RAGE filled her. Pounding, penetrating rage. Tearing into each muscle fiber. Pebbles and twigs crunched under her weight on the unfamiliar, primitive road and seemed extra sharp and irksome. Smells on the wind carried the first certainty of spring. The incessant overcast sky would release no more snow in the boreal forest footing the mountain ranges, but horrible, stabbing rain might come at any time. Flashes of red blazed across her vision. Winterovered berries grew along the road. But no time to stop and gorge the way she’d like. She had to keep moving. Voices inside her head pushed her, encouraging her to find the scent. Furious determination ruled her every movement.
Throbbing in her head made each step like a blast of thunder. Did her agony have to do with waking from a deep sleep? She was annoyed, waking cold and dizzy. Wrathful resentment toward everything in her path burned her eyes. Even hidden things bothered her.
A ground squirrel burrowed beneath her. Irritated, she stopped and dug into the permafrost until she found a cache of pine nuts and squirrel droppings. Where had that squirrel escaped to? A rustle jerked her head. The squirrel was hopping away over the duff, scraping along the decayed leaves, a sound similar to a giant beast snapping in half the lofty aspens and spruce.
She lurched for an adolescent birch tree. Bit into the trunk to ensure the tree paid for the squirrel’s cunning. Tried to shake it from its roots. The leaves rattled like a thousand gurgling streams. Her teeth reverberated with pain and agony against the hard wood. How had she let that ground squirrel escape? She stopped. The familiar rancid smell forced her to refocus. She loomed closer. And angrier.
Panting, she loped onward, unconcerned for sharp branches poking into the sensitive flesh around her ears and nose. She must reach that reeking animal. Over the years she’d grown accustomed to the sickening odor. But the past several weeks she’d wanted to destroy whatever emitted that stench. She detested the putrid stink more than the beating in her head.
Mosquitoes swarmed her eyes and nose. The warming weather always brought them out in force. They used to chase her and her mother and brother clear across the brush and into the wide streams. Funny how she should consider that now, after many years. She remembered those days better than some might guess. When they bored into her skin and laid their eggs, the hatched larvae would eat into her stomach and cause unbearable diarrhea. They’d once almost killed her. But she’d survived worse. She bit at the buzzing pests, chomped at the rancid air.
The ancient slug in her right shoulder came alive with a burning fury. Long covered in scar tissue, the bullet brought back suppressed, painful memories. A hunter had wounded her. The recollection made her angry. Angrier than when it had happened her second summer. Her mother and twin brother had been killed by the same madman.
Trauma from that incident coalesced into fresh rage. The red flashes burned into her retinas. Hatred coursed through her muscles and bore into her bones. She began huffing, needing more and more oxygen to match the increase in her heart rate and her loathing for the world and everything in it.
She lifted her head, beating with heavy, excruciating pain, and sniffed the soggy air. Hoary steam shot from her nostrils and mouth. The encroaching forest burst with every sort of creature, tormenting her with their chatter and fussiness. The lengthening days allowed more time for foraging, hunting, pestering. Overhead, she snapped at the warblers chirping nonstop from the tree branches overhanging the road.
She pushed headlong, her snout low and sweeping from side to side. Her ears heated with blood, and her eyes smoldered. She opened her mouth a tad, sucking in the odors. When the wind shifted from the west near where she knew a large arm of water rested (but had never seen), the smell intensified. One singular stench she’d learned to loathe. She must reach it.
Losing concern for stealth, she turned into the forest and increased her pace, stomping the vegetation and chasing away ptarmigan foraging on salmonberry buds. She wanted to kill those birds. Their chirping buzzed like dozens of heavy chainsaws. A grinding, mind-piercing screech. Worse than all the blustery wind in the world combined.
Scent from the creature rose clearer, along with the sight of a large and square object. One of those abodes the rank creatures lived in. The creature fussed inside. Instinct demanded she circumvent the cabin downwind. She kept her head low, her eyes piercing at the structure through a marsh filled with tall grass and saxifrage. Again, no time for grazing the protein rich grasses. She must inspect inside that cabin. She’d never done it before. Her nature always instructed her to avoid such places, even during her first spring when she’d been a curious suckling. But now, she had to discover what lurked behind those wooden walls.
