So you don’t think there were Grizzly Bears in California in 1999? You might be in for a surprise. To find out more, read this latest excerpt from my novel, Fruit of the Devil. (A short stand-alone thriller with a speculative twist, published in the Santa Cruz Weird anthology, available on Amazon.)
The Fish and Game Warden
Monday morning, May 1, 1999.
Corralitos Creek, Santa Cruz County, California
Fish and Game Warden Kelli Cavanaugh drove her truck along the narrow, winding forest road. As the half-ton Dodge 4×4 ascended into the coastal mountains, Warden Cavanaugh kept her eye on the creek that meandered from one side of the road to the other through culverts and under picturesque bridges.
She savored the hint of summer in the warm spring morning, feeling good in spite of the Cal Tip call that had brought her up here.
Someone had allegedly built a dam across the creek and was siphoning off water upstream of the dam during salmon egg hatching season, a critical time for maintaining sufficient water flow for the eggs to hatch and the juveniles to survive the summer. The same individuals were allegedly discharging raw sewage and other effluent downstream.
A disturbing allegation; serious violation of county riparian protection ordinance. Native Coho salmon, keystone species critical to the overall health and biodiversity of the redwood forest ecosystem, were on the verge of extinction. It was Kelli’s job as well as her passion to protect them. Fish and Game Warden wasn’t just a job, but a lifestyle. She put her whole self into being Guardian of Our Wildlife Heritage twenty-four seven, in or out of uniform. She considered it her responsibility to be the voice for all of those creatures who couldn’t speak for themselves, to explain to people how their everyday activities could, even unintentionally, have profound, far reaching, and sometimes extremely adverse effects on wildlife and habitat. She wanted every person she came in contact with to understand that everyone and everything is interconnected, through the ecology of the land, to the heartbeat of Mother Nature.
Kelli had grown up hunting and fishing in wild California with her parents and grandparents. When she was twelve, on a fishing trip in the High Sierra with her family, she’d had an encounter with a Fish and Game Warden. That meeting had been an epiphany. It had been such a positive contact, she’d known right away that she wanted to be a Game Warden herself. From that childhood vision, her resolution had never faltered.
Now she was proud to be one of the 200 game wardens in the state, responsible for protecting more than 1,000 native fish and wildlife species, more than 6,000 native plant species, and approximately 360 endangered species, in one of the most exquisite natural environments in the world – an environment at risk. With 159,000 square miles of land, 36 million people, 1,100 miles of coastline, about 222,000 square miles of ocean waters, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, 4,800 lakes and reservoirs and 80 major rivers, in addition to deserts, mountains and, of course, urban areas, California Fish and Game Wardens had a lot on their plate, and were understaffed, underappreciated, and underpaid. But hey, who’s counting?
If she transferred to a job in any other branch of law enforcement, she could earn much more, and she wouldn’t be putting her life on the line every day in remote locations without any back-up. But she loved the freedom she had as a game warden, and the immersion in nature, food and balm for the soul, that she couldn’t find in any other line of work.
Kelli checked her watch. 8:30 am. Maneuvering the green Fish and Game Department truck around a bend in the road, she stuck her head out of the open window and sniffed the air. Not a trace of the coastal fog that often clung like ghosts to the trees in the mornings. She could smell the sun-warmed resins of Douglas fir and Redwood needles, smell musty mushrooms nestled in the rich duff of the decomposing forest floor, and taste the cool freshets of the rapidly flowing creek.
All of Warden Cavanaugh’s senses were on high alert, as usual. Kelli wore her duty belt fully equipped today, even though it meant she carried about twenty-three pounds of extra weight. While she steered with one hand, with the other she double checked each item on the utility belt at her hip: her department issue semi-automatic Glock 22, a magazine pouch with two extra clips for her firearm, two sets of cuffs, pepper spray, a Leatherman utility tool, protective gloves, a folding four-inch Buck Knife, and her portable radio.
She’d tucked a small mag light into her pocket. The department issue eight-inch aluminum flashlight and her 24-inch side-handle baton, she’d left off her belt. Not mandatory carry, and too uncomfortable and cumbersome. Both the eight-inch and the thirteen-inch department issue Streamlights were in the truck, if needed. And the shotgun on the rack behind her was clean, oiled and ready for bear, so to speak.
