The Bear Paw Beat

By Marco Etheridge

A black low-rider beetled down the potholed road towards a glaring cloud of neon that illuminated the Electric Sewer. Pulses of garish color spilled from ancient glass tubes that buzzed and hummed down the length of the bar’s crumbling facade. Reds, pinks, and blues mixed with putrid fog, acrid exhaust, and a stinking steam that poured up from the street grates.

The car slid through the pool of swirling color like a shark cruising a psychedelic coral reef. A nightmare rainbow was reflected in ten coats of hand-rubbed lacquer as the coupe sped past the crowd of smokers and hustlers schooling outside the front doors. Brake lights flared and died as the driver swung a hard turn into an alley.

— Hey, Spike, where we going? Why we going around the back way? I thought you was taking me dancing. Boogie Nights at the Sewer you said.

— I am taking you dancing, just like I promised, but I gotta have a slam first. Besides, Carlos lets me park out back. Safer for my paint job.

— Yeah, right, ‘cause you care more about this car than you do about me.

— Don’t be like that, Val. This ride and I go way back, long time fore I met your sweet ass.

— Oh, I like it when you talk nice about my ass. You’re a bad dog for real.

Spike’s only response was a grunt. The dark alley was narrow, and he had his paint job to think about. He swung the custom welded-chain steering wheel to the right. The car nosed across a graveled dead-end and into a narrow parking slot. Someone had daubed white paint on the concrete block wall. The sloppy letters spelled out ‘Reversed’ and trails of white ran down below the mess. Spike curled his lip in a sneer. Probably that dumbass Andre, whacked on juice and slam judging by the shit work and bad spelling. What you get for trusting a muscle-headed boar to paint one simple word. Not that it mattered, not who painted the fucking sign, or that Carlos would flip his pink wig if someone parked in his goddamn spot. He wasn’t going to be here long.

Spike twisted the ignition. The heavy ring of keys rattled and jangled as the big-block Chevy shuddered and died. He pulled a leather pouch from the console beside the bucket seat, laid it in his lap, and slid open the zipper. He grinned to himself. Tools for the needy, old dog.

Unscrewing the top from a silver canister, he spooned a glob of the sticky green slam into a gleaming glass pipe. The chemical tang of the slam hit him in the face and his eyes watered and blinked. Two involuntary tears disappeared into the sable fur of his snout.

— Damn, that’s some fine shit.

The human girl smiled that brainless smile of hers. She was fidgeting with her fishnets, pulling them tight over those crazy naked legs. You gonna miss that, Spike, don’t lie to yourself. He opened the door and his jaws at the same time.

— C’mon, Val, let’s hit this and then we get you out on the dance floor.

— Look at me. I’m dressed for boogie nights, not ass-freezing-ass winter nights. Why we gotta get out of the car?

Spike shot the human a hard look, his ears up and pointed.

— You think I’m stinking up my ride with slam smoke? Think again, Girl. A canine’s gotta have some respect. Outta the car. We blow one over there behind the dumpster, then get you out on the floor.

The bitch threw him a pout, but she yanked the handle and shouldered open the door, as eager for the slam as he was. He pointed towards shadows behind a huge dumpster and she wobbled across the gravel. A discarded condom trailed from one of her stiletto heels.

Spike was two steps behind her, then three, then four. The human girl looked over her shoulder with that goofy smile she had. Spike waved her on. He took one more good eyeful of those long naked legs encased in fishnets. Then he stopped walking.

A hulking form lunged out of the shadows, snake-fast and silent. A massive jaw clamped onto the chick’s throat, had her hard and fast before she could scream. Her head snapped back from the force of the impact, but the thing held her upright in the darkness. Spike saw her thin white arms flailing in the dark. A pink clutch purse flew from her hand and bounced across the gravel. He heard the sound of cheap plastic skittering over loose stones, followed by the deep crunch of teeth on bone.

The last thing Spike saw before he turned away was a black fountain jetting into the cold night air. The girl’s lifeblood arched once, twice, seemed to hang in the stillness above her head. Then the spray fell back to earth as the huge shadow shook her body like a rag doll.

Spike shuffled back to his low-rider, a silver lighter flaring over the slam pipe. The pipe gurgled and the slam screamed through in his brain, but not loud enough to drown out the sounds of flesh being pulled from bone.

He took one last long hit, knocked out the pipe, and slipped himself into the driver’s seat. The big 426 rumbled to life. Spike felt the pulse of the loping engine, revved the gas as the slam revved in his skull. Then his paw went to the shifter. Fuck it. A dog’s gotta do what a dog’s gotta.

* * *

A tall neon sign climbed a decrepit brick wall into the frigid night; a tower of buzzing glass shilling for cheap dreams and empty promises. Three stories above the deserted street, shifting colors fell through dirt-streaked windows into a seedy apartment.

