"Nice day, isn't it?" Richard remarked. "Almost hot enough to be summer already."
It was cold, so cold. The icy wind seeped through his clothes and bit his skin. He buried himself into a snow bank, hoping to insulate himself and retain some body heat.
Peter agreed. "You should see the looks people give me when I tell them how warm it gets in Alaska."
"What is it today, about 70?"
"I'd say maybe 80."
"Funny that its about 80 down here, and yet you can see snow in plain sight on the mountains."
The lush grass provided a soft unbroken path for the men as they hiked deeper into the wild. The unbroken beauty of the world they had stepped into was like nothing they had ever seen before. Colors were brighter here. Scents were stronger. Sounds were more defined. The air was crisper, purer than the air in their home state of California.
"I could live here." Peter said, breaking the silence.
"I know." Richard sighed. "I'm thinking about moving myself."
"This place… it's where a man should live. It's wild, it's real. It's not some stupid city where everything you need is in one store or another and is in reach. This… this is what life should be. You gotta earn your keep here."
"There's cities here too, you know." Richard said, stepping over a small tree branch lying in his path.
"Not in this part of here."
Richard shaded his eyes from the sun, peering into the distance. "What's that?"
"Behind the rock?" Peter asked. Richard nodded. "Looks like a mother brown bear and her cubs. Let's keep our distance."
Peter pulled a small digital camera from his pocket. Lowering his pack from his shoulders, he crept closer to the three bears.
"What happened to keeping our distance?" Richard asked.
"I'm a professional." Peter insisted. He the camera gave a soft click as he photographed the mother and her cubs. She looked up at him.
"Don't make eye contact!" Richard hissed in a whisper. "Look away, look away!"
"Shh! Calm down." Peter said before snapping a final picture. He pressed the power button, turning his camera off. "Happy? I miss out on the photographic opportunity of a life time just so you don't have to be afraid of being eaten."
"It's a legitimate fear. Remember what we're here for? Get your stuff. Let's keep moving." He pulled Peter in a direction away from the bears.
The snow swirled down from the sky, piling on top of him. He couldn't stay in this little den forever if he hoped to get out. He pushed himself through the snow, digging with all he had. The snow nearly blinded him. He couldn't se more than three feet in front of him. "Keep moving, Aaron," he instructed himself. "Keep moving or die."
He pushed on. The storm had arrived when he had been away from his campsite, making it impossible to return. He was trapped in the midst of a horrible white out in a state he hardly knew. Aaron asked himself why he had felt the need to travel to Alaska during one of the worst winters on record in the first place. The chance to track and document a rare creature hadn't been that captivating, had it? It must have been. He was here, now, possibly freezing to death, just to put his name into history.
Richard glanced over his shoulder at the bear one last time before heading away from the bears. He couldn't ignore the chilled feeling running up his spine that she was watching them.
"Look at that sky." Peter said, pulling out his camera. He whistled.
"It's huge." Richard replied.
"That's what your wife said." Peter smirked. He captured photograph after photograph of the landscape surrounding them.
"Very funny." Richard said dryly.
"All jokes aside though, this place is one of the most open places I have ever seen. Our job is like looking for a needle in a haystack."
"Except a needle will poke you when you find it."
"Battery's dead." Peter flipped his camera upside down and removed a little black rectangle from the battery slot.
Richard stifled a laugh. "Smart idea, bringing a camera with a rechargeable battery to a place without electricity."
"I have another battery." Peter dug around in his pocket, searching for the battery. His face grew discouraged as he realized it wasn't there. After checking his other pocket, he removed his backpack once again to search it. "Aha! Here it is."
"Still, you probably should have brought a camera with regular batteries. How long until that one dies too?"
Peter ignored him. He fed the battery back into the camera.
Aaron pressed on. The wind was strong, but he was stronger. He pulled his GPS from his pocket, praying it still worked. The coordinates for the camp he was living in were pre-set. He just needed it to turn on. Miraculously, the screen lit up. The arrows guided him in the correct direction. He had to hurry though. The storm weakened the signal, and the device only had half its battery life.