Without warning, the door opened. She crouched behind a cluster of tall grass and watched. The man peered around, carrying with him his heavy stench. His eyes widened, searching. Did he smell her presence?
The man hesitated, scurried inside. Sniffing the air, she rose above the blades and tasted the wind for answers. Yet what questions did she have? Mere curiosity for what lurked inside the abode? The voices in her head goaded her, pulling her through the marsh. Patches of grass and saxifrage flattened under each heavy step. Red rage flashed before her eyes.
The stench grew stronger. She dug at the dirt by the cabin, huffed, shuddered, and jumped onto the door, wetting herself. Little did she care if the man reemerged, armed with his weapon, ready to kill. She bit the door, swiped at the handle. Rustling inside irritated her. The smell of fear exploded around her. The man creature, filled with terror, was scrambling about, pushing aside objects that made horrific scraping and clanking sounds. She must stop those horrible sounds.
She jumped at the door and pushed it open with a sharp shatter. The rusty metal hinges ripped off the doorframe, and the door hung limp like a broken tree branch. The man cowered in a corner, his eyes wide and his teeth gnashing. A rifle, poised in the man’s arms, trembled and reeked with a long history of bloodshed. She jumped for the barrel and bit hard as the first shot blew off part of her snout. Blood gushed over her jaw and down her neck and chest. Enraged with pain and hate, she lurched for the man creature with what remained of her mouth, snapped his arm, shook him until the rifle fell with a loud thud to the floor.
Agonizing screams from the man echoed through her head. She jumped on top of him, bit into his head, neck, back using her powerful molars. The man’s arms flailed out. He struggled, tried to push against her. He reached under his stomach. A long, shiny object, clenched in his white fist, came at her. Why hadn’t she noticed the creature carried a hunting knife? They almost always did.
The knife plunged deep into her lung before she had leapt sideways. The man jumped to his haunches, his eyes white with fear and fury. Hatred saturated the cabin. She wanted to snap the man’s neck, but her jaw grew limp and painful. She could hardly see through the blood and rage obscuring her vision. Stench of the man surrounded her, as if a dozen or more of them circled her. She lurched backward, snapped at her sides, below and above. At whatever appeared to move.
The man grabbed for his rifle. He fired off several more shots. Splintering hot bullets ripped open flesh. She leaped for the man again, pinned him to the floor. The man’s excruciating cries resonated against the walls and ceiling and inside her head. He flailed, kicked, punched. But his resistance incited more anger. She bit and bit, scratched and dug. Bones snapped and crunched in her claws. The man creature weakened. She sensed life had oozed out of him. She sniffed the man, licked the blood. Anger receded. Seconds later, it rose again. She thrust her disabled jaw into the corpse, ripped off flesh with what remained of her molars. Overcome with hatred, she dragged the body across the floor and out of the cabin.
TROOPER Zanebono Fusca gazed at the remains of what resembled a man. The partially eaten corpse, stripped of its clothes, no longer had a face. Even the genitals had been chewed off, yet what remained of the well-developed pectoral muscles left little doubt the deceased was male. A wildlife investigator with the Alaska State Troopers for five years, Zane had never laid eyes on anything more gruesome. What struck him and the other investigators on the scene as uncanny was the large grizzly, approximately three hundred pounds, lying dead fifteen yards away, spread out like a bear rug, as if man and bear had arranged an interspecies murder-suicide pact.
He figured at least twelve hours had passed since the grizzly had attacked. Rigor mortis in both the man and bear had already set in. The bear, unknown to any of the present officials, lacked a collar or tag. Might be a rogue sow entering new territory with its cubs and becoming hyperaggressive. But no sign of cubs zigzagged across the muddy soil. The single tracks proved the bear must have stayed near its kill, feeding whenever it fancied. Typical bear behavior. Some bears, so guarded over food, would even sleep on top their kills.
