“Looks like they gave me a bang-up spot here. Right by a great source of fish… This small clearing will give me a good… five, six hours of sunlight. Yeah, this is going to be amazing. I can’t wait.”
Kerri leaned back in her desk chair as Darren Henderson, first Wild contestant to be dropped off via chopper deep in the Montana Rockies, set his camera down on the pebbled lake shore and executed a dramatic walk off-screen into the twisted woods.
“Who’s this one again?” her producer, Jim, asked.
Kerri looked down to check her notes. “Darren Henderson, freelance survivalist — ”
“ — Freelance?”
“Look, you gave me the budget, I’m working with what I could find.”
Jim held up his hands, warding off any further effrontery.
Kerri hadn’t been immediately on board when he’d pitched his low-budget survival series idea to her, but he’d eventually talked her into it, citing this was the best way to break into the oversaturated film industry.
“As I was saying, he describes himself as a ‘freelance survivalist’, runs an independent woodscraft school out of his home in West Virginia, and claims to be an Eagle Scout, though he wasn’t able to produce any credentials by the time we needed to start shooting — says it’ll be coming in the mail…”
Jim arched one eyebrow at her dry tone and cast an uneasy glance back at the now-empty computer monitor. “I take it you’re not holding out hopes of that making it into the credits.”
“Hardly,” she confirmed. “But, he signed the waiver. Honestly, Jim, if you’d given me more than $50,000 prize money, I could’ve found you better contestants. Fifty grand is nothing these days.” She pursed her lips at the monitor, eyes searching. “Good lord,” she muttered. “I told them all to stay on screen. Stay. On. Screen.” Leaning forward, she fiddled with the mouse until another view popped up, a high-vantage view of the entire camp that Kerri had fought hard for, showing Darren off in the far distance just pulling his pants up over his bare ass.
Jim snorted. “Well, can’t fault a man for wanting a bit of privacy to do his business.”
“And if a bear or mountain lion took interest in him ‘doing his business’, how would we know, hm? And you said we wouldn’t need the Crow’s Nest.”
Jim gave her an exasperated sigh and she turned, spinning her chair to face him.
“You wanted me involved in this, Jim. Remember that. You wanted me because I know film, and I know the Rockies. Let me do my job.”
Jim drew back a bit at her tone, holding his hands up in surrender.
Kerri flashed him an apologetic grimace. “Look, I’m sorry, but this guy, especially, makes me really nervous.” Taking a frustrated sigh, she shook her head at the screen, tucking her short hair behind one ear. “There’s only a few more weeks left of temperate weather. If we’re lucky, he’ll realize how hungry starvation feels and bow out quickly.”
“Uh huh…” Jim answered, nodding slowly. “So, who else do we have?”
Pulling her eyes away from the Crow’s Nest cam, she passed over a manilla folder. “Zane Giller, did eight years in Air Force Special Operations, got out and joined local law enforcement in Chicago. After becoming disillusioned with the big-city justice system, he picked up and moved his wife and three kids to a small town outside of Denver. Still in local law enforcement, but he also moonlights as a guide for some of the more adventurous tourists.”
Jim was nodding as he read along with Kerri’s synopsis. “Sounds like a decent guy. How about this Holly Helms? Seems a bit old.”
“She’s fifty-six and could probably wipe the floor with you,” she retorted, making the corner of his mouth quirk up at the side. “Holly Helms, mother of six, lifelong pioneer woman from northern Idaho, lives mostly off-grid. She’s my one to watch. If she can keep enough weight on her, she’s winning this thing.” Glancing back up at the once-again empty monitor, she swore under her breath and reached for the mouse.
“That would make for a good pitch to the network,” Jim mused, flipping through the other contestants while Kerri worked to get Darren Henderson back on screen.
“This man is going to be a thorn in my side.”
Jim leaned in for a better view, then pointed down to the alert at the bottom of her screen. “There, he’s got his head cam on. Flip feeds.”
Glancing down to where he was indicating, she switched her feed, and the trundling image of greenery and forests lurched into large-screen view. “Ugh, he’s going to make me seasick. I’m going to have to get someone else to watch this first-person stuff or I’m gonna puke. Wait — ” And Jim looked over at her suddenly anxious tone. “What’s he doing? Volume — where’s the volume?”
Kerri’s hands slapped across her keyboard until she found the volume button and Darren’s voice rose from the speakers.
“ — but at least I know I’m not going to starve. Not for now, anyways. These red currants are going to be a great source of vitamin C and…”
Kerri’s head was shaking in rapid jerks as Darren started plucking handfuls of bright red berries from a nearby shrub. “No, no, no, no… Jim, Squawk him, SQUAWK HIM!”
Fumbling, Jim dove for the satellite radio on the desk next to him and shoved it into Kerri’s waiting hands.
“Darren? Darren, stop! Can you hear me?”
Jim tipped his head as Kerri’s voice, distorted with a slight delay, emanated through the speakers on the display monitor. Darren’s motions hesitated, then the camera view dipped as he reached for his 2-way.
“Stop, Darren. Those aren’t currants you’re picking. Currants haven’t been in season for months. Those are red baneberries. Eat those and we’ll be medevacking you out by tonight.”
“Baneberries…” Darren muttered, dropping his handful to the forest floor and wiping his palm on his pants. “Sorry, don’t have those back home.”
“Yes, you do.” Then, after a rough sigh, she added, “Darren, do I need to pull you?”
“No!” came the immediate, tinny reply. “No. Baneberry. Got it. I’m good.”
“You’d better be, Darren. Take a leaf. Memorize it. Stick it to your forehead if you need to, but if I see you trying to eat any more poisonous plants, I’m pulling you. Understand?”
“Yeah, uh… Yeah, I got it.”
Leaning her forehead down against the heel of her hand holding the radio, she shook her head, but not before a low, “bitch…” drifted up from the video display.
Jim neatly reached over and plucked the 2-way from Kerri’s tightening fingers just as she was lifting the device back to her lips. Scowling at him, she muttered, “Thorn in my side.” Then she took a deep sigh. “When are the others getting dropped off? This guy’s exhausting.”
“Within the hour,” Jim promised with an incriminating dimple in his chin. “The rest of the crew should be here any minute.”
“Should’ve been here already,” she countered. “I’m serious Jim. I don’t care if this is some independent venture run out of the back of a warehouse on crowd-funded money, these monitors better take this seriously. If I had looked away for one minute, one minute, my contestant would be dead. Make sure they know that.”
