The thief stole through the building with the silent grace of a sliding shadow, following a twangy scent in the air. He dodged the obstacles that littered the floor; the floury bowls and the soiled mixers, and the odd wooden rolling pin. He walked among the steel counters and tiled sinks, invisible to anyone looking over the room. He opened cabinet after cabinet, showering himself in flour, salt, sugar, yeast. He dug through the industrial-size fridges, and then the freezer, pulling out butter, eggs, milk, fruit, meat, and vegetables.
Nothing smelled like what he wanted. That scent played in his nose like the sound you get when you pluck a single string on a banjo and leave it to hang. His mouth watered, and his head felt light just sucking in a trace of the aroma.
But he could not find the source of the smell. So close yet so far.
He began to grow bolder, and more violent, overturning mixers from the counter with great crashes, and throwing eggs across the room to paint the walk-in freezer’s door with slime.
Then finally, he found it, riding on a miraculous bit of luck. He’d stopped throwing eggs at the freezer, and instead had begun pelting other targets; the sinks, counters, and cabinets were all well-vandalized by now, but one pleasure remained: the gleaming fridge. It’s brushed aluminum was flawless in the light filtering through the windows, and to the thief, it was like a tall tower of food and beauty.
Why not egg it?
And so he did, tossing carton after carton of eggs at the tall Thermodor refrigerator like so many skipped pebbles. Except pebbles did not shatter and splatter, making a lovely sight and a nice sound in the process. After every carton was done, he would clap his hands excitedly as he reached for the next.
After four cartons of perfectly lobbed projectiles, one went awry, flying high and right into the darkness above the fridge. And something went clunk.
The thief’s eyes went wide. A clunk meant glass, and glass above the refrigerator meant something that wasn’t intended to be brought down.
He hopped down from his seat on the counter, and popped back up onto the counter adjoining the fridge. He stood tall and stretched high… and closed his hands over a glass mason jar. The thief clutched it to his chest, savoring the sweet, twangy aroma.
And then he scurried awkwardly across the room, dodging the mixers and rolling pins and the eggs, and back out the door he had come in, squeezing through the gap that aging hinges had allowed.
* * *
6:00 AM was too early for break-ins.
The early morning was for relaxing, for coffee and donuts at the station, for idle gossip passed around between officers and investigators (“Did you hear Mrs. Leery tried to take her cow into the general store yesterday—?”). On off days it was for sitting around and moping about life, complaining of nonexistent crises and cigarette prices, and then having a beer just because (“I can drink it if I want, woman!”).
But here Officer Danny Kiggs was, sitting like a lump of melted butter in the passenger seat of a beat-up cruiser left over from the nineties. His baseball cap sat low over crud-filled brown eyes, and he stared lifelessly down at the paunch that tried to escape his buttoned shirt. He’d been half asleep when the call had come in, and so his shirt was buttoned one hole off. No one could blame him for being tired—they were the ones who’d created the ruckus, not him.
Danny was pretty sure if he’d been alone, he never would’ve gotten out of the cruiser.
But that was Freddy’s purpose in the driver’s seat. In contrast to his partner, he was young, and resembled a cane pole topped with white-blond shredded cheese. He had three jobs on the police force, and three jobs only: keep Danny awake, keep Danny sober, and keep Danny focused.
If you asked him, he did those jobs very well.
“I’m going, you college-aged sign-pole.” Danny grunted lethargically when Freddy prodded him.
“Doesn’t look like it. Looks like you had one two many beers this morning when Tristan broke out the stash.”
“Well, maybe I did—what’s it to ya? You can’t even drink it until you’re twenty-one.”
Freddy poked him again. “The quicker we look this over, the quicker you’re back at the station. Ain’t no donuts in the cruiser, Pops.”
“At least there’s AC in the cruiser—Ow! Would you stop poking me?”
Freddy opened his door, letting in a blast of frigid air. “I’m going in, and you are too, if you don’t want me reporting you.”
“Wants me to come inside…” Danny grumbled, “Wants me to get out of the cruiser…”
But despite his grumbling he pulled himself up from his slouch and got out, because Freddy had left the door open and it was cold.
The little town of Cumberland, Wisconsin was dead this time of year. It was the start of winter, when the leaves had all gone but the snows hadn’t yet come, so the trees looked like plucked chickens shivering in the wind.
Freddy had parked them across the street from the crime-scene, so Danny stumbled over the cracked asphalt like a drunken squirrel, happy there were no cars he had to dodge.
He squinted up at the sign hanging above the door to the yellow-brick building. Milton’s Bakery, it read. He’d forgotten all the info given to him in the first place, so this was news to him… as were many things in life (“What can I say? My memory ain’t that good.”).
Danny stumbled inside. He tried to blink the sleep from his eyes. Baguettes, focaccia, rye, pumpernickel, white and wheat—bread of all kinds adorned wooden racks. A small display refrigerator held butter, relish, pesto, and jelly. Set among the food and the stands full of baking-themed Christmas ornaments, was an itty-bitty counter with an aging cash register.