Although not over confident, Kelli did feel competent to defend herself. She was proud of the fact that, of all the law enforcement training academies, the Fish and Game Academy in Napa ran the longest, most rigorous and comprehensive program. Since completing her four-year university degree in Wildlife Biology, Fisheries and Natural Resources Management at Humboldt State and then basic training at the Academy, she’d continued to sharpen her skills in defensive tactics, and had kept in shape through the physical rigors of a job in the wild. She also made a point of regular workouts on her days off. She trained in martial arts, went to a climbing gym, and rowed on the bay, went to target practice, and partner practiced using all of the equipment on her belt.
But today felt like a day she needed assistance. Something about this investigation was putting the hackles up on the back of her neck. Something felt off.
There were often days like today, when the other two field wardens in the county were off duty and, as the only Fish and Game Warden working, she alone was responsible for patrolling not just her own South County beat, but also the entire North County and Marine-Yacht Harbor territories. All three wardens overlapped only three days a week. But even then, she couldn’t count on getting back-up when she requested it. The department was plain understaffed.
I’ve got to at least try to check in. Kelli turned the dial on her Pac system, hoping she could still get a signal from a nearby repeater this far up the mountain. She found the signal from the Loma Prieta repeater and contacted CENCOM, the Fish and Game and State Parks dispatch center. She reported her position and destination, and put in a request for back-up. Then she went on the sheriff’s channel and put in a request for back-up. But she didn’t have much hope that anyone would respond from the sheriff’s office either, with only six Santa Cruz Sheriff’s deputies on duty at any given time to cover the entire county.
Kelli tapped her thumb against the steering wheel. Whatever she was heading into, she had a strong feeling she didn’t want to go in alone.
She lifted her new Nokia cell phone, the first mobile phone she’d ever owned, off its cradle. Reception for these things was spotty, but no harm in giving it a try. She pushed express dial for the number Sheriff Charlie Rosa had given her.
She got his machine. At the beep, please leave a message.
“Sheriff Rosa? This is Warden Cavanaugh. Kelli Cavanaugh. I’m responding to a call about some suspicious activity at 30687 Strider Drive, on Corralitos Creek. The location is close to that meth hooch we found last Fall, where the little girl went missing. Something feels wrong out here today, Charlie. Requesting back-up.”
The cell phone cut out. Reception dead zone this far up the mountain. Surprising she’d gotten any reception at all. As she drove, she continued watching the creek meander from one side of the road to the other.
Kelli slowed as she spotted her destination.
Meth House blinked like a neon sign inside her mind as she cruised by the lot filled with rusted out, wheel-less cars and trucks, broken glass, tangles of barbed wire, overturned metal barrels, discarded decomposing mattresses, a couch with popping springs, and eroding piles of trash. A loosely nailed together shack was falling apart at the waterside.
The warden parked and locked her truck in a narrow pullout a few feet beyond the driveway, then walked back down the road. Kelli hesitated a moment in front a No Trespassing sign nailed to a redwood tree at the head of the dirt driveway, then stepped onto the property. She walked with care, crunching broken glass every few steps. The area felt deserted, almost. She shivered in the sun.
Nauseatingly strong, bitter ammonia-like fumes burned her eyes and nostrils. Her vision blurred as she teared up and stifled a cough. She pulled a kerchief out of her back pocket and held it over her nose and mouth.
At the end of the drive was a black van parked next to a metal shed. The door to the shed stood open. Inside, wire cages, the kind used to transport large dogs, were stacked to the ceiling against one wall. Marijuana plants hanging upside down to dry filled the rest of the shed. The large outer leaves of the plants had been trimmed away, leaving small bright green serrated leaves and two foot long resinous flowering colas, as thick as a man’s arm. Prime sensimilla. Probably more than ten thousand dollars’ worth. The shed reeked with the skunky smell of drying pot.
Warden Cavanaugh pulled a small digital camera out of her shirt pocket, and took pictures of the cages and marijuana.
She walked around back of the shed, disturbing a swarm of black flies and wasps. The sickly sweet smell of blood made her gag. Hanging from a tree were two freshly butchered deer carcasses, blood dripping on the dirt. Poaching. Deer hunting season was six months away. Flies settled back down on a pile of eviscerated deer organs next to an illegal fire pit. Kelli took photos of the mess.
At the very least, on top of drug charges, these poachers were going to be hit with a $1,000 misdemeanor citation, plus penalty assessments and six month’s jail time, not to mention restriction of their hunting privileges for up to three years.
