THE RETURN OF THE
THE TROUBLE BEGAN FOR AJAX KINCAID, sheriff of the picturesque—and remote—little resort town of Goose Creek, Alaska, just before he was about to leave the station for home. He had been worried that something like this was going to happen.
About an hour earlier, one of his two on-duty patrolmen radioed to the other to drive over to the lakeside campsite of Les Spaulding and his girlfriend, Iris Hornacher—that things didn’t look right. There was no one in sight, and he’d feel better with another officer to help him investigate. Since this area was a hub of grizzly assemblage and activity at the height of the fall salmon run, it made sense to take extra precautions.
What bothered Ajax the most, was that tonight was bowling night at the Kibuna Lanes and he was dying to see that new girl who just started bowling for Art’s CITGO team for the first time just last week. Boy! Does she look great in a bowling shirt! But now, as his operator-dispatcher-secretary Myrna Coogan got the details of what went down at the Spaulding campsite over the radio from officer Max Breedlove, Ajax realized that he was in for a long night at work.
“So what does it look like, Max? C’mon back.”
“It don’t look pretty, Myrna. I’d best talk to Sheriff. He still in?”
“He’s standin’ right next to me. C’mon. Tell me what ya got. I can handle it. I’ve lived up around here longer’n you have. I won’t faint or nothin’.”
Ajax grabbed a mike and plugged it in. “That’s right, boy. Myrna’s tougher than any three ‘a yas put together! Now what the hell happened out there?”
At the other end Max took a deep breath, surveyed the almost indescribable scene once more, looked at his fellow officer, Bud Masher, shrugged and began to talk. When he was through, nobody, at the campsite or at the station, said anything for a few beats as his words hung in the air like a black thundercloud that seemed like it would never move.
Sheriff Kincaid broke the silence. “Yeah. Well, we’ll call Doc Simmons and have him get out there right away. I’m outa here right now, too, but before I go I’ll get an ambulance on the way.”
“Tell ‘em they better bring some shovels,” cracked Masher.
“You just worry about your job,” snarled Ajax, still bugged about not getting to ogle the new woman at the bowling alley. “Them ambulance boys know what they’re doin’.” And then to Myrna in a much softer tone, “You handle a little overtime tonight, sweetie?”
“It’s gonna be a late one, ain’t it Ajax?”
“’Fraid so, babe. You know how news like this gets around—almost like magic. And the media’s gonna be in on this one for sure, and not just from Anchorage. Be a doll and call my wife for me. Tell her I’ll call her when I get back.” And Sheriff Kincaid hustled out the station door.
LES SPAULDING WAS A NATIONAL FIGURE of sorts. To many he was a genuine hero—a noted animal rights activist and famed bear enthusiast. He was one of those environmentalists who believed that the well being of the planet was more important than that of humans, and would be much better off without them. Unlike most of the people who felt that way, Les Spaulding actually practiced what he preached and spent a number of seasons living in grizzly country, almost like Sam Houston used to live periodically amongst the Cherokee. In doing so he had run afoul of National Park Rangers more than once for “harassing wildlife,” camping in unauthorized places and not taking proper precautions when in the wilderness.
To a great many other people that knew of him, Les Spaulding was a fruit-loop. His earlier years as an alcoholic, then a drug addict, were well known. He claimed that his newfound affinity for communing with grizzlies had cured him of his self-destructive impulses. But critics who tended not to be environmentalists and who believed in the Biblical tenet that man had dominion over all other animals, saw Spaulding as a very sick man who had merely replaced one dangerous way of life with another. One or the other was sure to lead to his downfall. And now it had happened.
WHEN OFFICER MAX BREEDLOVE ARRIVED AT the Spaulding/Hornacher campsite, he could see right away that all was not well. The tent was shredded and the couple’s clothes and all kinds of private articles were strewn all over the ground. And there was no one in sight. Before he even got out of his four-wheeled police-SUV he called Bud Masher for backup. He knew immediately that some grizzly antics were involved and he didn’t want to face any angry bears alone. His best hope was that Les and his girlfriend might have gotten in a canoe and out into the lake or something, but at first glance he saw no boats on the water.
