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The Killing Choice

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Jack had always been trouble, ever since he was just a lad. People used to call him Jack the Giant Killer, and I privately suspected that there was some truth to it, although I hadn't been able to make the charges stick. Thief, conman, general layabout – Jack had been all those things, and worse. Had been. Because now he was dead... stone dead, even. I filed that thought away for future use. (Goldie always says that I have no sense of humour. It's not true: as I've just demonstrated, I've got quite the affinity for puns.)

“Can't you have him moved? He's blocking the traffic!”

Ah, good old Isengrim, compassionate as always. “I'm investigating the crime scene, Mayor. It's known to take a while.”

“Well then, get on with it, Bruin! We don't pay you to gad about looking busy. I swear,” he added, looking at Jack like a pig might look at a strawberry-scented bubble bath, “I swear, this man has been nothing but trouble. I'm not surprised he's gone and died right where it would inconvenience everyone the most. In fact, he probably...”

I ignored the rest and resumed taking stock of the situation. Item, the city gates, opened to let in the early morning carts. Item, those same carts lining up behind us, with drivers and oxen in various states of agitation. Item, beaten dirt road – little chance of any tracks, even without the presence of the carts to muddle things up.

Item, Jack, flat on his belly, half-turning to look behind him, face forever twisted into an expression of terror. I felt a little stab of pity. Poor bastard... whatever had been chasing him, he'd almost made it to the city gates. He must have thought he was safe. And then the thing – or person – had caught up with him, and turned him into a bleak reminder that a constable's work wasn't all porridge and honey.

I got on all fours to take a better look. “Stone dead” was right in more ways than one. What I was studying was not, strictly speaking, a body, but rather a perfect sandstone likeness of Jack, down to the smallest level of detail. I could even see the markings of tears and perspiration on the statue's face. I briefly entertained the thought that Jack might be playing a prank on us – that it wasn't really him down in the dirt, but a sculpture he'd put there for whatever reason – but I dismissed it as improbable. The carving was too fine to be the work of artifice. Besides, it still smelled like Jack... and something else. I took another whiff. A strange, musky smell, somehow dusty and... dark? Of course, I thought, for all I knew, I could be smelling Isengrim, or a particularly nervous ox. Too many people and animals here to be certain.

I rose to my hind legs and turned to the Mayor. “It seems he was petrified.”

Isengrim's mouth moved a little, trying the word on for size. He nearly went cross-eyed from the strain this put on his mental faculties. (Now, Isengrim isn't a typical representative of his species; I've met a few other wolves, and none were what I'd call stupid. On the other hand, I've never had to wrestle Isengrim to get him to let go of a terrified little girl; he's never tried to stalk any of the brothers Pig; and as for that poor old lady and Mr Big Bad Wolf... well, let's just say we gave her a decent burial after we'd got her out, and Mr Bad Wolf didn't much enjoy the method by which we went about the latter. If intelligence in wolves goes hand in hand with the inability to select food that doesn't plead for mercy when you eat it, then I'm quite happy that our Mayor is less than gifted in this department.)

Isengrim had clearly lost his valiant battle with linguistic discovery, so I came to his aid. “Petrified, Mayor. It means he was turned to stone.”

That's all you found, Bruin? It's obvious he was turned to stone, any fool could see that! I noticed as soon as I laid eyes on him!”

Point well argued, I thought. Isengrim looked ready to have Jack taken away, so I got back on all fours, hoping to find something I'd missed.

And just as I was going to give up, I did find it. Jack's right hand was pulled close to the body, the fist tightly clenched. He'd been holding something... something rectangular, like a small square of cloth or a folded piece of paper. There was no hope of getting the thing free – the transformation had fused it with Jack's fingers, making it a part of him forever. But the mere fact that it was there...

I glanced at Isengrim. “Mayor, it's a bit early to tell for sure, but I think that Jack had finally stolen from the wrong person. And for that, he had to die.”

***

I spent all morning talking to my usual sources, but no one had anything to tell me about Jack's latest escapades; even the Pig brothers wouldn't squeal. So, with other options exhausted, I decided to check up on my unusual source. Besides, it was already lunchtime, and she still owed me a bowl of porridge.

I found Goldie outside her shop, perched precariously on a small ladder. She was hanging up some sort of a sign over the door. When she saw me, she grinned.