When she reached the stream bank, she photographed the illicit dam, the pump, and the discharge pipe, the empty cans, flasks, plastic tubing, and cooking vessels. Clearly, someone was cooking meth here, and dumping their highly toxic residual chemical waste in the creek. This type of hazard, extremely harmful to humans and the environment, was going to cost as much as $150,000 to clean up.
Kelli inspected the area for any signs of red phosphorous. One sniff of that stuff could kill you. She didn’t see any. But from the way her eyes were tearing, there were obviously Ethyl Ether fumes in the air. Highly flammable.
Meth manufacture had come of age in the last few years. Sometimes, the guys doing the cooking were well-educated chemists, but those meth labs were usually much cleaner than this. The Hells Angels were known to be up to their handlebars in the meth trade. But the tags on the shed didn’t look like the Angels’ handiwork. Kelli turned her head sideways and examined one of the tags closely.
MS-13. A Mara Salvatrucha tag! Since when have they been banging in California? What’s going on here? What are these cages all about?
Hair standing up on the back of her neck, Kelli held still, barely breathing, and listened. Water running in the creek, nattering squirrel, squawk of a Steller’s jay.
She knelt to get a better look at the water. Even worse than she’d feared. She leaned over to take close-up shots of dead salmon smolts and fingerlings floating on the water’s surface. A staggering loss.
Excruciating pain. White light
Tuesday, May 2, 1999. Corralitos.
Kelli came to with a stabbing headache, curled in a fetal position on a hard, cold surface. She blinked to make sure her eyes were open. Pitch black. She lifted a hand to her face. No blindfold. But she couldn’t see her hand. Was she actually blind, or just in a completely dark space?
When she moved, even slightly, it hurt everywhere.
The smell of stagnation overwhelmed her. She gagged and wretched, a small amount of stinging bile burning her throat. Need water. She worked some moisture into her mouth with her tongue, spit and swallowed.
Little by little, she moved her arms and legs. Pain. Another wave of nausea.
As she moved, she realized that she was wet where her clothes touched the ground. Blood, or some other liquid?
With her hands, she explored her body for lacerations. The crown of her head was wet; a sticky stream of something ran down the left side of her face. She touched it and winced, then sniffed the sticky liquid on her fingertips. Blood.
Head wound. How bad? Dizzy. Concussion? Need to stay awake. Blood on face is drying, flaking. From the head wound, not cut on the face. This liquid on the ground, then, is not my blood? She touched the liquid beneath her, rubbed her fingers together, smelled it. Something slimy and foul.
Where am I? She listened hard for several minutes. A slow water drip. Another sound. Faint. Like a child’s whimper.
Painstakingly, she got onto her hands and knees. Concrete floor. Knees hurt. Head spinning. Carefully, she stood and rolled up through her spine, letting her head come up last. Before she could completely straighten, her shoulders hit the ceiling.
Panic and claustrophobia welled up. She took a slow, deep breath and forced herself to stay calm.
Head and shoulders bent, she lifted her arms and felt overhead. Her fingers ran into a fuzzy sticky mass. Spider web. She shook it off, wiping what clung to her fingers onto her pants.
She raised her hands overhead again. The ceiling curved; a concave shape. Steadying herself with one hand, she took two steps to the right and found a wall. Then she took four steps to the left and found the other wall. She sensed that the walls reached forward and back for a considerable distance. A tunnel. Should I start walking? Which direction?
Suddenly, she remembered her service belt, and her hands flew to her hips. The belt, with all her equipment, gone.
* * * * *
Kelli moaned and rolled onto her side. She opened her eyes, sat up and held her hand in front of her face. Still too dark to see. Or am I blind? Her heart raced. She forced herself to focus on her breathing. Her senses woke to the cold stench in the air, and the wet. Must have passed out again. Did someone hit me again?
She closed her eyes and tried to recall her last conscious thoughts. No. No one’s been here. I just passed out. Still feeling a little dizzy, she inched her way over to the wall and leaned back. Why didn’t the attacker just kill me? With a start, it occurred to her she may have been raped. She felt at her shirt, her pants. Clothes intact, except for this tear on my shoulder. They ripped my radio mic off my shirt. No pain down there.
She had to pee. Cautiously, she stood. Head and shoulders bent under the low ceiling, she braced her hand against the wall, listening intently. The sound of her own breathing rasped loud inside her head. Something else. Water dripping. She held her breath and listened for a long moment. Not another sound.