The densely packed trees blocked the light from the setting fall Alaskan sun, so it took a few minutes for Max’s eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. And then, by the tent, he saw what turned out to be the first indication of what had happened here. Although it would be at least ten minutes before Bud Masher got there, he was so eager to confirm what it was he thought he saw, that he was compelled to leave his vehicle for a closer look. Before he got out he unsnapped his holster, pulled out his .44 magnum hand cannon and took the safety off. As he approached the tent he prayed that what he saw wasn’t what he thought it was, but as he got closer there was no doubt.
Laying on the ground on one of the shards of tent was a human forearm. It was the girl’s, with an Indian bracelet around the wrist.
Max had expected trouble—a disaster even—but finding this arm was very unsettling. Then he looked about and began to spot evidence of all kinds of mayhem. A few yards away was the rest of the mangled body of Iris Hornacher, which was missing a lower leg and one hand. These were never found because they had been eaten. Breedlove continued to scan his immediate surroundings with both hands tightly holding his pistol handle. He had made almost a 360° circle when he found what he was looking for.
At water’s edge was the chewed-up body of Les Spaulding. It was half way in the water in front of the beached canoe. It looked as if the man had been trying to pull the boat out in the lake when he was attacked. Not anxious to get up close to the corpse, it appeared to Max that Spaulding was not missing any limbs—they were mostly chewed to the bone. One of his legs especially looked like a Thanksgiving Day leftover, with only a cloth-and-rubber sneaker covering its foot. The policeman was reflecting on the horror of what the animal rights activist’s last moments were like when Bud Masher came tearing up, rudely but thankfully jarring him from his hideous train of thought.
IT WAS COMPLETELY DARK OUT, BUT THE shambles of a campsite was brightly lit from powerful floodlights, as a veritable army of forensic specialists and State Police officials who had been flown in immediately from Anchorage combed the bloody grounds. Ajax Kincaid felt like the odd man out as he looked on, even though the site was technically in his jurisdiction. The area was taped off like an ordinary murder scene, but Ajax—and just about everyone else for that matter—knew exactly who—or what—was the perpetrator.
GOOSE CREEK, POPULATION 2,659, IS A small but very prosperous community on the shores of Lake Kibuna, halfway between the Lake Clark National Wildlife Preserve and Anchorage, Alaska, the state’s most populous and “civilized” city. Many visitors to Alaska, especially the ones who like to “rough it,” go camping and backpacking in the Lake Clark Wildlife Preserve to take in the glorious scenery and to observe many animals in their natural habitat. Quite a few of these vacationers, who crave being in the wild, but yearn for a TV, a nice hot shower and other back-home amenities, can take advantage of the many bed-and-breakfasts and mini-spas offered by Goose Creek, where they can still rent four-wheelers for day trips or even do some more camping before plunging back into the rat race.
The little town never tried to compete with Lake Clark for wildlife watching, but its location, at the mouth of the mountain-fed Goose Creek on Lake Kibuna, made it an ideal place to observe grizzlies during the spring and fall salmon runs, as the fish swam inland to go up the stream. Unfortunately, this phenomenon also attracted a nutcase like Les Spaulding, who could never seem to get enough of grizzlies—until now.
Grizzly bears, Kodiak bears, American brown bears—call them what you will—are ordinarily solitary animals, except for mothers when rearing their young. The bears who live inland tend to be those who live most alone. The ones who live nearer to the coastal areas, and places like Goose Creek, are more social, and it is a common sight to see a number of bears living and feeding together. Aside from the occasional battle between males for females there is little conflict amongst the grizzlies—most of the time. But during the fall and spring salmon runs, which precede and follow hibernation, the bears are most aggressive—and dangerous. Yet no major problems with grizzlies arose for Ajax Kincaid until two things happened around the same time.
Firstly, for the nth time, forest rangers kicked Les Spaulding out of Lake Clark Wilderness, a national park about 50 miles northeast of the Wildlife Preserve. As usual he did not protect his camp perimeter with an electrified fence, he had no pepper spray (“It’s so painful for the bears!”) and he even kept coolers filled with food in his tent, among other things. Rather than leave grizzly country completely he set up shop with his girlfriend on Lake Kibuna, knowing that the police resources of Goose Creek were too limited to constantly keep bugging him.
