His mouth making an almost chewing-like motion, Alfred observed the landing dock and the few remaining signs of Human passage. His wide-brimmed hat shielded his eyes form the sun, which could now play with his eyesight as the clearing broke the monotonous cover of green above them. His rifle draped across his lap, he scanned the jungle and the blocks of quartz, trying to find any clues of danger or peril that may have befallen those who left here.
"Looks like the boats are gone. Maybe the expedition relocated after the incident, or perhaps there are other goings-on which forced them to reconsider their camping site. Either way, I think we might be able to find out more at their camp." One of his bony fingers pointed at the dirt path leading up to the quartz block and the dock. "When we disembark, take care not to disturb the raw path leading up to the dock, I think we might be able to get some details from any tracks there, like if they were running, or were heavy with supplies."
Letting out a small sigh as he got down to his haunches, the older man scanned some of the footprints and scuff marks on the ground. Alfred took care to step outside of the perimeter of the track, putting his feet down only where there was no chance at harming the trail's clues. He quickly disregarded the shallow prints of bare feet and sneakers around the site, and zoned in on a particular set of prints leading towards the dock. He took out his phone and made snapshots of them before getting up and brushing the dirt off his pants.
"Combat boots," he concluded dryly, "day our two old at most. We're not the first ones here, and they likely secured the boats." he furrowed his brow. "Might've left guards, we'd best be careful."
Alfred removed the glasses from his nose, which he needed when reading. One trifling of older age is when your eyesight makes fun of you. Eyes of a hawk at a distance, but things becoming real blurry up close. Another trifling, a rapell down from a helicopter, something he last did several decades ago. But he had to put up a brave face, be a sport about it. He put the glasses in his vest pocket and smiled. "Nothing from my side, we prepared for what we could, and the answers we need to determine the rest await down river."
Part of him had a pang of doubt about the drop. But most of him relished the opportunity of active duty, rejecting peace and a quiet retirement in favor of adventure and the unknown. "I'd best get myself changed into something a little more suitable to the environment. While I never reject the opportunity of making a good first impression, I fear the look doesn't exactly scream 'will outlive the night' out there."
He looked about in mild puzzlement. "Anyone have any idea where to find a booth or bunk to swap out some kit?"
Alfred crossed his legs and leaned down lower in his chair, crossing his arms at his chest. "Yes, heavy water. I am not much of a science buff, but I know it's used primarily for nuclear power, and preserving specimens in old-fashioned schools." He harrumphed to himself. "now I do believe there was a notion of a tooth found at the device, am I right? And heavy water's lethal to living beings in the long run."
"So either we're looking at something really special that can survive in it, or that water magically transformed into heavy water as it made its journey from South America...poof!" his hands imitated an explosion to his left, "...to Australia."
He smiled and winked at Alan. "So what kind of process would that take, mmm?"
With a sigh of disappointment Alfred slid the scope back into its protective cover and closed it up with an audible "click". He stood up and stretched himself a bit before turning to the rest of the assembled team. "Well, I guess he got spooked, but I got myself a good look at him, so he won't be hiding from us next time." Slapping the runway dust and grime off his pants he casually resumed his walk towards the others. "I am sure if they're fast enough they might catch him, but if not I hope we can make some sort of sketch-up of him, hmm?"
Following the last statement his eyes were again all a-twinkle, and his broad smile curled up the tips of his mustache.
Smiling wryly the old man shook his head curtly a few times while polishing the small scope he had produced from the pocket case. "You're forgetting, Alan, that even without moles in an organization Newshounds can be incredibly resourceful. And I am sure each of us has performed interesting things in their life that might warrant someone snooping around. Based of course, on the fact that our observer has not yet decided to target us."
Kneeling behind the luggage carts as if checking one of them, he squinted and put the scope to his eye, gently inching its view towards the observer. If he'd move too fast, the glint of sunlight caught on the glass might alert their observer.
