Medny Island, Bering Sea, Russia
SHE WAS A STRONG one. Most humans would have given up by now, the deep snow quickly exhausting even the fittest among them. His snowshoes weren’t exactly sporting, but no one said this was supposed to be fair. His heart rate increased, and he had to take a break to catch his breath due to the steep incline. She had taken the toughest route on the island, directly toward the highest peak. This was a first. A feisty one.
Still, the tracking was painfully easy in the waist-deep snow. He didn’t speed after her; instead he relished the chase the way one would slowly enjoy a magnificent meal. No, that wasn’t the correct comparison. This was more than that; this was carnal.
The winds howled as he crested the first of a spine of ridges that ran toward the summit. His quarry’s trail had crossed to the windward side where the gale had already begun to erase her tracks with blowing snow.
Feisty and crafty.
The winds had shifted and cold, moist air was now blowing down from the Bering Sea. He looked toward the rapidly disappearing trail and watched the white wall of fog envelop the high ground before him, feeling the elation of finally matching wits with a worthy adversary.
Her jeans were soaked from the snow and her feet were numb inside her boots. She was post-holing through the deep white drifts, each and every step a physical challenge. She knew that to stop would mean death: death from hypothermia, death from those who hunted her. The pursuit had to be their game. Why else would they have let her go?
She was on an island or at least a peninsula; she could see water on both sides of the treeless landscape. Down to the shore would be the easy route, but that’s what they would expect. The coastline was a death trap. She pushed herself up as her leg muscles screamed from the exertion of high-stepping through the powder. An accomplished endurance athlete, she was used to pain. She was comfortable being uncomfortable. A native of Montana, she was also used to being cold and wet.
God, I wish my brother were here. He’d know what to do, she thought, remembering their epic trail runs and how they’d cheer one another on at the jiu-jitsu academy.
The desolate tundra landscape meant she was somewhere in the far north; Scandinavia or Alaska maybe. More likely, somewhere in Russia. The men who took her rarely spoke, but they stank of Turkish tobacco. Her father’s carpenter was an immigrant from Belarus; the odor of burnt leaf and sweat was one she remembered. If that was true, they’d flown her east. Whatever drugs they’d given her had worn off, and she had been fed surprisingly well. They must have wanted her strong. She looked to the sky and saw that weather was blowing in; fresh snow would cover her tracks and the dense fog would give her camouflage. She scrambled across the ridgeline toward the wind; she would make herself disappear.
The whiteout lasted nearly two hours. The hunter made his way back to the base camp to wait it out by the crackling fireplace with a leather-bound copy of Meditations, by the great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Sergei offered him a brandy but he passed, opting instead for hot tea. There would be plenty of time for celebration later; he wanted nothing in his veins that would dull the pleasure of what was to come. He savored the flavor of a tea smuggled in from China. He had acquired a taste for it on one of his postings, intrigued by the ritual, history, and a classification system to rival French wines in complexity.
Leaning back in the comfortable leather chair, he took in his surroundings. Above the fireplace hung an impressive Anatolian stag he’d taken in Turkey, a testament to both luck and perseverance. Next to it, a Tin Shan Argali sheep stared at him with lifeless eyes, a hard-won ram taken in the extreme altitudes of Tajikistan. The stone hearth was framed by a thick pair of Botswanan elephant tusks, each of which weighed in just under the mythical hundred-pound mark; he’d walked at least that many miles in pursuit of them. Though he looked upon these trophies fondly, he saw them as relics of a past life similar to the medallions he’d won in sports as a child. He had since moved on to more challenging and satisfying pursuits.
He pulled a Dunhill from the pocket of his wool shirt and lit it with the gold S. T. Dupont lighter that had been a gift from his father. He slid his thumb across the engraved double-headed imperial eagle emblem of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service; some vestiges of the czar had survived even communism. What to do about his father? Not now. Later.
He sipped his tea and visualized his stalk. He had several hours of daylight left, and it was imperative that he find her before dark. She would never survive the night in these conditions. Steam rose from his boots as the wet snow evaporated from the heat of the fire. The weather would soon turn. This snow would have wiped clean her trail, especially since she was clever enough to have used the wind to her advantage. He called to Sergei to ready the dogs. He was about to teach her a lesson in fear.