She had to go, bad. She unfastened her belt, unsnapped and unzipped her pants, pulled down her trousers and panties, squatted, and pissed a long, warm stream. With relief, she noted that it didn’t sting. No one touched me. Thank God for that. She shook herself dry as best she could and pulled her pants back up.
How long have I been down here? Gingerly she explored her head wound. Blood still sticky. Hair matted and stiff. She remembered her camera and searched her pockets. Gone. Must have dropped it when I was hit.
She tried to swallow, but couldn’t. The thirst was suffocating. A jolt of fear ran through her. She had to find drinking water, soon. She had to find a way out. I have to move, or I’ll die down here.
Which direction? She took a small step into the blackness, toward the hollow sound of dripping water. Then another step.
Suddenly, the ground fell out from under her.
Kelli fell into the darkness, banging, clattering, and pounding against metal. By sheer instinct, her hands grasped at something.
Holding onto a metal bar with both hands, her feet swung in nothingness. She dangled over a void. Her arms ached. She struggled to keep her fingers wrapped tightly around the bar.
Stretching out one finger, she touched concrete. This bar seems to be solidly pinned into concrete. She swung, and her feet hit a dirt wall. Below this bar, then, the wall is dirt, not concrete. She kicked against it. Chunks of dirt and rock dislodged and fell. The sound cascaded down a very long way before tinkling, pinging, splashing into water.
Kelli swung like a kid on playground bars, and kicked against the wall again. Again, swinging higher. She got purchase. Her feet wedged and took a little pressure off her arms. She knew she didn’t have much time before her arms and hands gave out and she dropped like that slide of dirt.
Taking a deep breath, she swung her feet up over her head with everything she had. She caught the bar with one heel. Holding on for dear life, she worked her foot over the bar until she had one knee hooked around it. Then she stretched her other leg up and over the bar. Hanging upside down by hands and knees, she rested and caught her breath. She could feel her blood rush to her head. A wave of nausea and dizziness. Head spinning. Don’t black out. She fought to stay conscious. Breathe. Hold on.
Water drops echoed inside the cave of her skull. The wave of vertigo subsided. That sound again, like a child crying.
Carefully, she shifted the tension in her muscles from her hands to her legs. She pried one hand, slick with sweat, off the metal bar and wiped it on her clothes. She switched, wiping the other hand dry, then tightened her grip on the bar with both hands.
For a split second, she imagined herself as a bat hanging upside down in a cave. She almost giggled. Just then, a beam of light flashed on the ceiling overhead.
Light! I’m not blind. Thank you God.
Someone was walking down the tunnel toward her, flashlight beams hitting the cement walls and ceiling. Men’s voices. Kelli froze. She could hear her own heart pounding.
The echoing footfalls stopped. It sounded like they were about ten feet away from her hanging perch.
“Where the fuck is she? Wha’d you do with her, Shithead?” The high-pitched whiney voice made Kelli’s skin crawl.
Flashlight beams crisscrossed above Kelli’s roost.
“We brought her down here like you said, Patron. She was still knocked out when we left her. I put her right over there myself.” English speaker with a Mexican accent.
“Did you touch her?”
“No one fucked her, Patron, I swear. No one touched her. We left her down here just like you said.” A second Mexican accent.
“You stupid bastards.” The one called Patron again. “A fuckin’ game warden. She would’ve just gone away if you hadn’t of wacked her. Now we’ve got a balled-up mess here.”
“Pardon, Señor, but you said your cliente rico wanted a white woman to go with the niña blanca (little white girl).” Speaking Spanish.
“White woman, yeah. But a game warden is like a fuckin’ cop. You don’t kidnap a cop, you stupid son-of-a-bitch.”
“I’m sorry, Señor.” The Spanish speaker, again. “She must of come to and found the way out.”
“In the dark, she could’ve gone that way and fallen over the edge.” English, with a different accent. Salvadoran?
“If she did, all our troubles are over.” The Spanish speaker.
“If she found the way out, she couldn’t of gotten far.” Another Salvadoran.
“Let’s go. We’ve gotta get that bitch.” The whiney voice. Patron. “She’s gonna have to disappear, for good.”
Kelli listened to the echoing footfalls recede. She shivered. Six voices. If she’d decided to go the other way along the tunnel, she would have run right into those men. She dried her sweaty hands on her shirt again, one at time, and counted seconds. Then minutes.
Muscles convulsing. Can’t hold on much longer. A high-pitched squeal, and then a nearby scuffle. Rats!