“Baby! Just at the right moment, too. Mind holding that ladder for me?”

“Nice to see you, too, Goldie. And please, don't call me that. I haven't been a baby for a very long time.”

Her smile widened. “Aw, I know, but you'll always be wee little Baby Bear to me. Wait a tick... There! All finished. What do you think?”

She hopped off the ladder and we stepped back to admire her handiwork. The sign read, !!GOLDILOCKS COUTURE – IT'S JUST RIGHT FOR YOU!!

Could have used fewer exclamation points,” I opined.

Too bad, you should have told me that last week, when I was getting it done. Bit too late for criticism now. Anyway, what brings you here?” She sniffed dramatically. “You hardly ever come to see me, unless there's something you want.”

As a matter of fact, there are two things. First, I want porridge and you owe me. Second, I want information about the individual known as Jack the Giant Killer. It's up to you which one we'll start with.”

Goldie rolled her eyes. “For goodness' sake, you're not still going on about that bowl of porridge I ate when... Oh, very well. You win. I'll fix you up your porridge. Consider my debt of fifteen years repaid. Come on, we can talk about Jack while we eat.”

She led me through her shop, which was an interesting place, if not a little unnerving. There were mirrors everywhere, large and small, ornate and simple, hanging on the walls and standing in the corners, even a small hand-held mirror lying on the counter. I half-expected to see faces peering out of them. In comparison, the headless mannequin and the stacks of pins and needles were an almost comforting sight.

We climbed the narrow stairs to Goldie's living quarters. Goldie sat me at the table (she'd got a special bear-proof chair made just for me) and set to work making our lunch.

So,” she said, looking over her shoulder, “what's the thing about Jack?”

Do you know him?”

I admit that in my misspent youth––”

You mean last year,” I interrupted.

She laughed. “A year is a lot of water under the bridge. Anyway, I might have had... let us say, dealings with him. Although he'd probably know me as Jill. Why, what is it? Is he in trouble again?”

You might say so, yes.” And I described everything that had happened in the morning, not leaving out the “stone dead” pun, at which point she groaned and slapped her forehead. (I then told her that she'd have to bear with my jokes, and she groaned again, and slapped my forehead in turn.)

So you see,” I concluded, “my gut tells me that Jack bit off more than he could chew this time, but I can't find anyone who'd give me the dirt on what he was doing in the past couple of days. Could you check it out for me?”

I'll ask around,” Goldie said doubtfully, “but are you sure that's what really happened? I mean, a guy like Jack – well, he's got enemies. Maybe it wasn't a recent thing? Maybe someone from his past put out a hit on him? You've got to admit, there were a few people who'd be glad to know he was dead.”

There are easier ways to bump off an ordinary crook,” I countered. “Who would have gone and had him petrified when daggers and crossbows are cheap, common and reliable?”

I don't know. A witch?”

Has Jack got on the bad side of any witches?”

Not that I know of,” she admitted reluctantly. “Still, you shouldn't––”

I'm not ruling it out, I just reckon that the thing in his hand had everything to do with the manner of his death. Either way, his untimely end was most likely the result of his life of crime,” I added, sneaking a glance at Goldie.

She snorted. “Is it time for my moral lesson of the day? Don't worry, I haven't done any breaking and entering in... well, in a reasonably long time. Anyway, you know I've never been like Jack about – about that other stuff. Couldn't be if I wanted to, not with a certain pedantic bear breathing down my neck, making sure I didn't stray too far from the straight and narrow! Oh, don't look at me like that – I don't mean it in a bad way. You've been a decent influence. Now stop gaping like a fish and eat your porridge before it goes completely cold! I'm allowed to say something nice to you every once in a while, you know.”

Embarrassed, I cleared my throat and tucked in, and the bowl was empty in no time at all. Ma and Pa Bear hadn't raised a lout, so I thanked Goldie for the meal – but they hadn't raised a liar, either, so I mentioned that it could have used some honey. Goldie laughed.

Maybe next time. Now excuse me, I've got a measuring session with a new client scheduled for, oh, right about now. Have you heard? This girl suddenly showed up at the ball on Thursday, and now she's marrying the viscount's son, and still, no one knows who she is.” Her whole face lit up. “She's sen-sa-tio-nal. And she picked my shop out of all the others in town! Oh, this is gonna be so good. Say, you don't mind if I let you out by the back door? She might be here at any moment, and you know how people get about––”

“––bears?”

