Chapter 1: The Polar Bear Killing







Following my previous post on polar bears in Iceland, here is the first chapter of my novella The Polar Bear Killing.

This was going to be the most important day of his life. He knew it. He could feel it. This would be the day when he left his mark on the world.

Constable Halldór’s fingers tightened on the wheel of his police 4x4 as it hurtled through the fog towards the farm by the river where the polar bear had been sighted. The professional hunters in their souped-up Super Jeep were at least ten kilometres away. He would get there first. He would have only a few minutes to make the shot.

The polar bear had been spotted on a beach six hours before by some fishermen, who had immediately called the coastguard. Polar bears were not native to Iceland, but once every couple of years one would pop up along the northern coastline, usually having ridden sea ice that had drifted eastwards from Greenland. Often they swam the last few miles to shore. By the time they reached Iceland, they were tired and hungry. And dangerous.

The fishermen had only caught a brief glimpse because of the poor visibility. But it had been enough for Halldór to organize a couple of parties to scout for the bear, including the two professional hunters armed with the kind of rifle that could kill a reindeer at a thousand metres. Halldór had been following on behind when he had been alerted by the call from a young girl – a farmer’s daughter – who had said she had seen the bear. Her mother was shopping in town, and her father was out with the other scouts.

The girl was alone with her little brother on the farm, and Halldór was closest to her. In the back of the police car was his .22 rifle. It was much too small a calibre to kill a big bear under normal circumstances. But many years before, Halldór had read the story of some hikers in the West Fjords in the 1970s who had come upon a polar bear while carrying only a .22. One of them had waited until the bear had approached really close and then shot it through the eye. That had taken real nerve. And marksmanship.

Halldór had nerve. And he was one of the best shots in the north of Iceland. As a policeman in Reykjavík, he had applied twice for the Viking Squad – the Icelandic SWAT team – but been turned down each time. The problem wasn’t his ability to handle firearms, but his physical fitness. And now, aged forty-nine, and after seven years driving his car around and around the small town of Raufarhöfn in north-east Iceland, his girth had grown even greater. But he still knew how to shoot. And he still had nerve.

After a lull of several years, there had been a spate of polar bear invasions from the sea. Each time the bears had been shot, and there had been an outcry from urban do-gooders (people like his daughter Gudrún) for a national polar bear policy. Anaesthetic darts had been stockpiled, and experts flown in from Denmark. But even then, when the next polar bear had shown up, it too had had to be shot before it harmed any of the sightseers who had driven out to gawk at it. And so the new polar bear policy had been determined: shoot on sight. It was too expensive and too dangerous to do anything else.

The road sloped downward and the police car emerged from the fog into a shallow valley with a fast river tumbling down its middle. A cluster of prosperous farm buildings, with white concrete walls and red corrugated metal roofs, appeared. The farmer made a little money from sheep and quite a lot from leasing fishing rights on the river.

Halldór scanned the fields and pasture surrounding the farm. A flock of sheep were scattering in all directions; something had spooked them. And then he saw it – a dirty white bear loping along towards the farmhouse. And in front of it, a little girl standing still, staring at it.

Jesus!

Halldór leaned on his horn, swerved off the road and onto the grass, accelerating towards the girl. The bear stopped to look at the new arrival. The girl, too, turned towards him.

He pulled up between the girl and the bear, which was now only about a hundred metres away.

He lowered the window. ‘Jump in, Anna!’

The girl opened the passenger door and climbed in.

‘What do you think you were doing?’ Halldór said.

‘I wanted to speak to the polar bear,’ she said.

‘Those animals are dangerous!’ Halldór said. ‘He’s come a long way and he’s hungry.’

‘He’s not dangerous. Egill told me about polar bears. They are friendly. They help people.’

Egill was the old man who lived in the run-down farm – now barely visible at the base of the cloud – on the slope on the other side of the river. He was about eighty and had long ago lost his marbles.

‘They are not friendly, Anna; they attack people, believe me. Now where is your brother?’

