Marsden and Federi beached the Lawnmower in the spot Paean had described, with the sunken buildings in the sand. They got out and found the Donegal sibs’ footprints. The tide had come up quite high last night; on the other hand it was the only set of prints, as nobody else walked here. This stretch of beach was dangerous. You could fall into a broken building and get stuck or break a limb. The Donegals had been lucky. Federi resolved not to let those two out of his sight again.
He shot a brief glance at the sky, which was sporting a fine layer of haze through which the noonday sun was beating down. It was muggy. Storm brewing? Not yet, he thought. Perhaps tonight.
“I think we found it,” said Marsden, indicating the place where the two siblings’ footprints milled about a bit and turned back. Federi peered into the undergrowth. He saw the pile of clothes and picked up the top one. As Paean had said, a finger was stuck to it, so dried out that even the ants were leaving it alone.
He crouched down and dug in the heap. Odd! The clothes were still good! There were some other remains, but not many. Nothing larger than that finger. All dried, desiccated.
The clothes, all in browns and military greens except where they were stained with dry blood, said that this couldn’t have happened more than a few days ago. The human remains spoke of weeks. It didn’t rhyme.
“Did she say, old rags?” asked Marsden quizzically, lifting a label up for Federi to read. It said ‘Axil’. A very expensive designer of outdoor and mountaineering gear! This had been no beach bum!
“Shall we take them along? Exhibit A?” asked Marsden.
“Do you have a morbid fascination with such forensic stuff?” replied Federi with a shudder. They filched through the clothes, but besides those few human bits there was absolutely nothing, no identification, no metal parts, not even bones. This worried Federi.
“A tourist maybe?” he surmised.
“To Hiva Oa?” Marsden asked back, sceptical.
“Look, either whatever did this was intelligent and took everything, or Atuona has picked him clean over time,” said the Romany. “But I don’t exactly see tracks of Atuona,” he added, falcon eyebrows furrowed. “And they wouldn’t have left the clothes!”
“Here,” said Marsden, indicating. Federi went over to where the First Mate was pointing at the ground. Strange, three-toed animal imprints. Long toes, centrally anchored. Like a bird’s. Or perhaps a reptile’s.
These prints couldn’t be older than two, maybe three days, thought Federi. They still looked comparatively crisp. And there hadn’t been any rain. One rain and they were gone. A bit of wind, some small wildlife, insects, lizards, and they would fade, too!
Federi searched and found more of the same prints, leading away from the crime scene. He beckoned to Marsden, and the First Mate followed, keeping a few steps behind, giving the gypsy space.
“Four-legged,” said Federi. “See there, Jon?”
Marsden moved closer to look. He couldn’t tell!
“The gait,” explained Federi. “And there’s a really obvious clue!” He pointed to one of the prints and looked expectantly at Marsden. The First Mate narrowed his eyes, crouched down, peered at the print…
“Aw, come now, Jon, can’t tell me you’re not seeing it,” prompted Federi.
Marsden straightened out. “Sorry, Federi. Not spotting it.”
Federi went down himself and indicated.
“Look there! It had something stuck to its hind foot! Bit of twig or something. See? There it is – and there it’s not – and there it is again! That one’s the front paw.” He examined a tree trunk where the tracks overlaid and came directly up to the tree. He could practically see the animal rubbing up against the bark. And if he was lucky today… “Pay dirt!” He picked a small translucent flake of something off the bark. There were more. Now that he knew what he was looking for… he looked at the microchip-sized flake. Two-square millimetres. “Reptilian, I think.”
“A shedding four-legged reptile with three toes? Not a Komodo dragon?”
“Dragons are five-toed,” Federi pointed out. “And last time I looked they didn’t eat rich folk. Not that many three-toed animals on Planet Earth! Weird!” He shook his head. “Jon, honestly, I’m mystified. I’d have to look in Sherman’s files for a match. ‘s not exactly Romania, this,” he added with a grin. “Maybe the islands have a few unique animals…”
“Well, we know now that there are dangerous predators running around,” said Marsden. “Let’s keep a close eye on our troublesome little ones!”
“What I’m doing, my friend, what I’m doing!” Federi followed the track further. He had been lucky in the past, sometimes, finding the animal he had been looking for. These tracks were not that fresh, they had only remained undisturbed, but you never knew where they’d take you.
In fact, they took him only a bit further on, through a few more twists of undergrowth. Then, where they ought to have been clearest, they stopped. There were no other tracks to indicate anything happening. The ground was sandy here, with a light crust where it had been dampened from the last rain, and where there were still tracks, they were sharp and pristine. The animal had cracked the virgin crust where it had walked.
Federi frowned and searched, and studied the trees. There were a few branches and leaves higher up that looked singed, and the moss was dry in patches and partially blackened. And no further indication what had happened to the three-toe.
“What?” asked Marsden, reading Federi’s face. “Something wrong?”
“Something darned wrong, anna bottle,” growled the gypsy. “She vanished!”