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The Poacher 4 by Kiva

A wounded deer leaps highest,
I’ve heard the hunter tell;
‘Tis but the ecstasy of death,
And then the brake is still.
-Emily Dickinson

PROLOGUE

Tomorrow, I have a title fight for the women’s amateur MMA championship in Manchester. They say my opponent, Sarah “The Terminator” O’Connor, is a heavy hitter with a fearsome knockout record. She will by far be my toughest test to date. But I can strike as well and I’m a better rounded fighter. I’ve overcome all the other obstacles so far. I know I can defeat her.

Today, I’ve come to this place to rest my mind for now. It’s beautiful and peaceful here. The tall trees of the forest break the sunlight into individual beams of light streaming down from the cornflower blue sky. I grew up near this forest.

On the opposite side of the clearing, something is moving, emerging from the woods bordering the meadow. It’s a …fawn,…a baby deer. It gazes across the clearing…right at me with his large bright black eyes. The ears perk up, the black nose twitches. It walks out into the tall grass and approaches. The spindle legs shake a little as it navigates across the grassy field. Strange…it is not afraid of me. It comes closer as if it knows me. Where’s your mother, little fawn? Why are you alone? It advances toward me as if it has a purpose. 20 metres…10 metres…5 metres. The fawn is now at arm’s length. I reach out to touch it, to pet it. “What is this?” I gasp. On the throat is an orange mottle, a patch of fur in the shape of a crown. “It can’t be. No, this is impossible! Casimir? Is this you?”

His large beautiful eyes pierce into mine. I stand frozen, staring at him as if I’m under a hypnotic spell. I cannot move or speak. Suddenly, the fawn changes, growing into an adult in a matter of seconds, like some type of shape shifting mythical creature. The animal in front of me is no longer a baby buck. Large powerful sinews replace frail limbs. The baby white spots are changed to a coat thick brown fur, covering a massive imposing body. The head triples in size, spreading out antlers as grandiose as a prehistoric tree. The beast staring at me is now a 2.5 metre tall magnificent stag. And he’s beautiful. On his throat is that mark, that crown.

“Oh Casimir, it is you! You’ve come back! After all these years!” I reach out to wrap my arms around the thick noble neck. Except,…my arms pass through him like air. Wait, something’s wrong. This isn’t real. This isn’t Casimir. This place isn’t the Bialowieza Forest. I don’t live in Poland anymore. It’s a dream…I’m dreaming…But I want Casimir to be real. He’s fading. I look at his face but I see him start to disappear. “No Casimir, don’t leave. I don’t want to lose you again. Please stay….Stay!….”

I awake in my dark flat lying in bed, then sit up to brush away the tears. I have a title fight the next day and need to get to sleep. I lie down again. Oh Casimir, why do you still haunt me?

Metallica’s “One” blares through the speakers and that’s my cue. In my hooded black robe, I leave the dressing room and head toward the cage, looking down with my hands on my trainer Leah’s shoulders. The cage is in the center of a large hotel’s function room. Spectators are seated around circular tables as if attending a wedding reception. Still, the room reeks of beer and cigarettes. I slide through the cage entrance noticing the blood smears on the floor from the previous four fights. Leah slips off my robe revealing my black and fluorescent yellow short lycra hot pants and its matching sports bra, finished by matching fluorescent yellow 4-ounce Venum MMA gloves.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the challenger, originally from Gdansk, Poland, standing 5’10, ten stone,… Barbara…‘The Punisher’…. Gorduuuuullllaaaaaahhhhh!” My torso and shoulders are slender but toned and my dirty blonde hair hangs down in my signature pigtails. My pale skin, square jawed face, piercing light blue eyes, thin lips and big straight nose give me a serious expression as I jog around the ring for a final warm up before going to the red corner and shaking out my arms waiting for Sarah O’Connor to enter. Leah smears vaseline over my face and pops in my black mouthguard with white fangs etched into it.

The speakers blare again. This time it’s Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares”. The champion approaches from the opposite direction, wearing a brown hooded robe, and escorted by her trainer as the crowd roars. She throws off her robe, revealing a black sports bra and tight fitting black shorts with a red trim and red 4 oz, Cobra gloves.

The referee calls us to the centre of the ring and goes through the minimal rules. I get my first look up close at Sarah. She is two inches shorter than me but also weighs ten stone or 140 lbs. She looks as solid as granite. An African-American woman, her ebony skin contrasts with my paleness. Her arms look more toned than mine, but my hands in my yellow gloves look bigger. Both of us have thick powerful looking legs. She is a knockout machine. In the gym, they joke she packs horseshoes in her gloves. O’Connor is a real fighter, but now its time to show what I can do. I offer her a firm tap with my white gloves, my eyes steadily unblinking at hers. The referee steps back, claps his gloved hands and orders, “Ready ladies,….FIGHT!….

SIEDLCE, POLAND

My father was a hunter. But he was too soft hearted. Perhaps that is why my mother left us. Life was very hard in Poland in the 90s as all of the collective factories and farms closed down or were broken up. Many moved away to flee poverty. Although sometimes there would be a boar or a deer for the table, I think mostly my father went into the forest to forget himself.

As for me, I was an atypical village girl, tall, pale, angular and bookish. Always at the top of my class academically but I was also on the judo, basketball and swim teams at the local high school. At first, some of the other children picked on me because of my brains, but that soon stopped when they learned how willingly and well I could use my long arms and my big fists. I developed a reputation for hating bullies but I knew deep down that, in truth, I relished the chance to use violence on someone without consequence. I was like an alien in that village even to my own father, perhaps I was too much like my mother.

It was the summer of 2006 and I had finished my school term when my father bought a small fawn back from the forest. He could not even walk, the runt of a litter either lost or abandoned by his mother. I took the skinning knife from the kitchen drawer to cut his throat as I mentally ran through a few recipes. When you grow up among hunters, you do not see wild animals as city people do. But my father told me to look after the fawn and nurse him back to health. He said “Barbara, you must learn to care for something, nurture it and then let it go. As you have no mother to learn from.”

At first we kept him in the house and I fed him with the same bottle that had fed me as a child. That was when I grew to love him. Having something completely dependent on you is, in truth, empowering. I called him Casimir after Casimir The Great, the only great king of Poland. It seem a grandiose name for a very small stunted buck but he had a particular orange mottle on his otherwise white throat shaped like a crown. By the following spring, he was strong enough to live outside. My father’s dog initially was hostile but I beat the dog several times with a stick until it knew what I would do if it bothered Casimir. Casimir grew slowly for a buck but he continued to grow as I completed high school. He would be there every day as I returned from school with a small red collar and a brass name tag.

In my last summer before I left for college, I walked with Casimir deep into the forest perhaps 15 kilometres. I took off his collar and he looked at me with his big dark eyes sorrowfully. I slapped his flanks and extended my long pale arm “Go! Go on!” my lower lip trembling. He trotted off to the far end of the clearing, looking back again. “I will find you when I come back, now go!” Only once after he had gone, did I allow myself to cry.