Jim straightened her notes with a decisive tap on the desktop and handed them back to her. “Don’t worry, Kerri. I’ve got this.”
Chapter 2: The Rustler
Balancing two overloaded trays of coffee, Kerri shouldered open the back door of the dimly-lit warehouse and slipped inside. Squinting to see through the lower light, she was relieved to find each monitor station double staffed and attentive, the single row of fluorescent bulbs Jim allowed to stay lit casting stark angles of drifting dust motes high over their heads.
Nodding in satisfaction, she moved on past the row of lit monitors to the small office in the back, dropping off drink orders as she went.
“Lose anyone last night?” she asked as she entered, not bothering to hide the cynicism in her voice.
“Sorry, Ker,” Jim announced with a wry grin. “He’s still in the running.”
Kerri rolled her eyes, knowing without needing to ask who Jim was talking about.
“Ditsy Darren lives to fight another day?”
Jim nodded, accepting a flat white from her. “Though you missed the mini-exposé he did on the importance of knowing the differences between red currants and red baneberries this morning. Came across pretty believable.”
Kerri shook her head. “God save me.” Tossing the empty trays in the recycling bin, she took a sip of the black French roast remaining.
“We-uh… did have two call Bugout this morning,” he hedged then, voice hesitant.
Kerri choked on her sip, looking up at him in disbelief. “Two?”
He nodded, motioning with a tilt of his brow over to his monitor. “One of the campers from Pennsylvania and the backwoods history teacher from Tennessee.”
“Really? I had high hopes for the teacher. What weeded them out?”
“Said they kept hearing noises in the night.”
Kerri blinked. “Noises? It’s the freaking Rocky Mountains, of course there’s going to be noises! What did they expect?”
Jim just shrugged. “Dunno, but they both said the exact same thing when they called Bugout.”
“Do you have the footage?”
“Working on it…” Then, after another couple of mouse clicks, an infrared image of John Keller, 43-year-old Tennessee mountain man and history teacher popped into large screen view. The sound of crickets became loud as Jim adjusted the volume and Kerri heard the low call of a great horned owl ghost out of the speakers.
“…I just don’ know. No. No, there it is again…”
Jim made some adjustments to the controls, and the sound of crickets grew louder. As John Keller went still and silent in the video, the rustling of brush joined the noises of the night insects. Kerri wrinkled her brow, tipping her head as she listened.
“Whatever it is, it’s big,” Keller went on, voice barely above a whisper as he held his camera close to his face. “But what worries me ain’t that.” Another pause as the rustling grew closer, the rhythm of the movement leaving no question that it was something big walking around.
Kerri frowned deeper as she listened. Silence fell over the small room as whatever was walking around outside of John Keller’s shelter came to a thudding halt, seemingly right next to his head by the mountain man’s wide-eyed expression. A sheen of sweat was visible across his forehead.
Then, after a pregnant pause, the creature stepped away again. But, something sounded wrong. The rhythm was… wrong.
Keller took a deep breath, blinking and raising his brows as the sound disappeared. “Naw, I been in the hills all my life. Big don’t bother me.” And he shook his head, still staring at the wall of his flimsy shelter. “What bothers me is… that sucker weren’t on four legs.”
Kerri felt a chill race from tip to toe at his words, her own mind confirming the burly mountain man’s assessment. “Trail cams?”
Jim nodded. “I started them uploading, but they’re remote, it’s going to take a bit.”
Absently, she nodded, still replaying the heavy, even, two-part thumping of the night creature walking around Keller’s tent. “What about the other?”
Frowning, Jim leaned in and flipped over to another camera. Waiting, Kerri listened as the extreme-camper from Pennsylvania cowered against the exact same noises — disturbing footfalls of a heavy, two-beat gait.
“They both said the same thing on Bugout this morning,” Jim explained. “The rustlers came five or six times in the night. At one point even going so far as to jostle Keller’s shelter. Unnerved them both so bad they dialed out at first light.”
Kerri was steadily shaking her head. What on earth? “Jim, I want to see those trail cams as soon as they’re uploaded. I — ”
But a clamor from the other room cut off her words. Straightening, she turned to face the wide safety-glass window just as one of the viewers jogged to a halt outside the small office. Not bothering to knock, he swung the door in. “We’ve got a warm body on screen.”
Chapter 3: The Shaman
Jim stood up out of his seat. “You what?”
But the viewer just nodded. “Just walked right on in. Looks like a native.”
“A native?” Kerri blurted, making for the door. “We’re a hundred miles away from the nearest reservation. How the hell…”
Pushing the other viewer to the side as she reached the offending station, she sat down in front of the screen and slipped the headset over her ears.
Darren Henderson’s voice joined the first-person head cam view of an old, weathered-faced man with copper-russet skin and broad features. Kerri squinted, grimacing at the image jerking in and out of view as Darren shook his head and looked around. “Where’s the Squawk?”
The viewer who had come to fetch them slapped the radio into Kerri’s open hand and she raised it to her mouth, holding down the speak button. “Darren, can you hear me?” A small burst of static announced her releasing the button. “Come on, come on… Please Darren, tell me you’re wearing the Squawk.” Nothing happened, and she pressed the button again. “Darren! Pick up! Pick — oh, for God’s sake.” And she hit the red emergency alarm button on the radio’s face.”
The strident tone reached her ears through the headset and she breathed a short sigh. The camera view ducked as Darren searched for his end and the radio hissed as he answered.
Flicking one of her earpieces off, Kerri mashed down hard on the speak button. “Darren! It’s Kerri. I need you to take off your head cam and hold it in your hand. Hear? Hold it in your hand so I can see.”
Darren didn’t answer, but there was a brief clatter of feedback before the camera view swung and then reoriented facing the unexpected visitor.
He looked like an image out of a history book. Most of the locals down at the reservation wore the average American wardrobe, but the man taking up center screen in Darren’s view was dressed in skins, fringed and furred, complete with beaded hems and hide boots. A three-strand bone-and-claw necklace hung from his neck, and his hair was braided and bound on either side of his head with leather wraps. The colors and adornments decorating his person were suggestive of a medicine man or some kind of spiritual leader, but… some of the symbols inked into his leather sleeves were clearly Sanskrit. Maybe the North American version of a shaman?