Policemen, silly. Well, come on! I'll run your errands after I'm done with mine.”

With that admonition, I was pulled down the stairs and shunted off into Goldie's vegetable plot. Goldie gave me a hug and turned to go, but paused with her hand on the doorknob.

You know, Bruin, there's something I've just realised. Poor old Jack – I really won't miss him very much. And the saddest thing is, I can't think of anyone who will.”

***

I allowed myself to dawdle in the marketplace for a while before heading off to the next place on my mental list. Goldie needn't have worried – I fully intended to take a good look at Jack's past, and I had half an idea where to start. Unfortunately, I also had reasons to suspect that the person I wanted to interview would not be happy to see me.

Adele's Magical Trinkets shop was only a short walk away from the market. The door bell chimed when I walked in, startling the proprietress, who had been leaning over the counter with a magnifying glass in her hand – inspecting a new piece of merchandise, by the look of it. When she straightened up, she towered over me. Having lived among mostly humans for so long, I wasn't used to being towered over. It was slightly disconcerting.

“Good afternoon, Ms Giant. May I take a moment of your time?”

I thought I saw a hint of unease on her features, quickly replaced by a neutral expression. “Certainly, Constable. If I may just put this away...?”

I glanced at the object on the counter. It looked like a toy bird, made of gold and silver, and encrusted with precious stones. A very expensive toy, indeed.

“A mechanical songbird,” Ms Giant explained, following my line of sight. “Very rare and very treasured; legends say that its song is the most beautiful sound one may ever hope to hear. This one is broken, unfortunately. I was just checking if I couldn't repair it, but that can wait. How may I help you, Constable?”

“Ms Giant, I need your expertise on a certain issue connected with magic. Since you're our best authority on magical objects, I was hoping you could assist me.”

“I'll do my best, but I'm only a lay researcher. I'm sure a witch or a wizard would be more helpful.”

She didn't want to talk to me, that much was clear. I sadly gave up on the possibility of being offered a chair. Nevertheless, I pressed on. “Just one question. Do you know of any ways to turn somebody to stone? Are there any magical items that could do this?”

Her face was guarded now. “It's about that man, Jack, isn't it? People have talked of nothing else all day. So it's true...?”

“Yes. Does it matter?”

“Should it? Am I being interrogated as a suspect?”

“Merely asked for your opinion as an expert.”

“Then I shall tell you this: I've never seen any magical artefacts that could petrify a man. I've heard of a wand, once... but it was mostly a legend, and even then, it was supposed to be destroyed. No... no, as far as I know, those things are usually done with curses.”

“And how might one cast such a curse?”

“I'm sorry, Constable.” Again with the neutral expression. “This really isn't my area of study. You will have to ask a magic practitioner, not a theoretician.”

I nodded. “I'll do that. Meanwhile, I've got one last question. Could you tell me where you were last night, between, say, the third watch and the dawn?”

This drew a bitter laugh from Ms Giant. For a moment, her features looked more animated than I had seen them in the past six years.

“Oh, so I look like a righteous avenger to you, Constable? You think I might have decided to give justice a little push? I shall have to disappoint you – I haven't been terribly inclined to avenge my husband. People called him an oaf and a brute, and, as his wife, I was uniquely qualified to know that they were right. There was precious little love between me and my old man. But,” she raised her hand, having noticed that I was about to interrupt her, “yes, I know, you want me to answer your question. Very well – I was not in town this night. The Blue Fairy was going to Seven Rivers, and I offered to walk with her part of the way, since I had to pick up a package from the Halfway Inn. We got to the inn shortly before sunset, spent the night there and went our separate ways in the morning. I arrived back in town an hour before midday. The Blue Fairy will bear out my story – as will the innkeeper, I suppose, and the guards who saw me leave and return. Now, if that is all...”

I thanked her and took my leave. She seemed impatient to see the last of me. I wasn't angry; she had a good reason not to enjoy my company.

Seven years earlier, a young lad named Jack had stolen something from Rob and Adele's Magical Trinkets (as the shop had still been called at that time). It really was a trinket, nothing but a fistful of beans. Magical beans, Mr Giant angrily insisted, but they looked just like regular old beans to me, and the lad swore up and down that he'd only taken them because he'd been hungry. He was given a lenient sentence and made to work off the value of the stolen item. And I dearly wish that had been the end of it.