The cold, sickly glow washed over the body of a snoring man sprawled across a lumpy foldout sofa bed. His bleached mop-top faded from blue to green to red as the neon blinked. The stubble on his lean mug was three days old. Dirty sheets were tangled around his naked body and one arm was thrown back over his head. The hand at the end of that arm was hidden under a gray-grimed pillow.

Across the room, a door creaked open. For one breath, a lean shadow was backlit in the doorway. Then the silhouette slipped inside the room and the door closed with a soft click. The figure paused, ears alert, yellow eyes glowing. The only movement in the room was the swish of her long tail against the bare floor. The sleeping man continued to snore in a steady, rattling rhythm.

The fox shook her vulpine head and smiled to herself. She sashayed across the room as flashes of neon clashed with her magenta miniskirt. Claws clicked softly against the scarred plank floor. She stopped two paces shy of the rumpled bed, fore paws on her shapely hips. Nothing ever changes with this guy. Thirty years old and he still sleeps like a toddler. Two loud snores later, she gave an exasperated sigh and let a sharp yip break through her teeth.

The sleeping man snapped upright and whipped his hand from beneath the pillow. His desperate fingers were clutching the lower prong of a double-headed dildo, which he waved about like a slippery pistol. The bulbous head of the silicon johnson bounced and jiggled in his fist as he swung it about, looking for a target. The sounds coming from the man’s throat were a mixture of hyperventilation and Tourette’s syndrome. When he finally aimed both eyes and the dildo at the fox, he saw she was smirking at him. The fox thrust her pointed snout at him and laughed.

— That’s a sweet thought, Barry, but we’re quits for that shit, remember?

A look of confusion swept over the man’s face. He looked from the fox to his hand and wiggled the huge dildo as if he had never seen it before. He groaned, threw Mr. Johnson to the foot of the bed, and collapsed back onto his filthy pillow.

— Fucking hell, Vix, you scared the shit outta me.

— Good thing you had that double-header handy. By the way, you should clean that thing. It’s looking a little crusty.

The man moaned; one arm flung over his face.

— Vix, you wanna tell me why you’re standing in my room at… shit, what time is it anyway?

— About six-fifteen in the AM, and we have a problem.

Barry peeked out from under his arm.

— We? As in you and me?

He ran his eyes up the tight curves of her miniskirt, up the taut mounds under her tube top. Then his eyes managed to climb to her face, and he saw a dangerous look he knew all too well.

— Barry, there is no you and me, not since you went back to fucking human chicks. Which, by the way, you said you would never do. Not because I asked you for any promises. Oh no, that was all you and your trash talk. Blah-blah-blah, ain’t nobody like you, Vix, you burn my world down, blah-blah-blah, can’t ever go back. And what happens? The first human sticks her naked ass in the air and you pounce it like a panther. No, more like a stinking penguin, ‘cause a panther would have more damn class.

— Right, yeah, I fucked up. So, this problem that you’re here to talk about at the ass-crack of dawn o’clock, this isn’t a personal problem.

— Oh, I’d say it’s pretty personal for the stiff draining body fluids all over the gravel out back of the Electric Sewer.

Barry felt a bit of focus creeping into his brain, followed by a small sliver of relief.

— Great, someone found a body behind the Sewer, so call the Piggies and let me go back to sleep.

Vix tapped her foot against the planks and the clicking of her claws on wood grated Barry’s jagged nerves.

— I suppose I could do that, Barry. I could ring up the Pigs and tell them about a dead human behind the dumpster at some sleazy fur bar. But then they’d scratch their fat pink heads and call it in to the human cops. Right now, nobody’s calling anybody because Carlos wants this kept quiet. Now get your fucking ass out of that bed and let’s get to work.

Barry heaved himself upright and swung his legs to the planks. He watched Vix click across the floor to his shabby kitchenette. She spun a knob on a two-burner hotplate and poured water into a stained stove top espresso maker. While Vix fussed with the espresso, Barry scratched his mop-top and muttered to himself.

When Vix recrossed the room she perched herself on the edge of the bed and handed Barry a chipped mug of coffee. The deep rich smell of her pelt gave him a jolt far stronger than any caffeine buzz. He slapped a lid on the wave of lust and swallowed down the acrid brew.

— Okay, dead human, dumpster at the Electric Sewer. Probably some back-alley deal gone bad. But the Sewer caters to a mostly furry clientele. Why would humans be offing each other in the back alley?

— Whoa there, cowboy. You’re getting way ahead of yourself. You are one seriously naked ape, but I’ve seen you knocking back shots at the Sewer.

— Yeah, but you were standing right beside me. So, what are you saying? This wasn’t a case of humans go slumming and bad things happen?

