Haggis, Rhino and Other Unexpected Wildlife
by Gareth D Jones
Gareth D Jones is unofficially the second most widely translated science fiction short story author in the world, having been published in 31 languages. He is a father of five, two of whom are also published authors. He lives in the UK where he writes stories and reviews, fuelled by copious amounts of tea.
Author Website: www.garethdjones.co.uk
More TTTV stories by Gareth D Jones: https://talltaletv.com/?s=gareth+d+jones
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Sandy had said. Admittedly he said that about most things he was planning. On a bright autumn afternoon at a Covent Garden café, sipping tea on the terrace, Yorick was won over by Sandy’s proposition and agreed to close up his taxidermy business temporarily and go with him. Now, lying in a snow-filled ditch in the wilds of Scotland, with a rather angry and very large woolly rhino less than twenty feet away, he was beginning to regret that decision.
Their arrival in Scotland had not been entirely auspicious. After more hours than was humane in the back of a Range Rover, Yorick and Sandy, along with his two hunting partners, Lucja and Arkady, arrived at a guest house somewhere north of Fort William in the late afternoon. Yorick climbed stiffly out of the back seat and leaned against the door. Lucja emerged from the other side of the car and stalked away smoothly, scanning the darkening horizon for threats. She was only about five foot, but her brooding presence in the back seat had put him on edge for the past several hundred miles.
Sandy led the way to the front door, accompanied by Arkady. The house looked to be two or three hundred years old and was made of dark grey stone that gave it an air of gloom. The door was opened by a woman who introduced herself as Mrs McCready, a lady of stern demeanour, wide girth and no apparent first name.
“From England, are ye?” was her opening remark.
“That’s right, ma’am,” was Sandy’s reply. Arkady sniffed loudly. “Well, two of us are,” Sandy amended.
“You’d best come in.”
Yorick ducked under the wooden lintel and followed Mrs McCready down the dimly lit hallway and into a vast kitchen with red tiled floor and a butler’s sink large enough to bathe in.
A tall balding man sat at a long, wooden table.
“Gregor McCready,” he said, standing to shake hands.
Everyone introduced themselves.
“From England,” Mrs McCready added disparagingly.
“Wi’ a name like Yorick, ye cannae be too English,” Gregor smiled.
Yorick considered himself to be quite English indeed, but decided not to argue the point.
Gregor showed them to their rooms while his wife began clanking around with some tin cups and a tea pot. Yorick wondered whether she harboured a traditional dislike for the English, or whether she held the rather more recent view that the English were to blame for the rise in dangerous and exotic wildlife haunting the highlands. There seemed to be a general consensus of opinion among the public that this was in retaliation for the recent Scottish referendum result that meant Scotland would be breaking away from the United Kingdom and out from under the yolk of the English for the first time since a Scottish King had taken over the English throne more than four hundred years earlier.
They came down to drink tea and eat Dundee cake which Lucja looked at suspiciously, as though it might be something that needed to be studied and hunted down at some future point.
“Hunting, is it?” Gregor asked cheerfully, while Mrs McCready bustled around silently in the background.
“Aye,” said Sandy, suddenly developing a Scottish accent.
“Ye’ll be after some haggis then?”
Sandy looked puzzled for a second, then nodded confidently. “If we get the chance.”
Gregor chuckled softly and Yorick kept his comments to himself.
Sandy had built himself quite a reputation over the past couple of years, tracking down an increasing variety of ever-more-dangerous and bizarre creatures that had been bioengineered and brought back from extinction. A little vagueness on Scottish cuisine was excusable. While Westminster still debated what to do about the situation, the Scottish parliament had authorised hunters like Sandy to go to work. After his quasi-legal status in London, Sandy was now somehow affiliated with Police Scotland and had set up this expedition under their auspices.
The evening was spent unpacking and checking gear, eating stew in the kitchen and relaxing in a dark and foreboding lounge that featured a stag’s head on the wall.
“We’re nae squeamish about hunting,” Gregor commented as Arkady stared into the stag’s glass eyes. “Nae like those environmental types.”
