Winter Edition: Hippos

The newspaper headline that caught his eye proclaimed “FOURTH NIGHT IN A ROW: WATERMELONS MISSING!” He chuckled at the thought of a watermelon thief hiding melons under his shirt as he skulked through the African savannah. The mental image was too good to pass up, and he started doodling on the pad he kept on his desk. Just then, the phone rang. “Tom Jones, Private Eye. How may I help you?”

The woman on the other end of the phone was clearly upset. She spoke quickly and loudly into the phone, telling Tom that she needed to hire him right away! She went on to articulate to him that watermelons had been vanishing during the night and it needed to stop! He laughed to himself as he looked down at his drawing. He told the woman, who finally identified herself as Anna, that he would be happy to come check things out. He jotted down the address she gave him, and hung up the phone.

“Curious,” he thought to himself as he started putting his gear into his backpack. Magnifying glasses, fingerprint kits, laptop, camera and notebooks made up the bulk of the kit. Then he added a few snacks just in case. “Looks like it might be a long night,” he told the painting on the wall as he tossed in a few flashlights. It was a river scene, showing several African animals grazing in the setting sun. The eyes and ears of several animals in the river poked out of the water near the shoreline. Tom had spent many leisurely afternoons gazing into this scene. He was curious about the animals that lurked beneath the water.

Tom loaded his gear into his jeep and headed out into the wilds. The woman told him that she was a farmer, and most of their earnings came from their watermelon crops. According to the newspaper article, melons had been disappearing for the past few nights. They had been unable to identify the person or persons who were taking them. Tom spent the hour drive musing over who would want to steal watermelons. He again went back to the image of someone sneaking around with watermelons hidden in their clothing.

Arriving at the farm, Tom saw what could only be described as chaos. Workers were running around with stacks of watermelons in their arms. Others were loading up carts and wheelbarrows. In the middle of it all, a tall woman stood, barking orders at everyone. “This has to be Anna,” Tom thought as he parked his jeep. Grabbing his backpack, he jumped out of the vehicle and strode towards her. She eyed him in a worried manner as he approached, and he gave her a broad smile. “Tom Jones at your service!” he called out to her. She walked towards him and took his extended hand. “Thank you for coming,” she said. “We are trying to harvest as many of the melons as we can, but night is coming quickly.”

The two of them discussed the case for a few moments. Anna filled in the gaps that weren’t reported in the article he’d read. It seemed that the scoundrels were coming up from the river in the dark of night. They were surprisingly quiet. They never disturbed the two guard dogs that Tom saw pacing in their kennels. She took him over to the patch of melons that had been raided the prior evening. “You can see they’re quite sloppy about it,” she told him. She pointed out the mud, dug up plants, roots scattered everywhere, and trenches in the soil.

Tom surveyed the scene, and the hairs on the back of his neck started to tingle. “I’m going to take a look around if it’s okay with you,” he said to her. Anna nodded in agreement. She was anxious to get back to the harvest. “Let me know if you need anything,” she told him as she hurried away. Tom knelt down in the vines and took a closer look at the soil. Something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it…yet. He got up and walked around the rest of the farm. He took note of the areas that had been disturbed by the thief. All of them had access to the river, and all of them had the same look to them.

Tom looked out into the river as the sun started to go down in the distance. The other side of the river was uninhabited, and he saw the silhouettes of a few wild animals. He couldn’t make out what they were. They looked a bit like gazelle. He doubted they were able to jump or swim across the river. They were too small to take off with a watermelon.

“Footprints!” he shouted to no one in particular, causing a few nearby birds to take flight. There should have been footprints in the mud, and Tom couldn’t find any. He scanned the river again, as two ears poked through the surface and wiggled. Tom squinted his eyes, trying to get a better look, then reached in his bag for his binoculars. He looked out into the water, but the ears had submerged again. “Whose ears were those?” he thought. They were too small to be from an elephant. He recognized them from the painting in his office.

As the light started to fade, Tom took another look around before setting up camp. Close to the bank he noticed a large crater-like impression. Grabbing his flashlight, he scanned the bank, and noticed several of these imprints in the mud. Curious, he took out a tape measure and jotted down some notes. He’d have time to contemplate the imprints as he was on watch. Perhaps these were the footprints he’d been looking for! He knew that they weren’t from a crocodile because they weren’t the right shape. Were these from a vehicle? Or another animal that lived in the river?

He also discerned that not all of the brown substances on the riverbank were actually mud. Several round balls of hay and…something else…littered the bank. Tom leaned down closer and got a nose full of a foul odor. Dung. Tom started to think the culprit wasn’t a person after all. Since the dung was full of hay, he guessed it came from an herbivore. But what kind?

Tom found a small clearing that had a view of most of the watermelon farm that touched the river bank. He took out a few supplies and settled down for the night. The sun fell below the horizon and he watched the water by the light of the stars. All was quiet except for the sounds of insects chirping and small animals rustling through the underbrush. He leaned back against a large watermelon, relaxing as he scanned the farm. All was peaceful around him, and he found his eyes starting to close. His last thought as he drifted off to sleep was of a large round shape coming out of the river…