— I guess this could be human-on-human, except maybe for the condition of the stiff.

— Okay, I’ll bite. What is the condition of the stiff?

— Eaten, Barry, as in consumed. The stiff was a she, and she was eaten.

Barry stared at her as if not comprehending her words, then let out a long, low whistle. He turned away from her and poured the last of the espresso down his throat.

— I guess we’re going to see Carlos and Andre.

* * *

A full gallon and a half of human blood makes a big puddle. The sun was still a no-show and the mass of blood was a black pool in the grey shadows.

Barry crouched at the edge of the viscous mess, sitting back on his heels while he eyeballed the carnage. What was left of the torso stuck out of the pond like a lumpy island. A disembodied leg lay to one side of the gutted rib-cage and clumps of viscera were strewn about. The faceless skull had rolled away from the torso. The scalp was still attached, and blood-soaked blonde tresses trailed over the staring eyes and into the dark goo.

Barry stood up and half-turned to the bristling black boar standing beside him.

— No one else been back here, Andre?

Andre was a head shorter than Barry, but half again as wide. The bouncer’s huge biceps and pecs bulged out from beneath a black muscle shirt. When he spoke into the frigid morning air, clouds of condensation rolled past his tusks.

— Just the garbage rats that found this mess. They called Carlos and he called me. I called Vix and here we are. I slipped the rats a little something and they blocked the alley with their truck, so nobody been in or out.

— I’m guessing all the rats in town know about this by now.

Andre snorted another plume of steam.

— Sure they know. They also know Carlos. He’s one of them, and they’re scared to death of that pink bastard. No worries on that score. They’ll keep their whiskers clamped. They found this in the gravel.

The big boar held out a pink clutch purse. The plastic was slick and cold in Barry’s hand. He fumbled with the catch. Inside were keys, a lipstick, two glassine packets of blow, and a cabaret card. He held the card up to the dim light.

— Valerie Stultus. I’ll be damned.

Vix barked a short laugh.

— Don’t tell me you know this chick?

— No, not in the way you mean. I know of her, that’s all. She was one of the dancers down at Hairless.

— That high-roller furry joint?

— Yeah, that’s the one. No humans allowed unless they’re dancing the pole. Big money in that joint. You remember this one, Andre?

— Yeah, sure, tall leggy thing. Good to watch on the dance floor.

— Was she in the Sewer last night?

— Naw, I would have noticed. I ain’t seen her.

Barry shook his head and turned back to the bloody mess that was once Ms. Stultus.

— A very dead dancer behind a bar she didn’t go into. I hate this already. Help me out here, Vix. What does that sexy nose of yours tell you?

The fox wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

— It tells me that there’s a lot of blood in the air mixed with a lot of dead human. Nothing like a lake of blood to knock all the other scents to hell. Can’t help you, Lover.

Barry blew out his own cloud and skirted around the edge of the blood pool. On the far side of the mess was a dented green dumpster. A narrow passageway led away between high brick walls. That’s where he found the tracks.

— Vix, you better have a look at this.

He heard her soft paws cross the gravel and then she was beside him looking down. Vix let out a low growl.

— You don’t need a bloodhound to figure this one.

Huge bloody paw prints dappled the gravel. More prints faded away on the cracked concrete of the passageway. The tracks were more than a foot long and tipped with the splayed markings of blood-soaked claws.

Barry looked away from the tracks and up the passageway.

— Okay, a bear. A big fucking bear. He comes out of the passageway, snatches a stray human, eats her, then wanders off. Why exactly he does this is anyone’s guess. Vix, how many murders last year.

— Furry or human? Either way, not more or less than usual. Fur on fur, human on human, same old same old.

— Uh-huh, and how many furry on humans?

— None that I know of.

— Vix, I hate you for waking me up this morning. Let’s get clear of Andre.

They crunched back to where the boar was waiting. Barry jerked a thumb back over his shoulder.

— You got a way to take care of this mess?

— Yeah, Carlos wants it kept quiet. A crew of hyenas and a fire hose, be like it never happened.

Barry nodded his head and turned to look at Vix.

— Then we’ll be in touch.

* * *

The morning rush was on and the Meow was packed with workers and suits slapping down a fast breakfast. Prince bumped the Police off the jukebox, and no one was listening. The two calico waitresses slipped up and down between the booths, refilling coffees and purring at the regulars. They wore matching lime-green cheerleader skirts with crop-tops, never needed to write down an order, and took shit from no one.

Vix and Barry were huddled up in a corner booth. Barry was drowning a waffle with a waterfall of syrup. Empty plastic jam cups littered the Formica, like tiny coffins waiting for sticky corpses. Vix wrinkled her nose in familiar disgust as Barry wolfed dripping chunks of waffle into his maw.