Then, about a month before this, a huge ill-tempered male grizzly from somewhere inland drifted into the Goose Creek area and made his presence known immediately. He hadn’t been actually eyeballed yet when both Max and Bud discovered signs of his handiwork—white wolves, porcupines, elk—all kinds of critters—even a moose and another older grizzly, cruelly slaughtered. The bodies of most of these poor beasts were hardly eaten, so it appeared that the ferocious newcomer may very well have killed just for the fun of it. When Bud Masher finally spotted the monstrous bear, it was sitting contentedly atop its latest kill, a statuesque longhorn sheep, chewing its head off. From the way the bear’s bloody jaws munched and munched, Bud dubbed him “Chewie,” and the name stuck.
Ajax had wanted to shoot Chewie down in the worst way, but Myrna reminded him of how much trouble he could get into for killing a grizzly that had not harmed a human being. But now things were different. There was no doubt in Ajax’s mind that Chewie was the killer. He was positive that a necropsy would yield proof—in the form of Spaulding’s and Hornacher’s body parts—that they had the right bear. So tomorrow, when most of the hoopla ended, he and his men would track the big fella down and blow him away and restore the natural order of things.
It was too bad about that Spaulding character and his girl, but, in a way, the guy was asking for it. One less wacko to worry about! So all in all, Ajax may have missed out on a titillating night at the bowling alley, but all things considered, he felt pretty good. Then things began to go south for Sheriff Kincaid when a frantic-looking Max Breedlove came running up to him.
“Chief! Chief! I been lookin’ all over for you!”
“I just been standin’ right here, Max.”
Not sure of exactly how to respond, Max put on this helpless expression as he turned this way and that, trying to wordlessly communicate his frustration with not being able to quickly find his boss with all the blinding bright lights and swarms of investigators.
Getting the message, Ajax put one hand consolingly on Max’s shoulder. “Okay, okay. Now what’s the matter?”
“It ain’t so much me, Chief—it’s Myrna! She’s been callin’ and callin’! Sounds like she needs you real bad!”
From the comfortable confines of his own personal vehicle he radioed Myrna.
“You were right about the media bein’ more than just the Anchorage folks, Ajax—Get the hell outa here! You stay up front there!—Sorry, Ajax!” cried the obviously harried dispatcher. “I think you really need to get back here as soon as you can! They’ve turned the front of the station into a TV studio, they’re askin’ all kinds of questions and wantin’ to know when we’re havin’ a press conference...I’m sorry, Ajax, but I just don’t know what to tell ‘em.”
“Holy shit!” He really hadn’t counted on this kind of furor. “You been able to get somethin’ to eat, darlin’?”
“How the hell could I? Nobody else is around and...”
“Alright, alright. I’ll get goin’ right now and stop at the Roadkill on the way back. Couple ‘a burgers okay?”
Before Ajax departed the increasingly chaotic scene, with some difficulty he found Doc Simmons, who was about to make his own departure. The doctor reluctantly agreed to meet Ajax at the Goose Creek police station after the sheriff pleaded with him to come—so he could help Ajax with some expert opinion in dealing with the media.
THE ROADKILL CAFÉ WAS A NEAT LITTLE bar and grill on the road from the lake about two miles from Goose Creek. Sheriff Ajax Kincaid had intended to just have a cup of coffee while waiting for the burgers to take to Myrna, but when he shouldered his way up to the bar and saw what was on the TV screen, he decided to have a couple of shots of Jack and a draft. As usual, the country music from the Roadkill’s sound system was blasting away, so there was no way you could hear what was being said on the tube, but it was obvious what the talking heads from CNN were so excited about.
Four of them were sitting around an oval-shaped table seemingly all talking at once. But what really got Sheriff Kincaid’s attention—what drove him to drink this night—was that superimposed in the lower right corner of the screen was a video of Les Spaulding boxing playfully with a grizzly bear. In the opposite lower corner was a video of a grizzly tearing a wild boar to pieces. This screen would alternate with a lone woman reporter, mike in hand, identified as Kira Carmody in Goose Creek, Alaska.
How the hell did CNN find out about this already?
“Yer burgers to go, Sheriff!” chirped the spritely barmaid, Dale, sliding an already grease-stained, delicious-smelling brown bag across the bar towards him, jolting him back to reality. “Put it and the drinks on the village tab, hon’?”
“Uh, yeah. Do that please, will ya sweetie? And do me a favor. Keep your eye on the stuff for a minute while I go to the little boys’ room.”