But this bear hadn’t attempted to conceal its kill, like most. Plentiful grass and brush grew nearby for a cache. The entire scene loomed more and more bizarre.
Dr. Greg Gomez, the wildlife biologist on the scene, had spotted the bloody sight from the helicopter. Zane, Greg, Jasper Bohler, a warden with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and fellow wildlife trooper Dana Chernikoff had been conducting a routine spring moose count in south central Alaska, when the doctor had hollered above the roaring turbo and pointed out the window.
They’d landed in the small meadow filled with saxifrage by the cabin, eager for a closer look. By the expressions on everyone’s faces, no one had an inkling what might have spurred such a horrific attack. They were waiting for the state medical examiner to helicopter in for an on-scene preliminary assessment of the man’s body. He would probably learn as much as anyone else.
Strange to find himself surrounded by such bloody remains and still experience a certain peace and comfort from the verdant green of the Alaskan boreal forest. Zane had always been drawn to Alaska’s vast ruggedness, and first realized he’d wanted to live there in the fifth grade at Cranston, Rhode Island’s Brownridge Elementary School when he’d learned its location on the United States map.
The Chugach Range loomed through a clearing in the trees to the east. An aura of yellow sun spread across the washed sky above the peaks. Half-dollar-sized mosquitoes buzzed around the carnage, a clear sign that May in Alaska had arrived. Although temperatures hovered near the midfifties, Zanebono could see his breath.
He shuffled to the cabin and reexamined the gaping door. Deep striations would have proved the bear’s stature and power, even if they had no carcass. Zane wondered if the victim had been habitually feeding the local bears, and one had decided to help itself. Made sense. Bears were high-brained mammals. One or two exposures to a positive stimulus provided enough conditioning. Food—the most powerful stimulus of all.
Inside, Dana searched for the victim’s identification and collected evidence from the ransacked cabin, no larger than a one-car garage. The bear had left nothing untouched. The mattress ripped to bits, furniture turned into piles of lumber, curtains from the one window torn to ribbons. Puddles of blood covered the wood floor. Must have undergone some struggle. By all appearances, the victim sustained himself by trapping and hunting small animals. Probably one of those hermits living in the Alaskan bush to seek a life away from people. Zanebono related to the trapper’s wanting to stay far from the madding crowd.
Dana, wearing her nitrile gloves, lifted a bacon sandwich with two or three human-sized bite marks from the floor. “The bear most likely interrupted the victim’s breakfast.”
“Odd that it would do all that butchering, but leave a bacon sandwich untouched,” Zane said.
“You find any identification on or around the body?”
“Nothing. Maybe the bear ate it.”
Zane followed the blood trail to the trapper’s corpse, watchful for any missed clues. Evidence suggested smaller mammals had fed off the corpse. Zane swatted mosquitoes from his view. “Can’t even imagine what might’ve sparked all this,” he muttered to Greg and Jasper.
Greg, squatting next to the body, collected bear hairs from the countless wounds with tweezers and inserted them into a biohazard baggy. Young for a professor. Less snooty than his colleagues. Zane liked working with him more than anyone else from the University of Anchorage.
“The bear was angry, that’s for sure,” Greg said with a strained voice.
Zane scratched under his trooper’s cap, rubbed his temples. “Had it been starving?”
Greg gazed at the dead bear and shook his head. “It sure doesn’t appear it was starving. A big, healthy bear. As big as any female grizzly I’ve seen.”
“Maybe it had an extra-large appetite.”
“There’s no shortage of berries around here, and the spring salmon runs are more abundant than ever,” Jasper said. “No need to tear down that hermit’s door and devour part of him.”
“And the bear left all those cans and smashed boxes of food untouched,” Zane said, growing more puzzled. “Along with a bacon sandwich.”
“What about defending her cubs? You think that’s what happened?” Jasper said. “Maybe the sow chased him to his cabin after she spotted him out hunting or something.”
