The darkening interior of the room lent to the dungeon-like feeling. Which in Alpha’s opinion was perfect. He’d even stopped Lone from cleaning the two small windows to further darken the room more. The two empty cages hanging from the ceiling used during the time of his predecessor were left for their ambiance. Preferring the three large pits dug in the earthen floor covered by an iron grate as holding cells. Not that they used the holes for prisoners that often, this part of the forest was relatively crime free.
When he inherited the job from Big Bad, he immediately started running the undesirables out of the enchanted kingdom. It had been a job cleaning out the corruption overlooked and perpetrated by the former sheriff. The harassment and assault against the Three Pigs was the evidence needed to remove him from office.
The village had been reluctant to have another wolf for the sheriff but no one else was willing to step forward and run against him. Behind Alpha the western wall was papered in wanted posters. Many of those closer to the floor were crisp and white, though most were yellow with age. But today he was sitting on his haunches staring not at the wanted posters but at a large map of the entire enchanted forest with large ‘X’ marked in red.
Alpha’s ears twitched; a slight growl rumbled out between canines. He’d mastered talking through the growl enough a person could understand him. Lone had told him it made him seem more authoritative, which helped in this line of work. “I thought I told you to stay with the old bird.”
The brown wolf standing in the entrance to the den crouched down crawling on his belly in a submissive stance. The deputy wolf was one of the few in Big Bad’s former pack who tried to uphold the law. It normally pushed him to the omega position causing him to become submissive in Alpha’s presence. A habit Alpha was trying to break. It took a lot of strength to do the right thing when his entire pack was on the wrong side.
“She called the kid’s mother. She wanted the girl to bring her cake and wine.”
The padding of wolf’s feet made no sound on the packed dirt as Alpha paced the enclosed room for the third time and stopped in front of the map. “Have we checked the girl?”
Lone huffs a sigh. “Twice. She’s clean. Don’t forget everybody loves her.”
Alpha sat on his haunches and snorted. More to himself than to Lone he said, “if we could turn her. Then we might be able to break this case.”
Lone rose from his submissive position on the floor and padded over to sit next to the sheriff. He studied the board for a pattern he might have missed the last hundred times he looked at the map. “I don’t know, sir. It’s her pack.”
An annoyed growl rumbled out of Alpha’s throat. “I know it’s her pack. But I got to try something. Our mayor is threatening to skin us if we don’t get his wife’s jewels back. Of course, if the idiot hadn’t given them to his mistress they would never have been stolen.”
Lone’s brown fur floated in the air visible in the scant twin beams of light. He had shook uncomfortably imagining a fate where his pelt was removed from his body and displayed. He stood, shook once more trying to rid himself of the ill-boding feeling and started for the door. Over his shoulder he said, “More than likely she will take the forest path. Do you want me to bring her in?”
“No stay with the mother. She must be involved. I want to know how.”
Lone growled in agreement as he slunk out the door. Leaving the sheriff brooding over the map pinned up on the eastern wall.
In the forest northwest of the Village
A pair of narrowed amber eyes watched from the darkness of thick foliage. The prey is a young girl of twelve or thirteen wearing a red hooded cloak carrying an oversized picnic basket. From the shadows his hackles rose, and a soft growl escaped from curled lips. His advantage of stalking the girl from the thick undergrowth gives the pretense she is safe.
His path parallel to hers allows her to wander deeper into the forest where danger sits just off the path out of sight. But the young girl is oblivious to this skipping and humming a merry tune at the tell-tale red cloak billows out behind her. His paws make no sound on the soft moss carpeted floor until the moment he leaps from the overgrowth and onto the densely earth packed trail causing the girl to shriek, startled momentarily.
“Oh sheriff, shame on you. Being a wolf, you should know better than to jump out of the shadows. You scared me.” Red said chastising the large timber wolf.
Alpha snorted but tried to cover it with a lower growl. Neither were actions he wanted the young girl to witness but common sense dictated a wolf would be true to his nature. Looking to smooth the situation over he said, “I’m sorry Red Riding Hood. I wasn’t looking to startle you. I was out doing my patrol and thought it was the Three blind Mice lost again.”
