The flashing lights of the squad car cut reassuringly through the eerie predawn fog. Announcing security and protection, they told the grim night a comforting story. But it was not true.
Detective Papa Grizzloski stood outside Grandma’s House puffing hard on his cigar. The rancid smoke was bliss after the stench inside, and he breathed deeply to get the awful reek of fresh blood and burnt molasses out of his nose. Cookies were ruined forever.
Voices crackling on the radio told him the crime scene team was on their way. The grumpy brown bear, with more and more gray in his fur these days, puffed and he thought, then he tried not to think anymore. Not yet. An icy wind cut through the trees, rustling the barren branches above. His fur bristled beneath the open trench coat but he could not escape the sticky, dirty feeling that clung to him like a second skin.
Ouch, he thought. Poor choice of words.
A rapid fluttering to the right drew his attention. His partner hovered there, wings a pinkish blur. She looked uneasily back at the diner. Her tiny frame trembled slightly but Grizz knew better than to ask a fairy if she was OK,. They hate to look soft. The fact that she hadn’t yet gotten on his case about the cigar told him everything he needed to know. She hated it when he smoked.
Detective Pixie Emberlight finally met his eyes. “I just saw her yesterday, Grizz.”
He nodded, cigar clenched tight in his teeth. “It’s a bad one all right. Worst I’ve seen in a long time.” He didn’t say when the worst was. They both knew.
“And Red?” Pixie shook her head and ran a tiny hand through her short, spiky blond hair. “She was, what, fifteen? If that?”
Grizz nodded. “Goes to school with Baby.”
“You going to tell her?”
“Guess I’ll have to,” he growled, turning to face the two unmarked vans trundling up the dirt road. “Better give these guys a heads up. They’re in for a long day.”
Pixie looked back at Grandma’s Place as he lumbered away, her delicate, child-like features colored crimson by the blinking Open sign in the window, almost as red as the bloody paw prints leading out of the door into the forest.
Big, clawed paw prints.
“We all are,” she said.
As the techs went to work inside, cameras flashing and plastic crinkling, Grizz and Pixie ran it again with the grumpy dwarf who called it in.
He and the rest of the crew from White Rose Mines had been celebrating down at the Wishing Well. The youngest dwarf, the dopey one, hit it off with a fairy. They’d been carrying on even after the rest of the gang hi-ho’ed home at closing time. After some heavy petting in the parking lot and an exchange of numbers, the drunken dwarf left.
Feeling the hangover coming on, and slated for the first shift of the day, he stopped at Grandma’s for a cup of coffee and a fortifying bite.
“I just can’t believe it,” he said, straightening up from the bushes after his latest bout of puking. “I mean, who’d want to hurt Grandma and Red?”
Grizz thought of the paw prints and shared a quick sideways glance with Pixie. He thought he had a pretty good idea who, and he saw that she did too. “I’m getting too old for this,” Grizz said, pocketing his notebook. “I need a hibernation.”
Grandma had been baking the day’s second batch of cookies, gearing up for the breakfast rush. They sat on the counter, hopelessly scorched. The next batch was still in the oven. Acrid smoke was thick inside, even with all the windows open.
Doesn’t seem right, Grizz thought. When’s the last time Grandma made anything less than a perfect cookie?
Grizz’s gut made him a known authority on Grandma’s cookies, but it was hard to focus when what was left of the old lady was spread out on the kitchen floor. It wasn’t much. The techs said she died first, probably. The old woman had been killed quickly by a blow to the head, then her throat had been cut before the psycho had really gone to work on her. At least she was dead before she was skinned.
They said Red probably woke up and came downstairs after she’d heard the attack and surprised the killer. The kid had put up a fight though. Red was found near the back door, defensive wounds on her arms and hands and dark bloody fur under her pink fingernails.
Grandma bought it fast, they were sure. Poor Red. She’d held on longer.
Elsewhere in the forest, the Wolf strutted beneath the rising sun in his Grandma suit. He cast loving gazes at his reflection in the stream, blew a little kiss.
“What big eyes I have,” he said dreamily, spreading his arms wide to hug the new day. The tight skin stretched over his muscles like a sweater just out of the dryer, one still damp on the inside.
“Why, all the better to see with, my dear.”
A skittering noise from the nearby brush made his ear twitch beneath the gray wig. He tamped down on his desire to give chase. “When I became a Grandma, I put away wolfish things,” he giggled.