Freddy was leaning on a bread rack, talking to a woman who resembled a loaf of bread herself; short and fat.
“Mrs. Milton, I need to know what’s been stolen.”
Jane Milton crossed thick arms over her aproned chest. “I… can’t tell you, it’s a family secret.”
“Ma’am,” Freddy sighed, “we can’t track down the thief unless we know what’s been stolen. Our investigators cross-reference info about what’s been stolen with the kinds of people who steal particular items, and then we have an idea of where to look and why they stole it. But we need to know what they took.”
“I just can’t tell you. Can’t you at least take a look inside the kitchen—you guys can track DNA right? Fingerprints?”
“It’s not that simple,” Danny interjected, “Fingerprints and DNA are only useful if we have the thief on file. This guy stole from a bakery in a podunk town in the middle of rural Wisconsin. No chance we have them filed. The cash register wasn’t touched?”
“No, only the kitchen.” She walked around the counter to a low door in the wall. “Follow me, I’ll show you.”
Freddy twirled his finger by his ear and whistled at Danny, who just shrugged and started squeezing his wide frame through the door.
The kitchen was an absolute wreck; eggs, milk and butter were smeared across the floor, and various other cooking ingredients had been painted all over the appliances and counters.
Freddy’s eyebrows went up. “Wow, this is quite a mess.”
“It’s a mess, but nothing that can’t be cleaned.” Mrs. Milton said, “What I need is to catch the thief and get my possession back.” She looked at them pointedly. “It was over here, on top of the fridge.”
Freddy sighed again, but walked over, sidestepping a dozen spilled apples and a cracked mixing bowl. He climbed on top of the counter to get a better look over the fridge. “Nothing up here but a cracked egg and a round clean spot in the dust. Are you absolutely you can’t tell us what was here?”
“Yes… yes. I cannot share the secret, I just need it back as quick as possible.”
Danny bent down to get a closer look at something. He was sure that his belt was losing its hold on his pants, but that’s what an untucked shirt was for. He squinted. Were those… tiny hand prints in the flour on the floor?
“Found sumpin’.” Danny grunted.
Freddy and Mrs. Milton rushed over, both dropping to their knees to get a better look.
Danny straightened with a sound like a falling tree. “What is it Freddy?”
Freddy barked a laugh, and then another, until he was roaring. Tears streamed down his face, and he gave one more high-pitched guffaw, before saying, “These are raccoon prints. Mrs. Milton, you’ve been stolen from by a small, furry woodland animal.” He devolved back into choking, sob-laughs.
Mrs. Milton’s face had gone purple, and her eyes looked as if they were about to pop out of her head and fly around the room. “How dare that thieving bugger steal from me!” She said, quivering. Her eyes darted around before landing on a wooden spoon that had been left on the counter; she snatched it up in her right hand. Next she picked up a wooden rolling pin, hefting it in her meaty left hand.
Danny’s eyebrows raised. That was a lethal combination if he’d ever seen one; angry Mrs. Milton, a spoon, and a rolling pin.
Freddy had calmed down a little. “Ma’am, why don’t you take it easy, and—“
“Don’t tell me what to do.” She wheeled on him, “I’ll find this thief and punish him myself, since you’re too wimpy to do it, and fatso over there is too lazy!”
Freddy let out a startled “Hey! I’m not wimpy!” But Mrs. Milton had already seized Danny’s off-kilter collar, twisting her ham-shaped fist to pull it tight around his neck.
“Where do raccoons like to… hang out?” She plied, thrusting her lower jaw out so that she displayed a rack of yellowed teeth.
“Urghk!” Danny croaked.
Mrs. Milton eased up a bit and repeated the question.
“Umm, well, I know they like trashcans and stuff.”
“Trashcans! Ah yes, I’ll find the bugger yet!” She swung her head like a dog searching for a scent, and then bounded across the room and out of the kitchen.
Freddy shot a concerned look at Danny. “I’m feeling like we need to follow her.”
“Yeg.” Danny choked out.
“Follow me when you can.”
And then Freddy left the room.
* * *
Freddy walked quickly after Mrs. Milton, hunting after her with long strides and his hand on his gun. He’d seen the murderous look in her eyes, and it was better to be safe than sorry.
These were the days that made him regret choosing to be a cop. Coonicidal baker; boozy lump of cookie dough for a partner; cold lonely town. But for now, it was the baker that was concerning him the most.
He ducked behind the sales counter real quick, and then ran out of the bakery and onto the sidewalk.
No Mrs. Milton.
And then a strange shriek erupted from the alley to the left of the yellow-brick bakery.