She had run out of elevation and was quickly running out of island. Her path had led beyond the exposed rolling tundra and into a set of jagged cliffs above the icy sea. The cold was all-consuming now and was beginning to sap her will to run, to survive. She was soaked from head to toe in a mixture of snow and sweat and was numb from the waist down. The agony in her feet had subsided, indicating that frostbite had set in. She rubbed her frozen hands together under her fleece jacket in a vain attempt to warm them. The biting wind was killing her so she moved to the lee side of the island and began to pick her way slowly down onto the sheer cliffs. She lost her footing once and slid fifty feet before she was able to arrest her fall on a small boulder. Part of her wanted to keep falling, to end it and deprive her pursuers the satisfaction of taking her life, but that was not in her constitution. That was not how she was raised.
As she hung desperately from the gray cliff, her eyes found it, a small space under a rocky outcropping that would conceal her from prying eyes and protect her from the deadly wind. She slid the toe of her boot until it found a hold, her hand searching for anything that would give her purchase. Her fingers slipped into a rocky crease, and she began working her way across the cliff face toward her destination. Inch by inch, step by precarious step, she made it. The spot was scarcely large enough to hold her but it was better than being exposed. She pulled her knees to her chest and pulled her arms inside her jacket, working her head down inside the fleece. She was suddenly aware of her thirst, her exhaustion, her fear. For the first time in ages, she allowed herself to weep, her tears and sobbing transitioning into an animalistic roar as she recognized her crying for what it was; she was mourning her own death.
The cloud ceiling rose, and the snow slowed to a light dust in the breeze. The man drove the snowmobile to the spot where he’d left her tracks and signaled to Sergei to unload the hounds from the back of the six-wheel drive KAMAZ troop transport. Sergei looked longingly at the traditional bow of his people before leaving it in place and obeying his employer. Though the Koryak blood in his veins had been diluted over centuries by Cossack intervention, forced migration, and war, he still felt the pull of his native lands to the north.
The two bearlike Caucasian shepherds leapt down from the vehicle’s cargo hold and began to test the air for the scent of their prey. Sergei had let them fill their nostrils with the scent from the woman’s scarf; there were almost no foreign scents here to confuse them. Each animal weighed over 150 pounds and stood almost thirty inches at the shoulder. These particular animals, both of the mountain breed variety, had been born of a fierce military bloodline that went back to the early days of the Soviet Union. They had been chosen for their determination, ferocity, and their taste for human flesh.
He nodded to Sergei, who gave the dogs a whispered command. Their pissing, sniffing, and meandering ceased, and they took off up the grade with both men following on snowshoes. The beasts picked up the woman’s scent quickly and charged up the snowy incline, nearly pulling the hulking figure of Sergei along behind them. The animals led them near the summit of the island’s highest peak before turning downhill and out of the wind. He admired her desire to survive. This was his prescription for the ennui that had plagued him as long as he could remember. His hand moved subconsciously to the crossbow strapped across his back to confirm that it was still there; they were getting close.
Protected from the wind, it occurred to her how quiet it was. Her tears had lasted only a few minutes; it had felt good to get them out. Keep your nerve, little one, she remembered her father saying, his accent thick with the echoes of Rhodesia. That, she would. It was time to fight.
She grabbed handfuls of the spongy dark soil and rubbed her clothing until it was the color of her surroundings. Digging into the tundra, her hand found something hard and smooth. She scraped furiously, and she ran her fingers across its length to find the edge. Then, using a small rock as a spade, she unearthed what turned out to be a bone, likely a piece of seal rib brought to this perch by a scavenging bird. It was ten inches long, curved, and had a jagged sharp edge where it had split from the rest of its length. She turned it in her hand; now she was armed.
The silence was broken by the sound of barking dogs. This time the shiver that went up her spine was not from the cold. It didn’t matter if the dogs could reach her, they would sniff her hiding place out; she was trapped. She peered over the ledge in front of her boots and saw the waves hitting the rocks several hundred feet below. The barking was suddenly very close; she could see and hear small pebbles roll past her as her pursuers made their way down the steep incline. She took a deep breath, held it, and exhaled as she adjusted her grip on the makeshift dagger.
