Veronica was having trouble closing the trunk of her patrol car.
She’d already radioed back to headquarters about her location and that she had reason to believe they’d narrowed down the search area for Julie. Due to the worsening conditions he could only send a few uniforms to help. However, he himself was bringing over a dozen volunteers that Jenkins had rounded up, to aid in the search.
But it would be a while before they got here, she’d popped open the rear of her patrol car to retrieve some blankets, bolt cutters, a first aid kit, roadside flares, and a couple of flashlights. Unfortunately, her arms were now rather full.
Luckily, the professor emerged from the trailer and quickly came to her aid. “Here, let me take a few of those things from you Sergeant…?”
“Ross, Veronica Ross,” she smiled gratefully at him as he took the bolt cutters and flashlights. She noted he’d grabbed some extra jackets along with two sacks that contained small narrow rods that looked like magic markers. “We’re not going to be able to see any markings you make on the trees once it gets darker.” she remarked.
“True, but glow stick placed every so many yards in a tree will remain lit for hours in this cold,” he smiled. Since there are four of us, I grabbed red, blue, yellow and green. This way we’ll know who went in which direction and follow them back if the storm gets too fierce.”
She smiled, gathering up the bolt cutters and flares from the ground where she’d placed them. “Very smart, no wonder you’re a professor.”
“I got the idea from Greek mythology,” he told her. “Consider it an updated version of Theseus’ twine when he entered the labyrinth of the Minotaur.”
“You have a point there,” she replied staring out at the forest in the distance. Suddenly their task seemed even more daunting than before. “We are about to enter one helluva big maze, only there aren’t any walls, just lots and lots of open space that goes on for miles. Poor Julie could be anywhere.”
* * * * *
“Aren’t you cold?” asked the little girl.
“No, Riff here keeps me warm,” said the boy, gesturing at the huge dog next to him. It was the biggest German Shepherd Julie had ever seen.
The boy’s name was Michael and he was about two years older than her.
He’d spotted her wandering around in the woods and had called out, urging her to come join him in the cave before the creature came back. She’d been too upset to watch where she was going that she’d quickly found herself quite lost. At first she tried following her own footsteps back to Uncle Jason’s place, but the wind had blown some of the looser snow across her path, thoroughly erasing it.
Then she’d tried to use some of the other techniques to get her bearings, as both her father and uncle had taught her, but the sun had hidden behind the clouds and there was no moss on the trees to help her find north.
Plus she was getting colder and more frightened. She hadn’t taken notice of any landmarks and every direction started to look like all the others.
So when Michael started calling out to her from his hiding place, she’d quickly joined him. But now she was having her doubts. The place smelled and there was nothing to eat. ‘Not that I really needed to eat, at least that’s what everyone else keeps saying to me,’ she thought miserably.
She knew she wasn’t skinny, but she’d liked being this way. Her two older brothers were so much bigger than her, were always roughhousing together and she loved to join in. They used to tell her she was too little so she started to eat more to get bigger so she could handle getting bounced around by them.
But then everyone started picking on her and that hurt. Even her own cousins had begun teasing her, but Uncle Jason had made them stop.
Not that it mattered anymore. Her brothers were gone, along with her mother and father. She was all alone in the world, except for her Uncle Jason and his family. They were still around and would probably take her in. But…
Somewhere behind her, the big German Shepherd growled making the hair on her neck stand up.
Turning to Michael, she saw his shadowy profile staring intently at the opening of the cave.
“What’s wrong…” she began but he held up a hand and shushed her.
“Don’t make a sound, if it hears us, it’ll come in and get us.”
Obediently Julie closed her mouth and waited, staring at the opening in the distance. For several minutes she saw nothing, just the growing dark. But then a huge head came into view. At first she thought it might be a bear or something, and that they might actually be inside its lair.
But no, the shape of the massive head was all wrong, as was the color of the long thick hair that seemed to completely cover the thing’s eyes as well as the rest of its strange massive form.
* * * * *
“There!” Veronica smiled, as she cut the last of the barbed wire using the bolt cutters from her patrol car.
Professor Hofstadter had already passed out the glow sticks and instructions on how to use them to the other two, along with the spare radios. They were all set to move out, but there was one more thing she needed to do.
Pulling out two roadside flares from her pocket, she lit each one up and placed them on either side of the newly-made opening in the fence.
“What are those for?” asked Nathaniel, breaking his silence.
Neither he nor Jason had said very much since she and the professor had rejoined them. She suspected something had passed between the two men, but neither was being very forthcoming about what it was. Still, they actually seemed more comfortable around one another than they had a few minutes before, so she let it go for now.