“Nope,” Greg said with a definitive shake of his head. “Take a look at it. It’s not lactating. Teats are near shriveled. If it birthed during the winter, the cubs hadn’t survived without milk. Definitely some kind of an offensive attack.”
The ensuing silence highlighted their bewilderment.
Black flies fed off the numerous scat droppings Greg examined around the body, at least ten pounds worth from what Zanebono ascertained. Digested bear hairs, long and lustrous, encased the small piles. Looked normal for scat. Zane was unsurprised to find pieces of the trapper’s clothing imbedded in the feces, since bears have ultrafast digestive systems. Greg squat-shuffled from pile to pile to take a few more samples for DNA analysis.
“Not diarrheic like I’d expect from a grizzly,” he said. “Especially after what it had eaten.”
They gathered around the dead bear. Dana was already bent over the grizzly’s melon-sized head, pulling open what remained of its jaw and examining the teeth. Pristine molars glistened in the overcast sky above the birch and white pine. The trapper had blown off the canines and incisors along with half of the snout. Zane peered inside the gaping mouth. Other than the bloodstains and hair stuck in the gums, the molars appeared spotless.
“I’m surprised her teeth aren’t in worse shape,” Dana said. “Based on the size of her, I’d guess she’s at least ten years old and would have some wear.”
“No apparent gum disease or abscessed teeth at all, from what’s left of them,” Greg said.
“That rules out chronic pain from tooth decay.” Zanebono had theorized the bear might have attacked out of redirected rage from chronic tooth pain, which sometimes occurred. He went down the mental checklist of other possibilities. “What about broken bones, any other old injuries that might’ve caused so much pain it couldn’t stand it and went berserk?”
“Only the fresh wounds from the attack,” Greg said. “That might have spurred it to attack more ferociously, but the question remains what started the whole thing.”
Another scan over the carnage, and Zanebono had no doubts the bear had ambushed the trapper inside his cabin. Yet what might have prompted such an unprecedented assault? The bear appeared as healthy as any bear in a zoo.
Jasper snapped photographs. “Perhaps she’s got meningitis or osteoporosis,” he suggested.
“We’ll find that out once we get it back to the lab,” Greg said.
“Amazing she was able to tear flesh with nothing but molars,” Dana said.
“Certainly was in a rage,” Greg reiterated. “It used its carnassials for all they were worth.”
Dana let the bear’s jaw snap shut and stood. “This is a strange one, fellows.”
“Won’t be easy keeping the press from turning ballistic,” Zane said.
Dana giggled. “They’ll love it, no doubt.”
“I won’t blame them this time.” Jasper lowered his Nikon and shook his head. “This isn’t normal.”
“Normal is a tricky word,” Dana said, her hands on her curvy hips, pushing against her tight navy blue trooper’s slacks. The Glock sidearm and Stratos phone on her belt accentuated her curves. Zane had always found her attractive. Too bad she’d been pushing him away more and more lately.
“Ugly, that’s for sure,” Greg said. “Hadn’t witnessed this much gore since I used to watch those splatter films as a teenager.”
Dana waved mosquitoes from her face and winced. Her brown eyes, light like tiger’s-eye, sparkled with disgust. “Smells like hell too.” She hoisted a biobag full of evidence she’d retrieved from the cabin and handed it to Zane. “This is all that might help identify the victim. A couple of notebooks with curled edges and five spent rifle shells. No other identification. No photo, passport, driver’s license, checkbook, wallet. Nothing. Fingerprints or DNA might show who he is, if he’s got a criminal history.”
Zane grabbed the biobag and peered over the grounds for the umpteenth time. Typical trapper’s shanty. Few modern contraptions. A place he’d like to call home, minus the gore. A rusty snowmachine, about ten years old, semicovered with a canvas tarp, sat on the side of the cabin by the woodshed. Blood splatter left an irregular heart shape on the canvas. Ironic, he thought.
He sighed into the soggy air, leaving a waft of silver breath. “One hell of a way to start the summer.”