ONE YEAR LATER

It was the summer of my first year of university and I returned home for the first time. I met my boyfriend in the first week of the first term. I led Wojciech through the forest, his hand in mine, walking in my wake; in many ways a metaphor for our relationship. We had been camping in the great forest for three days searching for Casimir. Once this forest covered the whole of Europe; even now, you could wander for weeks within its boundaries. As a city boy from Warsaw, he was lost in the forest like a little fawn. He had the same loyalty in his eyes like Casimir, but was more docile. He seemed shocked when I caught, skinned, butchered and cooked a rabbit yesterday. His parents disliked my dyed bright red hair and kickboxing hobby. I looked back at him again chewing on my lower lip. I did hope the sex would get better, but I had known no one else to compare it to.

We had been stalking the deer herd for several hours. As we entered the clearing, all of them scattered running except one, a huge stag over 2 m tall. My Casimir was fully grown now – majestic – still with the orange mottle like a crown on his white throat. I beamed as I walked towards him, leaving Wojciech behind, “I told you I would come back!” I examined a broken antler laughing, “Casimir, have you been fighting?”

GDANSK, POLAND

Karolina and I were friends in the way that two people who see each other nearly every day have to be. She had spent three years beating me up nearly every time we met, well until last year. Last year things got a lot more interesting. Mind you, she had started Muay Thai at age 5 so I still had a lot to learn. As the only two girls in the university Muay Thai club, we had to work together. But the truth was, I could be competitive with a broom. We worked the heavy bag, me holding it as she attacked it.

“Why are you back I thought you’d finished?” I asked. THUD THUD THUD

“I’ve taken a teaching assistant job.” THUD THUD “How was your summer?” THUD THUD

“Bad,” I replied.

“Why?” THUD THUD THUD TWANG!

“Oof, good one. My pet went missing. My stag Casimir seems to have disappeared from the forest.”

“Oh. Your turn,” Karolina said. We switched positions. Left jab. Right cross, left mid roundhouse kick with the shin. Right upper cut. “You hit harder … and faster.”

“Yes I’m tired of being your rag doll,” I replied. That time I knocked you out last year was no fluke.”

“Well we’ll see about that.”

“By the way, Wojciech and I are getting married.” Left jab, left jab. Right hook, left hook. Right elbow strike, right knee, right knee, left knee bomb.

“Shit, girl!,” she said, “I felt that through the bag. Why aren’t you more happy?”

I spent the next five years in Gdansk living with my dreary job and drearier marriage, a result of my misguided attempt to fulfill cultural expectations. As much as I tried, I knew I couldn’t continue this charade. But what else was there? I never saw Casimir again. There were rumors he was killed by hunters. Not the local hunters, but outsiders, illegal criminals – poachers. I heard whispers of corruption within the hunting communities, of locals accepting bribes from wealthy Americans to hunt European bison, a protected endangered species in the Bialowieza Forest. Casimir, my surrogate child who I learned to nurture and love, from frightened fawn to noble prince. Brutally gone – it seemed like another metaphor of my life. I thought of his magnificent body falling to the forest floor, his eyes rolling backward, a bullet piercing his heart – and I can’t hold back the tears. And then, I received an offer to start a new life – in the U.K.

MANCHESTER, UK

It was raining. In Manchester it always rains. I left my husband by mobile phone six weeks earlier calling him from the airport, my suit cases were already on their way to the aircraft hold. He was actually crying, I felt …. little. I was angry before, I was still angry. So little difference.

The new job was a manager position that paid five times what I was paid in Gda?sk. I think everyone at my new work found my directness disconcerting. The British, I had learned, rarely master anything and even less frequently get to the point. The new flat was small but bijou. Since my father died, there was no reason to continue the pretense. I was not going to be a good Catholic wife, subserviently pushing out babies, cooking, cleaning, obeying his parents and raising his children. So if I am not that, apart from my job, what am I?

“Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer. Maybe self-destruction is the answer,” the flyer said. The quote was from Fight Club, the novel, not the movie. The MMA gym with the quote on the flyer was six blocks from my apartment building. There were mostly men when I first came, looking at my long pale blond body hungrily despite my glasses and pigtails. I was a lanky 5’10” and 140 lbs. My arms and legs were long, but I had large fists. The few women were stocky, tattooed and hostile. I knew their expectations of me were low. During my first free spar, the other woman split my lip with a left hook. They thought she had potential and I was to be her rag doll. They checked me out as we kept fighting. She was a southpaw which always caused me problems, but a barrage of very fast head punches from me made her raise her guard too high and she backpedaled into the cage wall, her inexperience showing. I see an opening and slammed my left knee high into her ribs with a knee bomb. She goes down like a sack of potatoes and lied there clutching her ribs. The right hook to the cheek as she crumpled to the canvas was unnecessary, but satisfying. After quite some time, after she was given medical attention, we continued but she focused a good deal more on her defense. My clear win in that free spar established my position somewhere above the bottom of hierarchy of the gym. The trainers started to take more interest. They told me I had real potential but I needed to work on my ground game. They gave me a new name Barbara “The Punisher” Gordula. I only really felt alive when I am training or even better, fighting.

TWO YEARS LATER (THE PRESENT)

We are in the midst of the fifth round now. They were right when they told me that Sarah “The Terminator” O’Connor is a heavy hitter. The reopened gash on my swollen left cheek, oozing blood down my face and neck, proves them right. But O’Connor has also taken damage from me, her mouth bleeding freely also, her right eye swollen nearly shut and both her eyes now glassy from the left elbow I have just thrown into her face. I was pleased to get an amateur fight over five rounds. More likely not to go to points. I can see she is out of it now as I step in to finish her, wrapping my arms around the stockier woman’s back. I heave with all my might, while throwing my head and chest backwards, my powerful thighs strain with effort to lift O’Connor off the mat as I attempt to throw her over my shoulder to the mat in a belly to belly suplex. The black woman’s forehead hits the canvas with a mighty THUD as I throw her over my shoulder. She lies stunned, flat on her back. I scramble and turn onto her, laying my long body perpendicular across her broad heaving chest. My long legs encircle her right arm trapping it in a scissor hold. My arms stretch her left arm out in a crucifix pin position.b I am the only fighter I know who uses this version of the Americana, but I find it very effective.n I take my left arm and slip it under the back of the left bicep of the American and hold my right forearm in my left hand, the blade of my left forearm under her left forearm anchoring it in place like an animal trap. O’Connor begins to struggle weakly, understanding the danger she is in, but she has nothing left as I hold her firmly under me. Then I simply pull down on her left wrist with my right hand like a lever bending her left arm against the elbow joint. She tries to hold out for a while but after only a few seconds she is screaming and flailing with her right hand to signal her submission. The referee pulls me off her, concerned for her safety. The fight is over and I am triumphant. I stand panting, my right arm raised, my fore finger extended and for the first time, I notice the shouting and cheering from the crowd. Realizing what I have done, I run to the cage wall and jump onto to it, clinging on with my fingers and toes, shaking the chicken wire. I raise the red and brass championship belt high in the air. It’s a small promotion, it’s only amateur, but I am now an international MMA champion.

As I leave the locker room, I hear a female voice from behind me, “Excuse me, Barbara?” It’s the local sports journalist who interviewed me after my victory.

“Yes”

“May I ask you one more question? As the new champion, what are your plans for the future? Who will you fight next?”