Rifle or camera, the presence of someone targeting them was unwelcome. Any of them might be a person of interest, whether for immortalization on the front page - or the obituaries. "Everyone," he growled at a low voice that hearkened back to a near-forgotten past in a chain of command, "use the bagage trollies for cover. We've got unknown eyes on our six, hangar at half a click. Newshound or gunman, I'd say."
He fingered the narrow high-powered rifle scope in the case in his pocket while trying to semi-casually make for the nearest baggage cart, hackles in his neck raised. Rifles might be hard to import, but the scopes themselves are not. And a personal scope is like a finger print to a seasoned hunter. A safe moment would be all he need, and he'd be able to use it as a looking glass, and put eyes back on their tail, and find out some intentions.
Alfred wiped the last of the sleep from his eyes when the land rover sped its way towards the hangar. His brain translated the words of Captain Powell into a murmur of airline safety speech and paramilitary update code. When Diego was mentioned he nodded, and wondered how long it would take the hotblooded Italian to get into one sort of trouble or the other. He secretly hoped that the liquor cabinet was locked.
The ride was comfortable, and almost lulled him back to sleep when the sharp turn to the hangar's open front broke him from his thoughts. His eyes were keen, especially for his age, but even then it took him some seconds to take in the shape that was parked inside it.
Seeing the gigantic vehicle perched inside of it, like a monstrous brooding whale, woke him up in an instant. "Spaiker, but that is one big skyfish you've got there," he exclaimed wide-eyed with child-like enthusiasm, "does she do tricks?"
Alfred's eyebrows gathered together in an expression both pained and amused, a thin smile creeping over his face as he momentarily admired the tilework on the floor.
The exchange reminded him of how long he'd been away from home, and the nostalgia always hits when you least expect it. For a second he'd been back in the streets of Bloemfontein, the heatwaves dancing off the pavement, stalls with food sizzling and rattling around him. Ah, to be young again...
Recovering quickly, and nodded in agreement. "Ja, I will defer to your skills at the grills, but I think I can contribute a spice rub that you might like." Conspiratorially, he leaned in towards the two as if confiding a secret. "Moedertjie learnt it from the locals, it's what makes the bushmeat edible."
His hand tucked inside his vest pocket, and as he pulled up the container he slid open its lid, picking out a peppermint. Sticking one in his mouth, he offered the open container to the others. "Mint?"
The older gentleman Alan walked towards was currently leaning against one of the supports at the window overlooking the landing planes just outside the disembarking area. He seemed at ease in these temperatures, beige linen shirt with the top button down, and rolled up sleeves revealing a number of stylized grey and brown shaded animal tattoos on his lower arms, contrasted by the slim anthracite vest across it and the matching slacks. The crocodile-leather banded brass Victorinox watch on his left wrist and the brown brogues on his feet marked him as more upper-class than his casual wear would indicate.
His thumb was sliding over the screen of his phone, checking the local weather and news, imprinting the language and the spurious contents of the Lonely Planet guide. He'd never been here, but he was a quick learner, and his contact list - as per usual - already had a name in it he could call on from "the good old days".
Despite his focus, Alfred looked comfortable, with his long coat slung across his left elbow, the hand in his pocket. Noticing the movement to his left-hand side of Alan moving up, he quirked one eyebrow and swiftly slid his phone in his right pocket. Slinging the coat over his left shoulder, he bounded into action and spryly closed the gap with Alan, extended his hand in greeting.
"Howzit, howzit? Alan, so good to meet you in the flesh," turning to face Anna he made a slight incline with his head while offering his hand to her as well, "and you must be Anna. Agh ja, it's a proper triple-A meeting today, isn't it?"
His face had that chiseled, craggy rock look to it that older men get when they weather the elements on a daily basis, and his hand was iron and bone in its grip. Despite this, his eyes had that youthful, slightly cheeky twinkle of humor, and his smile was broad, causing the tips of his carefully groomed mustache to curl skywards.