“This way the other’s will know this is the entrance and can follow our tracks into the woods when they get here,” she explained and looked out at the expanse of white that led up to the edge of the forest. Even with all their preparations, the task before them was daunting. How would they ever find Julie amidst all those trees?
Looking up she noticed the light was starting to fade.
“It’s starting to get darker, we’d best move out,” Jason announced and led the way into the field, then he paused. “I know we originally planned to spread out, but I think we should remain in pairs.”
“Why?” she asked, surprised about this sudden change of plan.
“The storm,” he answered raising his face to the sky, “It’s going to get worse, it wouldn’t do for any of us to become lost while we search for Julie.”
Veronica wasn’t sure how to feel about this. Yet, if Jason himself thought they should stay in twos then so be it. They had more searchers coming to assist them, plus it might be more reassuring to little Julie to see a familiar face instead of two strangers showing up.
“All right,” she agreed.
“Good,” Jason nodded and turned to Professor Hofstadter. “I would be grateful for your company, my friend.”
Veronica noted the look that passed between the bearded older man and Nathan, who nodded ever so slightly back at him.
Finally, the professor turned back to Jason and smiled, “It would be my pleasure.”
“Thank you,” Jason beamed as the two of them began making their way across the snow. Within moments they seemed to get involved in a deep discussion, complete with gestures and even the occasional laugh.
With a curious look on her face she turned to Nathan and asked, “Okay, I saw the look he gave you. What was up with that?”
“Are you implying that I arranged for the two of us to be paired up together, just because you’re a beautiful woman and I have a weakness for red-heads?” he asked innocently.
Her eyes narrowed dangerously, “Did you?”
“No,” he told her bluntly and began heading out into the field.
Frowning she followed. “Then what was that look all about?”
“Otto and I came here because we heard of a legendary creature that only appears in this area in the wintertime,” her companion replied, keeping to her right. “It’s part of what we do. We investigate sightings of unknown animals to see if there’s any truth behind the story.”
“So you were hoping to find Bigfoot or the Abominable Snow Man?”
“Something like that,” her companion replied without looking at her as he kept moving.
They were almost at the edge of the woods.
It was amazing how fast and sure-footed her companion moved. He didn’t seem to be the least bit tired either. She had been finding the snow a bit difficult to move through.
“Did you ever serve in the military?” she asked after a moment of thought.
Here her companion paused and nodded. “Yes, I did.”
“Is that why you were so willing to help find a little girl you’ve never met?”
For a moment Nathan didn’t say anything. He just stood there staring into the woods before shaking his head. “Not exactly,” he replied, taking her by surprise. “You mentioned the girl was nine years old when we first met, correct?”
“Yes,” she nodded.
“That was how old my little sister was when she passed away.”
“I’m so sorry,” she told him, feeling a little bit guilty. But she quickly squelched the feeling. He could be playing on her affections, yet she doubted it.
“It happened in December, during my second year of serving in the army,” he continued and looked around. “I’d joined in order to protect others but I couldn’t even save my own flesh and blood. A part of me still feels like there should’ve been something I could’ve done to save her, but there wasn’t.”
“And now you found yourself with the chance to save another little girl,” she said quietly, finding both her resolve and suspicious nature crumbling inside.
“Yes, and I’m determined to make sure the outcome is different this time…” he began and then stopped. Turning his head he looked around.
“What is it?” she asked wondering what was going on.
Suddenly, his eyes narrowed and once more she saw those eyebrows narrow with such intensity it almost made her take a step back.
“Over there,” he snapped and took off running towards a section of woods off to their right.
“Hey! Where are you… oh fuck!” she muttered and broke out another flare. After lighting the signal device, she dropped it onto the snow and took off after him.
She’d lost sight of Nathan himself, but his footprints in the snow were easy to follow. She was noticed some dark little figures scurrying ahead of her. ‘Field mice,’ she thought. But what were they doing out at this time of night?
Then she spotted Nathan up ahead kneeling down near a tree which had a light dusting of snow near its base. She slowed her pace and took a closer look at the ground. There seemed to be a series of indentations in the snow that had been only slightly covered up by the new powder that was falling.
“Oh please, let these be hers,” she murmured and joined Nathan who was staring at one small perfectly untouched footprint.
“I’d say it’s safe to say they are,” Nathan smiled turning to her. “Jason told me what kind of boots Julie was wearing and that they had a diamond-shaped pattern on the soles.”
“And there they are,” she breathed and hugged him, forgetting herself for a moment.
Looking ahead, she saw there were more but then the trees began to think and so did the remaining footprints. But at least they knew for sure that Julie had come this way.
Grabbing her shoulder radio she was about to call in to the others when a low booming howl rumbled through the darkness. It seemed to surround them as it echoed and bounced off the trees and hills.
TO BE CONTINUED…