— You eat like an animal, Barry. Maybe you need more time around your own kind.

Barry shook his head without looking up and reached for his coffee. He drank off the dregs and held the mug up to catch a feline eye.

— You know I can’t do it, Vix. Don’t like humans. It’s that superior thing they’ve got. What’s the word?

— Smugness?

Barry nodded his head and mopped his lips with a sticky paper napkin. He tossed the balled-up mess onto the empty plate.

— Yeah, that’s it. All that opposable thumb bullshit, fine tool makers, same old tired line. They think that makes up for them being slower and weaker than the other species. Which brings us back to how and why one member of a faster, stronger species made a very messy early breakfast out of bimbo Valerie

Vix nibbled a cheese stick, then waved it to make a point.

— You know this doesn’t add up, right?

— Which part, the bear thing, the stripper thing, or the Carlos keeps it quiet thing?

— No, Lover, the stripper thing and the Carlos thing are self-explanatory. Carlos wants everything kept on the QT and bad things always happen to stupid strippers. Don’t play games. You know what I mean.

One of the calicos refilled his coffee and flashed him a pointed grin. She swayed up the aisle and Barry’s attention wandered along in the wake of her bright green skirt and the bounce under her crop top. Vix reached over and gave him a quick rap on the skull with one sharp claw.

— Ow, shit, okay. Right, back to the things that don’t add up. I’m standing out in the freezing cold looking at bloody bear tracks and…

— And it’s middle of January and colder than an ex-wife’s cooch. Beartown is doing the big snooze. There sure as hell aren’t any big bruins wandering around looking for a tasty stripper snack. Every bear in Beartown is fast asleep.

Barry dipped a hand into his coat pocket and fished out a small piece of pasteboard.—

Here’s another thing that don’t add. I found this in the stiff’s purse. I palmed it so Andre wouldn’t see it.

Vix held the card between two claws and gave it the eye. It was a fancy business card, raised gold letters on heavy stock. Four letters stood out in the center: H.A.I.R. Vix read the motto below the logo, then flipped the card to the table as if it disgusted her.

— Humans Against Inter-Species Relations? What the fuck is this? And why would the dead stripper have this shit?

— Two good questions. The first one is easy. Word on the street is that this H.A.I.R thing is a scam, some grifters trying to skim the human dollars using fear as a skimmer. You know, the animals are coming for your daughters, that kind of garbage.

— And why in the stripper’s purse?

— The answer to that one is I have no fucking idea.One of the calicos crouched beside the booth and leaned into Vix.

— What is it, Fluff?

— Some joker on the phone for you, won’t give no name, says it’s important. Are you here?

— Yeah, Fluff, I guess I’m here.

Vix gave Barry the raised eyebrow and disappeared up the aisle. Barry reached for the business card and tried to make out what was bugging him. He waved it in the air over his coffee and had another look. Then it clicked: the address. These grifters had set up shop right across the street from the Hairless Club, last known employers of the dead and eaten stripper.

Before he could parse the thing out, Vix was clicking fast back up the aisle. Barry fished crumpled bills from his pocket and dropped them on the formica. He slipped the business card inside his jacket.

— Got a tip. You wanna guess where we’re going?

— Was this tip the anonymous kind?

— Natch.

— I hate anonymous tips. My guess is that some Mister No-Name suggested we go to Beartown.

— Anyone ever tell you that you’re no fun?

— You tell me that all the time, Vix.

Vix pointed to the pile of crumpled bills.

— You take care of Fluff?

Barry didn’t have time to think of all the ways he could take care of Fluff. The gratuity was huge, which might pave the road to hell later on. Barry gave Vix a nod and a wink.

— Then let’s roll, Cowboy.

* * *

Vix cranked the big Electra out of the parking lot and punched it down the street. The landau top had roof cancer, the chocolate paint was faded to baby-shit brown, but the big steel beast rolled down the pavement like a dragon hunting fat monks.

Barry cracked the window and fired up an ugly black cheroot. He watched the smoke swirl, tried to capture a nagging thought in the rank cloud before it spiraled out the window. His shoulder banged the door as Vix lurched the big Buick into a left hander. He righted himself and gave her the eye. She was ignoring him, dropped back low-rider-style, blue-green windbreaker zipped tight to her neck. One paw spun the enormous wheel as she piloted them off the main drag and into the warren of Beartown.

— Why do you hang on to this steel dinosaur? You got some weird Detroit nostalgia thing?

— Nostalgia? Naw. This thing is a battering ram with an engine. If I need to hit something, I want it to stay hit.

She braked the behemoth to a stop in front of a row of low cinderblock duplexes.

— Number thirty-seven; Honey, we’re home.

Barry dropped open the glove box and pulled out a well-worn .357 snubby. He slipped the pistol in his jacket pocket without checking it.