The cold air burned his throat and stung his nose. He wasn't too far from his camp, from the lovely warm house he had been provided. He was far enough though, that he would have to worry about making it back alive.
"How much father?" Peter asked Richard.
He unfolded his map. "I'd say…. Maybe half an hour. It's not too bad. Once we get there though, is when the fun starts."
"This your first job?"
"What have you done before?"
"I had to investigate the death of a woman in Africa. . . I had to make sure it really was a tiger and her husband wasn't just pulling a fast one on us. One look was all it took. No man could do that to a woman." Richard shuddered at the memories. "This one should be easier. I doubt there's any flesh left after so long."
"What happened to the woman?"
"They had taken a trip together to heal after a fight or something and a tiger got into the house. It attacked both of them, but it only killed her. Ate a good bit of her abdomen. Gruesome stuff this poor guy lived through."
"How 'bout him?"
"Tiger left a few scars. One of his arms was permanently damaged. The grief probably killed him eventually though. He said he was going to go back and kill it . . . I wonder if he ever did."
Peter exhaled softly. "One hellish trip."
"How about you?"
"What have you done?"
"Helped out a village once by hunting down a lion that had been hunting them down. Tracked it and killed it within a week. Took out a leopard once too. But, let me tell you, you never want to mess with a leopard."
"If I need to tell you, you shouldn't be in this business."
"They're too smart. A leopard will kill a man, and only eat part of him. What does this make you think?"
"That he's going to come back and eat the rest of him later."
"Naturally. So, what would be your plan, Rich?"
"Wait by the body with my gun. Kill on sight."
"You're waiting then, for that cat. You've got your gun cocked and ready, your eyes never strayed from the mangled mess of what used to be a human being just like yourself. Your whole being is focused, waiting for the slightest hint of the animal's presence. Suddenly, you feel hot breath on your neck." Peter raised his canteen to his lips and took a swig. "You turn, and stare dead into the eyes of the killer. You have no time to react. His teeth are in your neck. It's over."
"I may have exaggerated a tiny bit, but it's mostly true. They really do set traps for their hunters. You hit them, they hit back. A man-eating leopard is the most dangerous thing in the world. Many a good hunter has died because they did not know that little detail."
"Did you know any?"
Peter looked away sadly. "Yes."
"Sorry to hear that."
"I was sorry to lose him. He was my best friend."
The snow was starting to lighten up. Aaron stomped his feet into the ground, trying to get the blood to circulate into his toes before frostbite reached them. He ran his hands up and down his arms, trying to stimulate blood flow. Snow flew between his collar and his skin, sending icy little droplets down his chest. He shivered, wrapping his scarf tighter around his neck. He began to wonder if it would be better to just curl up and die right here, end the cold, the pain, the suffering before it could get any worse.
The thoughts were so tempting. Suicide in the cold, painful as it was, would ensure no more pain. He still had five long miles to walk. His power was running out. He was no longer sure of his ability to survive. He didn't know how much longer he could fight.
He sank to the ground, crashing to his knees in a pile of snow. The GPS rolled from his hand as he closed his eyes. The cold sank into his bones. He was sure this was it for him. "I love you, Julie." he murmured, thinking one last time of his fiancée. "Guess history won't remember me after all. . ."
"What are we after here?" Richard asked. "Bear?"
"They didn't tell you?" Richard shook his head. "Idiots."
"My job is mostly to look over the body and make sure it was an animal attack, and to point out the tracks to the hunters so they can kill it. They don't always tell me what kind of animal it's supposed to be."
"There won't be any tracks this time. The poor guy was killed three to four months ago."
"And they're sending us now because. . ."
"It was too treacherous to go search for a dead body. This was Alaska's worst winter on record in nearly a hundred years. They didn't want to risk the lives of other for someone who was already dead." peter explained.
"How do they know he's dead if they don't even know where he was?"
"Worst winter on record. He either froze to death and was eaten or was, well, eaten. And before you ask… a team of scientists found some fingers in some scat. They turned out to previously belong to our guy."