“Jim,” Kerri hissed, “there’s not supposed to be anyone out here. ‘Uninhabited’, you said. ‘No one for miles. Not even a hiking trail’.”
Jim was gritting his teeth when she looked up at him.
“I had to improvise.”
“We had a budget!”
“James Harper, if you’ve gone and — ”
But she cut off as the tribesman began to speak. He was speaking English, but his words were hesitant and heavily accented. Kerri frowned as she watched the screen, but his expansive hand gestures waving Darren away left little need to interpret what he was saying.
Darren took a step back and the image jostled. Kerri squinted harder, leaning toward the monitor, shaking her head as she picked out one or two of his thick words. Spirit land? Go away? Hunting?
She jumped when Jim’s hand suddenly snatched the 2-way from her clammy fingers.
“Darren. It’s Jim. Point me at this guy.” The sound of plastic rattling came through the speakers and then Darren’s radio floated into view. Jim stood, taking the 2-way with him as he walked back toward the office. “This is Jim Harper, executive producer of Wild — ” Then the door to the office closed.
Turning back to the screen, Kerri fumbled both earpieces back into place and turned the volume on the system up. The sound was distorted, but she could just make out Jim’s voice coming from the radio held in Darren’s hand, still calling out to the unnamed tribesman.
Slowly, he approached, stepping hesitantly toward Darren and reaching out to take the radio. Darren made a show of pointing to the speak button and then handed it over. Straining her ears, Kerri tried to pick through the argument playing out before her.
…Thought we had an agreement…
…No, cannot allow…
…Not what we discussed…
…Things not decided…
…Oh yes, they were decided…
…Not all told…
…Tribe will be paid in full…
But then the tribesman and radio were too far away to make out any more. “Jim, what have you gotten us into?” she muttered under her breath. Turning in her seat, she craned her neck to see through the window into the office.
Jim was there, making wild hand gestures as he spoke into the radio, facial expressions making it clear that he was over-enunciating and speaking loudly. Jim Harper, you are an absolute ass…
Pressing her lips together in a tight line, she looked back to the screen. The tribesman was facing away from them, listening to whatever it was that Jim was saying. But then he stiffened, turning to look down at the little 2-way in his hand.
Kerri’s brows drew together as she watched the hide-clad native stride back over to Darren and hold the radio stiffly out in front of him. He was too close for Kerri to see his face in the video feed, but she could tell he was staring at Darren’s face.
“Leave. Now. While you can.”
His voice was clear as crystal through the camera’s microphone, and his words sent a chill racing through Kerri’s gut. Then, braids bobbing once as he nodded, he turned and walked away up the rocky landscape.
Jim’s distorted voice joined the feed again. “Don’t worry Darren. It’s been handled. You’re good.”
“Yeah? Then what’s all that about leaving while I can? I’m not going to get scalped in my sleep, or anything, am I?”
Kerri rolled her eyes. “Asshat. This isn’t a wild west movie.”
The viewer beside her gave a soft snort, but Jim’s answering voice jolted Kerri out of her disgust. “Nah, man. You’re good. Just ghost stories and native legends. I’ve got an arrangement with the tribe. No one’s going to bother you.”
Fuming, Kerri ripped the headset from her ears and marched off in the direction of the office.
Chapter 4: The Arrangement
“You have an arrangement?” Kerri blurted as she slammed the door behind her.
“Let it go, Ker.”
“No, you don’t get to ‘Ker’ me this time. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I told you, we had a small budget. You wanted choppers — I had to find a way to pay the pilots. You wanted 24/7 on call emergency physicians — I had to pay for that, too. Do you have any idea what production costs are in the US? I was able to slash our overhead by filming on a reservation. This tribe is primitive, tucked away, pretty much invisible even to the US government. They don’t have access to modern healthcare, food supplies, technology, anything — ”
“ — And so you exploited them for a cheap filming location? Jim, honestly! If they’re still primitive in this day and age it’s because they’ve worked really hard to stay that way!”
“ — Regardless, the tribe’s leaders agreed to let me film there, all for the price of some medicine and supplies. We send contestants in, leaving as little footprint as possible, and the tribe allows for their presence with no interference. At the end of the competition, we chopper in a year’s worth of non-perishable food and first-aid.”
Kerri made a sharp gesture to the filming station in the other room. “Clearly that’s not the case. What was that man saying? ‘Not all of them had been told’? Wasn’t he just out there trying to run off one of our contestants?”
“Like I said, it’s been handled.”
Kerri could tell Jim was getting defensive because the rims of his ears were turning red, but she didn’t care. She was livid. “Handled? You mean you’re holding food and aid over these people’s heads and asking them to comply with something they’re clearly not comfortable with.”
“Yeah, well, what’s done is done. If we pull the plug now, that’s 1.5 million dollars down the drain. Are you willing to waste that? Willing to throw your dream of having your own nature documentary in the crapper?”
Kerri jammed one fist against her hip and threw him a level look. “I have a double PhD in biology and anthropology. Film was a side interest, a hobby, an elective to get me through to graduation. You think I can’t survive without this series?”
“Regardless, the show is happening with or without you at this point.” Then at Kerri’s bunching jaw, he relented with a sigh. “—But, I would much rather have you with us.”
Looking away, Kerri took a deep, long breath. “Tell me everything.”
Jim just shrugged. “That was about it. I got the idea early on to ask on the reservations, and that’s how I heard about these guys.” He made an illustrative motion out toward the other room. “They’re some unknown blend of the Salish groups that inhabited the northernmost Rockies. The other tribes have always given them a wide berth, apparently, because of their purported history of guarding sacred grounds. They seemed amenable enough when I made them the offer, though. So long as I didn’t disclose their location publicly.” He let out a humorless laugh. “Not that it’d do anyone any good if I did. We nearly didn’t find the place, even knowing it was there. Good thing chopper pilots know how to fly by coordinates.”
Kerri folded her arms across her chest, ignoring Jim’s attempt to steer the conversation. “Sacred grounds? Is that what you were talking about with ‘ghost stories’ and ‘native legends?’”
Jim nodded, leaning back against the edge of his desk. “There’s supposedly a sacred something-or-other somewhere on their reservation. They take it as their ‘tribal duty’, or whatever, to guard it.”
“And they were willing to forsake this ‘tribal duty’ for the price of some Band-Aids and bagged chips?”