— What was it your anonymous caller said we’re supposed to find here?

— Something that would interest us. I swear to Dog, that’s a quote. Like he’d been reading too many detective novels. Hanky over the phone and everything.

— Human voice?

— I think so. Dude was all breathy, like he was expecting phone sex or something. Kinky-ass humans.

— What, Furs don’t do phone sex?

— Barry, that fake shit only works with humans. Furs sell phone sex, but we don’t do phone sex. End result: You got a human jerking off to some sexy voice at five bucks a minute, not knowing or caring that Miss Phone Hottie is a twelve-titted sow smoking Pall Malls. Face it, homo sapiens are seriously strange creatures. Let’s go.

Frozen leaves crackled underfoot as they crept up the cracked walkway. The sleeping dog proverb played out in Barry’s head and he figured it applied triple to sleeping bears. Then he saw the front door standing half-open and the .357 snubby was out of his pocket. Whatever they were about to find inside, sleeping was probably not what it was doing.

They paused at the door. Vix nodded and pointed down. Barry nodded and pointed high. He shouldered open the door, leading with the pistol, and Vix came in low and crouched. They were two steps over the threshold when the rank stench of bear and blood almost knocked them back through the door.

The duplex was a single cave-like room decorated in a dead bear motif. A very large, very dead female grizzly lay sprawled across the center of the room. She would have been a larger bear, but someone or something had cut off all four of her massive paws.

Frigid morning air blew in through the open doorway. The place felt like the morgue it resembled. Barry knelt at the edge of the blood pool and peered at the blackening edge of it.

— Big puddle of blood, rim desiccation at the edges, so four hours, minimum. Add in the cold room, cold floor, I’d say more like at least twelve.

Vix hunkered down and peered at the dead bear’s face. She rose in a hurry, hissing through her fangs.

— Shit, I recognize this sow. We gotta get gone and quick.

— What about looking for the missing paws, searching for clues and all of that.

Vix was already herding Barry towards the door.

— Fuck clues, this is a setup and we’re the patsies. How was I stupid enough to fall for this? You can bet a doughnut to a barrel of bearshit the same asshole that tipped us called the Pigs. Worse, the tipster probably called Gustav. We damn sure don’t want to be here if he rolls up, so move your hairless ass. Get the lead out, Barry, we need to be solid gone.

Barry knew when to listen to Vix. He didn’t ask any more questions. They doubled it out of the abattoir and back down the walkway. The echo of slamming doors hadn’t died before Vix had the big motor roaring and tires squealing. She lurched the Buick around the first corner they came to while Barry hung on for dear life. He stared out the rear windshield, but there was no sign of pursuit, porcine or otherwise.

Barry spun about and fell back into the cracked upholstery. He turned to Vix and did not in any way like the expression on her face. Things were most assuredly not good in the hood.

— Okay, we came, we saw, we booked like rabbits. You gonna tell me what the hell is going on?

Vix nodded her lovely head without taking her eyes from the road

— You ever hear of Gustav the Grizzly, AKA Gruff Gus, AKA the Baddest Bear in Beartown?

— Never had the pleasure in person, but yeah, I know of him.

— That dead sow back there, that was one of Gustav’s bitches. I recognized her. Ursala or Ursaline, something like that. Gus may be gruff, but he was very sweet on his big Mama Bear.

— And that explains the panic run how?

— That big frontal cortex is wasted on you humans. I can think up a couple of possible reasons, none of them good. First, we’re on the scene when the Pigs show up. The swine make life hard for us. More likely, the same Mr. Anonymous calls Gustav and wakes him from his long winter’s nap. Gus charges over to Ursala’s, finds us there, and turns us into bloody kibbles. That big Griz ain’t much for long explanations.

— Dead bear, angry bear, we run away. I get that. But why cut off the sow’s paws? Some kind of weird old guy aphrodisiac thing?

Vix seemed to ignore him, nodding her head to the synth-pop beat that crackled through the Buick’s shit speakers. Then she gave him that sidelong look he hated.

— You were saying, about Time of Death.

Barry scratched at the stubble on his jaw, then shot his cuff to consult his Casio G-Shock. He did the remedial math in his head and blew a raspberry through cold lips.

— Right, the sow is dead minimum twelve hours, more like fifteen or longer. She’s dead before the stripper. Missing bear paws and then a dead stripper with bloody bear paws walking away from the scene. Too much coincidence to pass the sniff test. Either Ursala’s ghost killed that stripper, or I’ve got a massive migraine coming on.

Barry fished the pistol from his pocket, flipped it into the glove box, and slammed the door. He lit a cheroot and smoked while bad and worse options ran through his brain. Vix left him to it.