Red twisted her foot in the dirt kicking at a pebble buried just under the surface. “That’s okay Sheriff. I should have been paying more attention to my surroundings. Mother says I spend too much time daydreaming.”
Alpha matched his stride to the girls. It was slightly more difficult than he expected with the small gait of the child. She was a little thing for a human girl. The top of her head just hit under his chin. He tipped his head back and sniffed the air. The wind ruffled his coat and nothing more dangerous than him lurked nearby. One last sniff caused him to sneeze.
“Bless you, Sheriff.”
They had started walking once more and Alpha was careful to match his pace to her as he allowed her to lead them deeper into the forest. For just a moment he considered how to approach the conversation and his attempt to turn her. “Thank you. Most wouldn’t have thought to say those words to a mangy wolf. I scented the air. Nothing that can harm you is around for miles. So, you’re safe.”
“Mother is constantly telling me to stay on the path. But the flowers are so pretty. I can’t help but to want to pick them.”
Alpha was pleased with the rapport he was building with the young girl. And he couldn’t help but to be proud of the forest. It was his home after all. “You like walking in the forest?”
“Oh yes. Very much. My friends fear the sounds and the dark. But I think it is mysterious and interesting. I love getting to take baskets to Grandmother. It wouldn’t be as fun if she lived in town.”
“Do you bring lots of baskets to your Grandmother? Is she ill?” Alpha asked quizzically a piece of the puzzle sliding in place.
Red paused for a minute thinking. “Once or twice a week. Mother bakes a lot. And Grandmother doesn’t feel well until she has one of mother’s famous apple pies.”
Alpha sat down in the middle of the path. Red Riding Hood, not noticing that the sheriff had stopped moving continued walking for several feet before turning back to the wolf in confusion. “What’s the matter Sheriff? Grandmother is not contagious. She is just getting older.”
Alpha decided to try a little good wolf and bad wolf. He would scare her and then offer her protection. It was a tactic abused by Big Bad when he was forcing his protection racket on the villagers and forest dwellers. Alpha felt a pang of guilt using the tool but told himself he wasn’t using it for personal reasons like the former sheriff. He was trying to solve a crime wave. “I am trying to decide who I should put in jail. Your mother or grandmother.”
For a moment confusion held the child’s face blank before it contorted into a scrunched up red ball. Tears squeezed out the corners of her eyes as she fell to her knees on the dirt path. Red sobbed harder, the sounds of wailing amplified in the forest made the sheriff wonder if he chose the right approach.
“Why? Why would you be so mean? How could you, Sheriff?”
“My paws are tied, Red. They left you to walk a dangerous path all by yourself. They put you in danger and didn’t even think about all the ways you could get hurt.”
A moment and the child stopped crying. “Oh. No Sheriff. It’s not like that. Mother and Grandmother would never. You must understand, Grandmother just lives over that hill. And mother tells me to stay on the path. And never ever talk to strangers.”
Silver tipped ears drooped in defeat. Red Riding Hood would never tell him what he wanted to know. She was too protective of her mother and grandmother. Alpha scratched a flea biting the middle of his back before standing. He padded over to the young girl. “Now, now Red, as the Sheriff I am only looking out for you. It’s my job to protect you. Even from your mom and grandmother. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Through sniffles Red implored the canine law enforcement officer, “but you can’t put mother in jail. Or Grandmother. I won’t have anyone then. Please Sheriff, I am not in danger.”
One last try had Alpha asking, “You’re walking a path in the enchanted forest to take your grandmother a basket of … what? What could be so important they would allow a child into the woods despite the danger?”
Red Riding Hood pulls back the red checkered blanket to show the wolf the assortment of baked goods and bottles of liquid. “Just cake and wine for her stomach. They really do make her feel better. Sheriff please, pretty please, don’t put Mother or Grandmother in jail.”
Alpha just shook his head and huffed a low growl. Things had not worked to his advantage this time. He looked off in the distance trying to come up with a way to salvage the situation. He was ignoring the child as she droned on about what a good mother and grandmother she had. A field of wildflowers caught his eye as a plan came to mind.