When he got to the toilet he went directly to the sink, pulled out a flat, dirty brush from his pocket and combed what was left of his reddish brown curly hair and straightened his tie. If he was going to be on TV, he may as well look his best.
GIVEN THAT LES SPAULDING WAS SOMETHING of a national figure, Ajax Kincaid had figured that when the media got wind of what had happened, they’d take a mild interest in the case—a couple of days later. But he was totally unprepared for the firestorm of controversy that would erupt—and so quickly after the incident.
When Ajax pulled up to the station, he could see right away that he was in for a rough night. TV vans and trucks were everywhere, parked helter-skelter. Gone was his coveted “Reserved for Sheriff” spot—some radio or TV outfit had taken it like it was nothing. So he gritted his teeth, parked about a block away and strode purposefully towards the station. Playtime in this sandbox has come to an end right now!
He stomped up the three steps from the street to the sidewalk, then threw open the station front door with a flourish. Heeeeere’s Johnny!
But as soon as he was in, he was frozen by what he saw.
Myrna was right! The entire front of the station had been turned into what looked like a TV studio, with at least four times the number of blinding bright lights as at the campsite blazing away. The desks of the officers and staff had been shoved up against the walls to make room for the lights and cameras and gangs of press people who had invaded the station. Someone had found an old lectern somewhere and that had been set up with what looked like about twenty microphones against the center of the far wall. They had found the station’s trove of metal folding chairs and arranged them facing the lectern in about ten rows of twelve.
As soon as Ajax opened the door he was almost buried by a host of reporters all pointing microphones and recording devices at him with flash bulbs going off like fireworks as he was photographed, while there were concerted cries of, “Did you just come from the campsite?” “Are there dangerous bears on the loose in Goose Creek?” “How many people have been eaten alive?” and the like.
Reflexively, Ajax defensively crossed his arms in front of his face and yelled, “Hold on! Hold on, folks!” And holding up the brown bag, “Lemme get my dispatcher some dinner back there! Then me and the M.E. will take some questions. Okay?”
The queries from the seething crowd still continued to fly, but not as strongly as before, as Sheriff Kincaid jostled his way into the back room and slammed the door behind him. There he found an absolutely famished and emotionally drained Myrna Coogan, with Doc Simmons standing next to her, gently caressing her neck and shoulders.
“Been this way long, babe?” asked Ajax. But Myrna just looked up at him and nodded her head. Her mouth was already full of one Roadkill’s deluxe cheese ’n bacon burgers.
“Apparently they started moving in at six o’clock,” said the doctor.
“God-damn! These bastards must’ve found out about it almost before we did!”
Doc Simmons just shrugged.
Ajax walked to the door, opened it, and asked, “Y’all ready for us?”
After a loud affirmative clamor, the sheriff head-gestured to the doctor who came towards the door. Ajax let the older man go through first, and after winking to Myrna with a strong expression of gratitude for all she had done, he stiffened himself to his full height and walked to the makeshift podium and immediately began speaking to the jumble of microphones, trying his best not to squint too much from the bright lights.
“I’m Sheriff Ajax Kincaid and this is our Medical Examiner, Doctor Carl Simmons. We welcome you to our beautiful little town of Goose Creek and we’re flattered that you would give us the benefit of your professional—uh—savvy,” he lied. “Now, we had an incident earlier today and I’m sure that that’s what you’re here about, so —uh—we’ll take some questions and try to fill you in as best we can.”
Immediately almost all the reporters were on their feet screaming for attention. Stunned by this reaction at first, Ajax unconsciously took a step backwards, then got control of himself and pointed to a cute blonde lady that he knew worked for an Anchorage station.
“Kim Bradley, KFIG News. Is it true that animal rights activist Les Spaulding has been killed by a grizzly bear?”
“There were two fatalities at a lakeside campsite. We’re withholding the names until next of kin have been notified. Next question?”
Without waiting to be recognized, a man in the center of the room stood and said, “Yes, but was this killing done by a grizzly?”
Ajax pictured the bloody scene at the campsite and said, “Yeah. Right now that’s the way it looks.”
Another reporter—a woman this time—in the rear, stood and shouted, “Karen Bennett, ABC. I understand that there are quite a few grizzlies in that area at this time—I mean with the salmon run and all. Do you have any idea exactly which bear did the killing?”