Jim bit at the inside of his mouth. “They’re not doing that well,” he admitted. “The flu or something made it up to them the past two years, and the fish and game aren’t what they used to be. They needed the help, so don’t think I just bribed them with it.”
Kerri furrowed her brows at this news. After a moment of silent battling inside her head, she dipped her chin. “Fine. I’ll stay. But only if you pay them what they’re owed, now.”
Jim dropped his head and let out a breath. Then, he nodded. “Deal.”
“And good stuff, too. No Debbie Cakes or Slim Jims. Montana has a whole slew of meat processors. You give them dried meats, home-preserved foods, dried grains and rice — nothing that’s going to send them into a diabetic coma. And send someone to give them flu vaccines if they want it. I don’t think you realize how much these people opened up to you if they let you do this — ” she swept her arm around to the warehouse at large, “ — on their sacred land. You owe them.”
Jim grimaced and rolled his head back, as if calculating the extra cost.
“Those are my terms, Jim.”
Finally, he let his head drop back down. “Fine. I’ll figure it out and have it delivered as soon as I can.”
“Good,” she answered. “And you’re sure the contestants are safe?”
He nodded. “I have it in writing. No one from the tribe will set foot into a contestant’s camp and no contestant will set foot in the tribe’s village. I had to remind our friend out there of our arrangement, but he agreed to abide by it.”
“Was it the intrusion that bothered him?” Kerri asked, a sympathetic wrinkle coming to her brow.
Jim shook his head. “No, actually. He was worried about Darren.”
Kerri looked up. “What?”
Jim nodded. “He said the ‘spirits’ or something wouldn’t allow for his presence for long, and that Darren was in danger from the mountain if he stayed.”
“From the mountain?” Kerri echoed, frown deepening, but Jim waved away her concern.
“I heard it all from the people on the res. Bunch of ghost stories and legends about monsters. Not even they took it too seriously.”
Slowly, Kerri nodded. “Right… Well, at least now we know now what scared off the other two. Or, who, rather.”
Lifting his brows in agreement, Jim twisted to face his screen. “Still want to wait on the trail cam upload?”
“No need,” she answered. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry right now. Trail cam footage can wait till the cutting room.” Then she took a deep breath, rubbing both hands over her face. “Ugh, why do things have to be so complicated?”
“Because it’s a full moon tonight?” Jim replied with a short laugh.
Kerri gave him a humorless grunt in return. “Nice try. Full moon was last night.”
Chapter 5: Four Weeks In
“Alright, place your bets!”
The call for wagers rang out over the viewing room and Kerri snorted, stomping the snow from her boots as she let the back door swing closed behind her. First medical field check was going out today, and anyone who dipped below the allotted weight loss percentage would be sent packing. Kerri privately hoped it would be Darren, but thought it would be unprofessional of her to start placing bets in front of the staff.
Two more had dropped out since the first ones had been scared off by the shaman, leaving Holly Helms, homesteader, Todd Sawyer, extreme backpacker, and of course… Darren.
Bumping open the door to the office with a hip, Kerri maneuvered her way in and set the full drink holder on the desk. Jim took an automatic inhale through his nose.
“Mmmm, I love Fridays.”
“Fridays are fat days,” Kerri agreed, plopping the last box of donut holes on the desk between them before taking a seat. “MedBoat made it there yet?”
“No,” Jim replied as he wrestled with the flaps on the grease-stained box. “Scheduled to arrive any minute though. Any wagers?”
Kerri gave him the type of loaded look she usually reserved for her siblings before leaning forward and popping open the top of the donut box.
Jim snorted in response. “That bad?”
“The man was ankle-deep in snow and worried he was going to dehydrate because the lake was starting to freeze. I mean… I’ve known some flakes in my time, but really?”
Jim popped a bite of deep-fried dough into his mouth and grinned. “Well, you might just get your wish. Your Darren hasn’t caught a fish or bagged a rabbit in nearly two weeks. Bet those baneberries are looking pretty good right now.”
“Please,” she begged, “don’t call him ‘my’ Darren.”
Jim laughed, clearly at her expense, but then a flash of his eyes toward his screen told her MedBoat had just come online. They were approaching the first contestant.
“Holly,” he answered. “But she’s been doing fine. She’s really got the small game trails mapped.”
“Not surprising. She’s pretty much been doing this her whole life. Give it a bit longer and the bighorns will be in her area — she’ll have this thing in the bag.”
“I don’t know…” Jim hedged, a challenging lilt to his voice. “Todd’s been doing pretty well.”
Kerri leaned forward and plucked one of the donut holes from the box. “A wager then?” Then she popped it into her mouth.
Jim gave her a sidelong glance. “You’re on.”
* * *
Holly did well, Kerri was pleased to watch, not only maintaining sufficient body mass to continue the show, but also displaying her stocks of smoked fish and rabbit meat for the competition ahead. Without hesitation, Doctor Gillis, the physician contracted with MedBoat, determined her fit to continue. Todd, while not nearly as well provisioned as Holly, still managed to maintain sufficient vitals and body weight to continue.
…And then there was Darren…
Kerri reached for another donut hole and popped it eagerly into her mouth.
Jim flicked his eyes toward her. “Never seen you so keen to see someone fail before.”
“Not to see him fail,” she allowed. “To catch him in a lie.”
Jim stared at her a moment longer, then took a breath. “You heard back from Boy Scouts of America…”
“Sure did,” she answered. “Wanna know what they said?”
“ — No, I most certainly don’t,” he answered without question, then turned back to the screen. “Here — here he is.”
MedBoat was pulling up to the small lakeside beach by Darren’s camp, chunks of broken ice parting across its bow. Darren stood waiting on the shoreline, arm upraised in greeting. Four weeks’ worth of growth shielded his face beneath his hat and scarf, and he quickly tucked his hand back into the shelter of his armpit as the boat scuffed up onto the shore.
“Moment of truth,” Kerri murmured as Dr. Gillis stepped out of the boat and began speaking with him.
Moments passed as Darren had his temperature and blood pressure taken, heart and lungs auscultated, vision and reflexes checked, and then finally, they had him strip down to his pants and socks to step up on the scale.
Kerri hesitated in the motion of bringing her coffee to her lips. Good God, I can count his ribs from here, she thought. She caught the motion of Jim stealing a glance at her face, but she couldn’t look away.
Darren’s pants hung loose around protruding hip bones, and the apexes of shoulders were sharp and startling. What she had first thought were just deep shadows caught between his beard and hat now became evident as heavy dark circles beneath his eyes.