"What a way to go."
"You're telling me. I photograph them and I hunt them, Lord help me so I never end up inside of them."
"Do you ever take photos of the bodies?"
Peter shrugged. "Sometimes I have to. Obviously, I prefer not to, but if I have to I don't really care."
"Did they tell you what ate him?"
Aaron's breath created little puffs of white smoke as he lingered on the ground. His mind raced. He couldn't stop thinking of Julie, of what he came here to do, of all the reasons he wanted to live. The cold had clearly altered his sense of reason. Suicide just wasn't an option. He tried to push himself off the ground, His limbs were stiff, but he managed. He shook, trying to get the blood flowing as usual. Aaron felt the sting of the wind against his face, simultaneously awakening and numbing him. His blue eyes grew even more determined. He would beat this impossible task set before him.
He searched for his GPS, coated in snowflakes and nearly dead. The snow had finally come to a stop, bringing him new hope. The sky was still dark and grey, but at least now he could see into the distance. He checked his location before turning the GPS off to save battery. Just four more miles to go.
"A hybrid?" Richard repeated. "What kind?"
"You ask a lot of questions."
"Half snow leopard, half white tiger."
"Most likely, he never would have seen it coming if it got him alive."
Peter stopped walking suddenly. "There's his camp."
The weather beaten house stood against the mountainous backdrop. It hadn't survived the winter very well. The roof had caved in on one section, and a window was broken. An enormous pine tree had fallen on the other side of the house across the lawn. It still had most of it's needles, but its branches were splintered and shattered. Pieces of the tree and the roof were strewn across the grass.
"All right. He died within a five mile radius. Look for anything that could have been his. A scrap of cloth, a bone, something electronic… anything to give us clues as to where and how he died." Peter instructed.
"We splitting up?"
"You kidding?" Peter said. "Hell no. We can radio for the helicopter when we're done. Awe won't even have to stay here overnight." he checked his watch. "It's noon now. Let's take a lunch, and then get moving."
The new determination Aaron had discovered within himself gave him enough fuel to carry on. He could see more of the mountain tops, telling him he was headed in the right direction. He smiled. He would make it through after all.
He decided to consult his GPS, just to be sure he was right. Quickly, however, he discovered he had dropped it. He groaned, then began the trek back to find it.
Ten minutes of retracing his steps were ten minutes of fruitless efforts. He cursed himself for not bringing the one that fit around his wrist like a watch. He had only been going out to check the traps. Convinced he had finally caught his prize, he had completely forgotten the fact that the weather was so unpredictable. He sifted through the snow piles, wishing his GPS wasn't such a similar color.
After another five minutes, he finally found it. He doubted it would work well anymore after the cold had gotten to it. He pushed the on button., relieved when it lit up.
His body was growing weak. His stomach was beginning to growl from hunger. He wanted a burger, a big juicy one from Wendy's, preferably with bacon on it. The Baconator was his personal gift from God, or so he always said. The delicious combination of beef and bacon satisfied him like no other food. The soft bun wrapped around the meat, the melted cheese, the lettuce and even the tomatoes . . . Every ingredient that burger came with made his mouth water. Oh, water… he could really use some of that too. He was parched. Just the thought of delicious, cool water trickling down his throat, quenching the dry burn in his mouth. After he drank the glass dry, e would dive back into his delicious Baconator. The hot meat would fill his pallet with the most delightful tastes known to man. He knew daydreaming about food would only make his hunger worse, but he couldn't stop himself.
"I don't think we'll have to look very hard." Richard said. "Come here."
Peter pulled out his camera as he walked up to a piece of the skeleton they were searching for. "Left arm… missing two fingers…" He snapped a few photos. "This is definitely part of the guy we're looking for."
"There are teeth marks all up and down his arm. See, it's broken here, here . . . And here. Looks like he pulled the body for quite a distance. You can tell the fingers were yanked from their sockets too, not just broken off while being chewed. And look at this." Richard pointed to two depressions in the bone near where the shoulder would have been. "He sunk his teeth in hard. My guess? He was going for the kill."
