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The slanting rays of a chill morning sun glinted off the icy water of Camden Bay. In the half-light, Jaarl Larsen throttled back the snowmobile to move slowly into the Innuit village of Alekasingquaq.
Something was wrong. The village looked strangely deserted. The only movement was a thin layer of powdery snow whipped by the inevitable wind off the bay. The village exuded evil vibrations, almost palpable in the strange silence.
Reaching the center of the village, Jaarl pushed back the hood of his parka and shut off the softly idling engine of the snowmobile. Where the devil were Inuk, Arnaluk, Paul Tomas, any of the men? Where were the dogs? They should be raising Cain by this time. But except for the low moan of the wind, the silence was profound.
He studied the dozen-odd houses, crudely constructed of wood, tarpaper and corrugated iron, and situated haphazardly along the single street of the village. There was no smoke coming from the chimney pipes of their oil-burning stoves and heaters. Either the village was deserted or the people were hiding in their houses. Hiding from what? There was nothing on the North Slope that would frighten an Innuit. Except a Tuurngaq. Memories of the old Innuit story about monsters and demons made the silent village take on a new dimension, an eerie dimension of fear.
Jaarl shook off the feeling. He might not put any stock in the old stories, but the Innuits did. It was possible that the Innuits were taking Raine Devereux's absurd story seriously about digging up a frozen Tuurngaq. And Devereux's claim that the Tuurngaq had come to life and killed a woman and injured him, had really spooked the Innuits even though thesedays many had college or university degrees. Inuk, Paul Tomas, and Arnaluk had fled the pump station after Devereux and the dead woman had been brought in from Devereux's dig site. Damn the man. If Devereux had kept his mouth shut, he wouldn't have had to make this ten mile trip to the village.
His own theory was that Devereux had been attacked by a rogue polar bear or grizzly.
But right now he had to find the three men and talk them into coming back to work. The experimental pump station was short-handed enough without losing three good workmen, especially Innuits who could continue working outside long after most Nulamus like him were forced inside by the cold.
Jaarl unslung the Browning Stalker.30-06 rifle from across his back and slid the safety off. If the villagers were hiding from a rogue bear, he didn't want to be taken by surprise. He had a respect for the huge animals that had been acquired by experience. Even though a polar bear might stand as much as eight feet tall and weigh almost two thousand pounds, it could move as silently as a cat and as fast as a runaway locomotive. If a bear charged from behind one of the buildings, he would have about two seconds to get off a shot. And a single shot probably wouldn't stop an enraged bear. Their strength was legendary. He'd once seen a polar bear rip through a steel oil drum with his incredibly tough claws. There wasn't an animal on earth, short of an elephant, that could stand up to an angry grizzly or polar bear, including a Bengal tiger. An unarmed man would be no more than the flick of a paw away from death. Even armed, it was almost an even match. A huge bear could absorb bullets like a sponge and still keep coming on unless he was hit in the heart or the brain, and Jaarl wasn't too sure about the heart.
He eased off the saddle of the snowmobile, his native kami ks settling silently in the thin layer of dry snow that swirled across the frozen ground like crystals of sugar. He began walking slowly down the center of the wide clearing that served as the street. He kept a wary eye on the houses while he studied the ground for tracks.
Except that there were no tracks. The exposed ground where the snow had been blown away was frozen as hard as iron. And where the snow had piled up in small drifts, the wind had wiped out any signs that might have been left.
He reached the last house without seeing a sign of life. There had been no movement in any window, no peering eyes, no hastily withdrawn face, no sound. The village had to be Innuits were insatiably curious. Not even a rogue bear could have kept them in hiding this long. Besides, they all had rifles. Together they could have killed the largest predator. So why had they run?
To be certain they really were gone, he went to the nearest house. He was going to push the door open, then he saw that it was already ajar and he felt a chill of apprehension. People of the north country did not leave their doors open. It was either too cold or in warm weather there were too many gnats, blackflies, deerflies and mosquitoes. So if the people of this house had fled, they had left in a panic.
He used the barrel of his rifle to push the door open and stepped inside. The rays of the morning sun slanting through the curtained windows showed him that the room was deserted. The creaking of the plywood floor sounded like cannon fire as he walked to the bedroom. At the door he paused to listen. There was no sound except for the soft moan of the perpetual wind. Even so, he kept his rifle ready when he stepped through the doorway, almost afraid of what he might find.
But the room was also deserted, the double bed neatly made, covered with a caribou-skin blanket. Whatever had made the people flee had happened before they went to bed.
He left the bedroom and crossed to the kitchen area. The small table, covered with a gaily checkered tablecloth, was set for four. There were still particles of food on the plates: half-eaten fish, chunks of seal fat and pork-and-beans.
He turned and studied the living room area. Several articles of clothing were lying on the floor or hanging from nails near the door, mostly sweaters and shirts. No parkas, kamiks or gloves. The sagging couch and stuffed chairs were angled to face the dead screen of the television set. Jaarl clicked it on but nothing happened. He hadn't expected anything. He would have heard the sound of an operating generator. He was more interested in the two shotguns that were hanging by their trigger guards from pegs on the wall above the oil furnace. Next to them were two empty pegs. They'd taken the rifles but not the shotguns which were used primarily for shooting ducks, geese and birds. So whatever had frightened them away had caused them to take rifles used for large game.