I do not hear her. I’m facing her but my eyes look through her. My thoughts are somewhere else. In my mind, I’m replaying a scene from my final days in Poland.

The Bialowieza Forest. I lean on the wooden counter in the office at the hunting lodge, the crisp golden 200 zloty notes between my thumb and forefinger just out of the old man’s reach. They have that new money smell too, the indescribable mix of ink, cotton and soap.

“You are going to a lot of trouble for a stag, girl.” the huntsman says hungrily eyeing the notes in my big pale hands. He is a little wizened old man with a furtive white bushy beard and small dark untrustworthy eyes.

“Casimir was my fawn when I was a girl, he wasn’t just any stag. Now are you going to give me the names or am I and my money looking elsewhere?”

The old man makes a pained expression “Don’t have a fly up your nose, dear. I have it.”

He reaches for a scrapbook, 2011, that would be the right year. My heart starts racing. He flips through the months in the book, wetting his calloused fingers with his tongue. Finally his finger stabs down on a picture of two smiling tourists in camouflage gear posing with a pair of dead stags under the month of September. The smaller, I don’t recognize, but the larger is obviously Casimir from the mottled coloration under his throat. He had grown from being a weak sickly little thing into the most majestic stag in the forest. But now his dead eyes stare out at me balefully from the picture, asking for revenge.

The man is very tall with a salt and pepper goatee. The woman is much shorter, tanned with a brunette flip hairstyle. She has blood smeared on both her cheeks and there is something almost demonic about her rictus grin with her pearly white teeth flashing. I feel a lump in my throat and I see the old man’s hand reaching for the money. I snatch the notes away, voice cracking a little, “I want their names and all the personal details you have, plus that photo. Also….. also I want to know which one killed the bigger stag.” My long pale finger rests on the last photo of my poor little Casimir.

“Barbara?…Barbara?” My mind returns. “So what are your plans?”

“Uh….I’m going to the U.S.”

“Really? Are you going to the U.S. for a fight?”

“Yes”

“Against whom. Who will be your opponent in America?”

I remain silent. Picking up my gym bag, I turn and walk away.

WESTERN U.S.A.

I’ve been in this motel now for 5 days. Shortly after checking in, I hired a private investigator. I looked one more time at the photo before handing over my file. The image of that woman was truly unsettling; the arching eyebrows, the sardonic grin, the blood smeared on her face as if she’s some tribal warrior. She’s no warrior. She’s a coward…a fucking coward.

Before leaving Poland, I showed the picture to some of the local people, hoping for information. Nearly all of them took one glance at the picture and claimed they knew nothing. I’m sure some were lying fearing retaliation from corrupt officials. Finally, I discovered a breakthrough. For the hundredth time, I replay a conversation I audio recorded on my cell phone with Pawel, a farmer and old friend of my father’s who was recovering from major surgery for lung cancer. Interesting how people lose their fear of other humans when facing mortality.

“Oh yes, that’s Jim and Paula Coleman. Barbara, where did you get this?”

“It was with my father’s things,” I replied. “Who are they.”

I recall the weather beaten face becoming pensive as he took a long draw on his cigarette. “I met them years ago in Thailand when I was in the service. We were part of a joint NATO force. The Americans and the Thais had been hosting yearly multinational military training exercises in Thailand called Cobra Gold. Thailand had just been designated as a non-NATO ally to the Americans, so we were sent as a Planning Augmentation Team to show our support. We worked closely with the Americans, Thais, Brits, French, Germans.”

“Paula was a very sweet girl at the time. Very young. She was married to her high school sweetheart, a U.S. Air Force man. Then things went bad. He was hooked on drugs and alcohol, did some really bad things, got sent back to the states and court martialed.”

“After that, Paula seemed to snap. For some reason, she wouldn’t go home. She wasn’t the same – manipulative, aggressive, even cruel. She supported herself as a waitress and by stripping in bars in Bangkok. That’s where she met Jim Coleman. He was a contractor for the U.S. Air Force, creating and teaching flight simulation programs. Jim was the type of guy who knew everyone. He could make you feel like he was your best friend. And what a ladies man! He’d come home with a different woman every night. But that all changed when he met Paula. He saw her stripping in a bar one night and was instantly smitten. The two of them were inseparable.

Rumor was that Paula made extra money fighting other women in underground clubs. From what I heard, she took some fearful beatings at first, but eventually became a hell of a fighter herself. Of course, Coleman loved it. He promoted her, set her up with trainers. She was pretty good at Muay Thai boxing.”

“I never trusted Jim Coleman. There was something snake-like about him. He had connections everywhere and seemed to be associated with a lot of shady people. I couldn’t trust Paula anymore either. He got her into big game hunting with him. They went back to the U.S., got married. Last I heard, she went to college and did some kick boxing but that was years ago.”

“Why were they in Poland, hunting illegally?” I asked.

“Like I said, Jim had connections. He knew how to take care of someone who did him favors.”

Finally, my investigator struck gold. Paula and James Coleman are ages 38 and 52 respectively. He is an electrical engineer and optical physicist working in imaging technology. She’s a hospital administrator. They own several properties but spend most of their time lately in a hunting lodge in the mountains. The investigator had addresses, email accounts, social media and a web site linked to Paula’s email. He called me this morning with a tone of urgency and apprehension in his voice, “Barbara, stay where you are. I need to see you immediately.”

One hour later, there is a soft knock on the door. To my surprise, I open the door to see my private investigator with two other men, one of them holding my folder.

“Are you Barbara Gordula?”

“Yes”

“My name is Petrillo,” said a balding gray haired man. “We are agents for the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation,” as they held out their badges. We’d like to have a word with you.”

Stunned, I let the three men in the motel room and we sit around a coffee table. I’m nervous but I know I did not commit any crime. I’m more curious than nervous.

“First, may we see your passport?” One of them dutifully examines it before placing it on the table. “What is the purpose of your visit to America.”

“I’m an MMA fighter, I’m meeting with promoters here, hoping to sign for a high profile fight.” It’s not totally a lie as I hoped to get a tryout, but it wasn’t my main reason.

“Do you know this couple?” one of them asks, holding out the photo.

“Yes”

“Is this your photo?”

“Yes”

“Where was this photo taken”

“Poland, in 2011”

“Why are you trying to locate them?”

“They were American tourists on a hunting vacation near our home in Poland. My father was a hunter. He met them at the lodge and they became good friends. They came to our home. When they left, we decided to stay in touch, exchanging emails. My father has since died. I lost their contact information. It would mean so much to me to see them again.”

“Do you have those old emails.”

“No.”

“Do you hunt?”

“No”

The three men were silent for several seconds. The two agents took deep breaths. Finally, in a soft tone, Petrillo spoke, “Miss Gordula, are you aware of any involvement of this couple in poaching protected wildlife, fraud, conspiracy, unlawful possession of firearms and racketeering on international black markets?”

“I don’t not know about any of that.” Now I’m very angry, Casimir was only the tiny tip of an iceberg. And I’m excited. I will not feel remorse for hurting this woman.

“Another question. You said you’re an MMA fighter. Have you ever witnessed Paula Coleman fight?” Now, I’m really excited.

“No, does she fight?” I responded in my most animated manner since the start of the interview, before I realized I’m inviting suspicion on myself.