“No way he’s staying,” Jim answered, his voice coming out in the same disturbed whisper as Kerri’s
The sound of clicking keys reached them as Darren’s data was entered into the system and then the doctor looked up.
“Darren, you are dangerously close to reaching critical body fat loss. You’re almost to the point where we need to consider damage to you heart and vital organs.”
“Almost,” Darren answered quickly. “But not there, right. I’m still in?”
Dr. Gillis took a deep breath but gave a noncommittal nod. “It would make me feel better if you chose to bow out and come with us for some nutritional rehab, but, yes — officially, you are still in.”
Kerri let out a loud groan and let her head sink to her hands.
“Sorry, Ker,” Jim offered, taking one last donut hole. “Better luck next time.”
“He’s determined to kill himself out there one way or another,” she complained, tipping her head partially up to peer between her fingers. “I want the next MedBoat sent out in one week. If we’re lucky, we can fit another one in before the lake freezes solid and we have to switch to choppering the whole way.”
Jim nodded, not even bothering to complain about the added cost. “Think he’ll last that long?”
“I have a feeling this one would starve to death before bugging out. One week is enough to tip him over the edge without doing him any long-term harm.” Rapping her knuckles against the desk a few times in thought, she finally rose to move to her own station. “I’ll compile Dr. Gillis’s notes. You good?”
“Good,” he answered, toasting her with his cup of coffee. “Thanks.”
* * *
“What do you mean, we’ve lost Darren?” Kerri blurted in response to Jim’s pseudo-greeting as she entered the warehouse the next morning.
“Not him,” Jim allowed, “just his feed.”
Kerri dropped her bag by the door and rushed over to Darren’s monitoring station, his two viewers and Jim working in unison to fix whatever interruption had cut visual to Darren’s cameras.
“How? Everything was fine during field check yesterday. What happened?”
One of Darren’s viewers, Amanda, turned to her, hands on her hips. “We don’t know. He was monologuing to his head cam around 3am, talking about something walking around his camp. He thought it might be an elk so he bundled up and headed out of his shelter to look around — ”
“ — He what?” she interrupted, staring dumbfounded at the young woman, who shrugged with a ‘don’t-blame-the-messenger’ face. Kerri took a quick breath. “Well, what did you see?”
Amanda’s immediate eye roll turned into a worried frown. “He didn’t take his head cam with him. Or the Squawk. Crow’s Nest didn’t pick up anything in the immediate camp, but we saw Darren leave his shelter and move off into the woods with his flashlight. About fifteen minutes later, his feed died.”
“And we haven’t been able to get it back up,” Jim confirmed with finality. Then he leaned back with a sigh. “It’s his on-site data link, it’s got to be. That’s the only way we’d lose Crow’s Nest, head cam, trail, and Squawk all at once.”
Kerri grimaced. “In other words, it’s nothing we can fix remotely, and he’s been without adult supervision for…” she looked down at her watch, “…four hours?”
“Near enough. I just called Dr. Gillis. I’m sending him and tech up there just as soon as Doc can make it in.”
“I’m going too,” Kerri said, striding back over to her bag and sending a quick text to her roommate.
Jim cocked an eyebrow at her. “I don’t think jeans and a Patagonia jacket are going to cut it at the higher elevations.
“We live in Montana, Jim. I keep a parka in my truck in July. I’m ready to go as soon as the doctor gets here.”
Shaking his head in surrender, Jim turned back to the monitor station. “Your call.”
Kerri pressed her lips tight. Yes, it was. And she had a thing or two she wanted to say to Darren about walking out into the forest at night.
Thorn in my side…
Chapter 6: The Well-Check
Kerri ducked beneath the swirling chopper blades as she, Dr. Gillis, and Josh from tech, scurried toward the boat waiting for them on the pebbled shore, motor purring and ready, one of the Bugout crew at the helm.
Bugout station, a temporary shelter housing the crew’s emergency medical supplies, tech, and other necessities needed for maintaining the competition, had been erected in the only chopper-friendly clearing available on this precipitous ridge. Darren’s camp was about a mile away, on the other side of the large mountain lake.
Kerri turned her face away from the biting wind as the boat jetted across the surface, its passage disturbing the placid blue waters and silence of the surrounding peaks. Her eyes roamed the sheer cliffs and jagged outcroppings edging the mist-shrouded shore, and she wondered, not for the first time, how a tribe could have ended up all the way out here, in such an inhospitable and inaccessible place. It simply didn’t fit the characteristics or practices of the tribes she had studied in this region.
A few minutes later, the boat skidded up to Darren’s camp. Kerri recognized the ramshackle teepee-style shelter and oversized firepit from regular viewing of his Crow’s Nest cam, but Darren was nowhere in sight.
Kerri’s stomach gave an uncomfortable twist. Surely he’d heard the boat coming. The chopper, too, for that matter. Yesterday he’d met MedBoat with time to spare.
“Josh, you know where the tower is?”
Josh nodded, gesturing off toward the east end of the camp. “Yeah, I’m good. You guys go ahead.”
Jerking her head toward Dr. Gillis, Kerri motioned for him to follow.
She had watched the Crow’s Nest footage of Darren leaving camp, and she hurried over in the direction he’d left early that morning before dawn. Reaching the edge of the clearing, she paused, looking down. She searched the area until Darren’s trail popped out of the surrounding landscape. A turned stone here, a scuffed patch of moss there, finally, a partial boot print in some soft earth had her squatting down to investigate.
“Darren!” she called out, lifting her head from the tracks and scanning the surrounding trees.
“Of course…” she muttered, reaching in her pocket and slipping the spare head cam over her brow. “Josh did say our mobile data link will get me to Jim, right?”
Dr. Gillis, standing a few feet back from where she was crouched, nodded, eyes scanning the woods as well. “Yes… Provided we stay within a ten-mile radius of the equipment, rather.”
“If he’s wandered more than ten miles from camp he won’t have to worry about making it to the finale.” Slipping the earpiece over the rim of her right ear, she clicked it on, then the camera. “Alright… Moment of truth.”
Nothing happened for a moment, then a series of beeps became audible. A click of feedback, then, “Ker? You there?”
Kerri breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m here. Eyes and ears?”
“Both,” Jim’s voice confirmed after a short delay. “You’re live.”
