Ranjit Prashad froze when he found the open gate, as the rain lashed at him sideways.
He knew this day would come. He knew it. His wife knew it, and his mother knew it, too. They let him know before he accepted the job, and they reminded him of their thoughts often. It had gotten to the point that his kids even knew it, too. “Please, Papa,” his youngest daughter had said the night before. She tugged at his hand, her fist wrapped around a single one of his fingers. “Don’t go to work tonight.” But he had done then, and he had done today. What choice did he have? His family couldn’t survive on thin air alone, and children needed a roof over their heads.
Ranjit pulled his heavy-duty torch from his belt and shined it at the paddock. The lone beam sliced through the ink. The darkness seemed heavy, felt as though it pressed in at him from all sides. He shivered. Could have been due to the water, which soaked him to his socks.
Or the implication of the open gate.
The cone of light wavered back and forth across the enclosure. The awareness that this looked like a beacon to the predators didn’t evade Ranjit. No damage to the perimeter, that he could see from this distance. No claw marks gaped along the fence. And, indeed, no section of the fence appeared to be down. Still, the open gate yawned like a hungry mouth.
Torch raised above one shoulder, like in a cop show, billy club in the other hand. Not for the first time, his mind screamed. Why on Earth had they equipped him with a billy club? What use would it be against them? Why not a stun gun? Why not tranquilliser darts? Hell, why not a real gun? Instead of this long, hard piece of rubber. It’d be no threat to an attacker, let alone one of the park’s inhabitants. He knew the park operated on the wrong side of the law — as little cost for as much profit. But never had that fact seemed so stark as it did now.
Ranjit squelched through the mud, closer towards the fence — ten feet high. Lightning flashed the sky, and a fractured heartbeat later thunder shuddered the ground. For one glorious snapshot, the grounds lit up and he got a glimpse of something heaped by the gate. Something bright red. He flinched and whimpered, the smell of ozone in the air. And then all returned to the previous tenebrosity, with nought but his torch to hold the shadows at bay.
He blinked rainwater out of his eyes, took another step.
And his foot hit something.
Something hard and heavy.
He yelped, leapt backwards, slipped in the mud. Ranjit landed in the dirt, splatters of wet soil all over him. Cold, slimy tendrils splashed up his arms, legs and back. No pain — the soft ground cushioned him. But Ranjit squealed all the same. Down on the ground, in the muck like a pig, he groaned and pushed himself into a seated position. He thumbed a glob of filth from the lens of the torch and shined it at the object, a metre or so ahead.
Metal glinted in the darkness. A familiar shape. A pointed tip. Red handles.
And then his heart began to pound.
Not an escape.
The guard scrambled to his feet with slips and slides, grabbed his club and scurried over. He reached down, hesitated, then decided that any fingerprints would be long gone by now. And nobody in their right mind would think he’d been the one to vandalise the park. They’d hired him to keep this place safe.
Ranjit picked them up.
The rubber handles had a deep slashed groove across them, from one side to the other. The cut went into the rubber and beyond. It carved into the metal beneath. Ranjit armed water out of his eyes and rotated them, this way and that. Almost as if someone had used them in defence against—
He dropped the bolt cutters and shined his torch up ahead again. His stomach rolled beneath him, on an acidic tide of bile. At first, the torch’s shaft of illumination wavered back and forth, and he couldn’t find it. His mind raced — had they eaten it? In the time between his slip and now? Did they circle him at this very second, silent communications to each other?
But then the bright red splash came into view. Ranjit trained the beam on it and squinted into the darkness. He had a feeling that he knew what he’d find. More than anything, he did not want to press on. But he had to. He had to know the full extent of this. He needed to know what to tell the authorities. Against all senses, which screamed at him to turn back, to run and hide, Ranjit approached the paddock.
Less than ten feet away, he identified the mess on the ground.
He’d found the trespassers — the saboteurs.
Or, rather, what remained of them.
“Oh no,” he said to nobody. At least, nobody with their ears still attached to their body. Beads of water dribbled down his nose. He sniffed and blinked more rain out of his eyes. Tears soon joined the dampness on his face — droplets in the ocean. “Oh. Oh please, no.” But his pleas went unanswered, for the mess strewn around the open gate remained.
Chunks of meat, dotted with rain-washed bits of viscera. A hand here. A shoe — foot still inside it — there. Part of a head, the skull cleaved in two. Matted strands of hair clotted with gunk and muck. Impossible to tell what came from the humans and what had been dirt from the ground. Fractured bones pierced the flesh. As if their owners had skewered themselves with their skeletons.
A torn rag of cloth lay amid the gore. How it hadn’t blown away in the wind, Ranjit didn’t know. Stained with big maroon splotches despite the torrential downpour. Some darker, blacker globs of God knew what. Would need a good, high temperature in the washing machine to get that out. Could have been a skirt or a trouser leg or even a canvas bag. Ranjit tiptoed through the carnage. Closer and closer towards that open gate. Even this close, he could not say whether the remains came from one or ten people.
With his billy club, Ranjit reached down and flipped it over. A t-shirt. On the front, a cartoon person hugged a cartoon T. rex. Beneath, in a bright font: We STAND UP FOR the DINOSAURS!!! Shredded claw marks slashed in a diagonal, and one of the arm sleeves dangled by a thread. He lifted the shirt up by the club. Something pale and mangled dropped from the hem. It reminded him of a slab of meat from a butcher’s shop. That explained how it hadn’t flown off — it had a flesh paperweight to anchor it.
Ranjit screamed, cringed away and dropped it, the billy club too. It slapped into the mud with little fanfare. No matter. He would touch it again for neither love nor money. He would not reach down into that mess with his bare hands, not for a billy club. If the park wanted it back, well, they’d have to fish it out for themselves. He didn’t want it, didn’t need it. It wouldn’t help to defend him against—
Ranjit’s eyes widened. His blood ran cold. His heart stumbled, and for one brief moment, he thought it would not start back up again. He fumbled for his radio, hands slick with rainwater. He pulled it from his belt, almost dropped it. The device slithered and slipped in his grip. Ranjit got a hold of it, clutched it, found the button, pressed it.
But got no further.
A reptilian screech flash banged his senses.
A blur of movement in the rain.
Ranjit rocked to the side, spun around in a complete 360 pirouette. A winded grunt escaped his lips. He tried to breathe, but something had gone very wrong inside. A gargled gasp. No pain, only shock. He had time to admire the blood on the sign of the paddock. Before he realised it had come from his own body.
Meet Deinonychus antirrhopus! The Velociraptor’s BIG cousin! The name comes from Greek, meaning ‘terrible claw’! Can YOU spot the unusually large, sickle-shaped talon on the second toe of each hind foot?
The downpour soon washed the sign clean.