Move! Go for it. Now or never.
Clinging to the metal bar with hands and knees, she tightened her abs, putting everything she had into a crunching sit-up. Straining, she curled her head to her knees. At the same time, fighting dizziness, she let go of the bar with one hand and reached up, slightly touching with her fingertips the next bar she had gambled would be there. Trembling, she stretched, elongating her torso as much as she could, inching her fingers around the bar. A cramp stabbed her side. Ignore it. Push through the pain. Grasping the bar with one hand so hard it hurt, she lunged.
Once she was holding onto the higher bar with both hands and sitting on the lower bar, she carefully worked her right heel up under herself. She wiggled it until her whole foot wedged onto the metal. Then she shifted all her weight onto that foot, and painfully straightened her knee. Leg muscles cramping and spasming, she pulled up with her hands and pushed up with her right leg until she could place her left foot onto the bar.
Pieces of dried mud from the soles of her boots broke loose and clattered into the water below. It sounded like a long way down.
Kelli took a deep breath and stabilized herself. She was standing on a vertical ladder made of rebar rods cemented into the side of the drop. Her hands firmly grasped the rung above her feet. From here, it was practically a cakewalk to climb back up to the ledge she’d fallen from.
Thankful for the hours spent lifting weights, rock climbing, and rowing on the bay, Kelli pulled herself up over the ledge and rolled onto the wet cement of the tunnel floor. Lying on her back, she caught her breath, and listened. Water dripping.
That other faint sound again, like a child crying. It stopped. Water dripped in black silence.
Something was poking her in the hip. She put her hand in her pocket. The little mag light!
Kelli stood up and switched on the flashlight. She swept its strong beam around the concrete tunnel. She’d seen places like this before. A World War II bunker. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, convinced that Japan was going to bomb California, built underground bunkers in the mountains all over the west coast. This had to be one of those old military installations.
From where Kelli stood, the cement floor sloped gradually upward, a slimy green trickle running down its center. She started walking.
* * * * *
When Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Detective Sargent Charlie Rosa got the alert, it hadn’t taken him long to assemble a tactical team to assist. He wasn’t going to let those two tattooed Salvatrucha demons slip through his fingers again.
Another child gone missing. This time it was the five-year-old daughter of a Corralitos apple rancher. He had a pretty good idea what would happen to this child if they didn’t find her soon.
While Deputy Jim Jamison drove the curving road along the creek, Detective Rosa, riding shotgun, studied this new missing child’s photo again. Blonde curls framed an innocent, cherub-like face. He put the photograph back in the file.
“We’re not going to lose this one, Jim.”
The young deputy nodded grimly, and checked his rearview mirror. Two vans followed, carrying the tactical swat team and dogs.
“I hope Warden Cavanaugh doesn’t scare them off,” the deputy said.
“Cavanaugh’s a competent law enforcement officer. She knows how to handle herself. But I doubt she has any idea what she’s walking into. Hell, we don’t even know if our perps are really there, or what else is going on.”
“So yeah, Warden Cavanaugh’s definitely an extra wild card in play?”
“Yes. I just wish I’d gotten her cell phone message earlier,” said Detective Rosa. “I’m not used to these damn things. Didn’t think about checking for messages until after we got the missing child alert from dispatch.”
“Can’t beat yourself up about it, Sir. That’s what you always tell me.”
Detective Rosa drummed his fingers on the case file in his lap. “Judging from the time of Cavanaugh’s call, she must have reached the suspects’ hidey-hole hours ago.”
“Anything could have happened by now.”
“Right. Worst case, everyone’s gone, and they took Cavanaugh with them, or left her for dead.”
“I sure hope we get there in time. From what I understand about the way these Mara Salvatruchas work, Sir, if they’ve killed her, she won’t be in one piece when we find her.”
* * * * *
Crying. The sound grew louder as Kelli cautiously made her way up the tunnel. She kept her flashlight off and edged along the wall.
Her hand touched cold metal. Feels like prison bars. The crying is coming from inside. Is there a guard?
Kelli froze, and listened. All her senses strained to detect breathing, any kind of pulse or motion, other than the sound of crying.
Can’t be a hundred percent sure.
Tucking into a defensive position, she flicked on her light and swept the area. No goons.
Inside the cell, a child, hardly more than a toddler, was curled up on a cot. She hugged a teddy bear and stared into Kelli’s light with huge eyes. Tears streaked and blotched her chubby cheeks. She had a snotty nose. Otherwise, the child appeared unharmed.
