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Authors: Aaron Elkins

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Unnatural Selection

BOOK: Unnatural Selection
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Unnatural Selection
Aaron Elkins
ONE
The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Montana August 28, 2002
For six days and nights she had roamed, feverish and disoriented, drinking little and eating next to nothing. A few fibrous tree mushrooms, some ants and cutworms she had slashed from rotting logs, a wilting patch of skunk cabbage, the already scavenged corpse of a baby elk she had stumbled across. But where were the berries she depended on, the sweet, juicy, nutrition-rich blackberries and huckleberries that would sustain her through her long winter sleep? Always before there had been berries. She would gorge on them for weeks on end through the long, warm, sunny fall afternoons. This year, what few there were were shriveled and hard.
And the trails and the markers, what had happened to them? Where were the trees whose bark she had clawed to mark her territory? Where were the worn, well-known paths she had trodden her whole life, back to the time when she and her brothers had wrestled and play-growled on them at their mother’s side? They had been there forever, and then one day she had awakened from a nap and everything had changed. Smells, sights, sounds, places-all new and frightening. Nothing was familiar. How could that be?
These were not thoughts and questions in her mind, for her mind could not form thoughts or questions, but in some dim recess of her brain she was aware that things were not as they were supposed to be, as they had always been. She knew too, if “knew” was the right word, that she was in pain, but she had forgotten the fall down the cliffside that had splintered her humerus and driven its jagged ends into her flesh, and she understood nothing of the fever and the raging infection that had spread through her bloodstream from it.
What she knew-all she knew-was: hunger; thirst; pain; confusion.
On the seventh morning, dazed and starving, following smells she had never encountered before, she limped heavily into a clearing and sensed at once the utter alienness of the place. In it were objects she had never seen, never imagined. She stood perfectly still, at the very edge of the forest wall, into the protection of which she could escape if she had to, her snout lifted, sniffing the alluring, alarming odors.
On the far side of the space, beyond the jumble of unfamiliar things in the center, an amazing creature appeared; the only being she had ever seen, other than her own kind, that could stand on its hind legs. The creature made tentative sounds.
“Oh, wow. Hey, you. Shoo.”
The bear too reared nervously onto her hind legs to see the strange thing better, to sniff better at its scent. Was this a threat, an enemy? Was it food? She threw back her head and loosed the fierce, long, huffing roar that was half-uncertainty, half-belligerence.
The smaller creature shrank back, made more sounds. “Oh, my God! Doug… Doug! Where’s the-”
It was food, the she-bear decided. She dropped onto her three uninjured legs and loped painfully, purposefully toward it.

 

The Missoula Messenger, August 31, 2002
CANADIAN COUPLE KILLED, PARTIALLY EATEN BY GRIZZLY
Bill Giles
The Associated Press

 

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, MT-In a horrific incident at Lost Horse Creek campground, on the Idaho-Montana border about forty miles southwest of Missoula, two campers were attacked and killed Wednesday morning by a marauding grizzly bear.
The dead are Douglas Edward Borba and his wife, Mary Walker Borba, both twenty-six-year-old graduate students in environmental sciences at McGill University in Montreal. In an ironic twist of fate, the Borbas were in the Wilderness as part of a preliminary study to assess the ecological impact of the recent restoration of grizzlies to the area. Accompanying them was the director of the study, J. Leonard Kazin, 50, an associate professor at the university, and two other students, Edward K. Jekyll and Elise Martineau. Mr. Kazin was unharmed, as were Mr. Jekyll and Ms. Martineau, who had both gone to Darby for supplies at the time of the incident.
The attack occurred shortly after dawn on August 28, said Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness spokesperson Dawn Grisi in a prepared statement. “The bear apparently attacked without provocation. To our knowledge, this is the first time that a grizzly bear has fatally attacked humans in the Wilderness.”
Kazin, sleeping in a separate tent, was awakened by the sounds of screams and scuffling and emerged to find Mr. Borba frantically punching at the bear, which was hunched over the prostrate form of his wife. Kazin saw the bear slap at Borba, sending him several feet through the air and apparently fracturing his skull and shoulder blade.
“I ran back into my tent and got the pepper spray,” said a distraught Kazin, clad in a borrowed ranger uniform, “but by then the bear was gnawing at Mary’s body and you could see that she was beyond help by then. I was able to drag Doug a few yards away, but I think he was already dead, too. There was just nothing I could do. I tried calling 911 but the damn cell phone wouldn’t work. I’m telling you, there was absolutely nothing I could do to help them. I feel terrible. But all I could do was grab my shoes and trek on out to the pickup and drive back up to Darby, to the West Fork Ranger Station, to tell them what happened. I was in my underwear. I still don’t have my own clothes.”
When rangers arrived at the scene they found both bodies partially eaten. They were able to track the radio-collared bear for a quarter of a mile, then shoot it.
“Doug and Mary were the cream of the crop of our grad students,” Kazin told this reporter. “Mary was on her way to becoming a topflight ecologist, following in her father’s footsteps, and Doug had already been offered a lecturer slot on the faculty for next year. It’s not only an awful personal tragedy, it’s a terrible loss to science.”
The incident is sure to inflame the ongoing controversy over the federal plan to gradually restore the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness’s grizzly bear population. An earlier proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Service was scrapped in 2001 in the face of opposition from the governors of Idaho and Montana, and from citizens’ groups citing danger to humans and domestic animals.
However, a modified version of the plan was reintroduced and partially implemented earlier this year, largely due to the campaign spearheaded by prominent wildlife advocate and author Edgar Villarreal (Wild No More: America’s Vanishing Wilderness Heritage), who twice appeared before committees of Congress in support of the program. The dead bear’s collar identifies it as one of the initial group of five taken from the North Cascades in Washington State and resettled in Selway-Bitterroot earlier this month.
“Grizzly bears, like other bears, generally avoid humans,” spokesperson Grisi said in a prepared statement. “Attacks on human beings are extremely rare. Since 1970, they have averaged only one a year in the entire United States, mostly to hunters, and mostly non-fatal. We are assuming that this particular animal may have been maddened with pain as the result of a recently broken and infected leg, and also may have been starving due to this year’s extremely dry local conditions, which have virtually destroyed the area’s berry crop. The National Park Service offers its sincere condolences to the families and will do everything possible to ensure that no such incident occurs in the future.”
Villarreal, contacted at his home in Alaska, said that the incident was “unfortunate” and declined further comment.
TWO
Penzance, Cornwall, England Three Years Later: June 10, 2005

