wiped the moisture from her eyes, dropped her hands and nodded with a forlorn look of resignation. “Yes.”
Deputy Loggia stepped forward with a pair of handcuffs and the vixen offered her hands behind her back to the woman. The cuffs were locked about her furry wrists and then the deputy led her back toward the gate. Marcelo whispered to Avon and then both of them followed behind Davis and Dorian. The grizzly was the only one who didn't keep his eyes straight ahead. The leader of the Furs looked around at those gathered around, but shook his head silently. With just a look, his expression telegraphed that he would fill them in as soon as he knew more, but for now they should go about their tasks.
Three hours later, Jon Sunset looked up from his bunk in the cell he had been occupying in the sheriff's jail. The standard orange coveralls he'd been so used to wearing in the Colorado prison wouldn't fit his altered form, so they had had allowed him to remain in the exercise shorts and tee shirt he'd been wearing at the time. The thick door at the other end of the large room opened and the first person through the opening was a familiar vixen – in handcuffs. She was followed in by Deputy Loggia and the dark-haired woman took her to the cell adjacent to his.
The red and black furred fox glanced at him sorrowfully while the handcuffs were removed, but then she turned away from him and quietly crawled up onto the bunk in her cell. In the silence of the jail, she curled up on the mattress with her face near the wall.
The deputy turned toward him and approached his cell. She unlocked his door and then opened it for him. “Come on,” she said when he simply looked back at her. “You're being released.”
“Uhm… why?” he asked. “What's happened?”
“All your questions will be answered by Dr. Delgado. This way, please.”
The cougar looked back at the vixen with a frown before he walked out of the cell. Loggia caught his look and simply nodded. That simple gesture told Jon volumes, even if he didn't know the details.
He wanted to say something encouraging to Jasmine, but he didn't know what to say. Finally without a word, he turned and followed the deputy from the room. She led him down a wide corridor and let him into a small break room. Upon the table between two solitary chairs were a couple cups of fresh steaming coffee and a tray of typical java condiments.
“Have a seat, make yourself comfortable and have some coffee,” the deputy directed. Still somewhat puzzled by the sudden change of events, Jon sat down, reached for one of the cups and a spoon for the sugar. Marcelo entered the room a moment later and the deputy closed the door behind her on the way out.
“Hello, Jon,” the swarthy man said quietly, taking the other cup. “How are you?”
“I'm not sure I fully understand what's happened, Marcelo. Did Jasmine….?”
The director sipped his coffee and then nodded. “Yes, she has confessed to killing Travis. If everything she told us is true, it may be a case of self-defense, but that's not for us to decide. She will be taken to the Furmankind Institute headquarters in Stockholm for a hearing and evaluation.”
“Self-defense? How did you find out she did it? Surely she didn't confess before you confronted her.”
“I can't tell you who it was, but there was a whistle-blower in the colony that sent word to me that Jasmine was overheard telling her sisters what happened. Jasmine allowed herself to be taken away peacefully when we approached her.”
Jon pushed his drink cup away from him and then put both hands upon the edge of the table. “What did she tell you, or am I allowed to know?”
The director sat back and absently stroked his Van Dyke beard. “Jon,” he said after further hesitation, “I owe you a sincere apology. Because of Brian Barrett, I readily jumped to conclusions and simply assumed that he had resurfaced to kill again.” He looked down into his coffee cup. “I'm sorry, Jon.”
The mountain lion appreciated the man's sincere confession, but he was more interested in hearing what had transpired during the night. “Thanks, Marcelo. I accept your apology. While Travis and I were often at odds with one another, thoughts of actually killing him never entered my mind. Despite all he's done, Brian Barrett is gone, Marcelo; for good, I think.”
The director looked up and sighed. “I'm glad to hear it, Jon.”
“So what happens now? Will Jasmine get a mind wipe for her crime?”
Marcelo looked alarmed. He shook his head and took another sip from his cup, grimaced, then placed it on the table beside Jon's. “They don't go to those extremes for self-defense cases. The hearing and evaluation will determine how she will be penalized.”
“So you do think it was self-defense,” Jon remarked.
The director nodded. “Travis had made more enemies among the Furs than just you and Kristen,” he told him. “I've received complaints about his actions toward the women for months, and not just from the Furs. He seemed determined to bed someone, but no one wanted to have anything to do with him. The more frustrated he got, the more aggressive he was, and he even attempted to force himself upon a couple of them. Whether or not he was successful remains to be seen, since no one has come forward about it, but cases like that sometimes never get reported.”
Jon nodded, surprised at none of this. Marcelo continued, putting both elbows upon the table and setting his chin upon his hands.
“One of those he tried to force himself onto was Jasmine's youngest sister, Rose. Dahlia showed up and stopped him in time, but he swore vengeance on all three of the sisters, each of them having refused him at one time or another. When Jasmine got up during the night to use the bathroom in one of the colony latrines that Travis himself had dug and constructed, he was waiting for her. I doubt he knew which of the sisters would be out during the night, but she said when he saw her he came after her right away, catching her near the sheep pen.”
Marcelo frowned and glanced back toward the door. “I think we've all become familiar with Jasmine's habit of going around in as little clothing as possible since her fur grew thick enough for cover. She said that when she got up to visit the latrine, she wasn't even wearing her shorts, thinking it would be dark enough in the middle of the night for a quick dash there and back. When Travis discovered her state of undress, he tried to rape her, just as he did your friend Kristen.”
Jon laid his ears back, tightening his grip on the edge of the table, but he then had to make himself stop when he realized he was leaving permanent imprints in the pressed wood. Marcelo saw the reaction and swallowed nervously.
“You probably already know this since you've been around them more than I have, but before coming to the Institute Jasmine and her sisters were all martial arts students. When Travis tried to force himself on her, she shoved him back and then whirled around on him, intending to place a hard kick to his chest to knock him away. This was the first time since her transformation that she had tried this maneuver, but with longer digitigrade limbs, it altered her aim and she kicked him in the throat instead.”
Marcelo ran the fingers of one hand through his coal-black hair and then shook his head. “Travis probably died instantly from the force of her kick, but she didn't know it at the time. When he fell back hard and broke the fence, she saw it only as a chance to get away from him, so she ran. It wasn't until the next morning that she found out with the rest of you that Travis was dead.”
Jon sat back in his seat until his tail pressed up against the chair's metal back and pinched. He repositioned his hip and then pulled his tail up into his lap.
“So what happens now?” he asked in the sudden quiet of the room.
Marcelo looked at his wristwatch and then nodded toward the cougar. “They should have your release documents filled out by now. Once I've put my thumbprint on them, we can get you back to the Institute and then I can tell your fellow Furs what I've just told you. I'm sorry it's had to come down to this, but I think everyone should know that you're innocent of the crime and that Jasmine was probably only defending herself.”
“Probably?” Jon asked, twitching an ear.
Marcelo frowned. “What I've just told you of the situation is what she told Agent Dorian. As far as I'm concerned, she's probably telling the truth, but as I mentioned earlier, it will be up to the hearing and evaluation by the Furmankind Institute to determine her case. We can all try to support her by believing her story, but until this has been resolved, it's all supposition.”
The director stood up and motioned his companion to do the same. “Come on, Jon. Let's go home.”
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.