“Alright, we’re live,” she announced for the doctor’s sake. “Let’s see what Darren’s gone and gotten himself into.”
She followed his trail out into the snow-dusted vegetation. New flurries had fallen the previous evening, replacing the melt from the heavier storm that had come a couple of weeks ago. Her boots made a familiar soft crunch with each step, the sound of the idling boat disappearing amidst the snow muffled branches of the densely wooded copse.
Kerri stilled, holding a cautionary hand up to Dr. Gillis trudging along in her wake.
“What do you hear, Ker?”
Orienting to the north, she again heard the distinctive sound of an axe falling. “Sounds like someone chopping wood. –Darren!” she called again.
No answer, just another heavy blow echoing through the trees.
Shaking her head, she oriented on the sound and pushed forward.
She finally caught a shadow of movement through the trees and hurried to push past the low growing conifers to the sight of Darren, shirtless amid the snow, wiry back glistening with a sheen of sweat as he swung his axe in an effortless arc, blade flashing down to cleave a fat log in two.
His body is starving and he’s wasting energy splitting logs? “Darren!” she called out, pushing her way into the small clearing. “What the hell? Didn’t you hear us calling?”
Jim’s voice crackled in her ear. “Well, uh… he seems fine.”
Hesitating, Kerri saw what he meant. Darren stood strong and upright, not the shrunken, shivering, cadaverous specimen they had witnessed just yesterday. Had it all been for show?
The axe head drifted down to Darren’s side, but he didn’t turn. He simply lifted his head and took a deep breath through his nose. “Did I win?”
Kerri hesitated. His voice sounded different than it normally did on camera; rough, gravelly, and much deeper than when she’d first met him via video chat from West Virginia.
“N-no…” Then she shook her head, collecting herself. “Your tech is screwing up. Didn’t you notice your connection was down?” She made a motion with her arm toward his hand-held, wedged in the fork of a tree, its network indicator flashing a bright red.
“Nope,” came his casual answer as he reached with one hand to place another large log on the chopping block.
Grinding her teeth, Kerri moved to step around in front of him, jumping back when he didn’t bother to abort his swing. Freaking asshat! “Your feed went down early this morning, right after you left your shelter to investigate night noises without your camera,” she fumed, stressing each word. “What were you thinking? You know the competition rules. Go nowhere unmonitored. What part of nowhere translated into nightscapades? You could have — ”
But she cut off as he turned to face her fully and she saw the long smear of blood traveling from cheek to chest.
“Holy…” Jim’s voice was a distant echo in her ear.
“Jesus, Darren… What happened?” She had to stop herself from reaching up and taking his chin in her hand, balking at the predatory look that flashed in his eyes when she moved closer.
“Nightscapades earned me a hare. Didn’t bother to cook it.”
Blinking, Kerri spared a glance back at Dr. Gillis, who was taking in Darren’s upright stature and improved vigor with open disbelief.
“That’s… That’s how you get parasites, Darren,” she ventured on, voice losing some of its bravado in the wake of his strange behavior. “You know better.”
He took a step toward her, much closer than she was comfortable with, his gaze locking on hers as his height eclipsed her. “Hunger will do funny things to a man.”
Kerri felt her breath catch at the look in his eyes, and she suddenly felt very much like a hare, herself.
“Kerri, I want you out of there. This guy’s not acting right.”
Kerri was already having that same thought, but when she moved to step away, Darren’s nostrils flared and he mirrored her motion.
Suddenly, Dr. Gillis was at her side, clapping Darren sharply on the wiry meat of his shoulder. “Congratulations on your catch, son. That hare might be the difference in you winning this thing.”
Darren seemed to blink himself out of some sort of fog as he looked down at the doctor. “Winning…”
“And it looks as if Josh has got your tower up and running again,” Doc went on, tipping his head toward Darren’s camera, now glowing a bright, steady green.
Darren turned to follow his gaze, and when he turned away, Dr. Gillis took a sideways step, placing himself firmly between her and Darren. Kerri took advantage of the opportunity and backed up a pace while Darren was occupied.
“Now,” Doc went on, voice low and calm. “Do you think you need to accompany us to the boat for a vitals check, or do you feel fit to continue as is?”
“I’m fit,” came Darren’s immediate answer.
“Yes, that certainly seems the case. Alrighty! Well, we’ll leave you to your task then. Only two others remain, you know. You’re well on your way to winning this.”
Kerri cast the doctor an incredulous glance. He shouldn’t be telling a contestant that. But when Dr. Gillis’s hand came up behind his back and began waving her away, she suddenly took his meaning.
“Now, why don’t you take a moment to tell your viewers there was a break in your recording. We’ll get out of here so it doesn’t look like you’ve had any interference in your stay.”
Without looking back, Darren moved off to the camera resting in the trees.
Slowly, but with an increasing need to run, Kerri backed out of the small clearing, Dr. Gillis holding his position blocking Darren’s line of sight with her.
Once safely in the shelter of the trees, Kerri turned and began marching swiftly back in the direction of the boat. “What was going on back there, Doc?” she asked, her anxiety causing her voice to quaver a bit.
The doctor didn’t immediately reply, just shuffled through the snow with a rapid step, keeping easy pace with her now where he’d had trouble matching her stride on the way in.
Finally, he asked, “Did you happen to do background checks on your contestants before putting them out here?”
Kerri shot him a glance, relaxing a bit when the sound of axe fall rose behind them. “No, why?”
Dr. Gillis shook his head. “Isolation can do strange things to the human psyche — delusions, mental impairment, thoughts of hopelessness… That, coupled with starvation and the knowledge that he had likely failed in his ambition doubtless put Darren in a pretty dark place last night. But, a blast of protein and red meat flowing in his veins, the thrill of a successful hunt — that will also do strange things to the mind.”
Dr. Gillis gave an uncomfortable little shrug. “I’ve seen that look in some men before — bad men, psych cases — but psych is all about chemical imbalance. Darren is not only dealing with nearly thirty days of extreme isolation, but his body is burning its own fat and possibly muscle for energy. That’s going to cause all sorts of mess with the neurotransmitters floating through his brain — destabilizing his mood, impairing his thinking. Now, toss a fat rabbit into that mix and I’ll bet Darren is feeling downright primitive. His body is burning through that hare like yours would a cup of sugared espresso. His mood is lifted, his energy is spiking — likely experiencing a spike in libido…” he added, casting a meaningful look in her direction.