Freddy raced around, slipping in his haste, and came upon as strange a sight as he’d ever seen. Mrs. Milton was on the close side of the alley, holding her wooden spoon and her rolling pin like they were a sword and shield. She rolled her wrists menacingly. And on the far side of the alley, an enormous raccoon, the size of a small child, tottered drunkenly on two legs, bouncing from wall to wall. On the sidelines, an empty mason jar lay on its side.
“I’ve gotcha now!” Mrs. Milton crowed.
The raccoon chittered happily, waving it’s paws around in excited motions.
Mrs. Milton leapt forwards, swinging her spoon like a war hammer. It glanced off the raccoon’s shoulder, but still hit with enough force to knock her furry opponent into the wall. The baker hurried forwards, sliding to kneel by the mason jar. It had been twisted open and licked clean, not a spot on the perfect glass.
“NOOO!” Mrs. Milton wailed at the top of her lungs, descending into haggish sobs.
Freddy rushed past the dazed raccoon. “What’s wrong? It’s just a jar.”
“Just a jar? Just a jar?! This was my sourdough starter. It was passed down through eight generations. It’s traveled to every continent, and over two-hundred countries. I’ll never replicate the flavor; the wisdom and age in every bite of sourdough bread!” She let out another wail. “I’m ruined!”
“It-it’s not that bad.” Freddy patted Mrs. Milton on the back, attempting to comfort her. “You can start another one—one that’s yours alone! And you got the thief—that’s all that really matters.”
Mrs. Milton’s sobs began to calm, and she wiped streaky tears from her face. She opened her mouth to speak—
—and the raccoon leapt onto her back, clawing and biting with the frenzy of a swarm of piranhas. Though momentarily dazed, the thief had shaken off his drunken stupor from drinking the sourdough starter, and was now a fearsome foe.
But Mrs. Milton was not to be underestimated either. She thrust her legs beneath her and jumped up, swinging her shoulders violently from side to side in an attempt to dislodge the attacker.
Freddy jumped to his feet as well, but he had the sense to grab Mrs. Milton’s dropped rolling pin.
“Hold still and I’ll whack ‘im!” Freddy shouted.
Unluckily for all, at the exact moment Freddy shouted, the raccoon dug it’s little paws into Mrs. Milton tangle of hair, and Mrs. Milton got a meaty hand on the raccoon’s neck.
“Yaaargh!” shrieked Mrs. Milton.
“Reeeet!” shrieked the raccoon.
“I can’t hit it with you dancing around like that!” shrieked Freddy.
To make it more complicated, Danny stumbled around the corner, the shrieking having aroused him from napping in the cruiser. “What in bloody heck is going on here?” He roared.
The raccoon managed to rip a fistful of hair from Mrs. Milton’s scalp.
“We’re trying to deal with this—“ he bobbed and weaved to try and get a better angle, “—vermin, but I can’t get a good shot at him!”
“Lemme do it wimp face.”
Danny snatched the rolling pin, drew it back, and swung—
—right as Mrs. Milton managed to grab the coon, and judo toss it down the alley. The pin clonked her square on the forehead. Her eyes glazed as she fell backwards, and lay still.
Meanwhile, the raccoon tried to charge at the stricken baker, but Danny’s booted foot colliding with his ribs strongly discouraged that thought.
“You killed Mrs. Milton!” Freddy shrilled, clapping his hands to his head. “We’ve got to run—I’m not getting arrested for homicide.” His eyes turned into saucers. “Wait, does this mean that I have to arrest myself?”
“Stop your whining.” Danny barked. “She’s just sleeping, and we can still get her starter back.” He walked over and grabbed the unconscious raccoon’s furry scruff. “This lil feller’s drunk, is all. See, sourdough starter contains alcohol, from the fermenting sugars. Doesn’t take much when you’re real small to getcha hammered.” Danny scooped up the mason jar. “And one of the nice things about him having drunk so much,” he fitted the raccoon’s snout into the mouth of the jar, “is that there’s almost always some left in yer stomach by morning. Little kids especially… Stop gaping at me conehead! Goodness, it’s like you’ve never been drunk before.”
“I haven’t.” Freddy whispered.
“Well, now you get to learn.” And then Danny jabbed three fingers hard into the raccoon’s stomach. It convulsed, and then spewed a stream of tan liquid into the jar.
Danny lobbed the vermin over his head like an apple core he was tossing away. “Now listen here. What we’re gonna do, is act all natural when Mrs. Milton here wakes up. We’re gonna say we beat off the coon, and then found the real starter among those trashcans down the alley, and the one here was from something else—you hear me?”
Freddy nodded dumbly.
“Good.” Danny said in an oily tone, “Now get your butt over here and take this jar. If she gets a nap I get a nap.” He jerked his head at the comatose form beside them.
And as Danny trundled off to nap in the passenger seat of the cruiser, Freddy just stood in the alley, holding the jar of chunky liquid—which smelled strongly of beer and faintly of vomit.
“This is why I don’t want to be a cop.”