Kelli moved the light out of the child’s eyes and shined it on herself. She put a finger up to her lips.
“Shusssssh. My name is Kelli. I’m going to get you out of here, sweetie. I’m going to take you home to your mommy. You just need to wait here a little bit longer. Don’t be scared. Stay quiet. I’ll be right back.”
The child hugged her teddy bear tighter, but said nothing. Kelli turned off the flashlight and moved away, up the tunnel.
In the dark, she could feel the slope getting steeper. The ceiling was higher here. After a few minutes, the toe of her boot hit a ledge. She froze, and backed up against the wall. Listen.
Ahead, she could see a thin rectangle of light. A door, with daylight seeping around the edges?
Kelli clicked on her flashlight. Concrete stairs led up to a doorway. Her toe had kicked the bottom step.
Heart racing, she hurried up the stairs.
She stood in front of an old heavy metal door, with a vertical bar handle. What if they locked it? What if a guard was posted right outside? Panic rose in her throat. She took a calming breath.
A piercing squeal.
A rat scuttled over her foot.
Her body jerked. She pushed on the door.
It swung open easily. Crouching just inside the bunker, she blinked, momentarily blinded by bright afternoon sun. As soon as her vision cleared, she did a visual check of the area. No one.
Something rattled in the brush. She froze.
A bird hopped out.
Kelli smiled to herself, and continued to scan her surroundings. Shoe tracks in the dirt led toward the creek.
The bunker was built into the side of a hill, close to the top of the driveway. She quietly closed the heavy door behind her. It was well camouflaged. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d never notice it.
Voices came from down by the creek. Kelli reached for the Glock on her hip, and remembered it was gone.
She tucked and ran out of the driveway. Her truck was still there.
She grabbed the hide-a-key from under the back bumper, threw open the door, and released her shotgun from the rack.
The short barrel 12-gauge semi-automatic, when loaded with double aught Buck Shot, kicked back hard against her hundred and fifteen pounds, so she didn’t fire it unless she had to.
Now, without hesitation, she loaded and racked the gun.
Cradling it in the crook of her arm, staying close to the dense huckleberry and madrone brush that lined the drive, she hustled back toward the voices.
A scream. Then another.
Men were screaming! Blood curdling sounds filled the woods.
A growling roar like a hurricane, like thunder.
A roar like an avalanche. Shouts and screams of primal, animal terror, like nothing she’d ever heard before, shook the trees.
The screaming and roaring was coming from down by that black van and the shed with the cages, where the deer carcasses had been hanging.
Kelli stalked toward the disturbance, shotgun in the crook of her elbow.
As she moved through the woods, fog swirled, rapidly engulfing the trees like a rising tide. Ethyl ether fumes floated on the fog, stinging her eyes. If she did have to discharge her weapon, it would probably blow up the whole camp, including herself.
Chilling fingers of fog wrapped around saplings, vines, fallen logs, and Kelli. The fog quickly grew so thick that everything around her took on a misty, otherworldly quality.
Just as she got to the edge of the clearing where the deer carcasses hung, a human head went flying by her. Blood from the ragged severed neck sprayed her face and clothes.
A deafening roar shook her to the core.
She crouched behind a tree and peered into the clearing.
Standing on its hind legs, mist swirling around him, was the most enormous grizzly bear Kelli had ever seen. Shaggy fur and muzzle were clotted with blood. A cord of intestine dangled from his mouth. Behind the monstrous behemoth, one of the deer carcasses lay on the ground, partially eaten.
In front of the grizzly was the torso of a man, its head and both arms missing. One leg lay some distance away, and the other was twisted behind at an impossible angle. The beast had opened the man’s gut with its sharp, powerful claws and had scooped out a mass of intestines. The stench of the grizzly overwhelmed the smell of blood and spilled bowels.
With the heightened perception that comes from shock, Kelli studied an arm near her feet. It was covered with blue ink tattoos of spiders, skeletons, and skulls. A broken rifle lay in the dirt near the arm.
Other bodies bled out in the dirt. Kelli tried to sort out which ones belonged to the voices she’d heard in the tunnel. Two corpses were eviscerated, dismembered and decapitated. One body still had a head, but was missing an arm and part of a leg. The dead men’s blood pooled and mingled with the drying blood of the hanging deer carcass. Broken weapons were scattered near the bodies. Kelli recognized her own Glock.