 

You’d have to go a long way to find another town with the historical appeal of Penzance. Not that there’s much to see that’s over a couple of hundred years old, but most of what there is, is to be found in its charming and atmospheric old inns and pubs. Julie and Gideon Oliver, being eager students of history and keen trenchermen as well, had spent a large and enjoyable portion of their day immersed in historical-culinary research. Fish-and-chips lunch at the tiny, crooked Turk’s Head on Chapel Street (“the oldest building in Penzance, circa 1231”); pre-dinner pints at the Union Hotel up the block (“Here was news of Admiral Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar, and of his tragic death, first received in England”); and dinner down at the waterfront, at the salty old Dolphin Inn (“Where tobacco was smoked in England for the first time”).
They were in the Dolphin now, or rather outside it, at one of the wooden trestle tables in the front courtyard, overlooking the docks, where work-stained commercial fishing vessels bobbed side by side in the oily water, and rusting, mysterious machinery stood as if abandoned along the stone quay. Their meal of beef-and-mushroom pie had gone down well, and the after-dinner coffee was doing the same. Relaxed and full, getting sleepy in the slanting evening sunlight, Gideon was contentedly watching the ferry Scillonian III disgorge its load of tired foot passengers from the Isles of Scilly, forty miles off the coast. Tomorrow he and Julie would be taking the same ferry the other way, for a weeklong stay on St. Mary’s, the largest and most settled of the little-known archipelago.
Julie, in the meantime, was absently browsing in the International Herald Tribune, occasionally citing something that she thought might catch Gideon’s interest.
“Oh, look,” she said, “they found Edgar Villarreal.”
“Found him? He’s not dead after all?”
“No, he’s dead, all right,” she said, continuing to read. “I mean they finally found his remains. He-” She suddenly sat up straight. “Oh, my God, he was eaten by a grizzly bear! Can you believe that? Isn’t that bizarre?”
“Not much of a way to go.”
“No, I mean… a bear? Remember, when that couple was killed in Montana-”
“The Borbas.”
“And Edgar just… What did you say?”
“The Borbas. That was their name.”
“Amazing.” She lowered the paper. “Now why would you remember something like that? It was three years ago.”
“It’s a gift, I suppose. An infallible memory. Comes in handy in my line of work.”
“Yes, well, I wish your gift would kick in once in a while when I ask you stop for milk or veggies on your way home.”
“Well, you know, it comes and goes,” he said, smiling. “What were you saying about Villarreal?”
“Well, when those people, the Borbas, were killed, people pretty much blamed him for bringing the grizzlies back-didn’t one of the families sue him?-and he just shrugged it off.” She mimed a mock yawn. “ C’est la vie, one of those things.”
“I remember, yes. It did seem a little cold-blooded.”
“A little! Brr. And now the same thing’s happened to him. It’s almost like… fate. Just desserts.”
“I see what you mean. And some people say there’s no such thing as poetic justice.”
“But it’s not only that, it’s just that fatal grizzly bear attacks are practically nonexistent these days. They just don’t happen anymore.”
Gideon nodded. Julie was a supervising park ranger at Olympic National Park, back home in Port Angeles, Washington, and she knew whereof she spoke. “I may be wrong,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure the last people killed by grizzlies in North America-outside of Alaska, anyway-were those same two people in Bitterroot. And maybe a couple of deaths in Alaska since then, no more. And now Edgar. It’s-I don’t know, it’s almost too much of a coincidence.”
“That is weird, all right,” Gideon agreed. “How do they know that’s what happened to him?”
“Well, there isn’t much here…” She folded the paper back and read aloud:“‘The remains of the American author and activist, who had not been seen since failing to return from his remote bear-research base camp ninety miles east of Anchorage in August 2003, were discovered in a bear den less than a mile from the camp. They were identified as human by Dr. Leslie Roach, consulting police surgeon for the Alaska State Police post at Talkeetna, who determined that the fragments were approximately two to three years old and had been through the digestive system of a bear.’” She shuddered. “Can you really tell that from the bones?”
“Oh, yes,” Gideon said, “if you know what you’re doing.”
She continued reading. “‘There is little doubt that they are the remains of Mr. Villarreal,” said state police sergeant Monte Franks. “There’s no one else it could conceivably be.’”
“Hm,” Gideon said.
BOOK: Unnatural Selection
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