“She’s a former professional kickboxer. Didn’t she tell you that in Poland?”

“No”. Ooh, this is getting better, I thought.

“In her early twenties, Paula was a regular in the Bangkok fight scene. She was proficient in Muay Thai. She also fought in clubs in Singapore, Maylasia, and Instanbul. We think she’s recently been training in Brazilian jiu jitsu.”

My heart is racing. I struggle to suppress my excitement. I want to fight this woman so badly, my stomach burns.

The agent continues. “Lately, Paula has been using her martial arts skills for a very bizarre purpose. She and her husband invite women and couples to their lodge for supposedly fun recreational catfighting. Did you know that?”

“No.”

“Well, take a look at this. He tilts his tablet toward me. On the screen are two topless women wearing just bikini bottoms rolling on a thick rug, their voices screeching, their hands grasping each other’s hair.

“Tell us the truth, Miss Gordula, are you here to fight with Paula Coleman.”

“No, I’m a local MMA champion. I don’t need to scratch and pull hair. If I wanted to fight like that, I could have found opponents back home. I certainly didn’t travel here for a silly girly girl fight.”

“That’s what she wants you to think, that she’s untrained. Don’t you see what’s going on? Paula Coleman tricks women into thinking she’s as untrained as they are. She sandbags her fights, then lowers the boom on them when she’s ready. Then after she defeats them, she and her husband do something very strange. Take a look.”

I’m shown a photos of a large room in a hunting lodge. It appears typical; wooden structures, a stone fireplace, a bearskin rug, an overhead loft. And many trophy heads: elk, moose, caribou, deer…and….Holy Shit! Those are human heads! They’re women! Blonde, brunette, ginger…What the FUCK…I gasp.

“Relax.” Petrillo said. “They’re just holographs produced by her husband. But make no mistake about it. This couple is warped.”

“Miss Gordula,” he continues. “We need to do our due diligence. Because you came to the U.S. looking for this couple, I’m afraid you are considered a person of interest. We have a warrant to search your motel room for evidence.”

I sigh. What a waste of time. However, I have nothing but the folder I already gave them related to these vermin. “Fine”.

I wait in the bathroom as they rummage through the sitting room and bedroom foraging through my dressers, a desk, my gym bag, my hand bag. One by one, they examine my clothes. I wait outside when they search the bathroom. Finally, they search the clothes I wore.

“OK, we’ll be leaving now”, the agent said. “Miss Gordula, thank you for your time. We may need to call you again. And one more thing. We cannot legally prevent you from visiting the Colemans. But we strongly recommend you stay away from them. They are potentially dangerous people. Plus, you run the risk of being implicated in criminal activity by being associated with them. Do you understand?”

“Yes”

“Also, aren’t you a single woman traveling alone? That’s not always safe. There’s not a man traveling with you, is there.”

“No,” I look at him coldly. “Why do I need a man?”

As they leave, I sit on the bed; the detective’s now completed file on the Colemans open beside me. Anyone normal would be packing already and running away….I am far from normal….And I am giddy with excitement at the prospect of facing Paula Coleman.

The website the detective discovered is very unusual; women and couples searching to meet each other for catfights and wrestling matches. I never imagined this existed. It took time but I found her user name: paula_mba. I create an account with the name BarbaraUK. “Hello, Paula,” I type, “My name is Barbara. I think we have a lot in common.”

For three days we chat on line. I tell her I’m new to fighting. She asks me many questions. She digs into my childhood, my education, my work, my purpose in the U.S. I tell her I’m visiting a college friend. Fortunately, she doesn’t press further. She wants to see an image of my passport. Paula is pleasant, charming and funny. “U r an accountant and I have an MBA,” she types. “No one can manage money like us women,” 🙂 she types. But I know she’s a snake. We exchange pictures. “Oh no, u r too big. I’m no match for u…unless u promise to take it easy on me. Lol ;).

Finally, she delivers her decision. I passed. I’m invited to her hunting lodge for a friendly wrestling match. We agree to a few catty rules. She is intrigued that I’m alone.
“Be careful dear, we recently had a problem with people who were not what they appeared to be.”

“I will,” I replied. I certainly will.

I drive for eight hours in my rental car. The GPS takes me through several side roads through heavily wooded areas. The roads wind, turning to dirt, then gravel. The wheels spin and grind as they struggle up the mountain. Finally, it appears – an elegant large wooden lodge on a beautifully manicured property with a pond in the front. I walk up the steps to the expansive porch, then to the large wooden door. I press the door bell button. Seconds later, it swings open.

“Are you Barbara?” asks the very tall pleasant man with the graying hair and goatee. He is dressed in full camouflage hunting gear, including a hat and boots.

“Yes I am.”

“Well come right in, lovely lady. I’ll let Paula know you’re here. I’m her husband, Jim.”

His flirtatious eyes are all over me as I enter the foyer. To the right of the foyer, I recognize the main room from the FBI photo. It’s large with a fireplace, thick rug and numerous animal trophies; some are mounted heads, others are full bodied stuffed prizes. A spacious loft overlooks the main room.

“Paula, Barbara is here.”

She emerges from the kitchen, dressed in a white blouse and khaki slacks, approaching from the left of the foyer. “Well, hello girl. So glad you made it.” She smiles but it’s the smile of a fox. With her high arching eyebrows and turned up corners of her lips, her face is sinister. She stretches out her arms to hug. I struggled to find it in me to hug her back. “You’re even more beautiful in person,” she gushes. “Jim, I think we made a big mistake. Barbara is going to wipe the floor with me. I just hope she remembers to go easy on me. I’m just a newbie.”

“I’m a newbie, too,” I reply.

“Well,” said Paula, “let’s give you a tour.” The three of us stroll through the main room. “As you can see,” Paula continues, “we’re hunting enthusiasts. We’ve hunted on every continent but we still love the local challenges.” They relate some backstories involving the trophies. We ascend the stairs to the loft, where I see much electronic and video equipment and computers. “Now, this is the part where Jim shows off,” Paula said.

“Perhaps Paula told you,” Jim said, “ I research and develop holographic technology. We can have a speaker stand in multiple places at once. We can virtually interact with people from a distance. And…we can bring the deceased back to life….Now let’s see…you’re from Poland…”. He strokes his goatee as in deep thought…”Ah ha! I got it. Watch this!”

As Jim operates a control board, a beam of white light appears. The column of light begins to turn different colors, forming a humanoid shape. The light takes on increasing definition until it mimics the likeness of…Pope John Paul II? The pontiff appears to look at me. The lips move, “Heelooo Barbara, I weesh you much bleesings on your journey.”

I am expressionless. Amazing but strange. “OK,” Jim said, “you live in the U.K. now. I think William and Kate have a message for you.”

“Jim, maybe we can do that later,” Paula interrupts. “How about we go downstairs, let Barbara get comfortable, I’ll get us some drinks and snacks.”

We return downstairs as Paula disappeared into the kitchen. Jim shows me the medieval styled dining hall, the guest rooms, rooms with guns. He takes me outside to see the property. I note the in ground swimming pool in the back had been drained of water. “Time for cleaning,” explained Jim. We re-enter the lodge though a back door. Jim shows me another trophy room. “We call it the exotic room or international room. These are animals we killed overseas.”