Peter zoomed in and captured a few more images. "It looks that way. But, we need more evidence. We can't go after the hybrid until we can confirm him a man eater."
Richard shook his head. "Exactly how much evidence does that take?"
"Just keep looking."
"Hard to imagine all this was buried in feet of snow a couple months ago. Crazy."
"The hybrid may have brought the body to his den, or had his mean where he found it. It was the first of its kind, so its behavioral patterns are not set in stone." Peter lifted a tiny notebook from his backpack and made a few notes. He examined the dismembered arm as he jotted words down on the paper. "Missing third and fourth fingers, missing distal and middle phalanges off of his first finger… that didn't show up in the scat." Peter remarked.
Aaron walked on slowly. An eerie feeling was overtaking him with every step. Although he knew he was alone in this snowy tundra, he felt as if he was being watched. He glanced around nervously, wondering what was triggering the strange feeling climbing his spine. He shook his head and shoulders, hoping to rid himself of the weirdness. There was nothing but blinding white snow in all directions, save for the mountains.
Aaron trudged across the blanketed Alaskan world. Due to the wind, snow drifts reached his waist in some places, making travel even more difficult. In other places, the accumulation only reached his ankles. Mostly, the powder stopped at his knees. The crunch of every step reminded him how far he had been and how far he had to go.
His eyes fell upon a cave a little bit west. It appeared to be a quite place that would provide him a bit of shelter from the wind. Aaron looked at the directions on his GPS. His home was in the same direction. Stopping to rest in the cave for a while wouldn't hurt.
The area felt increasingly familiar the closer he got to the cave. Aaron looked back at the GPS, which told him his destination was mere steps away. "Damn it!" The coordinates had been set to a trap he had set up instead of his actual destination. If the GPS hadn't been his only hope at ever finding the place, he would have tossed it into the ground right then and there. He packed snow into a ball and furiously hurled it into the distance. "Come on!" A few more snowballs followed the first one. They rolled to a stop far from Aaron, but close to the animal watching him.
Creatively buried in the snow, a creature watched Aaron expel his fury. With every passing snowball, the creature memorized details about the man. He hadn't eaten in days. Tonight, he would feast like a king.
"So, this hybrid. Why would it be in Alaska in the first place?" Richard asked.
"You need to find a new job. They can't take you that seriously if they haven't told you anything. How long have you been working for your company?"
"Two, maybe three years."
"Quit." Peter suggested. "The hybrid was created in a zoo when a white tiger got loose and wound up in the snow leopard enclosure. After it was born, the zoo sent it to Alaska to a special research facility. It broke loose, and, assuming it had died in the harsh conditions, they let it go until proof it had lived was discovered. One of the scientists found its tracks. They hired a young guy from the lower forty-eight to come up and track the beast. He was pretty excited about it too. I think it was only his first or second job."
"Rest in peace, amateur." Richard said. "For your sake, I hope you were eaten after you died."
Aaron flung another snowball into the gray sky. He stopped, inhaled deeply, and attempted to calm himself. The grey sky had already begun to fade to black. He had to take his chances and head back to camp.
He plugged the right coordinates into the GPS. He glanced up. Something, a blur of some sort, had caught his eye. He saw nothing, and shrugged it off. The GPS was down to a quarter of battery power. It wouldn't last longer than half an hour. Aaron began to run.
The creature eyed his prey's clumsy, awkward run. Obviously unsuited to the climate, he continually lost his balance. The creature stretched, his paws spread out in front of him, his back arched like a house cat. His brown eyes focused on the man. The hunter had become the prey.
Aaron's run was costing him more energy than he could spare. His heavy clothes and stiff boots didn't move easily. His breathing was already labored, his back and neck coated with sweat. Slowing to a walk, he wiped sweat from his brow. He hadn't thought it possible to sweat in weather this cold. As he raised his eyes, he noticed a suspicious streak of black painted into the white oblivion. He squinted, trying to figure out what he was looking at. It was the strangest pattern- spotted in some places, striped in others. His eyes widened with fear and terror as he realized what he was looking at.