“Yes, Ms Bennett,” answered Ajax, thinking of Chewie. “We have a pretty good idea of which bear did it.”
This response made an especially nerdy fellow shoot up and shout, “Don’t you have to kill the bear, perform an autopsy—uh—to see if the victims’ body parts are inside its stomach before you know you got the right bear?”
After giving the nerd a decidedly dirty look, Ajax patiently intoned, “For this one, sir, I’m gonna turn it over to Doctor Simmons. He can give you the most informed answer.”
Moving up to the lectern Doc wasted no time. “First of all, it’s not an ‘autopsy’—that’s for dead humans. In this case we will perform what’s known as a ‘necropsy’ and...”
“So what if you kill the bear that you suspect is the killer and you don’t find the body parts?” cried out someone.
Sheriff Kincaid nudged Doc aside. “We’re damn sure that we know the one we gotta get!”
The nerd came back at him. “But what if it isn’t? Just how many bears are you prepared to kill before you get the right one?”
“And I’m tellin’ you we’re 99 percent sure who done it. Whaddaya think, son? We’re runnin’ a shootin’ gallery for bears here? The wildlife’s our bread ‘n butter, pal!”
Then Kira Carmody of CNN waved frantically and got the sheriff’s recognition. “So Sheriff Kincaid,” she began deliberately, “are you saying you have a man-eater on the loose?”
The word “man-eater” seemed to reverberate around the room as Ajax looked on in horror as nearly everyone scribbled down the word or spoke it into their recorders.
Shit! If the word “man-eater” gets paired up with “Goose Creek,” then who knows what might happen to the little town? Who’d wanna come to a place with a “man-eater” runnin’ around? It sure wouldn’t be good for me!
Then the nerd stood up again. “I don’t see how you can call an innocent creature a man-eater just for defending its territory, and...”
“Waitaminute! Waitaminute! I didn’t call anybody a goddamned man-eater!” snarled Ajax, clearly beginning to lose it. “Y’all came up with that! And—uh...Say! Who the hell are you anyways?”
“Roderick Beasly, PETA.”
“PETA? What the hell is that?”
“People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”
WHEN AJAX FINALLY GOT HOME AROUND 2:00 AM, his wife, Emma, had been asleep for quite some time. She had left a note on the kitchen table informing him that she had made him a nice tuna salad that was in the fridge. Ravenous from all that had happened, he turned quickly in the direction of the appliance, then froze. What he needed now was some food all right, but he could also really use some booze, which he did not have in the house. Without a second thought he started for his SUV. The Roadkill would be open until four—all night for him if he wanted. He knew there would be hell to pay the next morning—with Emma and the hangover he was sure to have. But at least he wouldn’t have to think about what to do. Circumstances would dictate that.
At the Roadkill he found a solitary spot at the bar and tried to figure out what he was going to have to do. He had heard about that PETA and wondered how he was going to proceed without stirring up a hornets’ nest of protest.
But that Chewie has just got to go!
And now Goose Creek would be forever linked with the term “man-eater.” What was he going to do about that?
Sure enough, next morning when he slogged into work, he noticed the headlines on two Anchorage newspapers: MAN-EATER STALKS GOOSE BAY read one, while the other shrieked, TOURISTS FEAR MAN-EATER!
Ajax made it clear that he wanted to just hole up in his office as much as possible. There were even more media trucks on the town streets than on the previous evening, and his officers were allowing a number of reporters to actually view the premises of where the carnage had taken place.
The sheriff wasn’t able to think about too many thing, but what was foremost in his alcohol-ravaged mind was what to do about Chewie. They had to get him soon or all body parts of the wacko and his girlfriend would be completely digested and it would be virtually impossible to prove that he was the culprit. On the other hand, with that PETA pest hanging around, how could he hunt the beast down without the little creep getting wind of it?
Then about two in the afternoon, when everything seemed hopeless, Myrna called to him. “Ajax, I just got this memo from Juneau that you might be interested in.”
“It looks like some little snot-nosed kids killed the grizzly at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago with some poisoned marshmallows. Do you believe that? Anyway, they’ve put the word out that they’re lookin’ for a full grown male grizzly, they say, ‘ideally with an outgoing and playful manner.’”