“Alright Red Riding Hood, I will talk to your mother about finding a safer way to care for your grandmother. I will let them off with a warning and a reminder that they need to take better care of you.”
“Thank you, Sheriff. You are a good wolf.”
“Why don’t you go pick some flowers for your grandmother. It will make her feel better to have something pretty to look at while she gets to feeling better. I smelled the air for danger before we spoke, you should be safe for now.”
The child hesitated. “Are you sure? Mother said… to stay on the path.”
“If you don’t think your grandmother would like them….” Alpha said allowing the girl to choose to disobey her mother without recrimination.
“No Grandmother would love them. Thank you, Sheriff.”
Grandmother’s House in the middle of the Forest
An older woman with her white hair tied in a loose bun at the back of her head is pacing the floor of a small, thatched roof cottage. The furniture is older but clean and in good condition and fits well in the space without being cramped.
Ringing her hands once more in worry she mutters to herself about children and following rules. Red was told to come straight here. She is trying not to think of all the things that could happen to her granddaughter on her way to her house.
Alpha stood outside the cottage as he and Lone had done several times in the past. The remoteness of the home, the lack of visitors, and nosy neighbors made this the perfect place to hide stolen goods. He had just never had enough to be able to search the property. He cleared his throat to remove the growl and tried to sound like a twelve-year-old girl when he claimed to be the old woman’s granddaughter with the basket of goodies.
The older woman froze mid step not recognizing her granddaughter’s voice. Something was wrong. Red wasn’t there and someone was pretending to be the girl. She went to her closet and pulled the old hunting rifle her former husband had left behind when he died. She loaded the gun and called out to the imposter. “Come in Red. I’m in bed ill and can’t come to the door.”
Alpha wasn’t born yesterday and had survived several hunting parties in the past. Two at the hands of the former sheriff when he ran against the older wolf. He had sent human cronies to get rid of his opponent. He smelled the gun powder just as the door opened and the bullet whizzed past the fur of his right ear.
His ears made out the muttered curses as the old woman fumbled to reload the gun. He loped into the room and jumped on the woman just as she was lowering the riffle to get another shot off. She pulled the trigger as they both tumbled to the ground, the gun skittering across the floor.
A wolf’s instincts took over and a bite later there was no evidence of the old woman who once lived in the little cottage in the middle of the forest. As Alpha swiped his mouth with a long red tongue he wondered if this was how Big Bad started the slippery slope of bad deeds. Something went wrong when he was just trying to bring a thief to justice. The wolf let out a frustrated howl and began searching.
Paws were not made for pulling out drawers in China cabinets, but he managed. He moved to the table drawers, annoyance mounting as the search was hampered by his physical form and not finding anything. He was less concerned with the state of the house by the time he tore the cushions from the couch. Another howl of frustration escapes clenched jaws as the wolf finds himself holding the worn nightgown and sleeping hat of the previous occupant.
Hoping to salvage the situation he puts the garment on and jumps into bed hoping he can do better at fooling the young girl this time than he did her grandmother. The old bird wasn’t sitting right in his stomach. But by this time all he could do was sit and wait for the girl to show up.
He might have just given up and called it a loss if he had to wait much longer. As it was just as he is getting out of the bed, he heard the girl call out to her grandmother.
“I’m in bed dear. Bring the goodies in here and tell me about your mother.”
Red Riding Hood notices that things are out of place but chalks it up to the woodcutter that comes and stays with Grandmother. There are times when he gets so drunk, he knocks over furniture and breaks valuable knickknacks. She grabs the vase and the basket and carries it into the darkened room. “Grandmother, I brought flowers to cheer you up. But the room is so dark you can’t see them.”
In what Alpha imagines is a sickly voice he asks, “That’s a good girl. Did you bring my special basket?”
There is a funny feeling in the pit of Red Riding Hoods stomach. Something is not right. “Grandmother, why are your ears so big?”
“To hear you my dear. But I am ill and having trouble. Come closer child. Don’t make your grandmother get out of bed.”