‘Back in the farmhouse,’ said the little girl.

‘Good.’ Halldór looked at the bear, which was staring at the vehicle. ‘OK, sit tight, Anna.’

Slowly he climbed out of the car and went around to the back to take out his rifle. The bear watched, but the girl couldn’t see him. Once the gun was loaded, Halldór made his way around the car, rested his elbows on the bonnet and aimed at the bear.

It was smaller than he had imagined it would be, and thinner; he could see its ribs. But it was still a magnificent animal.

It was also a hundred metres away, and had turned its rump towards Halldór.

A .22 bullet in the arse would do nothing to a polar bear apart from make it really angry.

‘You’re not going to shoot it!’ shouted Anna.

‘This is a dart gun,’ said Halldór. ‘I’m going to put it to sleep.’

‘It’s not a dart gun,’ the girl said. ‘My dad has a gun like that that he uses to shoot foxes. I’m not going to let you kill the lovely bear.’

What happened next would be etched in Halldór’s brain for the little time that remained of his life.

Anna jumped out of the car and ran towards the bear, shouting: ‘Look out, polar bear!’

The bear turned and, after a second’s thought, ambled towards the girl.

Halldór’s instinct was to run after the girl and pull her back. But if he did that, the bear would escape and run off into the mist. Sure, it would be shot eventually by one of the professional hunters. But not by him.

The girl stopped, suddenly aware that a very large animal with teeth and claws was approaching her. She was only a few metres from the police car, there was still time for her to turn and run, there was even time for Halldór to drag her back, but she froze.

Halldór took careful aim. The bear was coming directly towards him, its eyes two round black holes staring straight ahead.

At last, the girl screamed and turned. The bear was nearly on her, only twenty metres away.

Halldór took his time. He could make this shot ten times out of ten as long as he kept his nerve. He inhaled, then exhaled slowly and squeezed the trigger. The bear dropped to the ground as the bullet tore through its eye and into its brain.

***

The two young men – a German and an Icelander – breathed heavily as they climbed the hill. The sky was a pale blue, and there was no sign of the thick low cloud that had settled over the area during the previous five days.

The Icelander, a thin man with straggly long hair, wearing jeans and an Extinction is Forever T-shirt, paused to raise the binoculars that were hanging around his neck to scan the ponds and marshes of the Melrakkaslétta – the ‘fox plain’ – that stretched out to the north of the town.

‘Nothing,’ he said.

‘She must have drowned,’ said the German in English. He was a few years older than the Icelander, and a few years neater.

The bear that had been shot four days before was not yet fully grown, and the theory was that its mother might have landed as well. But now that the weather had cleared up and it was possible to see more than a couple of hundred metres, that seemed increasingly unlikely.

‘I’m afraid you have wasted your trip, Martin,’ the Icelander said, turning back up the hill.

‘Yeah,’ said Martin, following him. ‘It would have been cool to actually see a polar bear. And to stop those bastards shooting it.’

‘Here it is,’ said the Icelander, whose name was Alex. ‘The Arctic Henge.’

On the crest of the hill above them stood a half-built giant stone circle, designed in the manner of Stonehenge, with four tall stone gates at each point of the compass rising to a point. The low sun painted geometric shadows down the eastern slope of the hill.

‘Cool,’ said Martin again. It was his favourite English word. ‘You say it acts like some kind of sundial?’

‘Apparently.’

They walked around the site, trying to figure out what it all meant. Alex had brought with him a drawing of what the finished henge would look like. The layout was based on an ancient Icelandic poem, but he was confused about what signified what, and Martin’s questions were just confusing him more.

‘Well, let’s ask that guy,’ Martin said.

‘What guy?’

Martin pointed to a black-clad leg sticking out from behind one of the stone pillars of a gate.

As the two men approached the gate, more of the figure came into view.

Mein Gott!

It was a man, wearing a black police uniform. He was slumped against the pillar. And where his right eye should have been was a bloody mess.

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