Another blood curdling scream. Kelli settled the butt of her shotgun snugly against her shoulder, the weapon pressed against her cheek. She clicked off the safety and, sighting down the barrel, took aim.
The grizzly, on its hind feet, stood at least fifteen feet tall. It held a tattooed man in its front paws. The man was bleeding profusely. One tattooed arm dangled from a torn shoulder by tendons. The beast roared again, an inch from the man’s face.
Kelli could feel the wind of the monster’s breath. The trees around her shook.
Through thick, dreamlike fog, the scene unfolded in slow motion. The grizzly opened its mouth wide, exposing huge, carnivorous teeth and a vivid red tongue.
The bear roared again, shaking the ground.
Kelli felt the man’s screams inside her own body. His face was contorted in a mask of such horror it didn’t look human.
As if viewing the strobing frames of an old time picture show, Kelli watched the bear’s mouth envelope the tattooed man’s entire face. Muffled screams. Crunch of bone and tendon. Spurt of bright red blood.
The bear’s jaw pulled away with a juicy sucking sound, taking the man’s whole face with it.
The grizzly released the limp body from its claws. The body dropped to the ground in a heap of blue ink and crimson blood.
Roaring again, the behemoth turned around. It sniffed the air, then looked straight at Warden Cavanaugh. Its eyes shone with an ancient, eerie intelligence.
Suddenly, it turned its shaggy back on the game warden and, with one swipe of its great paw, knocked the second deer carcass to the ground. Dropping on all fours, the grizzly seized the deer meat in its mouth and disappeared into the mist-shrouded forest.
Kelli stood frozen in place for what seemed like an eternity.
Gradually, she became aware of sirens, of men shouting, lights flashing and dogs barking. She clicked the safety back on her shotgun and lowered it to the ground. Then she vomited, trembling uncontrollably.
The swat team swarmed the area.
“Over here, Captain!”
“Jesus Christ! This one’s still alive.”
“Get a medic over here. Don’t let him bleed out. Keep him breathing. We’ve gotta find out what he knows.”
“Call an ambulance. Hurry!”
“The dogs are going nuts! What the hell was that? Did you see it?”
“Hold the dogs! Don’t let them go after that thing.”
“Don’t fire your weapons, for God’s sake, or we’ll have an explosion!”
“Find the girl. Search the premises.”
“Kelli! Warden Cavanaugh! Are you hurt? Talk to me. Kelli!”
The smell of blood was so overwhelming, Kelli felt like she was drowning in it. She threw up again. A strong arm held her shoulders.
Someone gently wiped her face with a cool damp cloth. It smelled like fresh laundry.
“It’s not her blood, Sergeant Rosa. No cuts on the face or neck. She appears to be uninjured, just in shock. Oh, wait. There’s a nasty wound on the top of her head. It’s stopped bleeding, though.”
Someone held a water bottle up to her mouth. She took the bottle and, with help, filled her mouth with cold fresh water. She swirled it and spit blood. Blood that had sprayed her from the severed head. Don’t look at it. Again, and again, she swished fresh, clean water, gargled, spit. Finally, she drank.
She met Detective Rosa’s eyes.
“Charlie, I know where the little girl is. I can show you.”
The child was rescued from her cell and taken down the mountain to her parents.
The ambulance drove away, sirens blaring, with the lone survivor of the mauling, unconscious and barely holding on to life, minus an arm and leg.
The fog cleared.
The team secured the area. They photographed body parts from various angles, and made plaster casts of tracks. With professional precision, they collected fingerprints and DNA samples from the wire dog cages and the van, and scoured the grounds for other evidence.
Once the forensics team had completed their work and the human remains had been bagged and removed, the county Hazmat team would begin cleaning up the meth kitchen and restoring the creek habitat. Back at the crime lab, they were going to have a hell of a job putting all the pieces together again.
Kelli sat in her truck with Detective Rosa. He’d finished taking her formal statement.
“We won’t be getting a statement out of our two tattooed shooting suspects now,” said Charlie, “but I think a forensics investigation of their remains will prove we found our perps for the Salvador Luna murder. We don’t have to worry about those killers getting the justice they deserve.”
Kelli squeezed an emergency cold pack to activate it, and held it to her forehead. “With any luck that scum bag who’s still alive will hang on long enough to fill us in on all the other abductions.”
“Sorry, Kelli, but sex traffic is a black hole. Those other kids could be anywhere in the world by now, if they’re still alive, which is unlikely. At least we saved one child today, thanks to you.”