He twirled, hugging his wool shawl around himself and laughed as he danced on.
Lunch came and went, not that either of them ate, and Grizz was less than surprised when he and Pixie were summoned into the chief’s office. The press was rabid for updates on what the morning papers had called “Grandma’s House of Horrors,” and the boss was bouncing off the walls. He was jumping on his desk when they came in.
Grizz had thought the old guy’s leaping days were behind him, but said nothing as he slouched down into the ancient sofa in the corner. Pixie hovered nearby. Neither had ever seen the chubby gray rabbit so red before.
“Close it,” barked Chief Jack Hoppinsky, big ears flopping as he nodded at the door. “Where are we?”
“Prints came back,” Pixie said, pushing the door shut. “It’s him all right. Fur under Red’s nails is a match too.”
Hoppinsky bounced back and forth frantically, scattering papers to the floor, wringing his tiny hands. “The Wolf? You’re sure?”
Pixie nodded solemnly.
“Crunchy carrots!” the chief shrieked. There is no sound more terrible in the world than a rabbit screaming. “How is this possible after the last time? With the pigs? I thought he was in a padded room somewhere? In a jacket that fastened up the back, right? Eating through a straw.”
“So did we,” Grizz said. “I’ve got a call in to Clover Patch now. If he did escape and they didn’t notice, I imagine they won’t be calling back too fast. Meanwhile, we’ve got everyone checking his usual spots.”
“Do whatever you have to,” the chief’s nose twitched faster. “Automatic overtime. Comb the forest. Go house to house. We’ve got to find him.”
Grizz nodded. “His old place was empty when we went by. He hasn’t been back to that den. I’m not sure what else we can do right now.”
The rabbit exploded, leaping higher off the desk with each bellow. “You. Think. Of. Something! You’re supposed to be the best.”
There was a loud buzz and then a very timid voice said over the intercom. “Chief? It’s the city on line two, the Wizard’s office. They say it’s urgent.”
Hoppinsky blanched. He sighed heavily and waved the detectives away. “For the love of leafy lettuce,” he reached for the phone. “Just find him.”
Tired of pretending he didn’t notice her staring at him, Grizz finally turned from his computer to face his partner. “If you’ve got something on your mind, Pixie, just say it.”
She shrugged, sitting on the edge of his desk absently swinging her little feet. “I just thought it would be nice if we had someone we could go to for some guidance, you know? Someone who might have some insight?”
Grizz growled. “We have the crystal gazers for that.”
“True. But those guys will take forever gathering up a bunch of potion ingredients and then wait for the moon to be right or something, and even then they’ll give us crap we already know. We need something to go on now.”
“I suppose you have a suggestion?” Grizz said. But he already knew the answer. It made his fur stand on end. He had enough on his mind already without letting all of that back in.
“What about it, partner?” Pixie put a tiny hand on his enormous paw. “I know how you feel about it, but I think she’d be juuuust right.”
Exactly eight formidable steel doors, at least a dozen armed guards and three life sentences stand between Gloria “Goldie” Lockes and the rest of the world twenty-four hours a day. It was, by any reasonable estimate, more than sufficient. She was, after all, a teenage girl.
For Grizz it was not enough. Not even close.
Musical clinking announced her arrival. It was the sound of her chains and the movement of the three tin guards who escorted her to the interview room from her private, double reinforced cell many floors below.
Goldie is tiny. But her somber dignity and the graceful way she moved, the deliberate way she spoke, created a tension that always made her seem much larger. She was even paler now, though she’d seemed alabaster-like before. She had not aged a day, except for her eyes. Her huge, sparkly eyes gazed out precociously from two dark recessions in her otherwise flawless face like jewels wrapped in black velvet.
She smiled politely at Pixie, but did not look at Grizz until she was seated across the table and the guards had finished fastening her bonds to the thick bolts on the floor and left.
“Hello, Papa Bear,” she said as the door shut.
“Nice do,” he nodded upward. Her golden curls, the luscious locks that had graced a thousand tabloid pages, were gone. Instead she sported the stiff bristle of a fresh buzz cut above her immense green eyes.
“Trying out a new look,” she batted her eyelashes playfully. “I hear I’m not the only one.”
“What do you know about it?” Pixie asked.
Goldie did not acknowledge the fairy, did not break eye contact with Grizz. “Scared to come see me alone?”