The walls of the large room are lined with mounted heads of animals mainly from Africa and Asia. There is wildebeest, wart hog, caracal, zebra…and then my heart nearly stops.

On the wall opposite from me, he gazes. His eyes are not real but I know he sees me. The stately neck, the elegant head, the royal antlers, the unmistakable red and white crown on the throat, once the most magnificent stag of The Bia?owie?a Forest,….my Casimir.

I connect with the lifeless eyes. At long last, I have come for you, Casimir. I have missed you, my pet. Fear not, majestic stag. Your revenge is near.

Jim leads me back to the main room. His eyes are all over me. “What a loss for Poland…a beautiful woman like you leaving.” I half smile. He shows me more electronic equipment. I notice two flat metallic discs with hand straps and buttons.

“What are these?” I ask.

“Glad you ask,” he grins. “Watch.” He straps a disc on each hand, then places his hands around a flower vase. Lasers emit from each disc, striking the sides of the vase, then he waves his hands in a circular motion. A cloud of light surrounds the vase before disappearing. Jim ejects a chip no wider than 2 centimetres from one of the discs. He explains, “The 3D image of the face is stored this tiny chip. The chip is also a projector. The image can be activated from an app or you can make it appear manually. Just press the side of the chip like this and…..” as he spoke, a perfect reproduction of the vase’s image radiated out of the chip. “There you go. You may keep this. To turn off the image, press here.”

“Very nice,” I tell him. “You are very smart,” I tell him, hoping to appeal to this creep’s male ego. “Tell me, can it take a 3D picture of a human?”

“Sure”

“Would you take a picture of ….me?…Maybe just a headshot.”

I see his face suddenly change in countenance as he is clearly shocked and unprepared by my request. “Well…”

“Please?..Can you teach me? I can take a hologram of my head, yes? You can show me how. You are not only a genius. I am sure you are a great teacher.”

Jim bites his lip as his eyes stare at the floor. “OK,” he says softly. “Place your hands through the straps.” He shows me the proper technique and which buttons to push
at the appropriate times. One minute later, I am examining an eerie 3 dimensional image of my own head. I turn it off as Jim allows me to keep the chip.

“Barbara, I hope Jim is being a good host,” Paula cheerfully asks as she joins us in the main room.

“Yes, wonderful,” I answer.

“We have drinks and light hors d’oeuvres over here. I figured you don’t want a heavy meal so close to our match,” she offers. “Speaking of which, perhaps we should review the rules and attire. Since we are both new at this, we decided on a wrestling match, right?”

“Yes”

“There will be no punching the face, no kicking, or scratching. No knees or elbows. We will not attack our breasts or crotch. Correct?”

“Correct”

“How do you feel about body punches?” She asked.

“No body punches.”

“Are you OK with slaps to the face and body”

“Slaps are fine.”

“Maybe a little hair pulling for control?”

“Yes”

“And the match will end when one of us gives up or can’t contin….I mean, when one of us gives up.”

“Agreed.”

“And for attire, I like to wear as little as possible,” Paula continues. “I just like the primal feel of it. I would do this nude, but Jim won’t let me.” They both laughed. “So I’ll wear a bikini. And you?”

“Same.”

“Good. Did we cover everything? Do you have any questions?” She asks.

“I have one question. If I beat you in the match, may I take home a prize?”

“What do you mean.”

“There’s something here that’s important to me. I’d like to have it.” I see their faces turn to confused expressions.

“What is it that you want”, she asks with a puzzled look.

“It’s one of your animal trophy heads,” I reply. “It’s over there in your international room. The couple remains perplexed as I lead them to the room of sorrow. “It’s that one,” I exclaim as I point to Casimir.

“That one? The stag?” Paula incredulously asks. “Why that one?”

“He’s from Poland,” I solemnly assert. “When did you hunt in Poland?”

“Poland? We were never in Poland”, she answers.

“Wait,” Jim interjected. “Ten years ago, we were in Poland hunting bi-, er, deer. But how did you know this stag came from Poland?”

“Because our spirits are connected at the heart,” was my answer. “May I have him if I win?”

The Colemans’ demeanor is changed at this point. There would be no more smiles or friendly chatting. They look thoroughly confused and slightly…worried?

“We have plenty of deer trophies,” Jim informed. “So yes, you may have that one if you win.”

“And what do you want from me if Paula wins?,” I asked. “What will be Paula’s prize.”

“Nothing,” they both answered.

“I just want the privilege of competing against you,” Paula added. “The only thing I would like is a picture of you to remember our encounter.”

“A picture? What kind of picture?” I asked. “Will I be nude or placed in a compromising position.”

“Oh heavens no,” Paula blurted. “I only want a head picture. A picture of you just from the neck up.”

“Like this one?” I asked as I turned on the chip Jim gave me. Almost immediately, I’m holding my own head in holographic 3D in my hands.

Paula gasped. “Where did you…How did this…” She stutters.

I continue. “Yes, if you win, you may have a hologram of my head. If I win, may I take home an image of your head?”

Paula looks livid. Her lips no longer look like a smirk. She turns toward her husband. “Jim,” she says sternly, “may I have a word with you?”

They excuse themselves and head to the kitchen. Paula is angry and having trouble controlling her voice volume. I hear fragments of their conversation: “Jim, what were you thinking…she’s very strange…how the fuck did she know that stag…I’m going to beat the shit out of her.”

They return, unable to quite reapply their phony smiles. “OK, Barbara,” Jim spoke, “it’s a deal. If you win, you may have the deer and Paula’s 3D head shot. If Paula wins, we get your head.”

“Now let’s get changed,” Paula added. “I want to get this fight started NOW!”

They show me to one of their guest rooms to change. Ordinarily, I fight in a sports bra and shorts. Today, I continue the act of a novice fighter and meet Paula’s terms, so I dress in a Philipp Plein black string bikini with a skull logo on the left breast cup. In the full length mirror, I see my 5’10”, 140 pound frame. My long blonde hair had already been braided into two pigtails. My arms are long with a 69 inch span. My upper body is thin but tight. My hips are wider at 36”. My legs are long and powerful. I slip my sandals back on, take my gym bag and leave the room to meet my hosts.

Paula is already in her camouflage bikini, as she and Jim wait for me in the main room.
“Well look at you!” She remarks. “Such a big strong girl. Wasn’t I right, Jim? I think I need to make sure my will and life insurance are in order before I tangle with her.”

“Yes, she’s quite a specimen,” Jim replied.

Paula is full of shit. She is sizing me up and calculating in a way all fighters recognize. I can tell simply by the way she looks at me she’s a pro.

“Well Barbara,” she resumes, “we can have our tussle right here. This Persian rug makes a great mat. Or we have space outside.”

“I prefer outdoors.”

“Very well. I like outside as well. It feels more primal, the way I feel when I’m hunting. Follow us out back.” The three of us exit the back door. I bring my gym bag along while Jim carries his video equipment. “We have lush green grass here,” says Paula “We can place down a mat..”

“No mat,” I interject. “Just earth. It’s more primal. Isn’t that the way you like it?”

“Well yes, but we want to minimize risk of injuries,” Paula answers.

“I accept the risks. If we both accept the risks, isn’t that a better experience for both of us?”