He went back outside and walked around to the rear of the house and stopped in stunned surprise. Two snowmobiles were parked behind a barrier of oil drums designed to protect them from blowing snow. Empty motor oil and gasoline cans littered the frozen ground. Jesus. They'd been too damn scared to stop for the snowmobiles. They'd simply grabbed the rifles and whatever clothing they could reach and ran.
He walked behind the other houses. There were snowmobiles behind all of them. When cold their engines were often hard to start, but an Innuit would almost rather lose his dogs than his snowmobile. He would have to be in one hell of a hurry if he wouldn't take the time to fire it up. And only one thing could make an Innuit that desperate: terror--cold, stark terror.
Approaching the last house, the one closest to the icy waters of the bay, he found the reason. The rear of the house was smashed as though it had been struck by a wrecking ball. The huge hole was ringed with splintered plywood and broken two-by-fours. Whatever had smashed through the wood had to have been huge--and horribly strong.
Although he knew that whatever had accomplished the awful destruction would have long since gone, Jaarl moved his rifle into firing position as he slowly walked toward the house. Outside the gaping hole he stopped and listened. The keening of the wind around the eves of the house rose and fell. There was no other sound. It was as though all life had fled the horror.
Jaarl was about to step through into the house when he stopped, wrinkling his nose. What the hell was that awful smell? Despite the freezing cold, there was a faint, vile odor that wrenched at the stomach like something long dead. It seemed to emanate from the splintered wood. Or was it coming from inside?
Taking care not to touch the wood, Jaarl stepped inside and almost slipped on a dark patch of ice that covered the floor. Jaarl knew instantly what it was: blood, frozen blood. He took another cautious step and stopped. The stiffly frozen body of a man was huddled on the floor, partially covered by splintered pieces of wood. No. It looked more like a woman. The body was so badly slashed and mutilated it was difficult to tell, its blood-soaked clothing partially imbedded in the gaping wounds. What was left of the face was frozen in terror, as though the last sight from the bulging eyes had been of an indescribable horror.
What in the name of hell had done this, was capable of this? And that horrible odor. The tuurngaq? Could it possibly be real? Innuit stories he had laughed at now seemed as though they could be real. Stories of Kajjutaijuk, one of the most dreaded of netherworld cannibals, a monstrous female ogre, with enormous tattooed face, female breasts and male genitals growing from her cheeks. She would appear in the darkest night, advancing upon a sleeping village, walking in magical silence on her huge stumpy legs. Sometimes she would be accompanied by evil spirits who would advance with her in ominous precision, their wide eyes staring, their arms outstretched, their horrible mouths open. In the black sky other monsters known as Timmiukpuks would accompany the evil spirits, their fangs and talons ready to grasp and rend the living flesh of man. When close to her victims, Kajjutaijuk would scream in her voice of thunder, the terrible sound freezing the marrow in the bones of the people so they could not flee and she and the evil spirits would then sweep their victims into their powerful arms and devour them like a polar bear would crunch the bones and flesh of a small seal.
But even Kajjutaijuk was not as dreadful as a Tuurngaq . The Kajjutaijuk and her evil spirits could be turned away by Neqivik , the beautiful lady of the sea. But nothing could stop a monstrous Tuurngaq. Jaarl was suddenly aware that his heart was beating hard and fast and his palms inside his gloves were slippery with sweat. He took a deep breath and relaxed. He did not believe in monsters and spirits. There had to be a logical reason for the shattered doorway. Still, the only animal that could have done this much destruction had to have been an unusually huge and enraged bear, probably the size of a Kodiak. But that did not make sense. No bear, however large and violent, would make the people of an entire village flee into the sub-zero arctic night, leaving all their possessions. Unless they had been conditioned to believe it was something else: a monster. The Tuurngaq . Damn Devereux. If his ridiculous story was not stopped, and quickly, he would have every native on the North Slope believing there was a monster roaming the tundra. The Innuits were already highly skeptical of the proposed Trans-Canada pipeline and its possible effect on the ecology and the caribou herds, even though the existing Trans-Alaska pipeline had been operating for years without causing problems. Now they would blame this on the pipeline. Devereux would see to that.
The trouble was that Devereux actually believed the old legends. He was a fanatic on the subject of Innuit mythology. He had been searching for evidence of the mythical Tuurngaq for months. He was determined to stop all construction of the Trans-Canadian just so he could dig holes all over the damn North Slope. The death of the woman at his dig site had played right into his hands. And now this! With this attack on the village, there really would be no reasoning with the man.
But some way had to be found. There had to be someone who could reach through that damn sanctimonious facade. Somebody who could convince Devereux that the pipeline was not going to spoil his archaeology program. Somebody who could get him to listen to reason about this stupid monster story. But who? Maybe somebody from his family, if he had a family. When he got back to the pump station, the first thing he would do was get on the computer and dig up every scrap of data he could find on Professor Raine Devereux. The man had to have an Achilles heel. Hell, everybody did. All he had to do was find it.
Copyright ©2004 Robert L. Hecker