“We’re busy, Goldie,” Grizz said. “Do you have something for me on this or not?”
“Bring any good photos?”
“A reduced sentence, perhaps?”
“Your daughter’s pelt?”
Grizz bit down on the inside of his cheek so hard it bled, but said nothing. He saw Pixie tense, ready to jump in if he lost it. He wouldn’t. He’d known this would happen. Taunting was the price he’d have to pay before the girl would say something useful, if she even had something useful to say.
“Then I don’t think I’ll be able to help,” Goldie made a pouty face in response to his silence.
“Come on,” Grizz forced a smile. “Show me how much smarter you are than us. Although, how you found out about the murders so fast in here, I don’t know.”
“They’re just walls, Grizz,” Goldie was smiling once more. He thought again of how she never seemed to blink. It was unsettling. “How’s Mama and Baby?”
“Good. Do say hello for me.”
“I will,” he lied.
“You’re lying,” she said. “But that’s OK. I’m sure I’ll see them again soon.”
Grizz snorted. “Better hope not. My wife would love a little alone time with you.”
Goldie closed her eyes, drug her tongue slowly around her pink lips and turned her face up to bask in the fluorescent lights. She was quiet for a long time. “Do you ever think how different our lives would be if they’d been home when I came to visit?”
“Goodbye, Goldie,” Grizz stood, picked up his coat from the table.
“Grandmothers,” Goldie snapped back, eyes bright again and her beauty queen smile firmly reapplied. “Why did our our friend, Mr. Canis lupus, want to kill Grandma?”
“He could have been after Red,” Pixie said.
“No,” Goldie’s voice whined with bored disdain. “She was subsidiary. He did not show Red the same, shall we say, special treatment as Grandma. Why, Grizz? Why does he want her skin?”
“Try harder, Grizz.”
“I don’t know, Goldie. That’s why we’re here. He never did anything like this before. Nobody has. You’re the only one to ever —”
“What about before?” she snapped. “What did he want from the pigs?”
“To eat them?”
“No. He wanted in. Inside. To be included. To be one of them. He only tried to eat them after they rejected him.”
“So what?” Grizz slammed his giant paws on the table. “He wanted to be a pig? Now he wants to be an old lady? Why? Make sense, Goldie.”
“Consider the character of grandmother,” Goldie said, in a teacherly tone now. “What are her qualities?”
“She’s a human?” Grizz said. “She’s a woman? She’s — I don’t know.”
“She’s loved,” Goldie said. “She’s cherished. Cared for.”
Grizz sat up straighter. Goldie saw him get it, and began to laugh.
“The world’s changing, Papa Bear. The old stories are dying. You’re not looking for a wolf anymore. He’s not going to be what you want him to be. And neither will I.”
She began to cackle as she bucked and strained against the chains. The noise brought the guards in, their metallic hands firmly pressing her thrashing little body back into the chair. Veins throbbed in her slim neck.
Grizz grabbed his coat again and made for the door. “Thanks.”
“What would you know about it?” Goldie shrieked. “You don’t even appreciate the skin you’re in. I do. I deserve it. I’m a beast, Grizz! I’m an animal!”
Grizz paused in the doorway and said, without turning around, “I know you are, Goldie. That’s why you’re in a cage.”
She spit at the tin guards, frothing as she bit down on their metal fingers so hard that her teeth broke. “See you soon, Papa Bear,” blood dribbled down her chin as her gleeful cries echoed after him down the long, empty corridor. The sound roused response cries from other inmates. From that chorus of lunacy, as the first of the big doors clanged shut, Grizz heard her scream. “I’ll be the best bear you ever saw!”
He heard her again many times in his head as they left, and knew he would for a long time to come. See you soon, Papa Bear.
He sat on the bench like Grandma. He folded his hands in his lap, like he’d seen her do so many times. The sun was hot, but he pulled his sweater around his shoulders anyway, smoothed his hair primly and waited for the bus. At his slippered feet was a suitcase full of grandmother things. In his skin-covered paw, a ticket.
Nearby, an older gentleman paused to set down his large trunk. He removed his fedora and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. He looked over from behind his tiny gold spectacles and nodded. “Good afternoon, ma’am.”
He nodded back, feeling his new face slide over his hair. It was hot and he was sweating inside the Grandma mask. Quickly, he put a hand to his face, as if to hide a blush, and tugged at his chin to realign the eyes. He smiled.