But Kerri ignored Jim’s whispered remark, giving the doctor a horrified look.
“All I’m saying is, we didn’t need to be hanging around in that clearing with him any longer. As I’ve said, I’ve seen that look before. And you, my dear, were prey.”
Chapter 7: The Blind Spot
Kerri examined the battered piece of electronics in her hands, mind drifting between her present conundrum and her morning spent up on site. Josh hadn’t been able to repair the downed data link in Darren’s camp, choosing to simply replace it instead, and upon examination, Kerri had no questions as to why.
The entire section responsible for maintaining Darren’s remote network had been battered beyond repair. Josh had hypothesized damage from a falling limb, but he hadn’t been able to produce any physical evidence of such an occurrence, and Kerri hadn’t been keen on sticking around to investigate further.
For her own part, Kerri thought the damage looked more biologic in nature — antler rubbing or similar, judging by the long grooves covering the equipment — but the tower was situated in a rare blind spot created by Darren’s shelter and the edge of the woods, so there was no way to be sure.
Tossing the mangled remnants to the corner of her desk, she sighed. Josh had said he’d likely be able to retrieve the data, but she wasn’t optimistic. Darren had left his head cam behind, anyway. The most they’d get from digging out the footage would be the trail cams surrounding his base camp.
Thinking back to her disturbing encounter in the clearing, she fiddled with her mouse until Darren’s feed came up. He was sleeping.
Maybe his body finally burned through that bunny rush, she thought darkly.
But the more her mind drifted back to his disquieting behavior; the frightening way his eyes had fixed on her, the way he’d made her want to tuck tail and run into the trees, the more she wanted to climb back up that mountain and kick him in the balls. But of course, there was no hint of that predatory edge now, hat pulled down over his eyes, body bundled against the cold as he slept.
Kerri clicked the screen over to Crow’s Nest. She’d have the team adjust the perspective next field check. Though, if she were lucky, Darren would simply weigh out and be sent home. That would not only solve the problem of the camera angle, but also get him back on the other side of the country, away from her. And after this morning, she couldn’t be rid of the man quick enough.
Thumping her elbows down on the desk, she ran her fingers back through her short, hat-tousled hair.
“You gonna make it over there?”
Kerri would have been annoyed, but Jim had been very attentive since she’d arrived back down from the mountain, having witnessed the entire incident first-hand through her head cam. He knew she was shaken — and she hated it.
“I’m fine,” she grumbled, not lifting her head out of her hands.
Jim’s chair creaked as he leaned away from his desk and spun toward her. “Really, Ker, why don’t you just go home? Call it a night. Go home, fix yourself a drink, and try to get some sleep.”
Rotating her head until she could see him from beneath the cover of her scrunched fingers, she finally puffed out her breath. “Fine. But call me if anything else happens. I don’t want to be taken by surprise in the morning again.”
“I promise. Just please, go.”
Snorting softly, she rose to leave.
* * *
The sound of her phone buzzing jolted her awake. Blinking in the dark, Kerri flopped out a hand until she felt the vibration beneath her fingers. Sweeping it up to squint at the name on the screen, she flicked open the call.
“This is Kerri,” she rasped, sleep making her voice thick and groggy.
“Hi, um, this is Jackson. I’m on Darren’s night shift. Mr. Harper left instructions for us to tell you if anything came up, so… yeah… Darren’s missing.”
“He’s what?” Kerri answered, voice stronger as a buzz of adrenaline dove through her middle.
“Not, like, missing, missing,” Jackson hurried to amend. “It’s just, he left his shelter a while back without his infrared and he hasn’t come back.”
Kerri took a minute to gather her scattered thoughts. Looking down at the time on her phone, she saw it was barely 3am. “How long has he been off-screen?”
“About 45 minutes.”
Dammit. Damn you, Darren, and your freaking nightscapades. “How did he seem when he left?” she asked rubbing a hand over her brow in agitation.
“Fine, I suppose. Just got up and walked out. Didn’t mention hearing anything or say where he was going. Just got up and left.”
Kerri took a deep breath, remembering what he had said the morning prior. My nightscapades earned me a hare. “He’s probably trying to get lucky hunting again,” she reasoned, forcing down a wave of irritation before she took her anger out on poor Jackson. “Look, we can’t send Bugout until daylight. Keep an eye out for him and just send me a text when he comes back. My bet is he’s just fine. If he’s not back by sunup, send the boat.”
* * *
Jim showed up around quarter-to-eight, a rush of cold air announcing his arrival into the viewing room. Hurrying to close the door behind him, he shook off his coat and hung it on the long rack against the wall.
“Find him?” he called as Kerri motioned to him from Darren’s monitor station. She had texted him just as soon as she’d hung up with Jackson.
“Yes,” she answered, then continued under her breath, “More’s the pity…” A soft snort from one of the viewers made her reevaluate her subtlety and she straightened. “He showed up about an hour before dawn. No explanation, no monologue, just waltzed back into camp and went to sleep.”
Jim frowned. “Well, that’s good then, right, why do you look so upset?”
“I’m upset because I have no idea where he went. He slipped out of his shelter and into the woods without once being seen on Crow’s Nest. It’s that damned blind spot. We’ve got to fix it. I watched him get up and leave, Jim. There was no intent, no hurry… For all I know, he could have been sleepwalking. I’ve got to have full eyes on his camp, and his Crow’s Nest cam needs to be replaced with an infrared.”
Jim nodded, staring at the replayed image of Darren ducking back into his shelter and crawling in bed. “I’ll send the team up with field check in a few days — which reminds me, supply is ready for the tribe, it’ll be going up then, too.”
Kerri felt a lightening of the heavy feeling she’d been carrying around since yesterday. “Good. I’ll feel better knowing that’s taken care of.” One less thing to worry about.
Chapter 8: The Footage
“Alright! Chopper’s back! One hour till supply sendoff!” Jim called out over the room of chattering viewers. “We’ve got field check in five so make sure you have the remote network linked on your stations.” Murmurs of assent echoed back from around the warehouse, and Jim nodded over at Kerri from the doorway to the office “Your camera team all check in?”
She nodded, pressing send on a final text to the chopper pilot. “All ready to ride out with Dr. Gillis. I’ll monitor the view from here.”