Various environmental groups had caused some trouble back in London, and Yorick’s taxidermy shop had been the subject of a short-lived protest one rainy Saturday. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency had issued a statement that they were only concerned with the environment native to Scotland and had no interest in what they termed ‘inimical invasive species.’ The public in general used the term ‘big, hairy beasts’, which coincidentally also described Arkady. Yorick was not sure which European country the large man came from, but he liked to give the impression that he had spent some time in the special forces. He finished staring down the stag and lowered himself into a worn armchair.
Yorick wondered if he would be so calm staring down a wild, living animal.
They spent much of the following day searching the chilly countryside for woolly rhino. Considering the beasts’ size, they were surprisingly difficult to spot. Even the use of a drone equipped with visual and thermal cameras did not help much. There was a huge amount of ground to cover. They put the Range Rover through its paces, down farm tracks, across fields, through streams. They jumped out and hiked up steep trails and through copses of tress. At one point they found a patch of rhino hoof prints, but Lucja declared them to be several days old and useless for the current hunt.
Late in the afternoon Arkady gave a loud ‘Ha!’ as he studied the drone images on his tablet. He froze the screen and zoomed in. Sandy drew the car to a stop.
“There.” Arkady planted a flag in the midst of a small herd of a dozen of their quarry and zoomed back out. He had to zoom a long way before their own position also appeared on screen.
“Three miles,” he said.
Yorick peered at the screen and traced the narrow and sparse tracks that marked roadways around the steep and rocky hills.
“It’s more than three miles to get to them though,” he said.
Sandy wound down his slightly tinted window and stuck his head out to gauge the level of sunlight. “Too late for today,” he said. “Tag them.”
Arkady played with the drone controls on his tablet screen and Yorick watched the woolly rhino grow in size as the drone dropped lower. Arkady targeted one of the animals with a red X and fired a tracking dart at it. He targeted two more in quick succession. A ripple of discontent went through the heard and they trotted away irritably.
“Tomorrow, then,” Sandy said, and crunched the Range Rover into gear. It started to snow as they headed back to the guest house.
The ground was cushioned in a couple of inches of snow by the following morning. They trampled it to a slushy brown in front of the house as they loaded their gear back into the car. Arkady sat in the passenger seat and gave directions from the tablet. Sandy drove with an air of bravado, taking corners dramatically and angling across rough ground at an alarming trajectory. Lucja stared fixedly out of the side window and left Yorick to his own thoughts.
They bounced and roared and slid across the countryside for almost an hour until they were within half a mile of the herd, or at least the tracking darts, which had barely moved since the previous day. Here Sandy declared they should leave the vehicle and approach on foot. Yorick was torn between waiting in the warm vehicle and following the hunters. He had no real need to be on hand for the kill, but observing the animals in the wild – their movements and reactions – helped to present the preserved carcass in the most realistic manner possible.
He followed the trio, falling gradually behind in order to keep out of the way. Fat, languid snowflakes began to float down and swirled around in combination with his exhaled breath. He snugged the scarf around his neck to cut out a sneaky breeze.
The hunters topped a stony ridge ahead and hunkered down. They pulled out binoculars and wind gauges and other paraphernalia. Yorick stopped a hundred yards behind them and turned in a slow circle. It was magnificently desolate, any sign of human occupation blurred out of existence by the snowfall.
When he had turned full circle the three hunters were gone.
He strode forward to the ridge expecting to hear the sound of gunfire at any second. Or maybe the sound of a stampede. Preferably going in the opposite direction.
Silence, except for the distant sound of some kind of hawk.
Yorick hurried forward, stumbling on the uneven ground disguised by snow. He topped the rise and stopped in his tracks.
The three hunters were halfway down the other side, walking in a strangely hesitant gait. Before them, the remains of five or six woolly rhino were strewn across the snow. Even after re-counting, Yorick was still not sure if it was five or six. There were several legs, a number of half-eaten bodies, scraps of woolly fur and widely-strewn volumes of blood. Yorick was not averse to dealing with animal entrails and carcasses – it was part of his line of work – but this level of slaughter brought a chill beyond that already caused by the freezing weather.
Sandy and his two companions drifted to a halt before reaching the first spatters of blood. Yorick trotted down to join them. The air was still and it was not until he was much closer that the musky, fetid smell hit him. He pulled his scarf up over his face, which helped slightly.
“Hunters?” he asked.
“No,” said Sandy. “At least, nobody sane.”
“Not seen anything like this since we were dropped into Kyrgyzstan,” Arkady murmured.
