Rare Specimen

It wasn't how the man clawed at empty air, or how he barrel-rolled once, taking in a final 360-degree view of earth and sky. The memory Johanna held onto was of the man's face, painted black as a new moon.

Spring melt on Mars, courtesy of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA

It wasn’t how the man clawed at empty air, or how he barrel-rolled once, taking in a final 360-degree view of earth and sky. The memory Johanna held onto was of the man’s face, painted black as a new moon.

“Where’d he fall from?” the officer asked. He stepped perilously close to her samples.

“There,” she said, pointing to a cliff that reared above the canyon. “He was so helpless.”

The officer–his skin too smooth for the grey in his sideburns, shrugged off the horror Johanna described. He scribbled in his little black book. “And did you hear anything?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

“No, he didn’t cry out. Or maybe he did. All I remember was the sound of the river.”

The officer flipped a page. “What about when he hit the water?”

“No, nothing. Should I move my campsite?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary.” The officer’s heel touched one of her plastic trays. He looked down and saw the scute, a plate of armour from a giant sturgeon’s back, like some exotic seashell shaped like a stealth fighter and measuring eighteen inches across. An impenetrable expression scurried across his features. “What are you studying out here, anyway?” he asked.

“The River Leviathan. You know Long John Silver, the sixty-foot monster in the curiosity shop down in Morristown?” The officer nodded. “It’s no hoax.”

Most non-specialists laughed when she told them about her research. The officer’s eyes brightened with a light she wouldn’t call mirth. “So you’re a fish scientist?” he asked.

“Freshwater biologist. My work’s gotten some notice in the Chondrostean community. I’ve made some promising finds. These scutes, and other clues. I’m still hoping to catch a glimpse of a living specimen.”

The officer didn’t say anything, but neither did he return his attention to his notebook. Eventually she had to look away from that shining, almost fervent gaze. “Is something wrong, officer?”

“Maybe I do have a few more questions, after all,” the officer said. “Do you think you could locate the point from which the deceased fell?”

“I’m not sure.”

The officer placed his hand on her elbow and began to direct her to his SUV. “Maybe you could try.”

“Are you taking me in for questioning?”

He smiled but did not look at her. “Nothing of the sort. You’ll be riding up front with me.”

She climbed into the passenger seat. The interior was pungent with the officer’s distinctive scent, as if someone had spilled a bottle of nicotine essence and store shelf cologne on the floor. She nudged a coffee cup with her foot. On the mobile police computer, a bikini-clad woman smiled back from the wallpaper, standing thigh-deep in blue water and holding aloft a fishing trident.

The officer settled into his seat. “I’m not supposed to take this off,” he said, placing his gun on the laptop’s keyboard, “but I find it digs when I’m driving.”

“Where are we going?” Johanna asked.

“A scientist, huh?” he said. “Maybe if I’d had the brains and ambition I would’ve done something like that. Or maybe not. I wouldn’t have wanted to go off to college. Not many people move away from these parts. You know how it is.”

They followed the gravel road out of the canyon and back to blacktop. Johanna watched the officer’s hand on the stick as he shifted. His fingernails were caked with black grime. She looked out of the window as they rumbled over an old trestle bridge.

“Do you think he jumped or was pushed?”

“Pardon me?” she asked.

“You’re the only witness,” he said. “What do you think?”

“Pushed,” she said. They had crossed the canyon and now turned onto a pitted dirt track. “This road leads to where he fell?”

“You got it.”

“Are we meeting your colleagues there?”

He smiled as spruce boughs lashed the doors and roof. “No, my partner’s sick today.”

He seemed to know where he was going. Johanna chewed her lip, wishing she had never called the police.

They parked close to the canyon’s edge. Here a ten-foot gap in the conifers and ferns offered a vertiginous view. A lookout found on none of the tourist maps. He retrieved his gun and said, “Jump out.”

In the gap sat a wide boulder, flat as an altar. On its top rested a stone bowl.

“I was out here earlier,” the officer said. He dipped two fingers into the bowl. They came up glistening with a grainy, black muck. “What do you suppose this is?”

“It’s sapropel,” she said. “Decomposed organic matter from the bottom of Bear Lake.”

She whacked his head with a stone streaming mossy filaments.

“Jesus!” he cried as he collapsed onto the boulder. Johanna struck a second time to shush him. She unfastened his sidearm and tossed it over the cliff. She took a handful of sapropel and washed his face like a child playing in the snow. He was dazed, so he didn’t put up much fight when she maneuvered him to the edge. He came round, though, on the way down.

His eyes flared. Twin white craters on the face of a new moon.

The river swallowed him. Twenty seconds later, one of Long John’s children broke the surface.

The armoured ridge that ran the length of its colossal back was unlike anything she had ever seen. A barbed battlement on the crown of a drowning fortress. Even its massive dorsal fin broke the surface, sheeting water like the rig of a doomed sailboard.

A beautiful monster. Hers for a moment, and then gone.

She wiped away a tear, but still she held her breath.

Finally, the telltale buzz. She checked her phone. This time the trail cameras set up around her campsite had worked. She got her shot.

She started to walk back along the track, already composing her next research paper. The methods section would take some finessing.

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