"Oh, my . . ."
"I found something!" Richard called.
An hour had passed. The arm had been their biggest find so far. "If it's another piece of fabric…" Peter said. Aside from placing those scraps in clear plastic baggies, they couldn't do much with them until they got back to the lab.
"It's another bone."
Peter's interest grew. He eyed the sun-bleached bone lying on the ground. "Looks like a femur."
Richard removed his jacket before he examined the bone. "The marks on this tell me our cat was just pulling the meal off. They don't go too deep."
Peter made a few notes. "I agree. Maybe our guy was lucky after all."
"Run, run like there's no tomorrow. Don't drop the GPS, the GPS is your life. Run. Get away. Go." Aaron's mind was screaming for him to run, but he didn't. His limbs wouldn't listen to him. He lowered his eyes, avoiding any risk of eye contact with the cat. His hybrid had found him first.
He snuck looks at it as often as possible. His life hung in the balance, but he couldn't suppress his excitement at seeing it for the first time. He smiled.
The cat growled, baring its teeth.
Aaron's smile vanished. The cat had misread his intentions.
It stood, and began to advance toward him.
"Ohmygod, ohm god…" Aaron scrambled over snow drifts, nearly tripping as he backed away from the cat. It broke into a run. His breath caught in his throat. He was being hunted.
The cat charged him, stopping short ten feet away. Aaron searched desperately for a place to hide. He scanned the horizon as he ran, wishing for anything that could give him even a ray of hope. The cat was back on his trail now, following him, easily keeping up.
He looked over his shoulder as he ran, watching it lazily stalk him. The thing was toying with him! It could easily over take him, but for some reason, it got pleasure from dragging it out.
An idea sprouted. Aaron dropped to the ground, as if dead. His heart pounded as the cat walked up to him, and sniffed him all over, investigating if this feigned death was reality. It buried its nose between his arm and his ribs. Aaron dreaded feeling teeth tear through his clothes and enter the soft flesh of his stomach. The cat took a final lungful. Deciding Aaron was, in fact, dead, he took his arm in his mouth.
Aaron hammered his free fist into the side of the beast's head. Dazed for only a moment, the monster bit down hard, breaking through both Aaron's thick jacket and his skin. The bones of his forearm splintered as the monster drove his teeth into them. Aaron howled in agony. He wrenched his arm out of the beast's bloodstained mouth. The snow around him had taken a deep red hue. Blood ran from his arm into the snow. He ripped his hat from his head, wrapping it around the wound as he ran. The pain was unbearable.
Fury filled the cat's eyes once he realized he had been deceived. His lips curled back in a hiss. He wanted revenge.
"Let's get ready to check out that cave. I think we'll find the most pieces of the puzzle in there." Peter said. "Uh, no pun intended."
"That's kind of sick." Richard said. "He's dead, and you're making jokes about it."
"Unintentionally." Peter said. "You have to admit, that was funny." Richard gave him a disapproving look. "Once you've been in this line of work as long as I have, you have to make jokes, Rich."
"Does it ever haunt you?"
"Do you ever … see their faces when you're trying to sleep?" Richard asked.
Peter was quiet for awhile. "Only if they still have a face when I find them."
"I see them in my dreams sometimes." Richard said. "Or worse, I dream I am them."
"I used to have that. You kind of just, get used to it. Grim as it is, it's life. Well, death. But it's a job, and it pays pretty well. So I put up with it. After awhile, it stops. Separates the men from the boys, you could say."
"I asked them to stop telling me the back story." Richard admitted. "I found the body of a band new father who had gone hiking a week after his kid had been born. He was mauled by a bear, and visions of him and his family haunted me for months. I felt so bad for them. That doesn't make me a boy, Peter. T means I have a heart."
"Hearts make this job harder. Look, the cave is right over there. You go on ahead, start looking around. I'll meet up with you in a second. Nature's calling." He left Richard and headed into a cluster of trees.