About a year after the original theft, Mr Giant had taken an odd turn. Never the most easy-going chap, he started going around in a frightful temper, claiming that Jack had been stealing from him again. He kept calling for us every other day, too, but whenever we arrived, we found the supposedly stolen item lying around in plain sight, which invariably infuriated Mr Giant even more. It'd seemed clear to me that his accusations against Jack were baseless, since nothing ever actually got stolen – the only question was whether Mr Giant was going mad, or trying to perpetuate the most inept fraud in history. I remember thinking that perhaps Jack needed some protection. But in the end, it wasn't Jack who'd ended up dead.

It hadn't been the kind of thing where you take one sniff and know right at once that something is wrong. If it had, I wouldn't have let it rest, or so I like to tell myself when I want to sleep well at night. At the time it'd seemed quite straightforward: Jack had been innocently strolling past the Giants' house, Mr Giant looked out of the window, flew into a rage and attacked. It had been self-defence, Jack insisted. I never meant to kill him, but he went right mad, Constable! There were eye-witnesses who confirmed his story, too; a whole street of eager witnesses, because Mr Giant had not been a popular man. And so we let Jack go without much deliberation.

Such a straightforward case. Yet there'd been something, a little niggling doubt that led me to pay closer attention to Jack in the years that followed. And there'd been times when I'd suspected, no, when I'd been quite sure that justice had not been done for poor Mr Giant. So how could I blame his widow for not wanting to talk to me? I'd given her little reason to feel otherwise.

I ought to stop with that line of thinking, I realised. I'd already fallen into this trap before. Mr Giant had been aggressive and brutish, and a very mean drunk (which generally meant that he'd been very mean most of the time). It had been easy to think, well, maybe he got what he deserved. And the list of Jack's misdeeds (the ones I knew about, and the ones I only suspected) was far more off-putting than Mr Giant's drunken brawling. Very tempting to say, “Good riddance,” and wash my paws of the matter. But the truth is, a murder investigation isn't about the victim, not really. A policeman's role isn't to judge the dead person's character or choices, or to avenge them, or even to bring comfort to their grieving family – it is to protect the community from the killer at large. Jack was dead, and someone, somewhere, had solved one of their problems with murder. And if it had worked once, why not do it again?

***

The next morning I was up and about early. Surprisingly, so was Goldie. I found her waiting for me on top of a short wall across the street from my house, swinging her legs and nibbling on a piece of gingerbread. She gave a small wave as I approached.

“You're up very early,” I observed.

Goldie shrugged. “Haven't been to bed at all, actually. Honestly, Bruin, the things I do for you...”

“I know. Thank you.”

Do mention it, as often as you can, because I like to hear it. Looks like you were right, by the way – Jack's been getting his sticky little hands into other people's things again.”

“Do you want to discuss this inside? I can make you something for breakfast.”

“Nah, I've got this.” She waved the gingerbread at me. “'Sides, I'm not in the mood for porridge. But you can walk me home and I'll tell you on the way.”

She slid off the wall and gave a massive pink yawn. “Oh, I'm knackered. Must be losing my touch. Anyway, guess what? Jack's been to the Gilded Flounder the day before he died. Drinking like a king, or so the boys have told me. He was going on and on about how he was gonna be a rich man soon, because of something he'd nicked from 'that dumb broad again'. That was all he'd tell them, though. Some of them lads tried to follow him after he'd upped and gone, but he gave them the slip and nobody's seen him since.” Goldie paused briefly as we waited for a bakery cart to clatter past. “Does that mean anything to you?”

“It might. Thank you.”

We walked in silence for a while, weaving through the morning traffic. My mind was whirring, trying to fit all the puzzle pieces together. I felt like I knew the general shape of the picture, but I was still missing a corner or two. Goldie, meanwhile, looked ready to fall asleep on her feet. To keep her awake, I asked, “How did the measuring session go?”

She immediately perked up. “It was brilliant! Ella's a great person. Very down-to-earth, too, not at all like you'd expect. And she's got the loveliest little pair of glass shoes – I've never seen anything like that before! Ella says they're a gift from her fairy godmother. Why haven't I got a fairy godmother, Bruin?”