Lucja stalked away to the right, circling the whole grizzly scene.
Closer up, the dead creatures looked even worse, large gashes showing through their fur in numerous places. None of the carcasses were usable.
Lucja returned from her circumambulation. “There are no other tracks,” she said.
“Other than what?” Yorick said.
“Other than rhino.” She looked searchingly at the horizon as she spoke.
Yorick shrugged. When carrying out the art of taxidermy, he was generally unconcerned about tracks.
“When did it snow?” Sandy asked.
“Does not matter,” Arkady said, returning from his Kyrgyz reverie. “Rhino did not walk after they died. Only the predator did.”
“Snow shoes,” Yorick clapped his hands together to warm them.
“Maybe.” Sandy stooped down and grasped a handful of snow, stood and let it run through his fingers. It fell gently.
“We used snowshoes in Siberia,” Arkady said.
“There were more of them yesterday,” Yorick said, “so there must be some still alive.”
“You’re right.” Sandy turned from the sanguinary scene. “All the tags are accounted for here though.” He jerked his head upslope. “I guess we start again.”
Yorick followed him away from the stench, with the other two trudging quietly in the rear. Somewhere behind, a hawk screeched mournfully.
Back at the Range Rover, Arkady launched the drone again and sent it flying beyond the scene of slaughter. There was very little movement on the ground, certainly nothing of the size they were searching for. The light snow petered out and the sun shone weakly through a haze.
Sandy navigated to the nearest lane and drove steadily in the same general direction as the drone.
“I’ve lost it,” Arkady said a short while later.
“The signal?” Sandy glanced over, looked back in time to swerve around a huge pothole.
“The drone,” Arkady said. “Something took it out. It jerked sideways in the second before the telemetry cut out.”
They drove in silence for a few seconds.
“Where?” Sandy asked.
Arkady directed them for another three miles while Sandy grumbled about military training flights and the expense of a decent drone. Without any signal, they had no chance of finding any debris. They stopped and ate some lunch, slurping coffee from flasks that was not hot enough to be entirely satisfying.
“We’ll launch the back-up drone,” Sandy decided. It was, apparently, a much less sophisticated device, but better than nothing. They resumed their slow ground pursuit of the airborne device.
“There,” said Arkady an hour later. He and Sandy consulted together and they began a hair-raising drive across the moorland towards the pair of rhino Arkady had spotted.
“That’s it.” Sandy pulled to a halt. “Half a mile.” The three hunters piled out.
“I’ll wait for word,” Yorick said, eyeing the increasing gloominess and the beginnings of yet more snow.
The three left at a trot.
With the engine off, the car cooled quickly. Yorick snuggled down into his coat and peered into the snow. He drifted into a doze.
A deafening bang and a huge jolt shocked him back to wakefulness. The car rocked on its wheels. The door across the other side from Yorick was dented alarmingly. A loud snort sounded from beyond it. Yorick sat bolt upright and looked out at the woolly face of a huge rhino two or three feet away. It bent down and shoved again, its horn shattering the side window. The car screeched sideways and into an erratic boulder. Yorick was not yet sure if exiting the car was a good idea, but now his door was jammed shut anyway. With another charge, the rhino dented the passenger door into a new geometry.
While the rhino concentrated on redefining the Range Rover’s side profile, Yorick rolled over the back of the seats and into the boot. He pulled the door release and waited until the rhino was butting the front wing before yanking the rear door open and rolling out and onto his feet in one fairly smooth motion. The boot slammed closed, unfortunately attracting the rhino’s attention.
He scampered around the huge boulder, hoping to find a way to scale it. Inconveniently, the ancient glacier responsible for depositing it in the middle of nowhere had also worn it smooth. The banging and crashing stopped. Only the sound of a hawk broke the silence. Yorick looked around swiftly. There was a staggered broken pile of rock around twenty yards away. He made a run for it, struggling through the snow.
A couple of yards short of his goal, Yorick stumbled into a ditch or hollow, disguised against the all-white landscape. For a second he lay flat on his face. He rolled over in time to hear low snorting and heavy footsteps. Inching through the snow with his chin making a furrow, he peered out across the snow. The rhino was less than twenty feet away and did not look happy. The Covent Garden Café seemed a long way away,
A hawk screeched again. It seemed a particularly deep and booming screech for a hawk.