Richard entered the cave five minutes after Peter had walked away. It had a musty scent that made him sneeze. The air was more chilly out of the sunlight. He pulled his jacket back on. Lowering his pack in a corner, he took a look at his surroundings. "Found our proof." he muttered.
Deep in the cave was a human skull, laying on its right side, the parietal bone severed with severe bite marks. It was definite kill bite. The teeth had gone deep into the skull, shattering the bone. The jaw was missing as well, and any fragment of skin or muscle was long gone.
The sound of footsteps nearly made Richard jump out of his skin. "What the hell, Pete."
"What? Oh." Peter noticed the skull. "Yeah. Our hybrid is a man killer."
"Here's his jaw." Richard pointed with his foot to a bone somewhat behind the head. "And his ribs. . . And the rest of him."
"After I get my shots, bag it up with the arm and femur." Peter said. The flash of his camera lit up the cave.
Richard pulled the black body bags out from his backpack. "The hybrid isn't coming back anytime soon…"
"Naw. Looks like he hasn't been here in months." Peter photographed the skull again from a different angle.
"Good." Richard pulled gloves over his hands and carefully placed the skull into the bag.
The hybrid wasn't toying with Aaron any longer. He wanted blood.
Aaron hurled his GPS at the beast's face as a last resort. He watched it fly through the air and smack into a snow drift far behind the cat. He cursed again. His only weapon, his only hope, gone.
He watched the trail of blood mark his path. He couldn't last long enough to reach his home. He couldn't give in though.
The cat leapt onto his back, knocking him face first into the snow. Its claws pierced his coat, slicing into his skin. Blood spots appeared on his coat. The cat clawed at the jacket, tearing off of Aaron and leaving bloody gashes in the process. Aaron waited limply for it to be over, hoping playing dead would work this time as well. The cat refused to fall for the charade. He kicked the remnants of the coat off of Aaron.
Blood began to pool in the snow. The cold was an ally; it made Aaron numb. His vision was growing blurry. He had trouble keeping his eyes open. The snow around his arm melted into the red river, then re-froze on his skin. It clung to his face and eye lashes.
The cat stood on Aaron's back, too heavy for him to move. Aaron cried out as it sank its teeth into his Achilles' tendon, rendering him immobile.
He felt the hot breath of the hybrid on his neck. He closed his eyes, hoping for the death bite just so he wouldn't have to endure any more pain. "Jesus . . . save my . . . soul," he prayed in a whisper. "Forgive . . . me of my . . . sins . . .take me . . . into your kingdom."
The cat growled. His jaws opened. He thrust his teeth into Aaron's skull, breaking the bone. The bite killed the man instantly. The cat felt his body go limp. He licked his lips, savoring the taste of the kill.
He stepped off of Aaron's body. The hybrid bit the man's hand, intending to pull him to the cave with three of his fingers. He pulled too hard, wrenching two of them from their sockets along with a piece of the third. He took a firmer grip on Aaron's upper arm. Hot blood spurted from the punctured arteries, dripping from the monster's mouth onto the snow.
The black sky became cloudy. Snow began to fall idly at first, then faster. The cat dragged its kill to the cave, ready to feast there. The snow turned the frozen pool of blood pink, then white once more as it accumulated. Once again, the Alaskan tundra was pristine and untouched.
"Did you radio for the 'coptor yet?" Peter asked. Richard nodded. "Good."
"I gotta know. How are we sure this guy is our guy, and not some poor hiker?"
"No one but Aaron was up here. There wasn't another human soul here between us and him. And, before you ask me how they knew he died, he hadn't reported his finding at the usual hourly check in . . . for several hours. The guy was dead, no question about it."
"They should have sent more men."
"We'd just be looking for another body." Peter muttered. "It would have gotten at least somebody. You got him?" Richard pointed to the full body bag in the corner across from his backpack. "All right. Let's head out."
As Peter passed the black bag, he paused. He looked down in a moment of silence, then whispered, "Rest in peace, Aaron Beckett."