“Because you'd probably rob her blind.”

Goldie laughed and nudged my side. “Maybe I already have, eh? I've been thinking – you're sort of like my fairy godperson, in a way. Come to think of it, you'd look smashing in a tutu.”

“I'm not. And I wouldn't.”

“Yes you are! You're my big, humourless fairy godbear. Only, instead of nice shoes, you give out tedious moral advice.”

“A lot more useful than glass footwear.”

“I don't know, you could try mixing it up a little. Say, two pairs of shoes for every sermon I have to suffer through. That would at least––”

Goldie's voice trailed off because we'd nearly bumped into a very agitated Junior Constable Penny, who saw me and squawked with relief.

“Constable Bruin! So good I've found you! Please, Sir, please follow me quickly! Pinocchio... There's been another attack!”

***

I hurried past the gate, following Junior Constable Penny to the crime scene. Not a murder scene this time, thankfully. According to Penny's only slightly disjointed report, Mr Pinocchio had been walking home after visiting his father in another town. Quite close to the city gate, he'd heard a sudden noise from the bushes. He had no memory of what had happened for a while after that, until he'd woken up on the ground, completely paralysed. Fortunately, after some time the paralysis had worn off, and he'd been able to call for help. He was currently at the precinct, being fed tea and crumpets by Junior Constable Gruff, and, apart from the shock, he appeared none the worse for wear. That, at least, was a small mercy.

The tracks were the first thing I noticed after I arrived at the scene. Something large had torn through the bushes to get at poor Pinocchio. No... not torn. Slid through. And here was that smell again, that old, dark thing. I imagined it lurking in the thicket, slithering ever closer, and suddenly I was pretty sure I knew what it was.

I rose and took a step back. I needed to think. I needed a plan and a way of fighting the thing without getting turned to stone. I needed to––

“Er, Constable? There's someone here to see you.”

“Let me guess, Penny,” I said without looking back. “It wouldn't be Ms Adele Giant, would it?”

“Yes, Sir. It's her.”

I did turn around now, slowly, and looked at Ms Giant, who seemed both nervous and defiant.

“I realise this isn't the best time...” she began.

“That's fine, I think Penny can finish up in here. Shall we walk?”

Wordlessly, she followed me back to the city, and did not speak until we were almost at the threshold of her shop. Only then did she stop and looked me in the eye. “I don't suppose you'll be surprised to hear that I caused the death of Jack the Giant Killer?”

“Not very much. I've been thinking you'd have had a good motive. I was confused for a moment there – didn't know what to make out of the attempt against Pinocchio, you see. But your arrival tells me that the attack hadn't been a part of the plan?”

She nodded. “Only heard about it just now. I didn't want anyone else to be hurt. I didn't think... Please, may we finish this conversation inside? I'd rather not...” She made a vague gesture to indicate the passers-by.

“I understand. Very well.”

We walked into the shop. There was a certain finality to the quiet chime of the bell as the door swung shut behind us. Ms Giant locked the door, pulled up chairs for the both of us, and sat down. Her hands shook slightly, but apart from that, she appeared very calm for someone who had just admitted to murder.

“I suppose I'd better do it in order, hadn't I? Well, I've already confessed, so that's out of the way... I'd best tell you the how and the why, then. You see, Constable, I'd done my best to avoid Jack in the past six years, but about a week ago, I ran into him in the street. I knew him at once, and he recognised me, too, oh yes he did, because he suddenly had this look in his eye, that same glint he used to get whenever he was making trouble for Rob and I. And I knew what he was thinking, Constable, I could read him like a book. That big dumb cow again. Time to have some fun!” She took a deep breath and slowly clenched her fists. “And I... in that moment, I knew that I still hated him, and that I'd never forgive him, and that he had to die for what he'd done.

“I expected him to follow me, so I came back here and made a big show of studying a certain map. He was watching me through the window; wasn't even really trying to hide. I expect he didn't think I had the brainpower to notice. In any case, I put the map on the counter and left the front room for a while. When I returned, the map was gone, and so was Jack.”

“A map. So that's what it was, that thing in his hand. Was it fake? Cursed, maybe?”