Yorick rolled on his back and peered into the sky. Maybe an eagle. A very big one. Perhaps a golden eagle, gliding surprisingly low overhead. A passing wispy cloud made him blink and adjust his perspective. The bird was actually rather high up. Which made it very big indeed. A condor possibly. Yorick did not often stuff birds – the feathers were far too finicky – but he could recognise a fair few species.
The rhino grunted loudly. Where were the hunters? Yorick decided it was best to lay as flat as possible and await developments.
The hovering bird suddenly tucked in its wings and went into a dive. An unfortunate rodent was likely about to meet its doom. It had a strangely rotund body for a bird-of-prey. It was also growing alarmingly large. Surely it should have arrived by now. It continued to grow larger, and its shadow dimmed the already-weak sunlight.
Yorick’s perspective shifted again and a small shriek escaped his lips. The huge, eagle-like bird was still dropping, then just as Yorick thought he would surely be crushed, it unfolded its wings to slow its descent and extended two Brobdingnagian talons.
There was a bellow of fear, which seconds later Yorick realised had not come from himself, and the bird, which now filled his entire field of vision, beat its vast wings to propel itself back into the air. A flurry of loose, powdery snow was blown into the air and settled over Yorick gently. The rhino was carried aloft, still snorting, in one of the bird’s claws.
Snowflakes melted on his face and ran into his eyes.
“He’s here,” a voice called sometime later. Despite several days of near-silence and passive hostility, Lucja’s words suddenly sounded the most friendly and welcoming sentence one could hope to hear.
Sandy jumped into the hollow next to him and offered a hand.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
Yorick nodded as he stood, and took a moment to get his frozen face working again. “Yes,” he said eventually.
Sandy and Arkady pulled him out of the hole while Lucja sighted along her rifle into the darkening sky.
“That, ladies and gentlemen,” Sandy pronounced, “was a roc.”
Yorick stamped his feet and shivered.
“You remember Jason and the Argonauts?” Sandy enthused and marched towards the Range Rover. “Or was it Sinbad the Sailor?”
“Who would make a roc?” Yorick said.
They rounded the huge boulder and stopped at the sight of what had once been a Range Rover. Arkady let out a string of invectives in a language other than English. Yorick chose to assume he was saying something along the lines of ‘Oh my goodness, what happened here?’
Lucja opened the boot, pulled out her backpack and slung it over one shoulder. Arkady muttered his way around to the passenger door, attempted to open the concertinaed panel and hopped back as it fell into the snow with a dull thud. He rummaged in the car for a handful of bits and bobs and stuffed them into his coat pockets. Lucja was already following the fading tracks the vehicle had left across the field.
Sandy pulled out his phone as they followed her, putting in a call to the guest house to start with. Yorick could hear Mrs McCready’s unimpressed tones from several feet away.
“She’s sending Gregor to collect us,” Sandy announced after he had hung up. He put in another call to his police contact and had a long conversation punctuated by lots of buts and frowns.
“They know about the roc,” he said as they arrived on a narrow lane. “There have been several sightings. Apparently, the RAF are developing a plan to catch it with helicopters and large nets.”
“Nets,” Arkady said. “We used nets in the Congo.”
“Are they tracking it?” Yorick asked. “Can they let us know if it’s coming our way?”
Sandy was silent for several paces. “They don’t need to,” he said. “We’re off rhino.”
“Off?” Lucja said, stopping in her tracks.
“Yes. They’re letting the roc deal with the woolly rhino infestation before they capture it.”
“Huh.” Lucja whirled and continued her march.
“Apparently they consider the highland cattle population an acceptable loss if necessary.”
“That’s nuts,” Yorick said. Then he considered that it was no more nuts than the fact they were hunting woolly rhino. They trudged on as it grew darker and colder.
“So, we go back to London?” Arkady asked.
“No.” Sandy suddenly sounded cheerful again. “Not yet.”
In the distance a pair of headlights appeared – hopefully Gregor come to rescue them.
“Where, then?” Yorick asked when it seemed that Sandy was determined to build the tension.
“They asked us to investigate another recent appearance.”
Gregor pulled up in a big old jeep.
Sandy opened the back door and gestured grandly for them to enter.
“We’re going to Loch Ness,” he said.