Even in the well insulated cabin, Alfred could still hear the eggbeater noise of the chopper’s rotor blades. It was a strange turn that made him decide to nominate Diego for this mission, something about that crocodile…
They never tell you how clever crocodiles are. Especially the old ones, the ones that have made a neck of the river their home for a long time. This neck of the river happened to be right next to a large sawmill, and trees were moving downstream at a steady pace. A worker had gone missing, and when they found what was left of him, there was no doubt they were dealing with a man-eater.
But the vets and rangers they brought in had found nothing. Then the fisherman, trying to lure and bait the old beast, but came back with nothing but catfish and other, more common, river monsters. When Diego told it to him like that, it seemed like a mystery, a hunt for an old, craggly beast too smart to be caught off-guard so easily. It had been living with people for decades, maybe even a century, and it had remained alive and undetected for all of it.
He recounted unfondly hanging from the landing gear of the rented helicopter, trying to take a bead on the thing hiding between the logs, using it for cover. Of course he could fly a chopper, Diego’d said, but from Alfred’s point of view he was less nascar driver and more grocery trolley.
Shuddering at the thought of a near-aquatic death experience with those monstrous jaws he sent a little prayer up, that they’d stay on terra firma or below it, this time. He fingered the thin white scar on the back of his thumb, where the beast's teeth had nicked him, right as Diego managed to straighten the craft.
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Michael had pissed himself and he knew that that was his undoing.
The fear pounding in his heart, had doomed him, just as it probably had his associates and friends. He stumbled through the pitch-black darkness afraid to use his light, his boot caught on a lip of rock and he tripped and fell. His impact with the surface told him he had not tripped over a rock but rather a step he had fallen on a stone stair leading up. Hope surged in his chest, maybe this was a way out?
As he scrambled to his feet, he smelled the strong odor coming from his urine stained khakis, he stopped and listened, if he could smell it, then those… things, would be able to as well.
With a shake of his head and a whimper he pulled the small flashlight from its holster on his belt and flicked it on. The narrow beam flashed across the yellowed limestone walls and the roughly hewn steps leading up the narrow stair. If he could find an opening to the surface even a chimney or window, if not an exit, he might be able to get a call through with the satellite phone which he still carried in his pack. With that thought he shrugged the heavy pack off his shoulders and pulled the small GCI Sat phone from its protective case. It was state of the art and looked more like a computer tablet than a satellite phone. He pressed and held the power on button and the screen, after a few seconds, lit up showing the GCI logo. He swiped his hand across the screen and the desktop was revealed as he searched for the phone function, he heard a scrabbling sound, like dozens of tiny claws clicking on stone.
“Shit,” he whimpered again as he shoved the phone/tablet back into his pack and throwing it on his shoulder started to rapidly climb the stairs. He had taken a half dozen steps, the scrambling growing closer, when the next step he placed his foot on crumbled underneath his weight and he toppled forward again. His body hit the steps with a bone jarring thud and the stairs seemed to disintegrate underneath him and Michael found himself falling.
He did not know how far he fell but in a short time he came to a breath stealing landing in the frigid water of an unknown sized pool. He plunged deep and did not hit a solid bottom, once he stopped sinking, he tried to orient himself and started to kick toward what he hoped was the surface. A moment later he broke the top of the water and drew a welcome breath into aching lungs.
It was dark and he had lost his light in the fall. As he treads water, he slowly spun but could make no difference in what he could see, he might as well have been blind then he heard the echoes of the clicking claws somewhere above him. Thank god, he thought as he shivered from the cold water, at least they cannot smell the piss now.
Suddenly he could no longer hear the claws, then a loud splash near him close enough that some of the water thrown up came down on him. It had lept after him!
Panic set in and he turned away from the splash and started swimming as fast as he could there had to be a way out there had to be!
Then he spied something underwater a glow as if a light sparkled below him. Not knowing the thing could swim underwater he dove and kicked toward the light at the below.