Ms Giant's mouth twitched. “Oh, no, it was real enough, a bona fide treasure map. Except I doubt whether Jack could read the old runes – so he wouldn't know that they spelled out, Watch out: basilisk!

“So it was a basilisk. I've been wondering. They aren't easy to control.”

“I didn't have to control it. When that man stumbled into its lair with a shovel and a big bag for all the treasure, the basilisk didn't need me to know what to do. And the best part? I didn't actually kill Jack. I gave him a choice, see? A choice! He didn't have to steal the map. He could've left me alone and gone home. He could've turned back every step of the way. But he didn't,” her eyes lit up in triumph, “and so, when he died, it was his own damn fault, and not mine!”

Contrary to what Goldie thinks, I do sometimes know when to refrain from moralising, so I left the last statement undisputed. Instead, I rose and said, in an even tone, “Ms Giant, the original map is lost to us now, so I'd be grateful if you could sketch me a copy. Then, I'd like you to––”

“Wait! Don't you want to know why I did it?”

Ah. So she did feel guilty, after all. Those who want to explain themselves usually do. “Revenge for your husband, I'd assume.”

Ms Giant shook her head. “Yes, but not just that. Rob might've been a sorry lout, and many people would say that I'm better off without him, but he was still a person, and he didn't deserve to die like that. Jack had goaded him, Constable, he'd baited Rob and waited for him to explode, and when he did – well, Jack just happened to have an axe at hand. And you know, I think he enjoyed it. He did his best to destroy my husband, and he enjoyed himself every damn step of the way.”

I said nothing, but my acquaintance with Jack made me suspect that Ms Giant wasn't that far off the mark. Encouraged by my silence, she went on. “It was the injustice that rankled, Constable. Rob was a man just like anyone, but he was big and he was angry, and you know them giants, they eat little children, am I right? So then Jack comes along and murders him in broad daylight, and nobody thinks twice about it, because of course it was self-defence!”

“I did suspect that it wasn't, after a while,” I said, because honesty warranted honesty. “But at the time, the witnesses––”

She turned on me, eyes blazing. “But that's even worse! You knew he was guilty as sin, but you went, well, there's this chap over there who says he didn't mean it, guess I'll just have to let him go! You should've asked me – I would've told you how he'd meant it! How can you look at people who you know are bad, and let them out into the streets? How can you live with yourself afterwards?”

I had an answer ready; I'd asked myself the same question many times before. “If I get a man convicted on my sincere belief that he is guilty, I may be wrong. If I let a man go on the witnesses' testimony that he is innocent, I may be wrong. But sincere belief is a more volatile thing than testimonies, and it's more easily led astray. Go down that road a little while, and someone will get roasted in their own oven... again. The law exists to prevent chaos – it's a dangerous thing to take into your own hands.”

“A coward's explanation.”

“Is it? What about Pinocchio? Your revenge plan didn't seem to quite work out the way you wanted it to.”

Ms Giant seemed to deflate. “You're right. I never thought that the basilisk would find the city, or that it would strike again without provocation. It's a small mercy that it happened to Pinocchio of all people. He's a magical construct himself – I suppose that's why he's partly resistant to the basilisk's magic. Anyone else would be dead. I know that it's my fault. I'm willing to take responsibility.”

“I appreciate the sentiment. Now, Ms Giant, please sketch the map for me. When you're done with that, I'd like you to go to the precinct and repeat everything you've told me to Junior Constable Gruff. I won't be able to accompany you, but I'm counting on your keen sense of justice to help you do the right thing.”

Her eyes widened. “Won't be able to... You're not planning to go after it alone, are you? It's a basilisk! If it looks you in the eye, you're dead!”

I allowed myself a little smile. “Ms Giant, I'm a bear. I don't need to see something in order to hunt it.”

***

Jack had been a busy boy. The entrance to the tunnel had been cleared out, and even widened a bit – Jack could do a spot of honest work, it seemed, even if only in the service of more dishonest pursuits. The strange smell was stronger here. I looked into the darkness inside; no speck of light, no way to tell what waited for me beyond the wide mouth of the tunnel.

I looked again. If Ms Giant's map had been correct, the main passage wound around the barrow in ever-widening spirals, until it reached the treasure chamber. I would probably find the basilisk long before I found the treasure, though.

