No sign of any camera, or of men remaining in camp, either, but Einar was wary, moving quickly across the open space between his shelter-rock and the first tent, a good-sized wall tent which had appeared to be the center of operations and a place where everyone gathered. Without hesitation—he who hesitates gets seen and identified—he slipped into the tent, blinking at the strange, blue-filtered light inside and hastily confirming that he was alone. A folding table, coolers lining the walls, apparently used for gear and food storage and doubling as seats, but it was the maps spread out on the table which really caught his attention, sectionals of the area, sharp drop into the canyon clearly showing and large areas of the mesa highlighted in blue and green. He could see the lake they must have been talking about, but the thing that really caught his eye was the band of cliffs that reared high and sheer above the far side of the water.
There, laid out in blue highlighter marker, was a tight grid which seemed to effectively confine itself to a section of rock no more than a hundred feet in height, and traversing nearly half the span of the cliffs. Each little square had been assigned a number, and on the edge of the map these numbers were listed, each matched with a name. The names, he presumed, of the people at the camp, and he quickly glanced down the list to see if he might recognize any of the names. Which he did not, until nearly the bottom. Darren. A local man he had known in in his caving days. That name hadn’t come to mind for several years, not since early on in the manhunt when the feds had contracted with the well-known caver to show them around the limestone bands and cliffs of the high country. That relationship had ended badly, as Einar recalled, and he rather doubted the two parties would be working together again.
This has almost got to involve caves though, if Darren is along. What are they doing, scouting for new caves in those cliffs Can’t be as simple as that, not the way I heard them talking about “picking up the signal,” and things coming down from the west and such. Got to be tracking critters, here. Or people. Don’t think they’re tracking us. None of this setup makes a lot of sense if they’re up here tracking dangerous human-critters, the lack of security, nobody armed, the casual way they’re conducting it all. Looking like some sort of wildlife operation, and I’d better be getting out of here in a pretty big hurry as soon as I can confirm that, so it doesn’t accidentally progress to something more! Like it would if they happened to find me raiding one of their tents, and I had to take some quick evasive action…
Wanting some slightly more conclusive proof that the intruders were, indeed, simply in search of wildlife—some new species of cave-dwelling salamander, perhaps, though he had a hard time salamanders being fitted with devices which emitted a signal, and the men had spoken of picking up a signal—he carefully inspected the row of coolers that lined one wall of the tent, choosing one at random and using his sleeve to open it, wary of leaving prints. Well. Wrong one. His chosen cooler proved to be two thirds full of egg cartons and packages of bacon, with ice packs beneath. The odor of the chilled meat assailed him with an almost physical force, and he closed the lid in a hurry before the temptation could become too great. The crew was apparently eating quite well, but that discovery—though interesting Einar more than he might have liked admitting, at the moment—did not solve the riddle of their being on the high plateau, in the first place.
The next cooler yielded no better clues, packed to the brim with what appeared to be the remainder of the crew’s food supplies, and Einar shut it with equal haste, pressing an elbow into his grumbling stomach and moving on. The third one—some distance from the others, as he didn’t particularly want to keep finding more food—looked a good bit more promising, its contents packed in plastic and ice and not appearing in keeping with the sort of fare the camp-dwellers apparently preferred to eat. Bats. Dead, frozen bats, at least a dozen of them, each carefully wrapped and labeled with date and location of collection, and—still using his sleeve so as not to risk leaving prints—Einar glanced quickly at each one, purpose of the camp becoming more clear. Tiny radio tags existed, he knew, that could be fitted on birds; there were even GPS tags smaller than a dime which had been used to track the movements of bats, in the past. If these researchers were seeking signals while at the same time apparently giving special attention to the possibility of discovering as-yet unknown caves or limestone features, bats seemed an almost certain answer.
Einar’s theory was confirmed when, easing the bat cooler closed and moving on—wished he might take a frozen bat or two with him for his travels, if he could not help himself to a dozen of the eggs in the first cooler, being at the moment quite hungry enough to devour it raw, wings and fur and all, but he knew he must leave things exactly as he’d found them—he discovered on a clipboard beneath a stack of maps a document entitled, Colony Interaction and its Role in the Spread of White Nose Syndrome. Ah. That was it, then. His intruders appeared to be a group of scientists attempting to link the spread of the often-deadly white nose disease among bats to interaction between various colonies, which explained their need to seek out new caves in order to catalog their occupants. Bats. The planes had all been because of bats, and bat researchers, and barring some chance sighting that happened to strike one of them as suspicious enough to report—great billowing plumes of smoke from the area of the shelter, or some such—he figured they had little to fear from these people or their operation. Unless they were to return and find him in their tent…
Time to leave, and he was in the process of doing it, making one final sweep of the room to insure that he had not left anything out of place, when he heard the sound. Freezing in his tracks, hand on the pistol in his belt he listened, heard the noise again and this time recognized it as a tent zipper, not, thankfully, on the wall tent but not too far distant, either. Someone, he realized, must have returned early. He took one final glance at the cooler full of bacon and eggs, suppressing a wild urge to grab some of its contents and stuff the down his parka before flattening himself against the ground and breathing a silent prayer of thanks that the wall tent did not have an integrated floor, which would have prevented his leaving through the side as he was about to do. Had to do, for the tent door—closed behind him, and he was glad he’d attended to that little detail upon entering—lay on the side from which the sounds had come, and he knew he mustn’t attempt to leave that way. Could only hope that the early arrival was alone, no one out there to see him as he left. No speaking, so he had reason to hope, gingerly pried up the bottom of the tent wall and turned his head to the side for the best view. Saw no one, knew he mustn’t wait lest the returning party decide to pop into the wall tent for a snack or to do some record-keeping.