Paula and Jim look at each other. Paula could barely hide her excitement. Ooh, this woman is practically giving me permission to hurt her, she seems to be thinking.

“Ok then,” she answers, “then I accept the risks too. Are you ready to start?”

I pause. “May I suggest one other thing.” I sense their patience is wearing thin, as I hoped. “I changed my mind about body punching. May we add it to the rules?”

“Seriously? Now you want body punching?” asked Paula. “OK, fine. We can add that. Now should we get started?”

“Yes, after I tape my hands.”

The huntress lets out a sigh of annoyance, “Are we going to have a fight today or not?”

“Yes,” I answer. “But tape is important. I must not mark up my hands for work.” Paula and Jim watch with exasperation as I remove the tape from my gym bag. I know they are watching intently, so I wind the tape slowly and methodically in a way that’s familiar to professional fighters. I know they are saying to themselves, “She has done this before.” I know they now view me with suspicion.

“Ready,” Paula asks again.

“Yes,” I said, “but I have one final suggestion.”

They are angry. “Listen girl, we don’t take kindly to people wasting our time,” Paula’s voice becoming shrill.

“I understand,” I assured them. “My suggestion is that we move the location of the fight to down there,” my hand pointing to the bottom of the drained swimming pool.

“The swimming pool?,” Paula asks in disbelief. “You want to have a fight at the bottom of the fucking swimming pool?”

“Yes, haven’t you heard of a pit fight? We don’t have a pit, but the pool will work fine.”

“It’s concrete down there, it’s bad for wrestling,” she objects.

“Maybe we won’t need to wrestle. How deep is this end of the pool?”

“9 feet,” Jim answers.

“The first woman to climb up that ladder 9 feet out of the pool wins,” I propose.

I could tell from Paula’s face her emotions were a mix of excitement and anger toward me. “You said you like the primal feeling of fighting,” I remind her. “Two women enter the pit, only one comes out. What is more primal than that? Paula, you want to do this. I know you do. You may never get another chance. So let’s do it.”

I could see her reservations about fighting in the pool were losing to the sense of pure thrill. The pretense of two newcomers to fighting had vanished. Although it wasn’t spoken, we seemed to assume we were both pros with a score to settle. She glares at me with angry eyes, “OK bitch, pit fight in the pool it is. And remember, after this is over….you asked for it.” With pure venom in her voice, she spits out, “Oh, and may I suggest one more rule change? How about if we…say…uh…closed fist punches to the face are allowed…you know…just a little more fun between us girls.”

“Paula, no,” Jim protested.

“I want to hear from Barbara,” she responded.

“Yes, we can throw punches to the face,” I answered. “Let’s do it.”

The pool is 25 feet long and 15 feet wide. The depth is 4 feet at one end and 9 feet at the opposite end, with a ladder located at each end. Paula and I will begin our fight at the deep end, each of us positioned against opposite walls. The fight will end when one of us exits the pool by climbing the nine foot ladder.

We take our positions in the deep end. The summer sun is searing on my pale shoulders. The concrete is hot on my bare feet but I must adapt. We eye each other carefully from opposite positions. I have a 4 inch, 10 pound advantage. Her biceps and chest are bigger. Our hips and legs are the same thickness. She pulls her outdated flip hair style into a ponytail. I brush back my long braids. From the deck of the pool, Jim gives the order, “Ladies, FIGHT”

We both assume a neutral stance, slowly circling each other with our hands held high. I know she’s an experienced boxer so I test her out throwing a few left jabs aimed at her head. She easily dodges the first one and blocks the others with her arms. She appears to be studying me intently looking for my weaknesses. I continue with the left jab keeping her away with my superior reach. Finally, I feign a jab, and as Paula raises her hands defensively, I fire a right hook to the exposed ribs. She manages to partially block it with her left elbow.

Paula changes her stance to a classic boxer’s position with her left shoulder pointed at me. As I’m about to jab, she crouches low. After slipping under my jab, she charges in, planting her shoulder into my waist, wrapping her arms around my hips. I realize how strong she is when she drives me backward, forcing my back to the wall of the pool. We both engage in a tight clinch as the criminal tries to keep our bodies at a close distance. With my height and reach advantage, I reach around the back of her head and yank it backwards by her hair. In turn, she holds my chin with her palm, with a straight arm, my neck is bent back.

With my back pressed against the hot wall, we push and pull at each other’s head and hair. I create enough space to spin with her to the side and the two of us roll against the wall, clutching each other, fighting for control. We both decide to use our legs to gain the advantage as we roll into a corner of two nine foot walls. We furiously throw our knees at each other with neither one of us landing a decisive blow. Next, our feet and legs get into a tripping battle to take the other woman down. We kick each other’s shins and try to push each other to the concrete over an extended leg. With our heads and arms still locked, our legs become entangled, as we pull our heads to the right and left. With both of us off balance, we tumble forward with entwined legs, landing on the unforgiving concrete.

Paula has the better position as she seizes me in a headlock as I lie on my side. I cannot allow her to gain leverage, so I repeatedly throw elbows at her sides and belly until she releases. I quickly roll out of her reach and scramble to my feet as she does the same. Again, we face each other in a standing position. We’ve only been fighting a short time but we are already drenched with sweat in the hot sun. My right knee is scraped from the fall to the pool floor and Paula seems to be favoring her right elbow.

On our feet, we both take an orthodox stance. Slowly circling, we spar at each other with jabs. Again, I feigned a left jab but this time managed to land a hard right uppercut to the body eliciting an audible grunt. The poacher uses her elbows to cover up. Just as I’m looking for an opening, a right sweeping side kick smashes into my left knee. My leg is paralyzed with pain as Paula takes advantage by landing a right hook to my jaw, sending me down to the pool floor on my right knee. The punch was hard but the knockdown was more due to my loss of balance from the kick. Paula must think I’m done because I see her turn her back and head toward the ladder.

I am far from done. I forget about the pain in my knee and go after her. By the time I reach her, she already has her feet on the lower ladder rungs. I grabbed the back of her bikini strap, permanently snapping it. Seizing her with my long arms around the shoulders and neck, I pull her back until she falls off the ladder, sending us both to the hard brutal floor. As we recover, I can see she has a slightly bleeding cut on her forehead near her scalp, and I have a good sized skin abrasion of my left shoulder.

From the bottom of the pool, we grab on to one another, rolling on the hard searing surface, grappling for control. I take hold of Paula’s left arm and attempt an arm bar but the bitch managed to roll toward me to escape. She maneuvered onto my back twisting my arm up high to apply a hammerlock but my elbow to her head breaks it up. Our bodies are slippery with sweat making grappling difficult as we fight in what feels like a heated oven.

We rise to our feet. Paula tosses her torn bikini top, content to fight with her exposed tits. I am barely standing when the evil witch rushes at me, lifting me up by the waist, and again driving me back. She ploughs my back into the metal ladder with a sickening clanging sound. The pain in my back is excruciating as I drop to my knees at the bottom of the rungs. She throws a few quick jabs at my nose, then steps back to measure for a haymaker. As I stagger to my feet, my arms partially block a big right cross that grazes my temple. Using my long arms again, I grab Paula behind the neck and clinch pulling her body against mine. My back is pressed against the ladder as we fire knees and elbows at each other’s belly and ribs. “Stupid Polish bitch,” Paula growls from the clinch.