I paused for a few heartbeats to take stock of the situation. Item, large burial mound with an aggressive basilisk somewhere inside. Item, a small hand-held mirror from Goldie (probably the only time when a request of mine had taken her by surprise). Item, a magic pendant from Ms Giant, supposed to light up on command; tested and working.

Item – myself, most likely about to be eaten by a basilisk. I sighed. No point in stalling; I was probably as well-prepared as I'd ever be.

I shut my eyes and walked into the darkness. As long as I kept my eyes closed, I was safe from the basilisk's petrifying gaze, but it also meant that I had to find my way forward using only my sense of smell and my hearing. To a human, it would be incapacitating. To a bear, it wasn't so bad at first, when the smell was clear and coming all from one direction. After a while, though, it became thick and oppressive, seemingly everywhere at once. I had to fight the temptation to open my eyes. Was I getting close? Was the basilisk right in front of me, perhaps?

A rustle of scale on stone stopped me dead in my tracks. It was right in front of me! I could hear it now – something large and heavy moving in the darkness. The smell was coming off it in waves, so potent now that even thinking was an effort. It wasn't the smell of an animal or a person; the basilisk smelled of rot and mildew, of dust gathering on long-forgotten bones. If Death had a smell, that was what it would smell like.

You couldn't hope to reason with anything that smelled like that. I raised the mirror and prepared to activate the amulet. Then there was another rustle, and I realised––

––the basilisk was behind me, too.

While I had been floundering about like a fool, it had encircled me with its tail, and now it squeezed. All air was forced from my lungs immediately; I heard things snap that had absolutely no business snapping. By the feel of it, my left paw was out of commission. I struggled, but it was like trying to dig through a wall with a dinner fork.

By a pure stroke of luck, though, my right paw was free. I still had the mirror. And I am not a bear who gives up easily. With the last remnants of my breath, I spoke the activation word for the amulet. It worked – even through tightly clenched eyelids, I could see the light. More importantly, the basilisk could now see me.

I thrust the mirror in what I hoped was the general direction of the basilisk's head. “Come on, scale-face... take a look!”

For a moment, I heard nothing, apart from the cracking of my own ribs. Then, there was a pained hiss, followed by a sound unlike anything I'd heard before. Then, silence yet again.

I dared to crack an eye open. In the warm amber glow of the pendant, I saw the head of an enormous serpent, maw open, poised to attack. But it wouldn't be a danger to anyone ever again. As I'd hoped, the basilisk had looked into the eyes of its reflection in the mirror, and had turned itself to stone. It was dead.

My triumph was short-lived. I was still trapped in the coils of the basilisk's petrified tail, with several broken bones and no way of freeing myself. I couldn't breathe. The tunnel was getting dark again – not because the amulet was failing, but because my vision was.

Looks like this is it, I thought hazily. Land of porridge and honey, prepare to admit Constable B. Bruin. It turns out he was a very stupid bear.

After that thought, there was only darkness.

***

“Dumb bear.” Goldie put the bowl of porridge on the table with a little more force than necessary. “You could've died. In fact, you would have died, if it hadn't been for Adele. We only found you because of that light pendant she'd given you, you know? And she was the one who got you out and carried you home.”

“But she didn't go to the precinct like I asked her to,” I said accusingly, between mouthfuls of porridge.

“No, she didn't.” Goldie gave me a defiant look. “Because I told her not to.”

I growled, “Hardly your business to––”

“I told her you're known to give second chances,” Goldie said, loudly enough to drown out my words. “C'mon, Bruin – you can tell gold from dross, can't you? Adele is a good woman. Who are you gonna help if you lock her up?” I must have looked unconvinced, because Goldie sighed and produced a piece of paper from her pocket. “Look. She asked me to give this to you. It's her full, signed confession. You can book her any time you like. Just... think a while before you do, okay? Give it until you're back on your feet, at least?”

I finished my porridge and hobbled over to my bed. With Goldie's help, I lowered myself onto the pillows. Goldie had made the bed just the way I like it – not too hard and not too soft. It was difficult to stay angry among so much comfort.

“Very well, Goldie. I'll take my time.”

Goldie smiled and went home, promising to come back later in the afternoon. Alone, I spent some time reading Ms Giant's confession. Eventually I folded it and tucked it into my nightstand drawer. If I ever had to, I could dig it out easily enough.

But I dared to hope I wouldn't need to.