For a minute the man thought that his prey had fallen to her death, but the dogs’ interest in the rocky face suggested otherwise. He slipped the sling over his head and readied his weapon. The long carbon fiber shaft of the arrow was resting perfectly in its rail, the thin braided cable holding the limbs’ kinetic energy at bay. He flipped up the caps on the scope and shouldered the modern rendition of the ancient tool to ensure that the lenses weren’t fogged from the cold. His quarry was at bay; now he just had to wait for her to flush.
Sergei unclasped the brass hooks from the dogs’ thick collars, releasing them from the yoke of the leather lead. They lurched toward the cliff, then slowed their pace to tiny steps as they tested the ledge. Their deep-throated barks were nearly deafening. The lead animal looked to his master, wary of the terrain before him. Sergei gave a command and all doubt evaporated; the dogs began a controlled slide downward. An ordinary canine would have plummeted into the sea but these were sure-footed mountain animals, bred for this very task.
She couldn’t see them but the roar of their barks told her that they must be just outside her field of view, obscured by the wall of her stone prison. She pulled her left hand back into the sleeve of her jacket so that the material below the elbow hung empty. Terror; a snarling muzzle bearing wolflike teeth materialized before her. She flung her sleeve in its direction and the shepherd snatched it instinctively into his jaws. She pulled her hand from under her fleece and grabbed the beast by the collar as she plunged the seal bone into its neck. She screamed as she stabbed it over and over in unbridled rage, feeling the animal’s hot blood spray onto her hands and face. Switching her attention to the dog’s lungs, she used all of her strength to pierce its armor of thick fur. Her first blow glanced off a rib but the second and third stabs found their way into the chest cavity. The dog jerked out of her grasp and stumbled in his retreat. His footing lost, he tumbled out of sight.
Sergei shrieked as his finest hound plummeted into the Bering Sea, howling in agony. “Ataka,” he commanded to the younger male, his voice devoid of its usual strength, hesitant for the first time to send his dog to do its work. Whatever uncertainty the animal felt was put aside, obedience taking over. Growling, he charged into the fray.
She scarcely had time to compose herself before the second dog came, all fur and fury. What this animal lacked in experience, he made up for in aggression. He ignored the matador sweep of the jacket sleeve and lunged for her throat. She pushed herself back as far as the mountain would let her, the dog’s breath and musky coat heavy in the confined space. Saliva spurted across her face as the thunderous barking reverberated in her soul. She tucked her chin to her chest to protect her exposed neck and put her left arm across her face. Powerful jaws snapped onto her elbow, the canine’s teeth piercing her flesh down to the bone.
She stabbed for the dog’s flank and felt its hide give way as the seal bone found its home. This dog recognized the threat, shifting its attack to the arm that held the instrument of pain, tearing flesh and crushing through skin, bones, and tendons. The makeshift seal bone dagger dropped to the ground. Grasping a small rock with her free hand, she hit him again and again but he did not relent. Instead, he dragged her toward the opening, toward his waiting master. The dog outweighed her by thirty pounds, and her bloodied and beaten body was no match for her vicious antagonist. Her spirit, however, was anything but beaten.
Keep your nerve.
Knowing that she would be exposed in seconds, she whispered a quick prayer and grabbed the dog’s collar with her right hand. The dog’s actions were based on pure instinct, but she had the element of reason. Pulling him off balance, she bent at the knees and thrust forward with her feet toward the opening.
He had the scope to his eye now, ready to send his first arrow into her as soon as Sergei’s hound pulled her clear. He would wound her first; no sense rushing to the climax. He disengaged the safety and put his gloved finger on the curved metal trigger of the Ravin. The scope’s reticle danced, the inevitable result of blood, breathing, and adrenaline, but at this range, he would not miss. He would take her in the thigh, careful not to hit the femoral artery and give her a quick end.
The animal had her. He could see its rear legs moving backward; the anticipation made him feel uniquely alive. He saw a glimpse of her filthy jacket before the dog changed position and stumbled. Then he gasped. The woman’s body flung headlong into the air, the animal’s jaws still locked on to her. The pair seemed to hang for a moment before crashing downward onto the jagged rocks four hundred feet below.
The selfish bitch had robbed him of his kill. He dropped the crossbow in the snow and reached for a cigarette as he turned toward the lodge, commanding Sergei to retrieve the body as he stomped away.
No matter. The woman was just bait. He was after bigger game; she would still serve her purpose.