What big teeth I have, he thought.
The old man looked away, to the large clock on the station wall, and then back to his own ticket.
All the better to smile with, my dear.
Later, back at the office, Grizz smothered his troubles in honey buns, thinking over what Goldie had said. After his third, he licked the sticky sauce from his claws and paused for a breath.
“This is going to go late,” Pixie said from her desk, opposite his own. She was doodling hearts and flowers on a blank manilla folder. She did that when she was thinking real hard. It was the only fairy cliché she allowed herself. “You should call your wife.”
Grizz knew she was right, and knew also that he would not tell Mama about visiting the prison. Things were only just now getting back to normal at home. There had been a time he thought they never would. Pixie absently rubbed her neck, staring hard at her doodling, and Grizz saw the name tattooed there: Peter. She must have a headache, he thought.
He could always tell when his partner had a headache because she rubbed that tattoo. He knew a little about Pixie’s marriage, knew it didn’t last and ended badly. That was before they’d been teamed up. She didn’t like to talk about Peter and he knew better than to ask.
She looked up from her flowers and spoke her thoughts aloud. “So he’s trying to be Grandma now?”
Grizz tossed the wrapper from his latest diet derailment into the trash. “Not Grandma, I think. A grandmother.”
Pixie fluttered up from her booster seat and began to pace back and forth on the desk, dainty little ballet steps high on her toes. “So what does he think grandmothers do?”
Grizz shrugged. “Knit? Watch Judge Judy? My wife’s mother is pretty fond of reminding her how much better she could have done than me.”
Pixie kept pacing. “Understandable. But what else? What does he want? Where would he go if he wants to be the grandmother of the new story he’s writing?”
The mail cart came squeaking by, Misty Muffet swishing behind it. “Hey, Grizz,” she winked. “Still married?”
Grizz followed the administrative aid’s long legs up to the hem of her short skirt. She watched him make the trip, and winked again when he finally made his way up to her flirty blue eyes. “Still married. Thanks for asking.”
“Dang,” she set their mail on the desk. “Maybe tomorrow. Hey, Pixie.”
“Hey, Misty,” came the diminutive detective’s distracted response.
“How’s the big case?”
“That bad huh?” Misty put a hand on her cocked hip and shook her head slowly. “It’s just awful about ol’ Grandma and lil’ Red.”
“Yeah,” Grizz said, turning back to his computer. There were no revelations to be found in his inbox though, no matter how many times he hit refresh.
“Misty,” Pixie looked up, “what do grandmothers do?”
“Grandmas?” Misty put a single finger to her chin and pursed her glossy lips. “I dunno. Mine just plays bingo at the casino down in Ft. Lauderdale and complains about the Democrats.”
Pixie frowned. “My grandparents live in Florida too.”
Grizz stood up. “So does my wife’s mom.”
They pushed past Misty, tipping the mail cart and scattering envelopes as Grizz bounded for the door. Pixie swooped behind him, calling an apology back to Misty as they went.
“Lord have mercy,” Misty said, bending to straighten the cart. “Sometimes I just don’t know…”
Siren screaming, lights flashing, the car tore down the highway, passing on the left and the right, with Pixie at the wheel. From the passenger seat, Grizz stretched his leg over and floored the gas as he yelled into the radio. “The bus station,” he pressed one paw hard against the dash. “Jeez, Pixie, get us there alive, will ya?”
He roared and slammed his eyes shut as Pixie nicked the bumper of a semi, veered to the right and scraped along the guardrail. Sparks danced like coked up fireflies. She got passed it and pulled back onto the road.
“Quiet down, you big baby,” her arms were spread wide across the wheel, wings a humming blur. “Don’t you dare touch that brake pedal.”
Grizz obediently kept his left foot floored, smashed himself even further into the cramped seat and got back to the radio. “He didn’t eat her. He’s wearing her, Chief. I promise. He’ll be there.”
He slammed the mic down and cast a spiteful glance at Pixie. She winked and gave him a big thumbs up. “Get your hand back on the wheel,” he said, closing his eyes as she came up on another big truck. The metallic crunch of the side mirror being ripped off made him think of tin guards and Goldie.
They’re just walls, Grizz.
And anything can break, he thought.
