"It's on the beach!"
It's on the beach.
Amy Dale fingered the pack of cigarettes in the baggy pocket of her jeans as she moved with the rush of the crowd towards the lake, her mind fuzzy with shock. Could it really have come to this? After all these years of hundreds of people searching, working, chasing, probing, trying to pin down the elusive Loch Ness 'monster' - after all her years of work, studying and scraping by and manuveuring with difficulty through her scanty network until she was part of the latest team sent searching for it - all of that ended like this?
It washed up on the shore?
She left most of the crowd behind at the first ring of policemen trying to keep unnecessary people away from the 'monster.' Flashing her ID, she slipped through them and went forward more slowly, the wet ground squelching under her rubber boots. The bulk of the dead creature was perfectly visible now, rising in a steady curve above the heads of the people surrounding it, pointing and talking; a dully shining grey-green, deepening to almost black in places. Almost twenty feet of it lay on the shore, but a tail tapered off into the waters of the loch; she observed with surprise that although it didn't look like a conventional 'sea serpent' it was a little more snakelike than she'd imagined.
Greeting a few of her co-workers on the way briefly, she headed for the front end of the animal, pulling her camera out of her bag. If the beast wasn't alive to get away, at least her main job - taking plenty of photographs for definite proof - should go smoothly. She reached the head in moments, unnoticed by the few others gathered around it, and stared.
It was a little like the head of a snake, a little like one of the dinosaurs she had seen pictures of... but it was a little smaller than she expected, around the size of a smallish car, and almost delicately boned. Its long slit of a mouth was pressed firmly closed, the bottom half almost buried in mud. It had black eyes that were cracked open; Amy thought to herself that they must have been almost beautiful in life, a sheen of water making them glitter as it reared out of the water - romantic thoughts aside, the sheen was gone now, the black drying and turning dull.
She began to open the camera to take some pictures; it was nearly knocked from her grasp as a couple of young boys dashed past her, pursued by a shouting guard. The taller of the two stopped in awe as he came a few feet from the dead monster, but the smaller of the two - evidently the more daring - dashed right up to it and hit the gray-green hide. Amy raised her hand uncertainly, feeling unsure of what to do, but the puffing man who had been chasing them caught up and collared them both, lecturing them about 'the professionals at work' as he dragged them off. The blonde woman sighed, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. I don't feel all that professional right now. I think it's the shock... I didn't expect the legendary Loch Ness Monster to drop into our laps like this.
"How horrible," a voice said from just behind her. "And classic."
Turning, she saw Linda standing there, looking after the two boys who had been taken away. Linda was, in the jokes among the other members of the team, the 'youngest member' - she was the thirteen-year-old daughter of the man funding the search, Leonard Wallace. He had mentioned to Amy that he thought she was 'too serious and morbid' and Amy had to admit that in the few times she had seen her she had seemed older than her age and had never smiled.
"Um... hi, Linda," Amy said, lowering her camera. "Yeah, boys will always be boys, I guess."
"The old dragon hunts must have been like this," the black-haired girl said drearily. She was wearing sneakers soaked with mud and was still wearing her pajamas - understandable, since it was early morning, but Amy thought it was rather odd she didn't even have a coat on. "You know, everyone gathered around pointing and talking and laughing, and the boys running up to touch it and people trying to grab bits of skin and stuff."
"You think dragons existed?" Amy asked, feeling a bit uncomfortable as she turned away and started to turn on her camera.
"Probably. And then we killed them all. Like we just killed Nessie."
It gave the photographer an odd feeling, hearing the creature called by 'her' common nickname; it made her realize that she had been avoiding thinking of it by that name. "But we didn't kill her," she hastened to say, feeling nervously as if she was trying to cover up guilt. "We don't know how she died yet."
"Remember a week ago, when we were trying with bait, fish with slow-working knockout drugs inside?" Linda asked, her thin arms folded across the fleecy front of her pajamas. "One of them was lost when we pulled them in, after a lot of objections were brought up about how it would work." She jerked her head. "You can't see well from here, but there's blood around Nessie's nose and mouth, even thought it's mostly been washed away by the water. How do we know how drugs work on her?"
Amy bit her lip. "You might be right... but she still might have died of natural causes."
"Maybe." Linda's pale face was drawn into an expression of jaded weariness. "Have you heard them in the crowd? They're all excited about Nessie being caught, or they're getting depressed about losing tourism. Nobody's really sad she's dead."
Amy saw some people beginning to look twice at them, probably wondering why they were just standing there. She came over to the girl and put an arm around her shoulders.
"I worked so hard to join because I loved - Nessie," she managed to say after a minute, a lump rising in her throat. All the emotions she had been staving off with shock and a kind of wondering excitement at actually seeing the lake monster were threatening to burst on her. "When I was a little girl my mother used to tell me stories about dragons, and how they'd capture princesses and keep them to watch their treasure and stuff. So - when I found out about Nessie, I used to dream about that. I was very little," she added again, self-consciously. "But I dreamed about being a mermaid, and sitting in Nessie's underground cave watching the treasure while she was away."
Linda was silent for a long moment, but suddenly leant her head onto Amy's shoulder. "Yeah," she said in a small voice, the most childlike Amy had ever heard her use. "I wanted to meet her too. She was like - a modern-day dragon." After a minute she looked up. "Do you think there are any more in the loch?"
Amy wanted to say yes, but could only manage a shrug. She smiled weakly. "I guess there's a chance. Nessie eluded capture so long that any family she would have would be pretty wily too."
Linda's young face curved into a tiny smile in return, the first Amy had seen her give. "Yeah."
And as more and more people crowded around the dead monster, they stood together and stared out at the lake.