Leon Lupe and the Secrets of Happy Valley
Leon Lupe stared into the black-brown depths of his unsweetened borovan. He sat in a little diner that was the locals’ best-kept secret here in Happy Valley – a valley whose name could not be more deceptive that day. Snow fell in droves just beyond the frosty window glass, but the bitter borovan and the mystery burning in his mind staved off the harsh chill.
Outside, beyond the cosy wooden cabins with windows glowing from warm fireplaces, beyond the gaggle of young Unis learning to ice-skate on knobbly knees, he saw the silhouette of a lone Lupe out on the mountain in the blizzard wind, lifting his head to howl at the sinking sun. Leon sighed, just as the waitress passed by silently to top off the hot drink in his paws. He thought to himself, I’m getting old. Getting soft.
Leon had nought to do but wait for nightfall when Happy Valley’s secrets – secrets much darker than a diner with a dang fine pineapple and broccoli pie – would emerge from their hiding places.
He was a gumshoe, a detective, despite his many attempts to escape the dark profession. His visit here to the far north was pure business. Mr. Chipper was the client. He was a happy young Lutari – perhaps a bit too happy – who made a living running a humble ice cream cart. But his business was falling on hard times. No one here in the icy tundra was buying his ice cream. There was no explaining it.
And yet . . . Mr. Chipper reported numerous sights of locals and tourists enjoying ice cream as they meandered the town. How could it be? Was his ice cream getting stolen and redistributed? When? How? And, most of all, why?
That’s what Leon would find out in the coming, lonely night.
Well . . . not entirely lonely. Actually, he had a partner: his brother, James Gelert. Leon had no desire or need for a partner, but James clung to the coattails of Leon’s duster like a Gelert playing tug-o-war.
James just didn’t have the character for this line of work. Lupes, by their nature, had the wild solitary souls and steely guts to endure a love affair with crime. Gelerts, on the other hand, were just so . . . domesticated.
This rumination was shattered by none other than James, who collapsed heavily into the seat across from him, shaking fresh snow from his fur and puffer jacket. “Hey buddy!” James said, yanking off his beanie and snowboarding goggles and tossing them on the seat. “Whatcha got there?”
“Borovan,” Leon said with great appreciation. “Black. Best I’ve had in a while.”
“Looks gross!” He waved down the waitress, who quickly approached, looking relieved to see a smiling face at the table. “Hot chocolate please, with extra whipped cream and marshmallows. Some sprinkles too. And a dash of cinnamon. Oh, and I’ll have the Christmas Wocky Cranberry Meatloaf, the Pumpkin Bread, aaaaaaand . . . how about some Fruit Cake. You can bring it all out at once. Thanks!”
James put both paws on the table with a huff, still looking flushed from snowboarding all day. “What’s up man? Not hungry?”
Leon shook his head, peering out the window once more, but the strange Lupe on the slope had gone. “No appetite. Something’s not right here. This whole town rubs me wrong.”
“Okie dokie, more for me.”
Late that night, when darkness had descended and Kreludor hung high overhead, it was time for the stakeout. Leon and James had settled into their hiding place, which they’d scouted out that morning: a dense copse of evergreen trees nestled far from the light of any streetlamps. They huddled between the trees in thick winter clothing, with extra blankets draped over them.
Leon sat still as a statue but for the foggy breath clouding before him, peering through his binoculars at the ice cream cart, now locked up and abandoned for the night.
James chugged even more hot chocolate from his thermos, and then tore open a bag of gummy candies. “Ya know, man,” James whispered while chewing the candy. “I can see the cart from here. We probably don’t have to bother with binoculars.”
The Leon statue was unbothered, fixated on the treasure chest of frozen sweets.
“Did you notice that cart isn’t even refrigerated?” James chatted on. “The weather is cold enough out here already that the ice cream stays frozen. Heh, I think we’re gonna be a couple of popsicles by sunrise.”
Popsicles, Leon thought darkly. More like stop-sickos.
Hours passed, but no suspects appeared.
Cold morning light roused Leon suddenly. He shot up out of the snow and saw James curled up asleep too, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. Leon shook him awake violently. “We passed out!” Leon said. “Drats! What did we miss?”
James roused slowly, stretching. He glanced lazily at the cart. “Well, not too much. The cart’s still th--”
“How could this have happened?” Leon interrupted, pacing. “Do you think they slipped something in our food?” He snatched a thermos off the ground, uncapped it, and sniffed. “Does this smell like Slumberberry Potion to you?”
“I mean, it was pretty boring last night,” James said, waving away the thermos. “And cold.”
Leon hurled the thermos back into the snow and rushed to the ice cream cart, where Mr. Chipper was doing his best to look chipper despite the marked lack of customers.
“Chipper!” Leon called.
Mr. Chipper started. “What’s the scoop, Leon Lupe? Did the criminals strike last night?”
“No telling,” Leon said. “The stakeout was compromised.”
“We dozed off,” James said, strolling up behind him.
Leon shook his head darkly. “No, James, this goes way deeper than that. Chipper, was anything stolen?”
Mr. Chipper looked away. “Uh, well, I’m not sure. I feel like I did have more ice cream yesterday.”
Leon hung his head, the weight of failure seeping through him.
“Wait,” James interjected. “You don’t know? Don’t you track your inventory?”
“Well, I do, you know, keep track in my mind. But this is a humble one-man ice cream cart. I don’t have the means to involve fancy inventory systems and paperwork and Tax Beast forms . . .”
“Uh, dude,” James said. “Do you actually have evidence that you were ever robbed?”
Mr. Chipper looked around furtively, then suddenly jabbed an accusing finger at a passing family of Cybunnies. “There!” he said. “See! They’re eating ice cream! I haven’t sold a single scoop today!”
James glanced at the Cybunnies, then his gaze slid past them to the large building behind them.
“Uuuuuuh, dude,” James said, “couldn’t they have gotten that from that huge cabin that says Ice Cream Machine?”
Mr. Chipper squinted at the Ice Cream Machine sign, although it was so close there was certainly no need to squint. “Huh,” he said.
“I mean, it’s probably freshly made there,” James said. “That’s where I would buy it. Man, why are you selling packaged ice cream from a cart right outside the ice cream factory?”
Chipper’s mind whirled. “Maybe the factory is stealing from me,” he said suddenly.
“Corporate conspiracy,” Leon murmured.
“Uh, no,” James said. “No conspiracy. We’re outta here. I’m closing the case of the bad business model.” He hooked Leon by the arm and dragged him. “Mr. Chipper, we’ll expect your check mail.”
“No, wait!” Chipper called. “Please! Don’t you at least want to buy a treat for the road?”
Leon let his little brother drag him away – the only way Leon could ever be parted from a case. But from the corner of his eye he saw the strange, lone Lupe on the mountain once more, standing still as if in wait.