If this bloody case was animal on animal, then it was a Pig problem and he could sit back and watch. But that wasn’t what was going down. The dead stripper was human and so was the breathy voice on the phone. Human on animal or animal on human was the messy jurisdictional no man’s land between the Human cops and the Pig police. That’s where Barry came in. He was the proxy in the middle. The Human cops hated him, and they had their reasons, but they needed him for off the record shit like this. Time to think, Ace. What do you know for sure? You can count on exactly zero official help from either side. That’s one thing. And this shit ain’t random. That’s two things.

He caught Vix giving him the sideways eye. He reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out the only clue they had.

— Someone is trying to make this look like animal on human, but it smells like human on animal. I say we go downtown and pay a visit to our pals at Humans Against Inter-Species Relations. Maybe they’ll have some insights for us.

Vix snorted and spun the wheel.

— Sure, they can show you the error of your ways, of which there are too many to list.

She pointed the Buick in the direction of downtown and hit the gas. Barry decided to keep his mouth shut.

* * *

The address for HAIR turned out to be a walk-up above a headshop and a bail-bond joint. A doorway between the two opened onto a dim flight of stairs. Barry led the way up, his right hand deep in his jacket pocket and his fingers wrapped round the butt of the pistol.

When they reached the top of the stairs, their destination was not difficult to find. A sign dangled from the wall at a forty-five, held up by one corner. Barry tilted his head to read the thing: Humans Against Inter-Species Relations, Richard Johnson, President.

Something had obliterated the entry door, something the size and velocity of a small locomotive. Whatever or whoever crashed into the office had taken the entire door and most of the door frame with it. The broken wall was scored with jagged claw marks. Peering through the gaping hole, Barry could see shards of glass and splinters of wood littered across the carpet. He yanked the pistol from his pocket and followed it through the wreckage. Vix trailed in his wake.

Barry aimed his pistol at the first person he saw, but there was no need to pull the trigger. A corpulent body sat behind an ornate desk, dressed in what once had been a well-cut suit. Lacking a head, what was left of Dick Johnson wasn’t much of a threat. A messy Jackson Pollack spiral of sprayed blood decorated the wall behind the fat stiff. Barry felt a sharp claw dig into his side and his eyes went to where Vix was pointing.

There was a blood splattered dent in the plaster on the far side of the office. A human head lay at the foot of the wall. The dead eyes of Mr. Johnson gaped across the carpet with a look of silent surprise. Barry looked at the disembodied head and then back to its former owner. He lowered the pistol and turned to Vix.

— Jesus wept; I don’t think this day can get any weirder.

Behind them came the unmistakable sound of a pump shotgun being racked. A voice growled into the room.

— Wrong again, human. Drop it or we make a colander out of the fox.

Barry half-turned, enough to see not one but two shotgun barrels poking through the broken doorway. No odds for a play here. He let go of the pistol and it thumped to the carpet.

— Good call. Now step to the far wall, both of you.

Vix moved and Barry followed. Three paces to the wall, they turned to face the voice.

A tall Doberman stood in the blown-out doorway. He was flanked on either side by huge Rottweilers, each wielding an enormous shotgun. The lead dog was sporting a collar-up black blazer over red, with black peg-legged twills. The Rottweilers were a study in clashing plaid parachute pants and studded leather jackets. The Doberman took in the room and laughed.

— Look at this mess. This is beautiful. We faked a human murder and got a real one as a bonus. Two for the price of one.

The Doberman stepped into the room, lifted the pistol from the carpet, and slipped it in his waistband. The Rottweilers stirred behind him.

— You want we should shoot them, Spike?

— You told them my name, you idiot, so of course we’re gonna shoot them. But not here, not now. That would spoil a perfect setup. We’ll leave this bloody scene just the way we found it. An upstanding homo sapiens decapitated by an angry bear. It makes a nice banner headline. Just the sort of publicity we’re looking for.

Barry eyed the Doberman while he tried to figure out a play, any play.

— You wanna tell me the angle. What’s in this for you?

Spike laughed again, not a pleasant sound.

— You think you can stall for time until the good guys show up to save you and your fox bitch? Ain’t gonna happen, Barry Bones. Yeah, I know who you are. Or who you were.

Rolling the dice in his head, Barry came up with nothing except keep the smart guy talking and try not to get shot.

— It doesn’t add up. Carlos might be able to keep the dead stripper quiet. The dead bear, Ursala, nobody misses her until springtime. I get all that. But a dead human minus a head, that’s a problem for you. All hell is going to break loose.

He felt Vix stir beside him.

— That’s what Spike’s counting on, Barry. That’s the whole point. They want all the stiffs found, at least the two humans.

Spike smiled and pointed across the shambles of the room.