Jim lifted an eyebrow at her but nodded. She didn’t respond to the look but could tell what he was thinking. Normally, she’d be up there making the adjustments herself, making sure it was done right the first time. But when it had come time to assemble the team that would go back up the mountain, Kerri just hadn’t been able to bring herself to willingly reenter Darren’s camp. And she had made a point to assemble an all-male team.
She could see an awkward question brewing on Jim’s face, but she was saved from unwelcome interrogation when, Josh, from tech, came skidding into view past the large window, hair windblown and color high in his cheeks. Kerri lifted her brows as he drew up short, missing colliding with Jim by inches.
Nodding quickly in apology, he shot an eager glance over at Kerri and then shuffled into the office. “I’ve got your footage,” he announced, sounding breathless and excited.
Shaking his head, Jim lifted his chin in Kerri’s direction. “You good?”
She waved him away. “I’ll let you know when they get there.”
Nodding, he turned and made his way out into the viewing room, door swinging closed behind him.
Kerri turned her attention to Josh. “And?”
“You’re about to see something wild,” he nearly gushed.
Kerri blinked. She had never seen Josh so excited before. Wordlessly, she rolled away from her desk, motioning for him to take the helm. Biting his bottom lip between his teeth, he rushed into the empty space, jamming a flash drive into the port.
“We’re live at Darren in two minutes if you want to bring up remote,” came Jim’s voice through the speaker on her desk phone.
“Got it,” she answered, pushing off and rolling over to Jim’s desk. Pulling up Dr. Gillis’s feed, she took in a view of the lake rushing by, and the sound of an outboard motor filled the small room. She’d been waiting all week for this. Darren hadn’t caught a fish or snared any game in nearly eight days. No way was he making it through this weigh-in.
Josh’s mouse clicks were growing frenzied and Kerri pushed off to roll back over to her own desk. With a definitive smack of the mouse button, he leaned back.
Kerri blinked, shaking her head. “Josh, this is Holly’s camp.”
Josh nodded, not seeming put off in the slightest. “I know, just watch.”
Lifting her brows, she looked back to the screen, the infrared image of a lynx crossing in front of the trail cam, eyes glowing.
“Darren, you’re looking well.”
Kerri glanced over at the other monitor to see Dr. Gillis’s camera view approaching Darren with casual steps. He was bundled in all his winterwear again, eyes and bearded face just visible between his hat and thick scarf.
“Alright,” Josh announced, bringing her attention back around. “Now this one.”
Kerri watched as a wolf snuffled around the camera, its fur a dark negative of the colors it would normally be in the daylight, eyes reflecting the invisible spectrum of the trail cam in bright flashes.
“Heart sounds good… Strong pulse… Good. Go ahead and take a few deep breaths for me.”
She tried to steal another look over at Darren, but Josh made another loud click.
Holly’s face ghosted into view, her dark hair showing bright and pale in the night-vision view, features content, watching the woods as the blacks of her pupils winked a soft green in the light from her fire.
“Josh, I really don’t — ”
“Alright then, Darren. Why don’t you go ahead and unbundle and step up on the scale. We’ll do this part quickly so you can warm back up.”
“Now look at this.”
Kerri turned back, finally recognizing Darren’s camp in the pale green glow of trail cam footage. He was just walking back into the camp, eyes on the ground as he stepped through the trees. Something rustled in the brush beside the camera and Darren’s head whipped around — eyes gleaming an incandescent white.
“Oh my God,” Kerri breathed, then jerked away from the screen as Darren sprinted across the clearing toward the camera. Kerri heard the terrified squeal of a small animal followed by the squelching of flesh and popping of bone. All the hair on her body stood up on end and cold prickles raced across her cheeks as the blood drained from her face. “What the hell…”
“Well, ah… you’re certainly doing better than the last time we saw you, it seems. Um… Go ahead, step on up.”
Kerri spun at the confused note to Dr. Gillis’s voice. Darren stood a few feet away from him, muscles lean and full across his chest and abdomen, shoulders back, spine erect. Scrambling over to the other desk, Kerri fumbled to turn the volume up.
The doctor didn’t speak though. A silent moment passed as Dr. Gillis stared down at the digital reading at Darren’s feet, Kerri staring with him.
Not looking away from the screen, Kerri’s hand darted out and started searching drawers for Jim’s calculator. “Sixty-eight nine… two point two… Dammit! No… What was he last time?” Remembering, she punched in the kilograms and converted it out again. “Eight pounds…” A wave of ice clenched at Kerri’s gut.
“What?” Josh questioned, voice hesitant.
“Darren’s gained eight pounds since last weigh-in,” she breathed, her rational mind fighting against what her eyes were seeing. She stared at the video feed in front of her, Dr. Gillis still oriented on the scale, clearly confused at this change in trend from his previous visit.
Shoving herself away from the desk, she stood, pointing a trembling finger at Josh. “I want all the trail cam footage — everyone’s. Starting from when the first two contestants bugged out.” She brought her fingertips to her face, feeling them shake against her lips as her mind struggled to keep up with the raging incongruity of practical, grounded reasoning and… Darren. “I want the entire technical team reviewing them, immediately. I don’t care what Jim says about the cost.” Then, suddenly thinking of Jim, she jerked her eyes down at her watch. “Jim!” she called, dashing through the door of the office and racing toward the exit. “Tell the pilot to wait! I’m going up with the supplies!”
Jim’s head lifted from where he was bent over Darren’s monitor station. “Ker? Wha — what’s going on?”
Yanking her coat from the rack, she stuffed her arms through the sleeves, grappling for the zipper pull as Jim caught up with her.
“Kerri, what are you doing?”
“I don’t know what you’ve gotten us into on that mountain, but there is something going on here that isn’t natural.”
“Not natural? What — Ker, slow down. What are you talking about?”
“Darren,” she answered, numb fingers finally gripping the pull and zipping it tight. “The way he was acting toward me last week, the change in his health, change in behavior, roaming around at night… He’s gained eight pounds in a week, not catching any food. Josh caught an image of his eyes showing retroreflection on infrared. Human eyes can’t do that, Jim! It’s an anatomical impossibility!”
Jim was scrunching up his eyes and shaking his head as he tried to keep up with her rapid and admittedly outlandish statements. “Retro — Kerri, what on earth are you talking about? Human eyes?”
But she just stuffed her hat on her head and snatched up her bag. “Talk to Josh. I’ll pick up a remote line and data link at Bugout. I need to go talk to this tribe.”