Red Riding Hood thought for a moment gnawing on her bottom lip. The voice was wrong. It wasn’t Grandmother. The illness was only a ruse they used to keep outsiders away. She raised the vase for the figure on the bed to see before putting it on the bedside table. “Oh Grandmother, your eyes. They are so big. What happened?”
“So, I can look at your pretty face when you bring my treasures, my dear.”
Red smirked, realizing who she was dealing with. She almost wished she hadn’t run into him this afternoon. She had always liked Alpha. He was really a good wolf. Nothing like BB was. “And your mouth, Grandma. It looks like a wolf’s mouth.”
Alpha jumped out of bed aiming to pin the girl down and force her to answer questions. He didn’t want to disillusion her, but he had a criminal to capture. But Red Riding Hood was too fast for the wolf weighed down by eating her grandmother as she ran for the door. With a burst of speed just as the girl got to the door Alpha’s paws dragged her back into the bedroom.
“You’re making this harder than it has to be. I wasn’t looking for you. I wanted your grandmother, the village thief. Tell me where she hides the goods, and I won’t take you in as an accomplice.”
Red laughs as she comes to realize how wrong the wolf is. On the one hand she would be free. But the idea that her grandmother could pull off what she could left her wanting to brag. She laughed hysterically at the wolf. “Grandmother… the thief. I thought you were a better investigator than that you stupid wolf. Grandmother didn’t steal anything.”
The bed was between them as Alpha moved to the other side, Red matching his movements. “I know you are covering for her because you don’t want her to rot in the pit. But you cannot help her now.”
Red Riding Hood frowned glanced quickly towards the door again. Alpha noticed the quick look and placed his body between her and the exit. This angered the girl. “How stupid can you be? I thought you were good at your job. I am the thief. Grandmother just finds buyers for the trinkets. You don’t think mother’s bakery keeps me in dresses, do you?”
Alpha is confused.
Red has stopped trying to get away. She just stands there and smirks at Alpha’s not understanding. “I know. It’s perfect. Everyone loves me. When I get bored, I steal. Then I pretend to be innocent. No one will believe you if you tell them and they will run you out of town.
Alpha was beyond angry. He threw back his head and let out a bone chilling howl. “Then you are not going to have a chance to pretend.”
He lunged at the girl taking advantage of her cockiness. She screamed just as his jaws clamped down on her throat. She was no more as Alpha swallowed her in one bite.
His howl of frustration lasted for several minutes. Here he was acting like a cub with his first case. He would just have to talk to Lone and see what they should do. The thefts would stop but they wouldn’t be able to get the loot back. He wasn’t watching where he was going and slipped on Red Riding Hood’s cloak sending him crashing into the dresser. Alpha tried to rise but with the additional weight in his belly his legs wouldn’t hold him. He hit the ground once more unconscious.
The moon was high over the small grove that held the cottage the woodsman called a second home when he was in the enchanted forest. He frowned as the door stood open to the elements. He wasn’t concerned about criminals as the sheriff had done a decent job of running most of them out of town leaving them with no competition.
There were no sounds coming from the small house. And wondered if Abigail had returned to the village and forgotten to bolt the door. Just in case he pulled his magic ax from his belt and cautiously stepped into the darkened home.
The sound of stone striking stone and then snap of a flame bathed the room in a quick glow as the woodsman lit the wick of a lamp. The first thing he noticed was the destruction and broken furniture. He followed the trail from the living room to the bedroom.
His gaze falls on the body of the bloated unconscious wolf with a red cloak twisted around his legs laying at the foot of the bed just beyond the dresser. Just as he was about to dismiss the wolf, he noticed the movement of the wolf’s stomach. It was as if something was trying to escape.
He placed the lantern on the table he’d righted to get a better look at the body and hefted the magical ax into the air. Just as he was about to deliver the killing blow the stomach moved again. A slight hesitation and he transfers the ax to his other hand carefully slicing open the wolf’s stomach.
He stepped back so quickly he almost tripped on the debris as Abigail and Red Riding Hood quickly climbed out of their prison.
“Oh, my goodness. That was uncomfortable. Are you all right my dear?” the older woman asking the child dusting herself off.