— Bitch is smarter than you are, Bones. Nothing to hide here. An angry bear charges into the offices of a prominent human, knocks his fat head clean off. People going to get upset about that. Changes will be made. Yes Sir, the fox knows what I’m saying.

Vix was playing the game better than Barry, but that was nothing new. She kept it up while he eyed the pair of shotguns.

— I’m guessing this Dick Johnson was your puppet. You’re the real boss, right Spike?

— Well, you know how it is, Girl. Being the boss is a relative thing. Even bosses got bosses. History will show you that. And it’s history we’re dealing with here. Trying to set the future right with the past. There was a time, not that many generations ago, when all of this foul shit was not going down. There were only two species that mattered: Humans and Dogs. Who has suffered the most due to this so-called interspecies rapprochement? The Dogs, that’s who. Now we have a clan of canines dedicated to restoring the old order. The rest of this animal nightmare is just a mess that we have to clean up. We get the humans riled up enough, then they can set things right.

— What about cats? Humans used to be cozy with them, too.

— Shit, don’t remind me ‘bout the cat connection. That’s one mistake we ain’t making again.

All of the pieces fell together in Barry’s head.

— You kill a few humans and pin the murders on animals. Then the humans rise up and strike back, is that it?

— Looks like Barry’s brain just joined the party. Never underestimate the power of human prejudice. You of all people should understand that. If this don’t get the party rolling, we just have to kill a few more humans. Throw enough sparks at it and this fire is going to burn.

— But…

Spike snarled and pointed a paw at them.

— No more bullshit, no more stalling. We’re done here. The car’s out back in the alley. You two are going on a little ride. Try any tricks and my boys are going to blow your kneecaps off, save the rest of the fun for later. We can make it long and slow, or short and quick. But you’re going either way.

Spike stepped to one side and motioned towards the door. Vix shrugged and moved forward. Barry followed her, silent curses ringing in his head.

* * *

It was pitch black inside the trunk of the low-rider, but at least it was clean. Vix had seen the look on Spike’s face just before his goons slammed the trunk hood. It was a look of distaste, like she and Barry were vermin dirtying up his pristine ride. Now they were bouncing around in total darkness as the big Chevy raced through town. She could hear the muffled laughter of the dogs through the seat back while the synth-beat of G-Swing pounded out of custom speakers.

The trunk smelled of Barry, and of his nasty cheroots, and of fear. Through the carpeted floor, Vix’s sharp nose picked up the acrid exhaust and stinking steam of the streets. She didn’t know where they were going, but she had a clear idea of what would happen when they got there.

Vix could feel Barry wriggling around behind her, fighting the cords that bound his ankles and wrists. She laughed to herself. Time to get to work, Girl. Stupid dogs, tying a fox with rope. Like that was ever going to work. Her teeth closed over the paracord binding her forepaws and sawed through it like butter. She curled herself to the ropes around her rear legs, snapped them, then rolled to face Barry.

— Hey Lover, how are you doing.

— Not so good. I’m making these damn cords tighter instead of looser.

— Here, hold still a sec.

Her teeth found the paracord wrapped around his wrist at the same time her tongue found the skin. The taste of him sent a shiver down her spine. Her sharp fangs parted the cord and she ducked to his ankles to do the same. She spun back to him, getting her paws around the back of his neck. When he spoke, his breath was warm on her face.

— Thanks, Vix. How’re we gonna get outta here?

— No way, Lover. Sixty-seven Impala; there’s a lot of steel in that trunk lid. We’d need a cutting torch. I think we’re stuck for the ride.

— You’re just going to give up?

— Who said anything about giving up? When these dogs open the trunk, we jump them, take their guns, kill them all, and run like hell. Or they kill us. But meanwhile, I have another plan. You remember how I said we were quits for that shit, burning your world down and all of that?

— Yeah, I remember, and I remember saying I was sorry like a thousand times. But I’m not sure this is the right moment to…

Then her paw was over his mouth, stopping the words.

— Barry, forget all that shit and let’s get to it. We could be dying in a few minutes and I don’t want to go unfucked.

— Right here? Right now?

— You got a better idea? This ride ends with starring roles in a snuff-flick administered by Spike’s two mismatched mutts. I can deal with that a lot better if I’ve just gotten laid, so make with the loving, My Human.

Vix rolled over and pushed her ass up against him. Before he could say a word, she hiked up her skirt and her bushy tail was brushing over the thin fabric of his shirt. As if he could make it in the dark trunk of a car with all of this swirling in his head; the dead strippers, and bloody bears, and the dogs with shotguns. He realized with a jolt that not only could he, but that he was desperate for it. There was only one thing in the world that mattered and Vix was shoving it into his crotch.