“Kurwa” I snarl back.

Although my limbs are long, I’m quite good at close fighting and I’m starting to land more elbow and knee strikes. As soon as Paula backs off, I ignore the pain in my left knee and deliverer a sweeping kick to her right knee as partial repayment. Her legs buckle and I see an opening landing a right cross to the mouth. I back off, land a jab to the face, then throw my favorite punch, a right uppercut, burying my big fist into the liver. This is the punch that put me in contention in Manchester. The creep doubles over and grunts. I want to end this fight now but somehow Paula shows remarkable resiliency and throws a left diagonal kick that catches me in the inside part of the right thigh.

Paula charges at me low again, trying to make this a wrestling match. I deliver a few short punches to the body before Paula hooks my right shoulder, extends her leg and hip tosses me. I partially broke the fall by landing on one foot, but still, I tumbled on my back onto the roaster floor knowing that Paula was on the attack.

Feeling woozy, I got to my knees expecting to see the bitch but she was not in front of me. Before I could turn around, I feel something snake around my neck and head, tightening its grip. I now know I’m caught in a rear naked choke. With my brain’s blood supply choked off, I knew I had only seconds. Don’t panic, I said to myself.

My one advantage was my height. Although I was slender on top, my legs were thick and powerful. I managed to stand taking away some of Paula’s leverage. I bent at the waist, essentially lifting Paula off her feet as she hung on to the choke hold. As I start to see spots in front of my eyes, I charge backwards, crashing Paula’s back into the wall, causing us to slump toward the floor as she released the sleeper. The two of us roll off the wall, lying on our backs, facing the sadistic sun.

We both begin to stir at the same time. I’m too disoriented to go on the attack right now. Instead, I choose to roll away from my adversary. Paula and I slowly lift ourselves up to our knees and elbows. The skin over our joints is scraped raw from the concrete and tortured by the heat.

Exhausted and in pain, we manage to stand. I realize my black leather bikini top is gone. Blood is trickling from my nose, my lip is swollen, and my face is puffy. My skin is pink from the sun’s radiation. Paula’s cut forehead seems to be bleeding faster. Our bodies have numerous cuts and scrapes from the walls and floor of the pool. The battle and heat are taking their toll. We are both exhausted. I notice Paula’s rapid shallow breathing. I see her favoring her right side where I hit her with the liver shot. She probably can’t take another one, I’m thinking.

We wobble as we wade in toward each other, holding our hands high. I throw several jabs at her face. I feign a jab, like before, then fake the left hook to the liver, but instead, send a hard right cross into left side her face. Her head is turned to the right and she nearly falls. I move in to end it. I throw a powerful round house right but it is slower and not as crisp as I would like. Paula backs up out of the way and shockingly blasts a roundhouse kick that nails me on the left cheekbone. I am stunned and sent reeling, falling and landing flat on my back.

I cannot move. Everything is spinning and looks blurry. I see Paula approaching me, she is limping and moving slowly. The crooked huntress drops to the floor and drapes her body over my rapidly rising and falling bare chest. I am pinned to the pool floor, my back feels the lake of sweat and solid furnace beneath it. I am too exhausted to buck her off. Paula shifts to her side and faces me. Her face is battered but the sardonic grin remains, expanding into a sadistic smile. Her left arm cradles the back of my neck and she pulls my head upward, burying my nose and mouth into her boobs. I’m in a desperate situation and begin to consider I may be finished.

Facing a humiliating ending, I see only one chance out. I swing my long legs high in the air, lifting my bum off the frying pan of a pool floor. I manage to hook my right calf under Paula’s chin, pushing her backwards. She has a shocked look on her face as she is forced off my chest and nearly onto her back before I catch her head between both calves. I can now sit up as I clamp tightly into my head scissors.

I see Paula plant her feet and arch her back frantically, twisting, trying to escape. She grabs my ankles and attempts to pry them apart as she vigorously turns her neck one way, then the next. The sweat and fatigue is too much. I feel my ankles loosening until finally her head pops out. Paula pushes herself up and we are both sitting resting on our hands facing each other. She lunges at me with her hands aimed at my neck. I push her arms away and the two of us roll over each other, two exhausted, sweaty, battered, and cut bodies, wearing only bikini bottoms, grappling on hellish concrete.

I managed to mount her back and attempt to reach around her neck for the choke but the wily warrior had her chin tucked tightly. My legs, though, locked around her waist into a body scissors. Paula had no quit in her as she slowly lifted up on her knees and stood just long enough to lift me off the god-forsaken pool floor, then dropping me on my shoulders. Fortunately, my chin was tucked, sparing the back of my head but my shoulders and upper back absorb the blow.

Again on my back, Paula stalks me like a predator, but I can see she is unsteady. I call on my long powerful legs again and send a sweeping kick at her ankles, knocking her down. I scramble away from her, giving me enough time and space to stand.

We approach each other on our feet. Our faces are swollen and bloody. The abrasions on our bodies are too many to count. We are both wobbling and barely able to stand as we hold our hands up like two drunks fighting behind a bar. I am sure we are dehydrated. I try to ignore the strange fuzzy feeling in my head. This has become a war of attrition.

Jim is concerned. From above us he shouts. “Ladies, I think you’ve had enough. Let’s call it a draw.”

“No,” we both object.

Her jab connects with my already bloody nose as I land one of my own. She sends an uppercut to my right tit as I wince. My diagonal kick to her knee misses. She counters with a kick to my right shin. Then again. Her Muay Thai techniques are effective. My reflexes are failing as I feel my muscles becoming stiff and tight. A diagonal kick strikes my left thigh. Another one catches my right. My mobility is gone and I simply can’t get out of the way of the kicks. I stumble and nearly fall as I’m kicked in the right shin. A deadly kick to the right knee only partially landed but I’m knocked off balance.

Then, Paula went for the haymaker, a big right roundhouse kick like the one that nearly knocked me out earlier. I manage to bend low and then I feel her foot graze the top of my head. Then I see my opening. I throw the most vicious left hook I can, sending it ploughing into her ribs at the liver on the right side of her body. The poacher immediately doubled over. I back up for a second, then slam a left cross into the exposed right side of her head, then a right uppercut to the jaw.

Everything seems to be moving in slow motion. Paula’s head snaps back, her eyes roll upward as she falls back against the pool wall before slumping to the floor. I look at her motionless body, realizing she is unconscious. I look at the ladder. It’s just 4 m away but it may as well be 4 km. I am lightheaded and dizzy and can barely move my legs. I take a few deep breaths, then begin to walk. I hold on to the sides of the pool to keep from falling.

I see Paula is moving. Her glassy eyes look at me and she begins to crawl toward me. No, this can’t be, I thought. I need to get out. I focus my last bit of energy on the ladder. I will not look back. Reaching out my long arms, I grab the rungs. My legs feel dead but I manage to lift my feet on the lower rung. With excruciating pain racking my body I pull up with my arms as my feet try to find each rung. Then the next rung. Then the next. Then….OUT!

I collapse on the pool deck and roll onto my back. I see Paula at the bottom of the pool as Jim tends to her. Tenderly, he lifts her in his arms, as he carries her to the deck and lies her on a blanket. I see she is at least moving and talking.