Grimacing in disgust she turns to the woodsman and snarls, “I’m fine no thanks to him. Where were you? I pay you to stop this kind of thing from happening.”
Abigail cleared her throat and exchanged a glance with the man. “Now, now dear, I am sure there is a good reason he is late. We can hear it after we decide what to do with this wolf.”
With a shrug the woodsman motions to his ax and offers to kill the wolf. Abigail hums in agreement.
Red Riding Hood adamantly shakes her head no. “He is the sheriff. We don’t want any more attention.”
Again, the two adults exchanged a glance over the child’s head. Abigail motioned to the other to go into the other room. The woodsman shrugged and walked away. The two females stared at the body of the unconscious sheriff before Abigail put her hand to her head pretending to get an idea.
“Red, get my magical sewing kit. And have the woodsman get two small boulders.”
Red Riding Hood sighed put out. She just wished sheriff Alpha had minded his own business. They would all be happier that way. It wasn’t as if she had been hurting anyone. “Grandmother, we don’t have time for you to sew. His deputy will be here looking for him soon. If he tries to tell what he knows no one will believe him.”
“Tsk, tsk, my dear. He will never stop. Not unless we give him something else to worry about. Now be a dear and do what I asked. I know what I am doing.”
Unhappily Red did as she was told. She set about cleaning up the mess made by her and the wolf’s scuffle. Maybe when this was over, she could talk to him. Offer Alpha a piece of the profit if he looked the other way. It wasn’t as if she really needed the money. She just wanted the adventure.
Abigail is putting the last of the stitches into the wolf’s stomach as Alpha slowly regains consciousness.
He lifts his head and the ache in his chest and stomach is terrible. Unlike anything he has felt before. Alpha first sees the child he had eaten, and a small feeling of relief undercuts the confusion of her standing there. He notices the grandmother next, and the feeling of guilt is completely gone. Alpha tried to get to his feet and collapsed again. He felt as if his insides were being mashed. Once more he tries to rise and can only pant in pain.
He can only lift his head and watch the old bird as she smirks in enjoyment as his misery.
“You feel the pain, wolf. I put rocks in your body. They are slowly crushing your heart and lungs. Our dear tender-hearted Red didn’t want us to kill you. So, I made it happen in a way that you will kill yourself trying to get back to the village.”
“Grandmother, how could you? I told you no.” Red demanded indignantly.
With a sneer she turned to her granddaughter and replied. “I will not have some dirty old wolf hunting my baby girl. Don’t worry, child no one will know you had anything to do with his death. It will look natural.”
Before Red Riding Hood could speak and tell the old woman that, that wasn’t what she was talking about there was a choked howl and a gurgling sound as the sheriff lay dying.
“Oh dear. That wasn’t supposed to happen.” Abigail said mildly distressed.
“You were saying, Grandmother.” Red said annoyed.
The woodsman stepped forward with his ax once again. This time to undo the stitches sewed into the wolf’s abdomen. They would need to remove the rocks if they were going to go with his idea of self-defense.
Red stomped out of the room leaving the adults to handle the dead sheriff. She quickly wiped stray tear from her eye unaware they were being watched in the dark by a pair of amber eyes.
The next day on a stage set up in the middle of the village fifty of the villagers were gathered round to hear the mayor give an update on the rash of thievery. The rumor was the thief was caught. On the stage was both the woodsman and Red’s grandmother Abigail. Laying at their feet was the body of the sheriff minus the boulders they had used to kill him.
In the back of the crowd stood a lone wolf. Lone narrows amber eyes at the two individuals he holds responsible for death of his boss. He swears revenge. As the mayor drones on about the jewels being found in the home of the sheriff. As he begins to plan his revenge, he hears the mayor not only accept the murder as justified defense but tarnishing of a good wolf’s name.
As the Mayor promises they will never have another wolf as a sheriff because they can’t be trusted he hopes not everyone believes the lies. If the tale Red Riding Hood’s grandmother was spreading was believed, then wolf would go almost extinct.
The true tale of Red Riding Hood will be told so we don’t forget those closest to us can betray us.
THE END… until we tell the tale of Lone Wolf and his quest for justice.