Without knowing exactly how it happened, his jeans were bunched around his knees and his fingers were digging into Vix’s haunches. She was braced against the back of the trunk, yipping as he slammed into her. An animal funk of fear and pheromones filled the darkness of the trunk and still they kept at it, each hoping this last ride would never end. When it did end, it ended with a bang like the doors to hell slamming shut.

They felt the lowrider skid to a screeching stop. Barry and Vix flew apart and across the pitch-black trunk. Barry’s head smashed into something hard and Vix crashed into his chest, knocking the breath from his lungs. Gasping for air, he heard the crunch of safety glass and the groan of steel being bent and torn. The snarling of dogs filled the trunk, then high-pitched whines, then the shattering blast of a shotgun. And above it all was a roar and bellow as if a winter thunderstorm had engulfed the stricken vehicle. One long mournful howl broke from a dog and was just as quickly cut off by a blow that shook the entire car. Then there was nothing save the hiss of steam and a rumbling growl of some huge creature.

Heavy footsteps plodded to the back of the lowrider. In the darkness of the trunk, Barry wrapped his arms around Vix from behind and pulled her close. For one long moment, there was only the sound of their ragged breathing and the pounding of his heart. Then the trunk seemed to lurch upwards as the steel lid wrenched open.

They blinked and squinted as the dull winter light poured over them. A massive, hairy silhouette looked down on them and Barry waited for the blow to fall. Instead of bashing them to pieces, the shadow leaned back and laughed with a burbling rumble that filled the empty street. The thing took a step backwards and Barry’s eyes managed to focus on the biggest bear he had ever seen.

The bruin’s head was the size of a beachball, and the smirk plastered across his mug was no smaller. Claws as big as daggers sprouted from his enormous paws and blood dripped from the curved points. When he spoke, it sounded like the booming of a badly tuned pipe organ.

— Hey, Vix.

— Hey, Gustav.

Gustav the Grizzly waved a bloody paw over the open trunk.

— Sorry for interrupting whatever it is I interrupted. Had some business to take care of.—

No problem, Gus. I think we were finished.

Vix turned her head and gave Barry a squeeze.

— Were we finished, Lover?

Barry blinked at the jeans wrapped around his knees, then back into the eyes of the smirking bear.

— Yeah, I think we can say that.

— Barry, Gustav the Grizzly. Gustav, this is Barry, my main squeeze and soon to be my only squeeze.

— Pleased to meet you, Gustav.

— Likewise, Barry. How about I give you two a minute to get decent?

The hulking bear vanished from view. Vix and Barry yanked at their clothing until they were more or less covered. When they climbed from the trunk, they saw Gus standing with his paws on his massive hips. He was surveying the remains of the lowrider and its very dead occupants.

Spike was done worrying about his paint job. The once pristine Impala was now a battered heap. Parts of Spike sat upright behind the crumpled steering wheel. His bloody head lay on the passenger seat beside his mangled torso. The two Rottweilers were a meat salad sprayed across the remains of the back seat, one of them with a shotgun barrel stuck like a spear through his chest.

Barry let out a low whistle.

— That’s a damn nice bit of work, but how the hell did you know where these dogs were going?

— I got woke up by some heavy-breathing phone call, tipped me to what was going down. I find Ursala dead, then I’m on the war path over to that asshole’s office. He had it all written down, addresses and everything, just sitting on his desk. After I knocked his noggin off, all I had to do was read the memos. So I boogied down here and waited for these murdering hounds. Finding you two was just an accident.

— A happy accident for us. Remind me not to piss you off, Mister Gustav.

The grizzly shrugged and turned away from the carnage.

— They killed my best sow, the miserable fucks. They got what they deserved.

Vix stepped up to the bear and laid a paw on his arm.

— I’m really sorry, Gus. We can never thank you enough for saving our asses, but I think we need to move on to a safer locale. Someone is bound to call the Pigs and we don’t want to be here when they show up.

Gus looked down at her and grunted.

— Yeah, Vix, you’re right about that. We got no wheels, so any suggestions?

Barry scanned the street and realized that they were on the dilapidated outskirts of town, not far from where this truly weird day had begun.

— We’re only a few blocks from the Electric Sewer. I say we beat feet outta here and relocate ourselves to a warm booth with strong drinks in front of us. Many, many strong drinks.

Vix tugged Gus by the foreleg and the huge bear shambled after her. The three of them, two animals and a human, walked away from the bloody wreckage. Still clutching Gustav’s mighty limb, Vix reached for Barry’s hand.

— You’re going to have to tell Carlos about this.

— Sure, we’ll tell him, right after we down about five stiff drinks. Then the big pink rat can hear the whole story, start to finish.

(Bio: Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, the UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Prime Number Magazine, Smokey Blue Literary & Arts, Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. )

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Books written by Marco can be found in The Yard: Crime Blog’s Bookstore

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