“Plus we cleared out a nest of vermin,” said Kelli.
“Think we ‘ve accounted for all the voices you heard in the bunker? Did we just cut the whole cancer out?”
Kelli closed her eyes. “There were six men. Two were Salvadorans.”
“Salvadorans? You sure?”
“Distinctive accent. Those tatted Salvadorans are definitely dead. Yes. It seems like there’s a body to go with each of the other voices I heard, except . . . Wait. One’s missing. I think the one they called Patron, with a whiney voice.” Kelli opened her eyes and stared into the forest. “Earlier, during all the screaming, I thought I saw a man in a striped suit running into the woods.
“None of the bodies we found were dressed in a suit.”
Kelli moved the cold pack to the back of her neck. “I think we’ll find human tracks leading away from camp, running in the opposite direction from that – that beast. Maybe Patron got away.”
“And the ‘beast’? What the hell was that thing?” Detective Sargent Rosa’s eyebrows pulled together. “Did you get a good look at it?”
“I’ve been trying to make sense of what I saw, Charlie. I was close enough to see everything. Too close. But what I think I saw just doesn’t compute.”
“It was a bear, right?”
“It was the biggest bear I’ve ever seen.”
“But… we don’t have bears here, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Do we?”
“As a matter of fact, although sightings are still rare, the core population of black bears in the state has been expanding over the last few years. Most of them are in the High Sierra but we know there are also a few in the Southern Coast Mountain Ranges. They’ve been expanding into habitat that, a hundred years ago, was traditional grizzly range. To date, I haven’t heard of any bears in the Santa Cruz Mountains but of course, anything is possible.”
“So, it really could have been a bear, then.”
“Well, yes, and no.” Kelli’s forehead furrowed. “It’s possible a black bear could be in this area. Bears have a keen sense of smell. A bear in the area would certainly have been drawn to the camp by the scent of those deer carcasses. But… Charlie, that was no black bear.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I saw, …” Kelli answered, “The bear I think I saw was, well . . . It had that distinctive hump on its back. Charlie, that was a California Grizzly Bear. Ursus arctos californicus. The California Golden Bear. A subspecies of the North American brown bear. That beast was definitely a grizzly. But it was far larger than any other grizzly I’ve ever heard of, except for maybe Monarch.”
“The mythical ‘Big Bear of Tallac’, the captive grizzly whose picture is on the California Bear Republic Flag.”
Sargent Rosa shook his head.
“California Grizzlies were systematically extirpated in the 19th century. William Randolph Hearst hired a journalist, Allen Kelley, to capture one of the last known wild grizzlies in the 1880’s, as a publicity stunt. Kelley caught the famous Monarch Bear on Samhain, Halloween, 1889, and brought him to San Francisco. They kept Monarch on exhibit at Woodwards Gardens, and he lived in captivity for twenty-two years. Thousands of people from all over the world came to see him. Monarch was the model for the bear on the California state flag. He became the poster bear for the rejuvenation of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake, and the totem animal of the state of California. Then, one day, he just disappeared. Without a trace. It’s said he embodies the heart, soul, and spirit of California.”
“So, you’re saying that monster who mauled our suspects was a California Grizzly Bear?”
“Um, well. What I’m saying is, it looked like a grizzly. It couldn’t have been a black bear. The adult American black bear, Ursus americanus, can grow to weigh about 600 pounds. Males average around three hundred to four hundred fifty pounds. The creature I saw was far bigger than that. The largest grizzly ever known weighed 2,200 pounds. I’d say our beast weighed a good deal more than that. But, um, our beast couldn’t possibly have been a grizzly, Charlie.”
“Well, ah, grizzlies used to come down to this very creek from the high mountains every year during spawning season to feast on the salmon. But the last California Grizzly was shot and killed in Tulare County, near what is now Sequoia National Park, in the summer of 1924. Ursus arctos californicus has been extinct for nearly a hundred years.”
The Fish and Game Warden and the County Sheriff’s Detective sat in the green truck in silence, pondering.
Finally, Kelli spoke.
“Charlie, do you know how to tell a black bear from a grizzly?”
“Well, I … no. Tell me.”
“Well, if you see a bear, run like hell and climb up a tree. If it’s a black bear, it’ll climb up after you. If it’s a grizzly, it’ll just knock your tree down.”
If you enjoyed reading this story, I’d be very grateful if you would leave a comment. Please Like and Share on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you!