Years ago, when he’d been assigned the Bloody Bear case, they’d all thought hate was the only possible motive. Ugly, but not unheard of. They couldn’t have been more wrong. An image came to him, one he rarely entertained in the light of day: A beautiful little blond girl wrapped in bloody bear hides, smiling wide to show a crooked set of homemade bear tooth dentures. Stuck between the crooked mismatched teeth, the pieces of the parents she’d eaten.
Grizz could still see her growling, blood-streaked face glaring out at him from beneath her gory hoodie, the ears stapled on too far apart, when he’d cornered her in his house, waiting for his daughter to come home.
I’ll be the best bear you ever saw.
He rubbed the scar on his arm, teeth marks still dimpled the skin beneath the fur.
See you soon, Papa Bear.
The wolf could never be a real grandmother. He wanted to be a new character in a different story. So he would do what he thought grandmothers did. And, as everyone knew, grandmothers go to Florida. Grandmothers bake cookies too, and he’d tried that first. Had it been the smell that woke Red? The smoke? When she’d seen what had happened, when his fantasy had come apart, he had to kill her. It was just like Goldie said. They had been looking for a wolf all day.
Grizz heard a loud horn blast and screeching tires but kept his eyes shut until Pixie yelled, “Get ready to break, big guy.”
He was more than ready.
The doors of the charter bus opened with a mechanic swish. The Wolf fought the urge to dash forward, to be the first in line. No, that wouldn’t be very proper. Instead he smoothed his shawl, stood and slowly retrieved his suitcase.
A large shadow fell over him from behind. A smaller one appeared, floating at it’s shoulder.
“Don’t move,” the big one growled.
The Wolf slowly set down his bag. His eyes stayed on the bus. Part of his mind was already flying down the road to Florida. The other half knew he’d never see it.
“May I help you, sir” he asked in his new voice, just as he’d practiced.
“Save it,” came a smaller voice. “Put your hands up. You’re under arrest.”
The Wolf began to turn. A low whining sound came crawling up from his belly, leaking out from his throat. Not fair, he thought. It’s not fair.
He forced his claws through the skin of his Grandma gloves. There was a sound like ripping burlap as he opened his mouth wide, tearing the bottom half of the mask free. The mouth and cheeks dangled to the side of his gaping maw of fangs. Not fair. It’s not fair.
“What quaint thoughts you have,” the Wolf said, and lunged for Grizz.
Grizz was too slow, and he was knocked to the ground. He struggled to keep the snapping jaws away from his neck. Pixie had dodged the rush. She came down hard from above on the back of the Wolf’s head. He slumped to the side, eyes rolling back and his gray wig sliding off in a trickle of blood. He started to roll, and Grizz hit him again.
There was a snapping sound as the Wolf’s head flew back and he collapsed. There are very few creatures, no matter how crazy, who can take a direct right cross from an angry Detective Papa Grizzloski.
“The better to shut you the hell up with,” Grizz said, rubbing his paw. “Nice work, Pixie.”
She was already cuffing the unconscious Wolf as their backup moved in from the perimeter, the hopping mad Chief leading the charge.
Pixie sighed, “I need a hibernation.”
Grizz growled his agreement, and turned to retrieve the Wolf’s bag. A loud bang and a high pitched squealing drew his attention to the bus. An old man in a classy suit and a long dark coat was shoving a big trunk into the luggage compartment. He looked up anxiously, and Grizz got a sudden whiff of fear. And something else, something … wrong.
He followed his gut over, and gently pushed the old man aside. He muttered weak protests as Grizz reached down and easily snapped the lock from his trunk. Grizz tipped it slightly, and out spilled a small boy. His keening was muffled by a large ball gag, and he was bound at the wrists and ankles with thick silver tape.
He was naked.
“It’s OK,” the old man said, shakily mopping his face with a sodden handkerchief. “It’s all OK,” his hands inched up over his shoulders as he lightly reached out a foot and kicked the prostrate boy with the tip of his polished loafer. There sounded the telltale tap, tap of solid wood. “He’s, uh, you see, not a real boy.”
Grizz looked from the boy to the old man. “No hibernation today, Pixie.”
He punched the old man so hard that three teeth were embedded in his paw. Deep. That would earn him a write up, probably a suspension. He did not care. Everything moved in slow motion around him then, and Pixie’s words were drawn out yawns and unrecognizable. Grizz slumped down onto the bench and let the others take over.
Later, at home, Mama and Baby saw his bandaged paw and asked what happened. He told them a story. But it was not true.