“I think both you ladies need medical attention,” Jim says.

“No, thanks,” I respond.

I pull myself up and edge my way to Jim’s holograph camera. “We have a deal,” I remind him as I hand him the camera. He looks at me with utter contempt but he at least takes the few seconds to shoot the lasers at his wife’s head, before handing me the tiny disc.

“Now go,” he orders.

“I want the stag,” I asserted.

“There’s a screwdriver in the exotic trophy room. Take it off the wall and leave.”

“I will,” I assured him.

As I walk to the lodge, the dizziness is worsening. I’m nauseated. I can barely move. I manage to get through the door. Something is terribly wrong. I got to get to water. I bend over and vomit on the kitchen floor. Now I hear voices. They sound like men. Lots of them. They’re outside. I can’t understand them. I see flashing lights. Did Jim call an ambulance for Paula? Is she dead?

There is a loud forceful knock on the door. “Ms. Gordula, open up. It’s special agent Petrillo.” I don’t need to open the door as he barges in.

“Ms Gordula, you are under arrest. We are taking you into federal custody.”

“May I please get dressed?” I asked, covering up my breasts. The blowhard calls for a female agent to escort me to the guest room to slip on a shirt and shorts, before placing me in handcuffs. How gracious.

As she leads me outside, I see at least a dozen federal agents and armed SWAT officers. Paula is draped with a hunting jacket and can barely stand as she and Jim are cuffed. My mind is fading fast but I notice a wall of the pool is missing. From my brief vantage point, there appear to be underground rooms that lead to the pool. Male and female agents are removing dozens of boxes and bags from the underground pool passageway. Everything is blurry. I no longer hear anything or feel anything. I do not remember falling to the ground.

“Ms Gordula, you’re in the hospital. This is the emergency department. I’m your nurse, Monica.”

Monica is patient with me as my orientation gradually returns. “We’re treating you for heat stroke,” she informs. “ You were very dehydrated. We gave you lots of IV fluids. Your sodium and potassium levels were very low. We had to replace them. And your kidneys shut down for a while but now they seem to be back. We’re admitting you to the hospital overnight.”

“Oh,” she adds, “we heard you we were in a fight. You got a lot of bruises, cuts, and scrapes. We cleaned them all up. You’re badly sunburned. And we did a CT scan of your head. Fortunately, there was no serious damage.”

“What about Paula?”

“I’m afraid due to privacy laws, I cannot provide that information,” Monica replied.

“You mean Ms.Coleman?” I heard Petrillo’s voice answer. “She’s here in the hospital with the same problems as you. She’ll be fine. Jesus Christ, you ladies beat the crud out of each other.”

At least Monica has integrity, I thought.

The following day, I was released from the hospital and taken to a local police station for two hours of interrogation by federal agents. Afterward, Petrillo informed me that there would be no charges against me and I was free to go.

“The Colemans corroborated your story, Ms. Gordula,” he said. “You gave false statements when we interviewed you at the motel but we’re not going through with charges. Otherwise, we don’t believe you were involved in any criminal activity. But I advise you to seriously reevaluate your life choices. What you did was very dangerous. You’re an attractive woman. You should go home and find yourself a good man.” Ignorant piece of shit.

A young male agent was assigned to take me back to the hunting lodge to retrieve my belongings. During my interrogation, I learned the FBI placed a tracking device on my suitcase when they searched my motel room. They apparently viewed my visit to the Colemans with suspicion. Radar drones flying overhead saw suspicious structures underground around the pool. A network of tunnels and rooms were dug around the pool and could be accessed through a water tight door in the wall of the pool. Thinking I was part of the activity, the feds organized a raid on the day of my fight. They recovered 150 kg of narcotics and methamphetamine in addition to a cache of illegal firearms and several elephant tusks. Possible human trafficking is still under investigation. Paula and Jim have not entered a plea.

I gather up the clothes I left at the lodge. Finally, I turn my attention to the most important part of my mission. Fortunately, Jim verified that Casimir belonged to me. At least he was honest once. “Oh Casimir,” I sighed as the agent helped me unfasten his head off the wall, “so sad and alone all these years.”

THE BIALOWIEZA FOREST, POLAND

The autumn air is crisp this evening. I’m alone in the hunting lodge lounge sitting on the old sofa across the burning embers in the antique fireplace. Much has changed here the past few years. The corruption is gone. The lodge has new owners, wonderful old neighbors from my childhood, who graciously allowed me to stay for a few days. I realize a certain charm to this community that I never fully appreciated growing up here. But as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again.” I have no intention of that. I’m here for one reason. Closure.

Casimir is next to me on the sofa, my hand caresses his head between the bases of his antlers. With my bitterness and need for revenge dissipated, I can more clearly see what this beautiful stag meant to me. There was very little affection and tenderness in my life. There was very little acceptance of nonconformity. My father knew that. Casimir was his way of trying to give me the experience of kindness and nurturing and bonding to another living creature. My deer’s death at the hands of wanton poachers destroyed that. While I may have left Poland, my mind and spirit never fully transitioned. That is why I’m here.

Reaching into my bag, I remove a disc smaller than a dime. By rubbing a tiny groove on the side with my fingertip, a round ball of light emits. A few seconds later, I’m holding Paula’s holographic head in the palm of my hand. Even in an unconscious state, she wears that sardonic smile. Her head does a half turn rotation through the air as my hand sent the disc hurtling into the fireplace. The image ended up behind a log. For a brief second, I see the top half of Paula’s head peering over the ashen timber, her eyes and high eyebrows engulfed in flames before the overheated disc poofed her out of existence. Forever. Goodbye, bitch. Now, there is still one last part of unsettled business.

There’s a thin layer of fog covering the forest floor this morning. My large canvas bag is becoming increasingly heavier as I lug it another kilometre. Finally, I see our destination, the clearing – the place I last saw Casimir alive, the place in my dream the night before the title fight. I drag the bag across the grass to the perfect spot. The large old oak tree. I’ve been carrying one other item – a shovel. “See Casimir, I brought you home.” Fortunately, the soil is moist and loose. I begin to dig and keep digging, wondering how deep to go to bury the past. Finally, I lift the great stag’s head out of the bag, gently placing it in the grave I made for him, making sure it the grave is wide enough to accommodate his great antlers. I give him one last look before filling in soil around him. Lastly, I place a great stone to mark the burial site.

I’ll be returning to Manchester tomorrow. I have much to look forward to. I’m an MMA champion. I have a good job. I can be who I am. But I’ve learned that making peace with the past is necessary for a happy future. To my father, thank you for all you did for me on your own. For all your flaws, you tried the best you could. To my mother, I forgive you. I’ll never understand all the terrible factors involved in your decision to leave us. And to you, Casimir, thank you for being my first friend, for showing me unconditional acceptance …and Rest In Peace, my sweet dear stag.

Across the clearing, something emerges from the woods. It’s a fawn, so small and fragile, just like Casimir was. Another creature appears; it’s a doe, the fawn’s mother. She dutifully watches her offspring, gently guiding him to the long grass to browse for food. I watch as she tenderly nuzzles his snout with her own elegant nose.

And I smile.

The End.

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